04 Dec 2017

Book Review: The Trial of Adolf Hitler

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Book Review:

The Trial of Adolf Hitler. David King (2017) Norton Press

Adolf Hitler and comrades, including Rudolf Hess, during their imprisonment at Landsberg after the failed putsch

Hitler and comrades, including Rudolf Hess, during their imprisonment at Landsberg after the failed putsch

David King provides a well-researched and detailed analysis of Adolf Hitler’s trial for treason in the aftermath of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. Initially Hitler was a marginal figure; the focus was on national hero Erich Ludendorff. But King demonstrates how Hitler increasingly came to dominate and define the proceedings. He understood, and took full advantage of, the court’s overriding desire to conceal the full extent of the conspiracy of leading public figures against the state of Bavaria and the Weimar Republic”.

The trial’s presiding judge understood the value of the smokescreen this hitherto minor figure was providing, and Hitler’s conviction for high treason was a matter of form. His minimal sentence and eventual parole reflected the legal system’s collective conviction that he would sink back into obscurity.


By now the broad strokes of Adolf Hitler’s failed coup on November 8, 1923, are familiar to those that are interested in the history of the Nazis’ rise to power.

  • Adolf Hitler and his supporters staged a misguided and clumsy attempt at overthrowing the Bavarian government and to take control. They sought to harness the postwar disillusionment with the “peace of shame,” crippling reparations, hyperinflation, fall of the monarchy, and rise of a Socialist republic for the first time in German history.
  • Hitler and his co-conspirators were arrested and a handful of his supporters, the “November martyrs” , were shot and killed by police
  • He artfully used his trial to propagate his beliefs, and to build his popularity and had many supporters in the crowd. Hitler used the courtroom as a public forum, talking for hours at a time of his vision of a Germany raised to greatness from the ashes of defeat. His speeches were described by one newspaper as “a serialized novel.
  • He was convicted of “high treason” and sentenced to five years but only served eight and a half months. Despite the fact that he was born in Austria, there was a decision on the part of the presiding judge not to deport Hitler, even though the law called for mandatory expulsion of foreigners convicted of high treason….because he “thinks and feels like a German”.
  • Hitler’s trial made him a patriot and martyr to an increasing number of supporters He was incarcerated in a fairly luxurious cell in Landsberg Prison, where he was celebrated as a hero. He got gifts, was allowed to receive visitors whenever he liked and had his own private secretary, Rudolf Hess. This is where he dictated the text of Mein Kampf, the propaganda tome that would launch the Hitler’s rise to divine status.

King basically confirms in great detail, how the November 1923 putsch was carried out as a haphazard, badly planned revolt, undertaken by a small cadre of malcontents, with varying motivations and commitment to the cause.

The situation following the first clumsy attempts at announcing the coup was extremely fluid, to say the least, with abundant miscommunications, mistrust, and misplaced confidence. But interestingly, Hitler had already grasped and internalized the importance of propaganda, in the face of all this uncertainty. The Nazis seemed to be adept and agile in quickly producing massive numbers of flyers and posters, as well as newspaper reports, proclaiming their dominance and success, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. The notorious and noxious Julius Streicher was there on the ground, practicing his skills at influencing and distracting the public, at this early stage in Hitler’s rise to power. Some of the other characters involved at this stage would go on to play major roles in the Nazi party, including such luminaries as Ernst Rohm, Hermann Goring, and Rudolf Hess.

King illustrates how there were in fact many people involved, and that there were many moving parts to this undertaking. While Hitler was dithering at the Burgerbrau, paramilitary groups such as the Freitag and Storm trooopers were busying themselves amassing arms which had been hidden away, and plotting to overtake key assets. They had also set up offices for control and coordination of such efforts as propaganda and financial matters. Other efforts were undertaken on the initiative of local supporters, who had no direct connection to the coup organizers. But they were still more than ready and willing to roam the streets of Munich, looking to attack “Jews and other enemies of the people”.

It becomes clear that this event mobilized an already existing network of Hitler or Nazi supporters who were agitated and ready to take action. Even if the actual coup failed, it provided a window of opportunity for these groups and individuals to act on their convictions, in a loosely coordinated fashion. For example, the Freikorps and Storm Troopers emerged as dangerous forces, who were prepared to act as if they were ready to take charge and managed to inflict violence with impunity.

Beyond those that were actually present in the planning or execution of the putsch, the events surrounding this show the extent to which Hitler enjoyed covert support at many different levels of authority, including Police commanders and possibly even the presiding judge over Hitler’s trial.

Knight also illustrates the extent to which the real and perceived threat of socialism / communism exacerbated the situation in post – Versailles Germany. Much of the anger and frustration of the early Hitler supporters was centered on a hatred and resentment of the socialists.

Another factor complicating the dynamics of the situation was the important differences between various regions of the newly created nation. For example, the Munich where Hitler had established its power base greatly distrusted the more “liberal” centre of Berlin. Germany had only recently experienced unification, and there were glaring discrepancies in the culture and politics of these centres.

In terms of layout and readability, the book is organized into quick-paced, short chapters, each setting up and depicting a scenario, or aspect of the story. The tempo of the narrative mimics the evolving and chaotic nature of what was happening on the ground, at various points.   It’s not just a dry recitation of the facts, who said what to whom on what day; rather King tells a lively story, that brings the situation to life.

King illuminates this dark saga In three parts,: first, the actual putsch, which entailed the party’s taking of Bavarian government officials as hostages and storming the war ministry only to be removed by the Munich police when no real plan for a march on Berlin emerged; second, the month long Munich trial itself, which largely tapped into public sympathy for Hitler and his theories, and then his incarceration at Landsberg Prison, where he lived the life of a celebrity, under very accommodating circumstances.

It can be somewhat confusing to follow all the different back-stories and to keep track of all the characters.  But, in the end, it’s not the minutiae of the story that makes this book so interesting, to my mind. There are several interesting insights that this narrative highlighted, from my perspective. These include the following, in no particular order:

  • Through the convoluted and drawn-out trial proceedings, Hitler managed to solidify his skills and reputation for creating a scene through hysterics and outrageous proclamations, twisting the facts to his own interpretations.
  • He succeeded in developing his theatrical oratorical skills, which were essentially based on shouting the other party down and raising his voice as required. These skills were used to great effect in disrupting the proceedings on multiple occasions, to the point where the exasperated presiding judge would be unsure how to proceed.
  • He demonstrated his tendency to make promises to other parties, as suited his purpose at the time, only to reneg based on imagined or fabricated equivocations at some later point.
  • He demonstrated the hard-headed single-mindedness that many supporters seemed to interpret as passion or strength of leadership.
  • He flaunted his disrespect for traditional establishments, such as the court and the Weimar government, managing to portray these legally conceived institutions as the real criminals acting against the true interests of the German people.
  • He displayed an innate and endless ability to twist reality to suit his purpose or narrative.
  • There were early signs of his manic behavior – alternating between extreme despondency when things did not seem to be going his way, to aggressive and hostile behavior at other times
  • This was where he began to display his true inclinations and intentions towards establishing a dictatorship, which was necessary, in order to replace the ineffective leadership under the Weimar government. He referred to the infamous clause 48, allowing for the President, under certain circumstances, to take emergency measures without the prior consent of the Reichstag. The existence of this clause was used as some type of justification for Hitler’s wanting to impose his own dictatorship.
  • There was a proclivity of assorted  hangers-on and political opportunists to follow or support Hitler at certain opportune moments, and then possibly distance themselves / denounce him / or be betrayed. Hitler proved himself to be a magnet for various disenchanted, power-seekers to cast their lot with him, sometimes only temporarily
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