On April 1, 1924, 34-year-old Adolf Hitler — a socially awkward painter and former soldier from Austria — arrived at Landsberg prison in Bavaria to serve a five-year sentence for organizing a failed coup that got 18 men killed, including four policemen.
Hitler stepped into Landsberg as the occasionally self-doubting head of a tiny, impoverished and amateurish anti-semitic political movement — the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. He would walk out nine months later a more self-assured figure steadily gaining prominence and power.
And arguably more importantly, Hitler left prison as the author of Mein Kampf, a two-volume memoir and political screed that, in the words of biographer Volker Ullrich, “connected [Hitler’s] biography and his political program.”
In doing so, Mein Kampf — published between July and December 1925 — did the initial work of creating a cult of personality around its author and subject. Hitler was the Nazi Party. And Landsberg was his, and Nazism’s, laboratory.
There is no shortage of books about Hitler. But Ullrich’s new biography Hitler: Ascent, 1889–1939 , recently translated from German to English, stands out for its thorough research and aversion to myth-making. “The global entertainment industry has long since appropriated and transformed Hitler into a sensationalist, pop-cultural icon of horror,” Ullrich writes.
Equally troubling, studies of Hitler tend to skew toward one of two extremes — structuralism and intentionalism. That is, did larger political and cultural forces create Hitler the leader? Or did Hitler create himself?
Ullrich’s mission, he writes, is “bringing it all together and synthesizing it.” This balance is evident as Ullrich explores Hitler’s time in Landsberg. “Imprisonment only encouraged Hitler’s belief in himself and his historic mission.”
Helpfully for the budding dictator, Bavarian authorities had imprisoned Hitler and his fellow coup plotters — most notably, Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s future deputy — together. Hitler’s “fellow inmates, first and foremost Hess, did everything they could to strengthen his conviction.”
The Austrian and his imprisoned compatriots met daily for lunch. “Hitler’s fellow inmates would wait, standing silently behind their chairs, for the cry, ‘Attention!’ The Fuehrer would then walk, accompanied by his inner circle, through the rows of his faithful followers and sit down at the top end of the table.”
Hitler gave a little speech. “Sieg heil!” his followers cried.
Landsberg was eminently comfortable for Hitler — more comfortable, in fact, than many of the shabby apartments and boarding houses young Hitler had lived in for most of his adult life.
This was no accident. Through Hitler’s arrest to his trial and sentencing, the Bavarian government had demonstrated that it was equally fearful of Hitler’s rising influence and sympathetic to his philosophy of racial bigotry. “I know you,” one of Hitler’s prison guards told him. “I’m a National Socialist, too.”
“Hitler enjoyed a wide variety of privileges,” according to Ullrich. “His ‘cell’ was a large, airy, comfortably furnished room with an expansive view. In addition to the hearty food cooked by the prison kitchen, Hitler constantly received care packages; his quarters reminded some visitors of a ‘delicatessen.’”
Hitler’s abortive putsch — and his commensurate prison sentence — demonstrated to the German populace that Hitler was “a man who not only talked, but acted in critical situations — and who was willing to take great personal risks.”
And for Hitler, being in prison eased the stress of daily living, allowed him plenty of time to visit with supporters — up to five per day — and afforded him the leisure and focus to write Mein Kampf , which he tapped out “hunt-and-peck” style on a typewriter that prison officials gave him.
And so Hitler relaxed, ate, honed his leadership and oratory skills, worked on his book — and behaved himself. In sharp contrast to the seditious behavior that had landed him in Landsberg, while in prison Hitler was a perfect angel. “Hitler scrupulously avoided any conflict with prison authorities.”
Behaving wasn’t just Hitler’s way of maintaining his prison privileges. Playing nice also represented a key philosophical turn for Hitler. Where before the aspiring strongman had aspired to overthrow the state, now Hitler wanted to gain control of the state … by way of the state’s own mechanisms.
“It was while imprisoned in Landsberg, Hitler recollected in February 1942, that he ‘became convinced that violence would not work since the state is too established and has all the weapons in its possession,’” Ullrich writes.
Hitler lived by that conviction. Released early from prison in December 1924, Hitler reorganized his National Socialist party, promoted his book and cultivated a mass audience that, amid economic stress and global political tensions, was becoming more and more sympathetic to anti-semitic rhetoric.
In 1932, Hitler ran for president and lost. But with Hitler’s leadership, the Nazis won the largest bloc of seats in parliament. Pres. Paul von Hindenburg reluctantly appointed Hitler as chancellor. A year later, Nazi legislators passed a law that paved the way for Hitler to eventually gain dictatorial powers.
Hitler wasted no time leading his country into a genocidal war. An entirely accommodating prison term had prepared him.