The Korea Herald


[Mark Jones] The Hitler trial‘s lessons in the Trump era

By Korea Herald

Published : April 2, 2024 - 17:41

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On April 1, 1924, Adolf Hitler should have been terrified. Four and a half months earlier, the Nazi leader had led a failed coup d’etat in Munich, the Bavarian capital. Inspired by the Italian Fascist Benito Mussolini, Hitler had planned to march his supporters on to Berlin, where they would destroy the democratic Weimar Republic.

The insurrection began just after 8 p.m. on Nov. 8, 1923, when Hitler and his followers burst into a political rally and held the crowd hostage. During the drunken rampage that followed, Hitler’s Sturmabteilung (Storm Troopers) vandalized their opponents’ political offices and assaulted the city’s Jews as they tried, but failed, to occupy central Munich.

The Nazi attempt to seize power ended the following morning, with a column of 2,000 armed putschists, led by Hitler, confronting the police and the German army in the Odeonsplatz (a large public square). After a brief firefight, four Bavarian police officers lay dead. Hitler, who was dragged to the ground when the gunfire started, fled the scene in agony, having dislocated his shoulder. The man standing beside him was fatally shot.

After two and a half days in hiding, Germany’s most wanted man was discovered in the rural Bavarian home of his ardent supporter, Harvard graduate Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl. Hitler was charged with treason, and his trial began on Feb. 26, 1924. The prosecutor advocated severe punishment, calling him the “soul” of the insurrection.

And yet, on April 1 -- ironically, April Fools’ Day -- the judge, having found Hitler guilty, imposed the minimum sentence required by Bavarian law: five years of “honorable confinement,” with the possibility of early release for good behavior. After the ruling, Hitler was permitted to leave the court and pose for photographs outside. Prosecutors were unable to appeal the lenient sentence, and Hitler was free before the end of the year, having used his time in confinement to write Mein Kampf.

Germans who supported the Weimar Republic were outraged. A man who had tried to overthrow their democratic system of government had received a slap on the wrist. The light sentence handed down to Hitler demonstrated that the authority of the state was “dead and buried,” as Germany’s most important Catholic newspaper put it. Influential liberals accused the court of giving putschists a green light to repeat the crime.

Hitler’s sympathizers gleefully taunted his liberal opponents, telling them not to get too “emotional” and that they should “let the past be the past,” while calling the sentence “severe.” Their celebrations marked the culmination of a monthlong publicity campaign that portrayed the Nazi leader as the victim of a biased justice system bent on tearing down a great patriot.

Some media outlets eagerly played along. One center-right Munich newspaper even declared that it was “no secret” that its sympathies lay with the accused, before referring to the founders of the Weimar Republic as the “November criminals,” a phrase used by Hitler to legitimize the Nazis’ violence.

Hitler had played to this audience during the trial. The packed courtroom was filled with his supporters, a curious mixture of women and adolescent males. As the case came to an end, he went so far as to claim -- in one final act of triumphant propaganda -- that the judge’s decision was irrelevant because the “goddess of history” would acquit him.

Historians agree that Hitler’s 1924 trial was a travesty. Instead of ending Hitler’s political career, the case helped solidify his popularity and mold him into the leader who would dismantle the Weimar Republic less than a decade later. That miscarriage of justice was facilitated by the trial’s location in the anti-democratic south, and by the role of the presiding judge, Georg Neithardt, a conservative who was happy to allow Hitler to use his court as a platform to attack the Republic.

But there is less consensus about the relevance of Hitler’s 1924 trial today. Just as American conservatives reject comparisons of Trumpism and fascism, some historians argue that the fate of the Weimar Republic, however fascinating, offers few lessons for navigating the current political tumult in the United States. For them, Hitler’s coup attempt in 1923 bears no resemblance to the events of Jan. 6, 2021, when President Donald Trump’s “Save America” rally ended with an insurrection at the US Capitol that left five people dead and another 140 injured, and forced members of Congress to flee for their lives.

Conservatives are not alone in their unwillingness to draw these parallels: most American liberals are likewise reluctant to dissect the events of 1924. If they did, they would understand that the various cases against Trump, the Republican party’s presumptive presidential nominee, are having the same effect as the Hitler trial had a century earlier: invigorating the defendant’s supporters.

Like Hitler in 1924, Trump is using the courtroom as a stage on which to present himself as the victim, arguing that a crooked “deep state” is out to get him. Only by taking this comparison seriously, rather than rejecting it out of hand, will Democrats come to recognize the importance of campaigning on what they are, rather than what they are not.

Mark Jones

Mark Jones, assistant professor of history at University College Dublin, is the author of “1923: The Forgotten Crisis in the Year of Hitler’s Coup.” -- Ed.

Copyright: Project Syndicate