Book Review | The Ripples Before the Storm

By | Jan 31, 2022
Winter Issue 2022, World
Copies of "In Hitler's Munich" by Micheal Brenner

In Hitler’s Munich: Jews, the Revolution and the Rise of Nazism
By Michael Brenner
Princeton, 392 pp., $35.00

Munich in the years following World War I was a nasty, bloody microcosm of the political catastrophes in Europe that preceded and followed Germany’s defeat in that war.

Political instability and recriminations over the war’s outcome led to violence, revolution and counterrevolution. Even before the war’s end, one of Germany’s imperial neighbors, Czarist Russia, had already collapsed and in 1917 had given way to Bolshevik rule. In 1919, Communists took power in Hungary, which had entered the war as Austria’s co-imperial power. That same year in Munich, capital of the German state of Bavaria, several governments rose and fell in quick succession. Two of them were so-called “council governments,” imitations of the Bolshevik model (“soviet” being Russian for “council”). It was a time of collapse for the old order and of apparent opportunity for movements promising something better.

The leaders of Munich’s series of revolutionary governments were very often Jewish, like their counterparts in Russia and Hungary. Their moment in power was brief; conservative governments ousted and succeeded them, and victory in Munich’s political struggles ultimately went to the Nazis. By 1923, Hitler (an Austrian transplant) was popular enough to launch a failed coup in the city, the so-called Beer Hall putsch. His followers regarded Munich as the cradle of Nazism, and in 1935, after coming to power in Berlin, they officially designated Munich “the Capital City of the Movement.”

Munich during all this was home to a small, diverse Jewish population—according to the 1910 census, 11,000 strong in a city of almost 600,000. The city had both a Reform and Orthodox synagogue. Historian Michael Brenner’s book In Hitler’s Munich: Jews, the Revolution and the Rise of Nazism explores the great variety of roles played by Munich’s Jews in those years, putting to rest any simple characterization of pre-World War II German Jewry. The Jews of Munich were neither predominantly radical, nor conservatively complacent, nor oblivious to the rise of antisemitism in their city.

Following his declaration of the new Free State, Kurt Eisner became Bavaria’s prime minister, a stunning milestone for a Jew

One of the most interesting characters in Brenner’s story is Kurt Eisner, a Jewish newspaper editor, activist, socialist and pacifist who in November 1918 led workers on a protest march through Munich and declared the Free State of Bavaria. Until that day, kings of the Wittelsbach dynasty had sat on the Bavarian throne for seven centuries, even after the kingdom had joined the Prussian-led German Empire. (The terms of entry included Bavaria keeping its own monarchy—soldiers of the Bavarian Army swore allegiance to the Bavarian king, not the Prussian Kaiser.) Eisner led a faction that had broken from the center-left Social Democratic Party over the question of German war guilt. His Independent Social Democrats held Germany responsible for starting the war. In 1918, he had publicly supported a strike by Bavarian munitions workers (while the country’s soldiers were still at war). Following his declaration of the new Free State, Eisner became Bavaria’s prime minister, a stunning milestone for a Jew—and a post in which he demonstrated a similarly stunning lack of political acumen.

As a socialist, Eisner filled the German right wing with fears of expropriations, nationalizations and government based on the soviet model—though these were all policies that he rejected. He disappointed the left wing by ruling out just such revolutionary extremism in favor of reformist policies that included women’s suffrage and the eight-hour workday. He infuriated nationalists by insisting on Germany’s responsibility for starting the war. This was no mere political talking point; German war guilt had been a rationale for punitive reparations in the Treaty of Versailles.

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He was not a Bavarian by birth, but rather a Prussian Jew, a designation that in the eyes of many Bavarians made him doubly suspect. Bavarians resented northerners who ruled the imperial roost from Berlin, a city they deemed less cultured, artistic and congenial than Munich, their own capital. But it was Eisner’s Jewishness that proved a catalyst for events that ultimately played a part in the rise of Hitler.

Eisner was born into the largely assimilated Jewish middle class of Berlin. Early on he eschewed religious practice, but, as Brenner writes, “he bore no feelings of hatred for his Jewish background, which had not always been especially important to him but was also not something he denied.” He identified himself as a Jew on public documents, campaigned against antisemitism and counted as his most important intellectual mentor Hermann Cohen, the most renowned German Jewish philosopher and public intellectual of his day.

Kurt Eisner, who organized the Socialist Revolution that overthrew the monarchy in Bavaria, in 1918. Eisner was assassinated in Munich by a German nationalist in February 1919 only months after taking office. (Photo credit: Bavarian State Library)

Not four months after his ascension to leadership, a politically hobbled Eisner was walking to the opening of the Bavarian parliament when he was assassinated by a right-wing university student named Count Anton von Arco auf Valley. In death, Eisner appeared to have gained some of the affection that had eluded him in office. He was mourned at a public funeral by thousands of people who had both supported and opposed him. It would be another 15 years of polarization, thuggish politics, the two Communist governments of 1919, right-wing rule and intensified antisemitism before the Nazis took over Germany.

But Eisner’s Jewishness tapped into deep currents of Bavarian antisemitism.

Anti-Jewish attitudes at the time ranged from accusations of involvement in international Bolshevik and banking conspiracies to suspicions of war profiteering and avoidance of military service. Worst of all was the allegation of Jewish culpability in the “stab in the back myth,” the widely popular notion among Germans that traitors, Jews prominent among them, had caused the defeat of Imperial Germany in the Great War. As Brenner describes it, opposition to Eisner’s government expressed every variety of antisemitic trope:

To many outsiders peering in, this Social Democrat residing in the petty bourgeois suburb of Großhadern was a Prussian Rothschild and Bavarian Trotsky all rolled into one. The Bavarian citizen who had grown up in Berlin was branded by his opponents as a Galician or, as if this was not sufficient, an Eastern Galician. The established journalist was characterized as a destitute bohemian.

The “Eastern Galician” part was telling. About a quarter of Munich’s Jewish population at the end of World War I consisted of Ostjuden, East European Jews who had fled the murderous pogroms in Poland. Labeling him this way rendered Eisner a foreigner, alien not just to Bavarian traditions but to German ones. He was widely, and wrongly, rumored to have changed his name from Salomon Kosmanowsky so as to obscure his Galician roots. Even the papal nuncio in Munich, Eugenio Pacelli, described him unquestioningly in a dispatch to the Vatican as “a Galician Jew.” Pacelli went on to become Pope Pius XII.

Brenner documents how a wave of resentment of Eisner in his short time as prime minister, fanned by right-wing parties and their servile newspapers, helped suspicion and hatred of the Jews to go public and become the stuff of common political conversation. His own research in the Munich archives, he writes, turned up “a bundle of two thick files of antisemitic hate letters against Eisner” sent to him by hostile citizens when he was in office.

Despite the prominence of antisemitic political discourse, and the public focus on the Jewishness of Eisner and his more radical successors, German Jewish voters in the 1910s and 1920s were in fact not especially identified with the radical left; most actually voted for centrist political parties. “In addition to the antisemites,” Brenner writes,

it was members of the Munich Jewish community who objected most strenuously to the involvement of prominent Jews in the revolution. They remembered well the saying from the Russian Revolution a year earlier about Leon Trotsky (whose real name was Bronstein): “the Trotskys make the revolution, and the Bronsteins pay the price.”

Brenner’s contribution to this story is to depict and insist on the breadth and variety of Munich’s Jews: conservative Jewish businessmen, literary revolutionists, socialists, Jews yearning for Zion and Jews nostalgic for the Wittelsbach monarchy, prosperous families with deep roots in Bavaria, desperately poor families fleeing Poland, and even the occasional German nationalist. All dealt in their own ways with the ominous trends surrounding them; no strategy fended off the ultimate catastrophe.

If we stretch the definition of a Jew to one that the Nazis adopted, at the extreme end stands the influential Munich newspaper and magazine editor Paul Nikolaus Cossmann, Jewish self-hatred personified. Cossman had converted to Catholicism in his thirties and championed the “stab in the back” myth and the expulsion of the Ostjuden from Bavaria. In the summer of 1942 Cossmann died in the concentration camp at Theresienstadt, his Jewishness ultimately inescapable.

One could look still farther afield to Eisner’s assassin, who was treated at his trial like a sympathetic kid driven to murder by the stress of the times. Arco-Valley, as he was called, was said to have acted out of frustration at being excluded from an
extreme-nationalist society due to his mother’s family’s long-renounced Jewish ancestry. At his murder trial, it was said by the prosecutor, “If the whole German youth were imbued with such a glowing enthusiasm we could face the future with confidence.” Though he was convicted, his death sentence was commuted, and after five years in prison Arco-Valley was freed and soon pardoned. His treatment presaged that of Adolf Hitler five years later, who was jailed and tried after the Beer Hall putsch of November 1923 but was treated with fawning deference by the people charged with prosecuting and incarcerating him.

In a Washington Post op-ed on January 9, 2021, just after the riotous assault on the U.S. Capitol, Brenner wrote of the echoes and lessons of the Beer Hall putsch, an armed assault on the Bavarian state government that was put down by force. The putsch was perceived at the time as a failure, but it actually elevated Hitler in public esteem and provided his movement with martyrs. The Bavarian judicial system, “blind in its right eye,” contributed to the ascent of Nazism by failing to prosecute the perpetrators ardently. Brenner also noted in the op-ed, and describes vividly in his book, the misguided notion among conservative politicians (in this case, the people who governed after the fall of Eisner’s coalition and the council governments) that they could use and contain the upstart Hitler for their own purposes. The users typically ended up being used.

There are frightening parallels, to be sure. But while both the Capitol insurrection and the Beer Hall putsch were inspired by charismatic leaders who exerted extraordinary power over their followers, Hitler’s mob was motivated by a hatred more profound than what we have heard from most of the Washington insurrectionists who have spoken in court. Kurt Eisner’s story provides one more measure of that hatred, years after his death. In 1933, the Nazis inflicted what they considered one last degradation on the first Jew to lead a German state. His bones were disinterred and reburied where according to Nazi race laws they belonged: in a Jewish cemetery.

Robert Siegel is Moment’s special literary contributor.

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