Correction: This review incorrectly says that Adolf Hitler dictated most of “Mein Kampf.” Recent scholarship indicates that he typed a good portion of the manuscript. The review also incorrectly says that Hitler spoke to a Benz dealer about getting a Mercedes after his release from prison in 1924. Mercedes and Benz did not merge until a few years later.
Andrew Nagorski’s latest book, “The Nazi Hunters,” will be published in May.
In his two-volume biography of Adolf Hitler, the British historian Ian Kershaw wrote that 1924 was “when, like a phoenix arising from the ashes, Hitler could begin his emergence” as the “absolute leader” of a reorganized Nazi Party that would become the standard-bearer of the far right. In “1924,” journalist Peter Ross Range examines what happened in that pivotal year.
Against the backdrop of the mountain of books about Hitler, the idea of zeroing in on one critical part of his story makes good sense. But it cannot be done as cleanly as the title “1924” implies. Range devotes more than a third of his book to prologue, particularly Hitler’s failed beer hall putsch in November 1923 and his subsequent arrest. This set the stage for his trial in early 1924 and his imprisonment until the end of year, which allowed him to write “Mein Kampf,” his autobiographical screed that presented his twisted theories on race and conquest.
After the amateurish putsch — which led to a shootout, leaving 14 Nazis and four police officers dead — many observers were convinced that the upstart rabble-rouser from Munich was finished politically. But as Range points out in his lively account of the trial, Hitler quickly realized that prosecutor Hans Ehard provided him the perfect opportunity to shine when he called him “the soul of the whole enterprise.”
In his rambling but highly effective speeches in front of a sympathetic judge and spectators, Hitler both presented himself as the voice of all those who despised the Weimar Republic and demonstrated the hypocrisy of the Bavarian authorities who had cooperated with the Nazis before arresting them.
In prison, Hitler, after jettisoning thoughts of suicide, once again took advantage of the obsequious behavior of his jailers. It was then that he resolved to go the political rather than the military route to bring down Germany’s fragile democracy: Propaganda and votes, rather than more coups, became his weapons.
Range tells his story well, offering choice details. While in prison, Hitler pleaded with a Benz dealer for a discount on the new Mercedes he was set on buying after his release. But there’s one questionable claim: Range insists that Hitler typed all of “Mein Kampf” himself, while historians such as Kershaw, John Toland and William Shirer have all reported that he dictated most of it.
More important, Range implies that Hitler’s exit from prison led to his rapid political comeback. In fact, the Nazis performed miserably in elections as late as 1928. But then the Great Depression hit, and Hitler was positioned to take full advantage of it — yes, thanks to his preparatory work in prison.
In Hitler’s case, the man made the times. But that would not have happened without the times offering him a new opportunity.
By Peter Ross Range
Little, Brown. 316 pp. $28