February 13th, 2017
When one talks about the years between the two world wars, one talks about a world struggling with political chaos and economic depression. The First World War left many issues unsettled and hanging; old rivalries continued, new alliances were strained, and the newly established League of Nations – the forerunner to the United Nations – was merely a figurehead, powerless and polarised.
In this climate, the Nazis rose to influence and to power, eventually destroying democracy through democracy. Initially, Hitler’s influence was restricted to the city of Munich in the German State of Bavaria. Over time, jostled by the Great Depression of 1929 and supported by a rise in anti-Semitism and xenophobia, Hitler rose in clout until, finally, he became Chancellor in 1933.
In studying Hitler’s rise, we should focus on two aspects:
- The Interwar Period,
- The degree and nature of opposition to Hitler in the 1920s.
Germany in the Interwar Period
Nowhere were the dilemmas of the 1920s more pronounced than in Germany. Defeated by the Allies in the Great War and humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles, post-war Germany was a kaleidoscope of virtually every political ideology and economic philosophy.
The German Revolution of 1918-1919 transitioned Germany from an imperial state to a republic. This Republic – known as the Weimar Republic – lasted till 1933, which was when the Nazis took over Germany.
The Weimar Republic’s early years witnessed hyperinflation, high unemployment rates, and widespread discontent against what was perceived as a “stab in the back” by the Allied powers in the Treaty of Versailles. This atmosphere was punctuated by violent street fights involving various political factions from the communists and monarchists to the fascists and nationalists.
It was in the middle of this political and economic turmoil that Adolf Hitler rose to power.
Hitler’s steady rise in the 1920s
A veteran of the First World War, Hitler took the terms of the Treaty of Versailles as a personal insult. He was discharged from the army in March 1920, following which he joined the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP).
The NSDAP was a populist, nationalist political party which became infamous as the Nazi Party.
Members of the NSDAP – the National Socialists – were initially centred in the city of Munich, which was a hub of anti-government and anti-communist sentiment and headquartered many political parties which were vehemently opposed to the Weimar Republic.
Hitler spoke for the first time at a public meeting on 16 October 1919. In the next few months, attracted to his oratory skills and disillusioned by the political climate in Germany, the crowds grew in numbers. The NSDAP rapidly evolved into one of Germany’s most aggressive and violent political organisations.
In November 1923, inspired by Italy’s dictator Benito Mussolini, Hitler staged a coup in Munich. It was called the Beer Hall Putsch, and Hitler aimed to seize control of Bavaria and the then Berlin.
However, the coup was a massive failure – albeit it resulted in Hitler’s name being mentioned in the national and international media for the first time. Hitler and the NSDAP leadership were arrested. Hitler was charged with treason and served a prison sentence.
By the late 1920s, the Nazis grew in popularity. Growing economic crises, punctuated by the Great Depression, resulted in massive unemployment and inflation. This led to mass unrest and dissatisfaction with the Weimar Republic. The situation was ripe for Hitler’s extremist views.
The Nazis, until now limited to Munich and parts of Bavaria, were ready to enter the national stage.
The Nazis and the media
Opposition to Hitler is often studied in its political sense, analysing Hitler’s enemies among the communists and republicans. However, little consideration is given to media’s attitude towards Hitler in the Interwar Period.
The Nazis viewed the press only through the lenses of propaganda and censorship. Nazi Germany censored all opposition in the press, and dissenting voices were sent to concentration camps, were murdered in broad daylight or simply went “missing” abruptly. Due to the crackdown on freedom of the press, it was impossible for any newspaper to halt or oppose Hitler’s steps in the 1930s.
Therefore, analysing the media’s attitude towards Hitler post-1933 is futile as there was no press in the actual sense in this period. We must instead focus on the way newspapers reacted to Hitler’s rise before 1933.
In the 1920s, it was common for political parties in Germany to publish their own newspapers. When Hitler took power in 1933, the Nazis controlled less than 3% of Germany’s 4700 newspapers. Despite a large number of non-Nazi-affiliated newspapers, media opposition to Hitler was insufficient and brief, and largely limited to the early 1930s.
Hitler: a grossly underestimated fanatic
In the years immediately following the First World War, Hitler was seen as a figure of ridicule and mockery. His virulent hand movements while speaking and his outrageous statements made his opponents in politics and the press underestimate his intentions. People found Hitler’s influence too endemic and too weak. They opined that once the Weimar Republic’s troubles would decrease and economic prosperity would spread, Hitler and his supporters would disappear and be forgotten by history.
In an article on the growing anti-Semitism in Germany, the New York Times had the following to say of Hitler’s National Socialists: “So long as the present economic misery continues in Germany, exploitation of such aims will enable any party to attain big dimensions. National socialism has become a factor only because of the world crisis and the German depression, and the future of the party’s development depends wholly on their duration. Just as soon as this fostering soil becomes exhausted, the National Socialist spook will vanish. What will probably remain then will be a small, discontented bourgeois party.”
The only newspaper which stands out for its consistent and vocal (and singleton) opposition to Hitler and the Nazis is the Munich Post.
The Munich Post’s decade-long war with Hitler
Unlike its local and international contemporaries, the Munich Post took the Nazis seriously. They knew his influence would not ebb and continuously warned the public against Hitler’s ideology and actions.
The Munich Post (“Münchener Post” in German) was a socialist newspaper published in Munich from 1888 to 1933. Their opposition to the Nazis was initially founded on ideological differences but swiftly evolved to become a personal struggle, one governed not merely by political differences but worry over Germany’s decaying democracy. They singled out Hitler as the “leader of the German fascists” and began attacking his influence as early as August 1920.
In his book “Explaining Hitler”, historian and journalist Ron Rosenbaum said the following about the Post’s decade-long criticism of Hitler: “[It] produced some of the sharpest, most penetrating insights into his character, his mind and method, then or since … They were the first to tangle with him, the first to ridicule him, the first to investigate him, the first to expose the seamy underside of his party, the murderous criminal behaviour masked by its pretensions to being a political movement. They were the first to attempt to alert the world to the nature of the rough beast slouching towards Berlin.”
According to the famous historian Ian Kershaw, the Munich Post laid outright attacks on Hitler through sarcasm and critiques expressing doubt over his intentions, his leadership, and his finances. The journalists of the Post identified Hitler as a dangerous personality and tracked all his speeches and actions, making it a point to criticise and expose him at every opportunity.
After Hitler’s reemergence following his release from prison, the Post resumed the attacks on him. As the Nazis’ influence spread, the Post accordingly increased its coverage and criticism of them. The journalists focussed on the death squads employed by the Nazis to wipe out political opposition. They were also the first to link Hitler directly to the NSDAP’s violent practices.
The Munich Post did not mince words in its headlines. They were bland and frank: “Adolf Hitler, Traitor”, “Nazi Party Hands Dripping With Blood”, “What Have You Done Hitler?”, “Germany Today: No Day Without Death”, etc.
In the final two years of the Post, from 1931-1933, nearly every issue contained numerous attacks and reports of Hitler’s activities.
Until its last day of publishing, the Munich Post continued to battle Hitler and his party, earning the reputation of being among the first and foremost enemies of the Fuhrer.
Hitler’s hatred for the Munich Post
Hitler referred to the Munich Post as “the Poison Kitchen” – a name to conjure up images of “a kitchen cooking up poisonous slanders, poison-pen journalism.” He filed libel cases against them, ordered his cadres to threaten and attack the Post’s journalists, and responded to any allegations in the newspaper with vociferous and aggressive denial and counter-accusations.
The NDSAP recognised the Munich Post as a threat. During the Beer Hall Putsch – Hitler’s failed coup – part of the plan was the destruction of the Munich Post’s offices. This happened on 8 November 1923. Nazis used rifle butts to smash windows, beat everyone in sight, vandalised the offices, and later made a bonfire in the street of the Post’s newspapers.
How influential was the Munich Post?
The Munich Post painted Hitler to be who he was more than a decade before he showed his true colours. However, the Post’s warnings fell on deaf ears. Hitler was underestimated by the international press and, in Germany, he was either seen as an erratic demagogue or a temporary hindrance. The Post’s warnings were largely ignored.
The Munich Post was published in Munich. As such, its influence was highest in that city, and certain other parts of Bavaria. The rest of Germany, however, remained largely oblivious to the Post’s warnings. The same was true for the NSDAP in its early years: its influence was limited to Bavaria, and thus elsewhere, and in Berlin, Germans did not bother about the Nazis until the late 1920s.
Another reason why the Munich Post was probably underestimated was its audience: the Post was a socialist newspaper whose audience consisted of a mixture of communists, socialists, and liberals who were already averse to Hitler’s tactics. The large conservative faction of Bavaria, which would be swayed by Hitler, was left untouched.
The last days of the Munich Post
The Post tirelessly waged its battle even after Hitler became Chancellor, until March 1933 when the Nazis banned the last opposition papers. As contemporary reporters noted, “In all parts of Germany, newspapers’ buildings were taken over.”
The office of the Munich Post was pillaged. “They gutted it completely, dumping trays of broken type onto the streets. Furniture was thrown out the windows, and copies of the newspaper were again burned in the middle of the street. Although the police witnessed this destruction, they simply stood by in the street and looked on while the [Nazis] wrecked the offices.”
The brave writers and editors of the Munich Post were dragged away to concentration camps. That was the end of the Munich Post – and the end of its battle against Hitler and the Nazis.
“One of the great unreported dramas in the history of journalism.”
Reading the Munich Post, historian Ron Rosenbaum wrote, was nightmarish: “There was something about communing with the actual crumbling copies of the newspaper … issues in which Hitler was a living figure stalking the pages, that served to give me a painfully immediate intimation of the maddeningly unbearable frustration the Munich Post journalists must have felt. They were the first to sense the dimensions of Hitler’s potential for evil – and to see the way the world ignored the desperate warnings in their work.”
Rosenbaum calls the story of the Munich Post “one of the great unreported dramas in the history of journalism”. He said that again and again, the Munich Post “reminded the people of Munich and the world that wouldn’t listen of Hitler’s misdeeds and evils … In the early 1920s, the NSDAP was hardly yet a significant force … Without the extraordinary conditions in Bavaria, without the backcloth of political instability, economic crisis, and social polarisation, everything suggests it would have remained insignificant”.
If only there had been more such opposition
Rosenbaum argues that the German people knew who Hitler really was, or at least that they could have known if they had listened or responded to the warnings of the Munich Post. Hitler’s real character was made clear in newsprint on a regular basis for at least twelve years before he ruled the country.
When one reads the story of the brave journalists of the Munich Post, when one realises that there were Germans who were warning people as far back as the early 1920s, one cannot help but wonder how things would have turned out if there had been more journalists and politicians who exposed Hitler for who he was in the early 1920s itself. Could the years of racist legislation, bloodshed, war, and genocide have been avoided? With more courageous opposition, would the Nazis have remained insignificant in their Munich ghetto until they were eliminated and forgotten by history, never allowed to exert influence beyond Munich?
The legacy of the Munich Post
In the years after he became Chancellor, Hitler successfully erased his opponents – both from life and memory. Records were destroyed, newspapers were shut down, journalists were interned, dissent was stifled, history was rewritten.
The voices that fought against Adolf Hitler were among the most courageous and most daring of all time. These voices were loud and passionate; they continued to fight for democracy and freedom even as the shadow of fascism loomed over their nation.
These individuals included Martin Gruber, Erhard Auer, Edmund Goldschagg, Julius Zerfass and others. They were the reporters and editors of the Munich Post.
The journalists of the Munich Post faced – and, later, met – imprisonment, concentration camps, and systematic genocide. In the process, they embodied the very essence of journalistic responsibility. These individuals never stopped fighting for what they believed in. They never stopped fighting fascism and bigotry.
Exploration of the Munich Post provides us with another important side of Hitler’s rise. The events of the past cannot be changed, but the protesters of Hitler and the Nazi party must be given due recognition. They inspire us to oppose fascism and stand up for democracy, they warn us against normalising authoritarianism, they push us to fight harder for the betterment of all society.