Berlin, 1921. Political zealots battle in the streets as the Bechsteins, Europe’s famed piano makers, host an elegant soiree. A surprise guest arrives – a combat veteran – unknown and seemingly unremarkable. He unleashes powers of seduction, manipulation and demagogy that upend the lives of everyone there….
The Bechstein soiree marked Hitler’s introduction to Berlin’s economic elite, who played a pivotal role in helping him gain and keep power. A front page article in The New York Times (October 16, 2010), quoted from a controversial exhibit at Berlin’s German Historical Museum: “Hitler was embraced early on by the elite…. The wives of entrepreneurs vied to be the first to drag Hitler to a social event. As it turned out, Hitler was able to implement his military and extermination objectives because the…economic elites were willing to carry out his war.”
In fact, the Bechsteins, makers of Europe’s most acclaimed piano, became benefactors of Hitler, introducing him to influential people, including the Wagner family at Bayreuth, and donating money to the Nazis. They invited Hitler to their country residence near Berchtesgaden, where he eventually built his mountaintop retreat. Helene Bechstein was especially enamored of Hitler and for years sought to have her daughter, Lotte, marry him.
Outside the Bechstein home on that evening in 1921, extremist groups – communists, anarchists and ultra right-wing nationalists among them – battled in the streets. Much of Germany was in political and economic chaos. The Treaty of Versailles – called by Hitler the “shameful armistice” – had ended World War I two years before. In the treaty, the Allies – principally France, the U.K. and the U.S. – reeling from terrible human and material loss, exacted stiff economic reparations, took over colonial territories, and had Kaiser Wilhelm’s monarchy replaced by Germany’s first democratically elected republic, which included the Reichstag (Parliament). These actions roused a furor, particularly among Germany’s military and industrial elite who felt the Armistice was an act of revenge as opposed to a just peace. Political fringe groups, feeding on the discontent, gained power as their ranks swelled with unemployed, demoralized military veterans.
Adolf Hitler was among the veterans who settled in Munich. He had been born in a rural Austrian village bordering Bavaria in 1889 and had lived in bohemian poverty in Vienna and then Munich before World War I, drawing ads and posters and sketching city and pastoral scenes that he sold in cafes and on the streets. During the war, he had been a courier in the German Army and was twice wounded and decorated. Back in Munich, he took up with right-wing, anti-communist, anti-Semitic nationalists, gaining attention for his polemical skills. He became chairman of the Nazi Party in 1921. After the “beer hall putsch” of 1923, a failed attempt to take over the Bavarian and German governments, Hitler was imprisoned for treasonous activities. During his eight months in prison, he wrote the autobiographical polemic, Mein Kampf (My Struggle), and by the time of his release was a martyr among his followers and a national figure.
Hitler was introduced to the Bechsteins and other influential Germans by Dietrich Eckart. Heavy drinking and psychologically unstable, Eckart was editor-in-chief of the Völkischer Beobachter, an ultra-nationalist, virulently anti-Semitic newspaper that became the official Nazi organ. He also presented himself as a poet and playwright. Eckart became a mentor to Hitler, influencing his views on Aryan supremacy and Pan-German nationalism, broadening his knowledge of German politics and society and coaching him on social etiquette and his Austrian-accented German. Hitler credited Eckart as the “spiritual founder” of National Socialism, saying of him in the final sentence of Mein Kampf, he was “one of the best, who devoted his life to the awakening of our people, in his writings and his thoughts and finally in his deeds.” He died of a heart attack in 1923.
Centerpieces of the Nazi platform, defined in Mein Kampf, were antipathy toward the Treaty of Versailles and the Jews – historically scapegoats for all manner of troubles in Europe. The Nazis believed that the Jews were an “alien race” among the “Nordic master race” of Germany, had been sympathetic to the Allies and Soviet Russia during the war, and had played a central role in Germany’s surrender. These anti-Semitic views were not widely held prior to the rise of the Nazis. In actuality, Jews were more assimilated and less subjected to prejudice in Germany than in most major European countries. Some Jews, especially among the more highly educated and well-off, sought to bolster their German pedigree by converting to Christianity and concealing their Jewish ancestry.
Hitler’s polemics, couched in populist themes of restoring Germany’s economic, military and cultural grandeur, found increasing acceptance in a time of extreme political, economic and social turmoil and fear.