Hitler's turning point: Without his year in prison, "he could have disappeared into the sands of irrelevance"

Salon speaks to the author of "1924: The Year that Made Hitler" about the dictator's frightening transition


Scott Timberg
January 24, 2016 1:30AM (UTC)

For the first time since the close of World War II, Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” is available in the German language in German bookstores. Hitler wrote that notorious story of his struggle during 13 months in prison, where he was sent for his role in the infamous beer-hall putsch of 1923. It’s a period the journalist Peter Ross Range digs into in a new book, “1924: The Year that Made Hitler.”

The compressed time frame gives the book an enormous amount of scene-setting detail and an oddly intimate look at Hitler’s experience of the world.

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Salon spoke to the author from his home in Washington, D.C.; the interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Your premise is counter-intuitive: that the year Hitler spent in prison ended up as a great boon to him. Not just productive, but a turning point. Is that fair to say?

Exactly. Without that year, removed from the hurly-burly of politics, he might never have made the transition from impetuous revolutionary to patient political player for the long haul. And the long haul was what it took for him to come to power.

He became almost a celebrity when he was in prison, and his treason trial made him a hero to people on the fringe. How famous did he become?

He wasn’t a big national hero, but he became nationally known. He became a hero to his following – it was an impassioned crowd to begin with. On the right, he was quickly seen as the standout figure among dozens of other competitors. What it did for him nationally was to put the brand out there through the German press. There were almost 60 reporters in the courtroom every day, so the story was all over Germany all the time, and it put his name out there and it did win converts – most notably a man in northwest Germany named Joseph Goebbels.

What was his daily life in prison like? It’s creepy to read that he was doing things like refereeing soccer games.

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That’s right – he was in prison with 40 other guys from the putsch – two or three of them were at his level but most of them were foot soldiers. And they needed exercise – they had the run of the garden of the prison for about four hours a day and were always looking for ways to get recreation and exercise. Soccer was one way; a boxing match was another.

Hitler refused to participate in any games because he was totally unathletic: His only sport was walking in the mountains. But partly because he stated flatly to one of his pals: “It won’t do for a leader to seem to get beaten.”

So he was already thinking of himself as someone who would rule the country.

He was already, before the putsch, comparing himself to people like Napoleon, and had this grand vision of himself as a messiah, the savior of Germany. The fantasies crystalized in prison and he came up with this theory that once in centuries you find a leader in whom is embodied the two qualities – one, the visionary and two, the practical politician…. He wrote that in “Mein Kampf.”

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You’ve written that “Mein Kampf” was the equivalent of a campaign biography – how does it resemble what politicians turn out now?

He was building his legend. We think of campaign biographies as a fairly new phenomenon, designed to paint the would-be political leader in glowing terms, to make the life story look like either a conversion story — like Ben Carson in his book — or a hard-knocks, hard-up, up-from-the-bootstraps story like Abe Lincoln’s.

Well, Hitler basically did the same thing. He took his failed background as a kid in school, complicated by the fact that both his mother and father died by the time he was 18, his hard-luck years in Vienna, and turned them into an apprenticeship story in the spirit of a Bildungsroman.

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“Mein Kampf” has been unavailable in Germany since the end of World War II. It’s now being printed, and sold, and read – do you have mixed feelings about that?

None at all. I support the project and would have supported it 20 or 30 years earlier. The copyright was held by the state of Bavaria, which made a political decision not to publish the book, and they did it in complicity with the German educational and political elite… Only after the copyright expired and the book entered the public domain on Jan. 1 could the book be published by an academic institution. It’s far better for something like this to be out there in the light of day.

Keep in mind, this is a very special edition of “Mein Kampf”: The annotations alone make it more than two and a half times longer than it was in the original. It’s 2,000 pages long now – two volumes.

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Is the door open for any kind of edition? A neo-Nazi group could put out a very different edition?

Technically the answer is yes – but what the German political establishment has now done is to issue a warning that they will prosecute anybody who produces the book in unadorned form under their incitement to hatred laws. Whether they would succeed is up to the courts. But it’s a huge disincentive now.

We’re only talking in German – in English it’s been published, including in pirated editions.

To what extent was Hitler a genuine anti-semite and to what extent was he an opportunist, who used hatred of Jews as a political vehicle?

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Here again, this is part of the legend-building. He would have us believe he was a wide-eyed citizen of the world when he arrived in Vienna at the age of 18… And by the time he left Vienna five years later he was an “absolute anti-semite” – I’m quoting this from his trial. The checkable evidence on this is unclear.

His anti-semitism really didn’t come into play until after World War I, and then he saw it as a great political horse to ride. He absorbed it and then expressed it in his policies, as we know. There was nothing phony about his genocide.

It’s an ambiguous answer – but it does have ambiguous origins.

This sounds like the premise of an old bestseller: If Hitler hadn’t gone to prison that year, how would history have been different? Would we have had World War II and everything else?

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That’s one of the great what-ifs. It is possible that Hitler might have burned out… He also could have been deported according to the existing laws – he was on parole for a previous crime at the time, an assault charge for which he was convicted and served two months time a year and a half earlier.

Had he been deported, back to Austria, he could have disappeared into the sands of irrelevance: Austria was a political backwater at that point. It ranks up there with one of the top what-ifs that attend the Hitler saga.


Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

MORE FROM Scott Timberg

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1924: The Year That Made Hitler Adolf Hitler Books Editor's Picks World War Ii Wwii_revisited

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