In Hitler’s Munich: Jews, the Rev­o­lu­tion, and the Rise of Nazism

Michael Bren­ner; Jere­mi­ah Riemer, trans.

By – July 14, 2022

In his lat­est book, pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al and his­to­ri­an Michael Bren­ner focus­es on Weimar Munich to draw out the essen­tial char­ac­ter­is­tics of Hitler’s rise and appeal, the germs of Nazism, the social con­text of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary time, and how the seeds of anti­semitism fell on fer­tile ground. He looks at how Munich, in the oft-quot­ed words of Thomas Mann, became the city of Hitler.”

Bren­ner weaves togeth­er social and cul­tur­al analy­sis with illus­tra­tive and detailed descrip­tions of the indi­vid­u­als and inci­dents that when tak­en togeth­er led to the unimag­ined cat­a­stro­phe of the Shoah. He uses many hith­er­to unex­am­ined doc­u­ments to show how an appar­ent­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed and cos­mopoli­tan city became the test­ing ground of Hitler’s pol­i­tics, and how, in the after­math of the failed rev­o­lu­tion of 1918 – 19 and the estab­lish­ment of a right-wing gov­ern­ment in Bavaria that linked the left­ists and Jews in a con­spir­a­to­r­i­al soup, so many acqui­esced, turned a blind eye, par­tied on, or sim­ply did noth­ing, if they did not active­ly col­lab­o­rate. How­ev­er, Bren­ner argues that the Jew­ish left­ists in Munich had a stronger rela­tion­ship to their Jew­ish­ness than, for exam­ple, Rosa Lux­em­burg in Berlin, or Trot­sky, or Bela Kun. For peo­ple like Kurt Eis­ner and Gus­tav Lan­dauer, a close friend of Mar­tin Buber, being Jew­ish meant some­thing, much to their cost.

Brenner’s dis­cus­sion of the response of Munich’s Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion is espe­cial­ly inter­est­ing: to oppose, to fight, to hide, to ignore, to run, or indeed, to sup­port the right, if not the Nazis, as many did. These are some of the impos­si­ble choic­es that peo­ple were forced to make. Was the writ­ing on the wall or would it all be over in a mat­ter of months, and was this Hitler char­ac­ter just a blow-hard or a dan­ger to the Jew­ish peo­ple unlike any­thing encoun­tered before? Brenner’s nuanced account sees the log­ic of each choice, even if some were trag­i­cal­ly mis­tak­en, and argues that the Jews of Munich were the first vic­tims of the hor­rors that were to engulf the world over the next twen­ty years.

Brenner’s schol­ar­ship is rig­or­ous and impres­sive, but he can also write poignant­ly, as in the final chap­ter, in which he looks at how the events he describes have been remem­bered over time, and takes us on a short tour of the New Israelite Ceme­tery in Munich exam­in­ing the grave­stones: Son­ja Lerch, who took her own life in Stadel­heim prison in 1918; Eugen Levine, exe­cut­ed in the same prison in 1919 Kurt Eis­ner, assas­si­nat­ed in 1919; and Gus­tav Lan­dauer, kicked to death by prison guards in 1919 shar­ing the same mark­er. Bren­ner nev­er lets us for­get that these were peo­ple, not just fig­ures in a his­tor­i­cal text.

In the pref­ace, Bren­ner makes a remark­able state­ment that res­onates all the way through the book. He notes that although he did not intend or fore­see it when he began to write, it quick­ly became appar­ent to him that what he was describ­ing res­onat­ed uncom­fort­ably with the events of Jan­u­ary 6th, 2020 — the storm­ing of the Capi­tol in Wash­ing­ton. At every turn the read­er is remind­ed of the lessons of history.

Bren­ner puts Hitler’s anti­semitism at the fore­front of a polit­i­cal strat­e­gy; it is a tool as much as a core stance. Hitler rec­og­nizes its gal­va­niz­ing effect. Again, Bren­ner hears the echoes of 2021: the dem­a­goguery, the bul­ly­ing, the vicious ad hominem attacks, and how use­ful it is to find a focus into which to chan­nel anger.

As Bren­ner has said, it is not entire­ly coin­ci­den­tal that the book comes out a hun­dred years after the events in Munich, events that car­ry a les­son for us today. What have we learned? That is one of the chal­lenges he lays down for the reader.

Discussion Questions

Munich was Hitler’s city. It was Munich that the Aus­tri­an Hitler returned to after World War I, it was here that he joined what would lat­er become the Nazi par­ty, and it was here, too, that Hitler attempt­ed his failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. Long after he seized pow­er over all of Ger­many, Hitler kept his party’s head­quar­ters in Munich. He called it die Haupt­stadt der Bewe­gung: the cap­i­tal city of the (Nazi) par­ty. Nev­er­the­less, as Michael Bren­ner shows in this bril­liant book, post-World War I Munich was more than the birth­place of Nazism. In a series of ter­rif­i­cal­ly insight­ful chap­ters, Bren­ner tells the sto­ry of the Jew­ish men and women who shaped Munich in the post­war years: men like the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies Kurt Eis­ner, Gus­tav Lan­dauer, and Eugen Lev­iné, more con­ser­v­a­tive mem­bers of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty who feared the asso­ci­a­tion between Jews and rev­o­lu­tion, and even some sup­port­ers of the rad­i­cal right. The result is a cru­cial book for any­one inter­est­ed in Ger­man-Jew­ish his­to­ry, Hitler’s ear­ly career, and the back­ground that led to the estab­lish­ment of the Third Reich.