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

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 30, Number 2 (Summer 2024)

Review of Michael Brenner, In Hitler’s Munich: Jews, the Revolution, and the Rise of Nazism. Translated by Jeremiah Riemer. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2022). 378 pages, ISBN: 978-0-691-19103-4.

By Kevin P. Spicer, C.S.C., Stonehill College

Midway in his study, Michael Brenner writes, “In this kind of atmosphere, Hitler had it easy” (162), exploiting for his own ends the antisemitic, ultraconservative, and pogrom-like madness drowning post-World War I Munich. No longer did the city stand for tolerance, erudite culture, and cosmopolitanism but, instead, had turned into a haven for violent right-wing extremism. In his immensely readable and well-searched study, In Hitler’s Munich: Jews, the Revolution, and the Rise of Nazism, Brenner investigates the individual actors and events behind this change.

Brenner first focuses on the background of the revolutionaries and their relationship to Judaism – a relationship that spanned a broad spectrum. The most influential was Kurt Eisner, who, on November 8, 1918, became minister-president of the Free State of Bavaria. Historian Sterling Fishman, whom Brenner quotes, described “the full-bearded” Eisner as speaking “like a Prussian,” sound[ing] like a socialist, and look[ing] like a Jew” (31). Eisner’s Judaism was not of particular importance to him but, at the same time, he did not bear any “feelings of hatred for his Jewish background” (32). Nevertheless, Jewish spirituality influenced Eisner through the mentorship of the Jewish scholar Hermann Cohen, whose writings emphasized a messianic theology, yearning for earth’s renewal and a heralding of God’s kingdom. The legislation he promoted, such as eight-hour workdays and women’s suffrage, concretized this spiritual hope. Eisner was unsuccessful in translating his ideas into reality and ultimately failed to win the support of the Bavarian population. For example, only one percent of Bavarian women voted for Eisner’s Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (42). His term was brief, ending on February 21, 1919, with a bullet from the gun of Count Anton von Arco auf Valley, a rejected applicant to the antisemitic Thule Society. Though many antisemites praised the assassination, Count Arco’s act failed to gain him admittance to the Society due to his mother’s Jewish background.

Of all the revolutionaries, Gustav Landauer most embraced Jewish spirituality, especially the biblical prophets and their hope for a better world. Like Hermann Cohen’s relationship with Kurt Eisner, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber was an intellectual mentor to Landauer, who, more than his peers, “recognized a Jewish dimension to the revolution” (61). On April 7, 1919, the Bavarian Council Republic appointed Landauer the People’s Commissioner for Public Education, Science, and Arts. In leadership, he was joined by Erich Mühsam and Ernst Toller, both of whom had Jewish backgrounds. Mühsam had officially left the organized Jewish community as a religious denomination in 1926 but remained in solidarity with fellow Jews. The much younger Toller came from the “border region between Germany and Poland, where Eastern European Jews intersected with West European Jewry” (77). He rarely referred to his Jewish background during the revolutionary period but, in later writings, reflected positively on it.

All the revolutionaries under discussion suffered at the hands of the right-wing Freikorps. On May 1, 1919, Freikorps members arrested Landauer and “brutally murdered” him the following day in Munich’s Stadelheim prison (67). Mühsam, too, was arrested and imprisoned in a Franconian abbey, a fact that Brenner states more than likely spared him from the same fate. Still, he was not released until December 20, 1924. Toller was active in almost all the revolutionary governments and only survived the Freikorp’s wrath by hiding. In June 1919, he was captured, tried, and sentenced to a five-year prison term.

The final leader that Brenner writes about is Eugen Leviné-Nissen, who he describes as a “‘Jewish Bolshevik’ that antisemites could not have done a better job inventing” (87). Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, his native language was German, a fact that antisemites neglected to recognize. Leviné turned away from his Jewish faith early in life and embraced Communism. Editor of Die Rote Fahne, the German Communist Party newspaper, he led the final Communist Council in Munich. Captured on June 3, 1919, at thirty-six years of age, he was sentenced to death and executed two days later, leaving a wife and children.

Although other individuals had various degrees of attachment to Judaism among the revolutionary leadership, chroniclers of the revolution failed to mention that most Munich Jews did not readily identify with radical socialism or support the council-style republics. Brenner quotes Werner Cahnmann, a Munich native and sociologist who later immigrated to the United States, “The council republic was represented as ‘Jewish’ from the outset…. On the other hand, the much more characteristic involvement of Jews on the other side was hardly ever mentioned” (94). Indeed, Brenner reminds us that historian Thomas Weber’s research found that “the percentage of people in the Freikorps with Jewish ancestry roughly corresponded to their percentage in the overall population” (96).

Chapter Three, “A Pogrom Atmosphere in Munich,” recounts the intensification of antisemitism following the Freikorps capture of Munich in early May 1919. The provincial Münchener Stadtanzeiger followed this worsening pattern, deteriorating from its tolerant stance toward Jews to comparing them with vermin – a charge also made later by National Socialists. The linguistic scholar and diarist Victor Klemperer also chronicled antisemitism’s increase, noting, “In truth, the Jews have it no better than the Prussian here; they share the fate of being blamed for everything, and depending on the situation they are either the capitalists or the Bolshevists” (130).

Catholic leaders did not help the situation for Munich’s Jews. Utilizing the online reports from the Vatican’s Bavarian Nunciature, Brenner details how Nuncio Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, embraced and spread lies about Kurt Eisner’s Eastern European origins – he was born in Berlin – labeling him a “Galician Jew” (119). His assistant, Monsignor Lorenzo Schioppa, likewise defamed the revolutionaries by writing to the Vatican, “The Munich Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council is made up of the dregs of the population, of lots of non-Bavarians from the navy, Jews, natives who have long been rebelling against the nobility and the clergy, and hardly of citizens and soldiers who were actually at the front” (120-121). Schioppa ignored Toller’s thirteen months in the front-line trenches of World War I. Michael von Faulhaber, archbishop of Munich, joined this clerical maligning bandwagon by describing Eisner as a “foreign Galician writer.” He also refused to meet with council republic representatives. However, Faulhaber granted an audience to Count Arco, Eisner’s assassin. Building on the research of the German historian Antonia Leugers, Brenner quotes extensively from Faulhaber’s diaries, recently transcribed from their original Gabelsberger shorthand and made available online, to reveal the archbishop’s conviction that the revolution was the work of Jews.

For their part, most of Munich’s Jews made every effort to disassociate themselves from the revolutionaries. Brenner stresses that they were not alone in wanting to avoid situations that had the potential to fuel antisemitism. For example, he describes how the great theoretical physicist Albert Einstein and the Zionist Association for Germany’s Chair Kurt Blumenfeld counseled Walter Rathenau in Berlin to decline the post of German Foreign Minister. Rathenau was murdered in June 1922 by right-wing assassins less than five months after he took office. Still, Brenner emphasizes there was a “wide range of views…inside the Jewish community” (148).

Chapter Four details the violence that followed the revolution’s end. Brenner notes that “between 670 and 1,200 people” were murdered following the final breakdown of the revolutionary governments (163). Eventually, Gustav von Kahr was elected Bavarian Prime Minister in March 1920, supported by the Catholic Bavarian People’s Party (BVP), of which he was a member even though he was a Protestant. An antisemite, one of his first acts was to target East European Jewish immigrants for expulsion. His first effort was relatively unsuccessful, though he would implement a similar policy more successfully during his later tenure as Bavarian State Commissioner. Kahr surrounded himself with right-wing politicians such as Franz Gürtner, who would also later serve in Hitler’s government as Reich Justice Minister. Kahr’s government enabled the intensification of Munich’s antisemitic atmosphere. Brenner recounts the newly arrived Helene Cohn’s letter to the editor of Das Jüdische Echo, “Never before in my life have I sensed around me such a degree of hate-filled passion as in the streets of this city. When I buy newspapers on the street corner, look at bookstore displays, hear a conversation in a tram or restaurant – everyone is filled with hate and inflammatory defamations of Jews” (185). One of the perpetrators of this hatred was Paul Nikolaus Cossmann, the publisher of Münchner Neueste Nachrichten, the city’s most influential newspaper. Cossmann was a convert from Judaism to Catholicism who worked overtime to distance himself from his background. He served as a chief propagator of the stab-in-the-back myth and zealously propagated antisemitism. He went out of his way to defame Kurt Eisner’s former secretary, Felix Fechenbach, initiating a legal proceeding against him that some compared to France’s trial of Alfred Dreyfus.

This seething cesspool of hatred and mindless violence made Hitler’s rise possible. In Chapter Five, Brenner briefly recounts the 1923 Putsch and its aftermath due to its extensive coverage in other works. He is more interested in capturing the climate in Munich that led to the Putsch. Brenner returns to Archbishop Faulhaber, whom the Holy See elevated to a cardinal in March 1921. In 1922, speaking at the dedication of a Catholic school, Faulhaber declared, “In Bavaria there is still an army that won’t let the Christian denominational school be robbed by the revolutionary Jews. The people ha[ve] people now, and now we will see if we live in a people’s state or in a Jews’ state” (247). The following year, in a sermon on All Saints’ Day, Faulhaber seemingly spoke against Munich’s overarching antisemitic climate by proclaiming, “With blind hatred against Jews and Catholics, against peasants and Bavaria, no wounds will be healed. …Every human life is something precious” (248). Just over a month later, the Central Committee of Munich Catholics issued a statement printed in the Bayerischer Kurier: “The Herr Cardinal said nothing in his sermon other than what the commandment to love your neighbor announces and demands, that excludes no human being from love. Of course, he never wanted to excuse the sins committed by Jewish revolutionaries and profiteers against the German people and their well-being over the last few years” (248). Brenner is convinced that the cardinal had a hand in the statement’s release. His clerical secretary would make a similar about-face on behalf of Faulhaber following the cardinal’s well-known 1933 Advent sermons.

The antisemitic climate in Munich would eventually lessen after Heinrich Held became Minister President of Bavaria in July 1924 and brought stability. Still, no Jewish politician would hold government office in Bavaria following the revolution or even after 1945. Brenner’s work brilliantly reveals how antisemitism rose from Munich’s gutters to dominate early interwar society and politics. As he points out, even today, Kurt Eisner remains an outsider, commemorated only on a street sign in Neuperlach, far outside central Munich. On the other hand, Cardinal Faulhaber and Eugenio Pacelli’s names remain on centrally located street signs in the city’s center.