Hitler on Trial
The trial of Adolf Hitler for high treason following the Beer Hall Putsch was not the end of Hitler’s political career as many had predicted. In many ways it marked the true beginning.
Beginning on February 26, 1924, over the course of the next 25 days, aided by radio and newspaper coverage, Hitler held forth (in one case taking four hours to respond to a single question), earning him the overwhelming support of the German people. His impassioned appeals turned what ought to have been a open-and-closed case of treason against him into an indictment of the German government. His basic argument was this: “I cannot declare myself guilty. True, I confess to the deed, but I do not confess to the crime of high treason. There can be no question in an action which aims to undo the betrayal of this country in 1918.”
Overnight, Hitler became a nationally and internationally known figure. With the consent of sympathetic judges, Hitler used the courtroom as a propaganda platform from which he could speak at length on his own behalf, interrupt others at any time and even cross examine witnesses.
Rather than deny the charges, Hitler admitted wanting to overthrow the government and outlined his reasons, portraying himself as a German patriot and the democratic government itself, its founders and leaders, as the real criminals.
“I alone bear the responsibility. But I am not a criminal because of that. If today I stand here as a revolutionary, it is as a revolutionary against the revolution. There is no such thing as high treason against the traitors of 1918.”
Hitler considered the traitors of 1918 to be the German politicians responsible for the ‘stab in the back,’ who prematurely ended World War I and established the German democratic republic. In Hitler’s mind and among many Germans, their Army had not been defeated on the battlefield but had been undermined by political treachery at home.
Newspapers quoted Hitler at length. Thus, for the first time, the German people as a whole had a chance to get acquainted with this man and his thinking. And many liked what they heard.
During 24 days of long, rambling arguments, Hitler’s daring grew. As the trial concluded, sensing the national impact he was having, Hitler gave this closing statement:
“When did the ruin of Germany begin? You know the watchword of the old German system in its foreign policy: It ran – maintenance of world peace, economic conquest of the world. With both these principles one cannot govern a people. The maintenance of world peace cannot be the purpose and aim of the policy of a State. The increase and maintenance of a people – that alone can be the aim. If you are going to conquer the world by an economic policy, other peoples will not fail to see their danger.
“What is the State? Today the State is an economic organization, an association of persons, formed, it would seem, for the sole purpose that all should cooperate in securing each other’s daily bread. The State, however, is not an economic organization, it is a ‘Volkic’ organism. The purpose, the aim of the State is to provide the people with its food-supply and with the position of power in the world which is its due. Germany occupies in Europe perhaps the most bitter situation of any people, Militarily, politically, and geographically it is surrounded by none but rivals: It can maintain itself only when it places a power-policy ruthlessly in the foreground.
“Two Powers are in a position to determine the future development of Europe: England and France. England’s aim remains eternally the same: to balkanize Europe and to establish a balance of power in Europe so that her position in the world will not be threatened. England is not on principle an enemy of Germany, it is the power which seeks to gain the first place in Europe. The declared enemy of Germany is France. Just as England needs the balkanization of Europe, so France needs the balkanization of Germany in order to gain hegemony in Europe. After four and a half years of bitter struggle at last through the Revolution the scale of victory turned in favor of the coalition of these two Powers, with the following result: France was faced with the question: Was she to realize her eternal war-aim or not? That means: Could France destroy Germany and deprive it of all the sources whereby its people was fed? Today France watches the ripening to fulfillment of her age-old plan: it matters not what Government will be at the helm in France: the supreme aim will remain – the annihilation of Germany, the extermination of twenty million Germans, and the dissolution of Germany into separate States.
“So I have come, come to save Germany as no other is willing to do so. Is my goal so wrong? The man who is born to be a dictator is not compelled. He wills it. He is not driven forward, but drives himself. There is nothing immodest about this. Is it immodest for a worker to drive himself toward heavy labor? Is it presumptuous of a man with the high forehead of a thinker to ponder through the nights till he gives the world an invention? The man who feels called upon to govern a people has no right to say, ‘If you want me or summon me, I will cooperate.’ No! It is his duty to step forward.
“The army which we have formed grows from day to day; from hour to hour it grows more rapidly. Even now I have the proud hope that one day the hour is coming when these untrained bands will become battalions, when the battalions will become regiments and the regiments divisions, when the old cockade will be raised from the mire, when the old banners will once again wave before us: and then reconciliation will come in that eternal last Court of Judgment – the Court of God – before which we are ready to take our stand. Then from our bones, from our graves will sound the voice of that tribunal which alone has the right to sit in judgment upon us. For, gentlemen, it is not you who pronounce judgment upon us, it is the eternal Court of History which will make its pronouncement upon the charge which is brought against us. The judgment that you will pass, that I know. But that Court will not ask of us: ‘Have you committed high treason or not?’ That Court will judge us ….who as Germans have wished the best for their people and their Fatherland, who wished to fight and to die. You may declare us guilty a thousand times, but the Goddess who presides over the Eternal Court of History will with a smile tear in pieces the charge of the Public Prosecutor and the judgment of the Court: for she declares us guiltless.”
The court’s verdict – guilty. Possible sentence – life. Hitler’s sentence – five years, eligible for parole in six months.
The three judges in the trial had become so sympathetic that the presiding judge had to persuade them to find him guilty at all. They agreed to find Hitler guilty only after being assured he would get early parole.
Other Nazi leaders arrested after the failed Putsch got light sentences as well. General Ludendorff was acquitted.
On April 1, 1924, Hitler was taken to the old fortress at Landsberg and given a spacious private cell with a fine view. He received gifts, was allowed visitors whenever he liked and had his own private secretary, Rudolph Hess.
The Nazi Party after the Putsch became fragmented and disorganized, but Hitler had gained national influence by taking advantage of the press to make his ideas known. Now, although behind bars, Hitler was not about to stop communicating.
Pacing back and forth in his cell, he continued expressing his ideas, while Hess took down every word. The result would be the first volume of a book, Mein Kampf, outlining Hitler’s political and racial ideas in brutally intricate detail, serving as a blueprint for future actions.