On 7 November 1918, on the first anniversary of the Russian Revolution, a crowd gathered in the streets of Munich in the German state of Bavaria. The demonstrators demanded democracy and an end to the rule of the old establishment, which had led the country into the disaster of the first world war. Within hours the demonstration swelled into a popular movement, as soldiers, disregarding the orders of their superiors, left their garrisons to join the protestors.
“The demonstration became a revolution”, wrote Erich Mühsam, one of the left-wing activists present at the event. Before dawn, the Bavarian royal family had fled the city and the protesters had occupied important state buildings. Seizing the moment, the charismatic social democratic politician Kurt Eisner proclaimed the Free People’s State of Bavaria.
The events of this memorable autumn night form the starting point of the tragic developments in Michael Brenner’s In Hitler’s Munich. Anti-Semitism is at the centre of this account of the revolutionary uprising in Munich after the first world war and the reaction against it. Brenner, a German-Jewish historian, focuses on this theme precisely because most historians have chosen to ignore or downplay its role.
Most of the main activists in the revolutionary upsurge in Germany at the time had Jewish roots. Among the most prominent, apart from Eisner, were Gustav Landauer, Eugen Leviné, Rosa Luxemburg, Erich Mühsam and Ernst Toller. Brenner also shows the central role anti-Semitism played in the suppression of the revolution. He describes the murderous dynamic it unleashed as it paved the way for the eventual rise of the Nazis to power in 1933.
Kurt Eisner was killed fewer than four months after having been elected as the first Jewish minister president of Bavaria, by the Workers’, Peasants’ and Soldiers’ Council (Räterepublik). He was shot on his way to parliament by a young student from an aristocratic family, who was affiliated with the right-wing Thule Society. Eisner had been the target of numerous anti-Semitic smear campaigns in the weeks leading up to his assassination.
At his funeral, Gustav Landauer, Eisner’s friend and fellow revolutionary, said: “Kurt Eisner, the Jew, was a prophet because he felt for the poor and the downtrodden and recognised the possibility - and the necessity - of putting an end to misery and oppression”. Tragically, Landauer too would live only a few more weeks, before being killed in a Munich prison by members of the right-wing Freikorps militia.
The focus on Munich makes sense. Here, the trauma of the failed revolution was particularly strong. But similar dynamics took place in other parts of Germany too (Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were brutally murdered in January 1919 by the Freikorps in Berlin). By mid-1919 thousands of revolutionaries had either been killed or sentenced to many years’ imprisonment.
Bavaria became in reality a police state, ruled by Gustav von Kahr, an arch-reactionary and notorious anti-Semite. It was no coincidence that Hitler began his career as a public speaker in this city. Three days after Eisner’s murder, the Nazi party was founded. On 8 November 1923 –the fifth anniversary of the 1918 revolution – Hitler attempted his infamous Munich coup. The climate in the city was such that he evidently thought he could get away with it. When he left prison after only a few months, he carried the manuscript of Mein Kampf (My Struggle), his autobiography, with him. By 1923, Thomas Mann, arguably Germany’s greatest twentieth century writer, referred to the once culturally vibrant, and liberal Munich as “the city of Hitler”.
Brenner does not, however. tell the already often told story of Hitler. Instead he focuses on the Jews in Bavaria who suddenly found themselves exposed to a growing and increasingly aggressive climate. In the propaganda of the reactionary forces, anti-Semitism, and the hatred of the 1918 revolution quickly began to blend into one. "The Jew is behind all of this" was a slogan that did the rounds in the troubled, unsettled period following the war and the revolution.
Martin Buber, an Austrian-Jewish philosopher, described Eisner’s murder as "a nameless Jewish tragedy". This was even though most members of Munich's Jewish community were, as Brenner shows, deeply sceptical – and often hostile - to the revolution. Their attitude was not that different to that of other conservative citizens in mainly Catholic Bavaria. Before Munich became the capital of the Nazi movement, it was already the capital of anti-Semitism in Germany, says Brenner.
Brenner's story is also an indictment of the failures of liberal society in the era following the first world war. Most liberals distrusted the public and its demands for radical democracy. That is why many sided – openly or quietly- with the counter-revolutionaries.
Far too few protested when Kahr waged a campaign against Ostjuden (Jews who had migrated from eastern Europe) and began deporting families, many of whom had lived in Bavaria for decades. Nor did they intervene when right-wing terrorist groups carried out attacks on Jewish institutions and homes.
The reaction to the murder of Walter Rathenau, Germany’s Jewish foreign minister, in Berlin in 1922 also only prompted a muted response. There was no concerted campaign against anti-Semitism or defence of the values of liberal democracy. Instead, it adopted the Law for the Protection of the Republic (Republikschutzgesetz), which gave it the means to ban extremist organisations – and which was mainly used to repress left wing movements.
Even 100 years after the events Brenner describes, few in Germany are aware of the connections between the 1918 revolution, anti-Semitism and the rise of Hitler. When articles and books appeared around the 100th anniversary of the revolution, their tenor was often that the revolutionaries had unrealistic expectations. One example is the widely reviewed book by the journalist Volker Weidermann, entitled Dreamers Weidermann describes the main protagonists of the 1918-19 revolution as dreamers and crackpots. Anti-Semitism is barely mentioned despite it being a substantial book. He focuses instead on the fact that many of its leaders were writers and poets.
In his foreword Brenner explains the reluctance of contemporary commentators to examine this subject. He says researching the Jews and their participation in the revolutionary movement is regarded as a risky enterprise. Brenner points out that connecting Jews with socialism has often been used as an explanation or even a justification for anti-Semitism. But anyone who wants to understand the rise of the Nazis would do well to read Brenner's book.
Michael Brenner: In Hitler’s Munich. Jews, the Revolution and the Rise of Nazis, Princeton University Press, March 2022 (first published in German as Der lange Schatten der Revolution, Jüdischer Verlag im Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin, 2019 )
Sabine Beppler-Spahl is the chair of the Freiblickinstitut, a liberal think tank based in Berlin, and the Germany correspondent for spiked.