Seventy-five years ago there occurred an event, obscure at the time, from whose terrible consequences the world of 2000 ad has not yet completely recovered. The place was Munich, capital of the historic Kingdom of Bavaria and now the second city of the recently formed all-German Reich or Commonwealth. The time was five years after the end of World War 1, when this new would-be imperial state had been defeated, and then both punished and humiliated by the victors. What was to become the most extreme currency inflation in history had begun, fuelling the strangely inebriate climate described in the words of a contemporary economist—‘Things political and economical here are in a bigger mess than ever, the future wrapped in Egyptian darkness. . .’ By the autumn of the same year the Reichsbank would be issuing 100-trillion-mark notes, and it took a pocketful of them to buy a single us dollar.
In the darkness, reckless and despairing forces multiplied. Munich was their favoured venue, combining as it did relative economic backwardness, cultural vivacity and a particularism as yet incompletely reconciled to German unity. Many Bavarians still perceived the latter as domination by Prussia and Berlin. They distrusted the centralism of the Weimar Republic as much as its supposed leftism and openness to ‘Jewish influences’. One consequence of this was that all-German nationalism assumed an especially shrill and raucous form there. Immediately after the war an independent Bavarian Republic had been proclaimed under the leadership of the socialist Kurt Eisner, deposing the native Wittelsbach monarchy and calling on the other German states to follow its revolutionaty lead. The call was not answered, and Eisner’s regime endured only a few months. What it did succeed in doing was to arouse the fear of death among the predominantly conservative cadres of the stately old capital on the Isar, as well as in Bavaria’s 80 per cent Catholic countryside.
The significance of that milieu for the rise of German fascism has been underlined in a remarkable new study by Professor David Large, Where Ghosts Walked: Munich’s Road to the Third Reich.footnote1 His title comes from Stephan George’s poem on the city, evoking the Frauenkirche or Kirk of Our Lady, in sight of whose spires alone the true Münchner feels at home
‘How is it. . .that everything rotten and unable to maintain itself elsewhere was magically pulled towards Munich?’, asked novelist Leon Feuchtwanger, driven from the city by anti-Semitic persecution. While Berlin was becoming one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, he mused, Munich slid irresistibly into provincialism and bloody-minded racism. Among those drawn to the Bavarian capital was would-be architect Adolf Hitler. Originally a draft-dodger from the Hapsburg Empire, he joined the Bavarian army instead and became a trench-messenger during the war. We know why he liked Munich. ‘A heartfelt love seized me for this city’, he wrote in the 1920s, ‘. . .what a difference from Vienna! I grew sick to my stomach when I even thought back on that Babylon of races. . .Most of all I was attracted by this wonderful marriage of primordial power and fine artistic mood. . .[which] remains inseparably bound up with the development of my own life’. The terms are interesting. Much later on ‘primordial’ became the customary term for theories ascribing an ethnic or pre-modern foundation to nineteenth-and twentieth-century nation-states. The artistic mood was that of a mind capable, in something like Benedict Anderson’s contemporary sense, of imagining national communiry along just such lines—through the hypnotic rear-view mirror of feigned retrospect and mythology.footnote2
He returned from the Bavarian army in 1919 as a ‘political education agent’—in effect, a political snitch paid to infiltrate new political organizations and report back to the Bavarian government. One of these was a small gang of (mainly) war veterans calling itself the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or Workers’ Party. It numbered only a few dozen but was seen as having anti-Bolshevik ‘potential’. The bosses encouraged their agent to join and help fund and then lead it; and a few months later it was able to stage a successful mass meeting in the Hofbräuhaus, a city-centre beer-cellar. There something astounding happened.