November 8 is an ominously historic day. On this day, 100 years ago, 34-year-old Adolf Hitler, inspired by Benito Mussolini’s march on Rome in October 1922, accompanied 2,000 armed volunteers to reach Bürgerbräukeller, a beer hall in the Bavarian city of Munich. Apparently, his intention was to seize power in the Bavarian capital to destroy the German federal government, a democratically established Weimar Republic, and supplant it with a dictatorial establishment unswerving in its ideology of violence and rabid anti-Semitism. Dismissing all Jews in the government service and executing anyone assisting Jews were to be his priorities. His plan was to establish a government to oversee the creation of a unified Greater German Reich.
From the Munich bar, Hitler moved his troops on November 9 to Odeonsplatz, where the Bavarian forces successfully resisted the putschists, killing a few. A bullet missed him by an inch. The history of the world would have been different had Hitler died that morning. But the future Führer survived. Undaunted by the defeat at the hands of the police, he would return to the same spot as Chancellor of Germany 10 years later, with his following having swelled to thousands, and the manifesto in his pocket that would end the very idea of democracy in Germany.
Surrounded by adoring crowds, there was complete silence when he bowed his head in remembrance of those who had sacrificed their lives for the love of their country. The most damaging political programme in European history was underway. His coming to power reveals a resounding lesson for humanity: if the institutions of liberal democracy are shaken and weakened, even a disorganised mutiny in a beer pub may not remain a failure for long. Moreover, his entry into Munich must also shake up those credulous enough to fall into the trap of contrived lies and make an unquestionable commitment to forces that silently work towards genocidal politics and the wearying of the fabric of constitutional democracy.
The understanding of the putsch’s significance is relevant to the future of our ideas of democracy, justice and freedom. Pausing for a moment on the genesis of Nazism, we can go to the heart of the crisis of the current damage to democracy and the rule of law with an overriding vision that prescribes a fearsome struggle for the survival of the values and ideals that remain dear to the freedom-loving people dreaming of peaceful coexistence.
We must realise that we live in an era of recrudescent nationalism and jingoism. It, therefore, becomes important to remember that “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it”, as stated by Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana. The case is before us particularly at this juncture of the revival of ethno-nationalist politics across the world, and particularly in Russia and Israel. The leadership in Israel has begun, like the Nazi party, to wear the crest of a star on their lapel with the words ‘Not Again’ written on it. Ironically, the victims of the Holocaust are now spurring another genocide and this time it is the Palestinians in the midst of the second Nakba.
Understandably, right-wing populism leading to modern-day tribalism is rising again around the world, and it is hard not to look for lessons in the nightmare of Nazism. Albert Speer, Reich Minister of Armaments and War Production for Nazi Germany, underscored Hitler’s notion of “personal unhappiness caused by the breakdown of the economy”, which he tactfully replaced “by a frenzy that demanded victims”. He turned history “into a reservoir of resentments”. With the Mark having sunk to an abysmal low in the 1920s, Germany experienced the first instance of hyperinflation in a modern industrial state. The conditions were ripe for a civil war and Hitler waited in the wings to take the reins of the most brutal tyranny that the world had ever seen. Paramilitaries from the anti-democratic south were taking up arms against working-class soldiers and pro-democratic forces from the more liberal north. Germany was smouldering in a state of civil war.
Hitler’s return to Munich following the armistice to his calamitous putsch in 1923, therefore, demonstrates why the city’s transformation is crucial for understanding the Nazi era and the tragedy of the Holocaust. The conservative government of Bavaria systematically identified Jews with left-wing radicalism and spearheaded racist attacks on the basis of religion, thereby setting up a fertile breeding ground for the establishment of Nazism and an anti-Semitic ideology. Munich became a hotbed of right-wing extremism, with synagogues under attack and Jews battered in the streets. It was here that Hitler established the Nazi movement and developed his anti-Semitic ideas. Bavaria’s capital city became the decadent laboratory for Nazism and the Final Solution.
The Reich government would soon pass the Enabling Act of 1933 that gave autocratic powers to the governing party to bypass Parliament. This legislation gave the underlying impetus to Nazism, thereby buttressing its narrative of challenging a ‘Jewish-Bolshevik global conspiracy’. Hitler and his followers began to terrorise Munich’s Jews and were aided by politicians, judges, police and ordinary residents. The Jews, in turn, responded to the anti-Semitic backlash in different ways — by declaring their loyalty to the state, by avoiding public life, or by abandoning the city altogether.
To think of the centenary, therefore, might help impede the continuing collapse of democracies across the world. Liberal democracies across the world are germinating into absolutism, and unbridled racism spurs the rise of a political elite, making way for populist demagogues. It is surprising that what took place in Munich and Nazi Germany is repeating itself in many democratic countries, which deem themselves to be egalitarian.
At such a time, it is important to ask: In the last 50 years, has the world progressed on matters of constitutional democracy, or are we stalled — or even moving backward? Are democracies sliding into a cold-blooded sectarianism that borders on repression that can little bear other religions or ways of life? Racial intolerance has indeed raised its ugly head far more starkly than ever before. Innumerable Munichs around the world transmute from liberal diverse societies into cities of discrimination and violence.
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