A Chacun Son Boche:
The Allied Push On Berlin, 1917
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first three episodes of this series we followed the chain of events leading from the capture of a set of vital German military documents in 1914 to the collapse of the Second Reich in 1917; the Versailles-Geneva peace treaty that ended the First World War; the Spanish flu epidemic that wiped out much of the human race in the war’s aftermath; the establishment of the League of Nations and Woodrow Wilson’s failed attempts to get the United States into the League; and the American turn towards isolationism during the 1920s. In this chapter we’ll recall the beginnings of the Great Depression and chart the growth of fascism as a political force in Europe in the post-World War I era.
Benito Mussolini was one of the first men in continental Europe to grasp the stark truth that the turmoil following the First World War would finish what the war itself had started-- the destruction of the old European political order, which was proving seriously inadequate to cope with Europe’s postwar economic malaise or the social and medical burdens imposed by the worldwide Spanish flu pandemic. Mussolini felt change to the Italian political system was necessary if Italy were to reclaim her rightful place among Europe’s major powers, and he meant for the Fascist Party to be the means for accomplishing that change.
At first it seemed to the casual outside observer that Mussolini was reaching for the moon; the party started out with less than five hundred members, most of them situated in Mussolini’s hometown of Milan. But as unemployment worsened in Italy and Mussolini played on the fears and grievances of his fellow ex-soldiers, the party’s ranks would gradually expand until by the spring of 1921 it could claim a membership roll of over seven thousand. Confident that he could rattle King Victor Emmanuel III’s cage if he moved quickly and forcefully enough, Mussolini called a special session of the party’s Grand Council1 that August and proposed to stage what he called a "March on Rome" by Fascist Party members and sympathizers to demand the formation of a new government that would include Fascists in its cabinet and Mussolini. Non-Fascist conservatives who naively thought they could use him as a cat’s-paw to advance their own agendas were secretly backing his plans, not realizing that they were the ones being used by Mussolini to make his grandiose visions for Italy’s future a reality.
The organizational duties for the anticipated March on Rome fell upon poet and World War I combat flying veteran Gabriele d’Annunzio, a staunch supporter and idol of Mussolini; d’Annunzio, who was also widely known for producing novels of almost baroque prose, had been following the Fascist Party’s fortunes from the beginning and had liked what he heard in Mussolini’s speeches, particularly his words about restoring Italy’s former glory. When Mussolini had informed him about the Fascists’ intention to march on the Eternal City and force Victor Emmanuel to grant them a place in the government, the poet-warrior was quick to offer the Fascist leader his assistance not only with the logistics of the march but also with drumming up support among the masses through various means of propaganda.
At a second special session of the Grand Council held in early September, the date for the rally was fixed for September 16th and Mussolini and d’Annunzio made arrangements to meet at Mussolini’s home in Milan the next day to finalize the routes the marchers would take to get to Rome. It was ultimately decided that the March should come at the city from three different avenues: north, south, and west. The Fascists would start out by train, then disembark when they were within five miles of Rome and proceed the rest of the way to the capital by foot; once there, they would continue marching until they reached King Victor Emmanuel’s palace to press their demands. Everything seemed to be going smoothly until, on the eve of the march, d’Annunzio broke a leg while making a hasty escape from the Florence boudoir of his latest paramour, depriving the Fascists of his services at the critical hour. Undaunted, Mussolini decreed that the March on Rome would proceed as scheduled.
It was fortunate for the future Duce2 that he wasn’t facing a more strong-willed ruler than Victor Emmanuel when he and his brother Fascists were beset with supply foul-ups and transport breakdowns shortly after the March on Rome began. A truly decisive leader would have capitalized on the Fascists’ difficulties and moved swiftly to crush Mussolini and his followers; indeed, many of Victor Emmanuel’s own advisors urged him to declare martial law in Rome at once so that the army could move in to crush the budding rebellion.
But Mussolini had been extremely accurate in his judgement of how the king would respond to the march; worried that any attempt to oppose the marchers by force would trigger all-out civil war in Italy, Victor Emmanuel instead invited Mussolini to Rome to meet with him personally to negotiate the details of organizing a new Italian government that included the Fascist Party. Mussolini, not one to pass up an opportunity to make a statement if he thought it might advance his career, told the king when he arrived at the royal villa: "I hope Your Majesty will excuse my appearance....I have just come from a battlefield."3
At noon on September 17th, 1921 King Victor Emmanuel III formally announced the appointment of Benito Mussolini as Italy’s new prime minister and the nomination of several other Fascists to be part of the new government’s cabinet. It was the beginning of a new and grim era in European politics, one that would ultimately lead to a second Great War even bloodier than the first.
In Germany Adolf Hitler watched these events with fascination and a bit of envy. While Hitler and his Nazi Party cohorts were talking about creating a fascist-style government, Mussolini was actually doing it(albeit at a somewhat slower pace than the new Italian ruler would have liked). The March on Rome had made an indelible mark on the ex-corporal; just how deep that mark went would become clear in the spring of 1922, when he met with Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels and party second-in-command Rudolf Hess at his apartment in Munich to discuss how they might orchestrate their own ‘March on Berlin’ to oust then-German chancellor Friedrich Ebert. While the trio argued on a great many issues, they agreed unanimously on one crucial point: it was vital to enlist the support of World War I hero and conservative political icon Erich Ludendorff if their coup bid was to work.
Though not entirely sure Hitler was capable of following in Mussolini’s footsteps, Ludendorff nonetheless agreed to back the proposed putsch4 because he shared many of Hitler’s racist and nationalist views. The ex-general had also been enticed by the promise of an appointment as war minister in the new cabinet the Nazis hoped to install in Berlin once Ebert was overthrown. During the summer and early fall of 1922, Ludendorff used his influence among his fellow World War I veterans to help Hitler recruit men for the rebellion plot.
The time for Hitler and Ludendorff to put their plans into action seemed to have finally arrived in October of 1922 when French troops occupied the Rhineland after the German government defaulted on payment of outstanding war debts to the Allied powers. Popular outrage among Germans over the occupation led to a host of acts of active and passive resistance that stopped the German economy dead in its tracks; this caused catastrophic hyperinflation which in turn set off a political crisis that threatened to plunge Germany into total anarchy. Knowing that his home province of Bavaria was a hotbed of far-right sentiment and seizing control of the provisional capital Munich would go a long way towards making his goals reality, Hitler decided to start his revolution by having the Nazi Party’s paramilitary wing, the Sturmabteilung(SA), seize the headquarters of the Bavarian police and interior ministries along with the three-man executive council which then ran the Bavarian government.
On November 8th, 1922 Hitler and Ludendorff, certain that the army and police would soon come over to their side, made the first (and as it turned out, last) move in their planned insurgency by leading a detachment of SA men into a Munich beer hall and capturing Bavaria’s ruling triumvirate as they were attending a banquet. But things didn’t pan out as Hitler had expected they would: far from rallying to the Nazis’ banner the Bavarian police and the post-Great War German army, the Reichswehr, joined forces to suppress the uprising. Before it was all over, nine police, seventeen SA men, and a half-dozen civilians were dead and Hitler and Ludendorff had both been arrested for treason.
In the days immediately following the putsch’s collapse some people thought Hitler might meet his end on the gallows; there was certainly little doubt that the Nazi Party would wither and die in the face of the "beer hall" insurrection’s failure. However, Hitler shocked everyone by turning his sedition trial into a tool for broadening the party’s political base beyond its Bavarian roots; in his testimony he declared that his intention had been not to commit treason but to avenge the injustices inflicted on Germany by the Geneva-Versailles treaty. "No one can say what I did was treason," he told the presiding judge, "since my aim was to undo the betrayal of our nation."
The Nazi leader’s bold gambit to win sympathy by playing on popular resentment of the Geneva-Versailles pact worked; the treason charge was reduced to a lesser count of incitement to disorder and he was given a lenient prison sentence of just three years, of which he would only serve nine months. Eight other men who’d been involved with Hitler and Ludendorff in organizing the putsch plot were given equally light terms, while Ludendorff himself was cleared by the jury of all charges. During his brief incarceration Hitler wrote a book he had originally intended to be his autobiography and which would ultimately become the official Nazi Party bible, Mein Kampf ("My Struggle").
Joseph Goebbels orchestrated a speaking tour that boosted Hitler’s political profile still further; radio had already started to become a part of everyday life by then, and the Nazi propaganda chief shrewdly exploited the young medium’s growing influence inside Germany to sway his fellow Germans toward embracing the Nazi ideal. He also played on a host of age-old fears and prejudices among the German masses, in particular the anti-Semitism that was a dark undercurrent of the German national character. The Nazi Party top brass did nothing to discourage such virulent hate-mongering-- if anything, Goebbels was actively encouraged to use these tactics. They particularly found favor with Hitler, who regarded the Jews as being among the worst-- if not the worst --perpetrators of the alleged "stab in the back" supposed to have caused Germany to lose the First World War.
But the single thing that did the most to make the Nazi Party a genuine force to be reckoned with among German far right political groups happened in September of 1928, when a young SA member named Horst Wessel was fatally stabbed during an alley fight with a trio of German Communists. Although the deadly quarrel had been caused by Wessel’s crude attempt to seduce the lover of one of the Communists, Goebbels spun it into a heroic battle to defend all that was good and right in German culture against the sinister taint of Marxism. A song written in the young man’s honor, "Horst Wessel Lied"5, became the official Nazi Party anthem and touched a highly responsive chord in a populace yearning for past glories and dreading the idea of a Communist-ruled Germany. Party membership soared, and in the next German parliamentary elections the Nazis gained 80 new seats in the Reichstag.
While Mussolini was tightening his grip on the reins of power in Italy and Hitler was expanding the Nazi Party’s ranks in Germany, the United States-- though few people suspected it or cared to admit it might be possible --was headed towards an economic meltdown of epic proportions. Throughout the 1920s people had been buying and selling stocks at absurdly inflated values, believing that America’s postwar prosperity would last forever; in fact, one Department of Labor report issued in June of 1929 made a prediction that would in the end prove tragically wrong: "1930 will be a splendid employment year." Some of the more optimistic economic experts in the Western world were even boldly predicting that the day was soon coming when poverty would cease to exist.
But those who thought that the financial golden days could never end were given a rude awakening on September 20th, 1929 when a wave of panic selling on Wall Street led to a stock market crash of epic proportions. The panic, triggered by the failure of a European bank in which a number of US companies had made major investments, began just after 9:00 AM New York time, and within less than two hours all the market’s gains since January had been completely wiped out. That day, nicknamed "Black Friday" by investors who lost their shirts in the crash, marked the beginning of the Great Depression, an economic meltdown the likes of which the world had never seen before. It made all previous economic downturns pale by comparison; made wealthy men poor and poor men homeless; it rocked even the richest countries on Earth; and pulled the rug out from under postwar Europe.
Like the shockwaves from a nuclear explosion, the effects of the 1929 Wall Street crash were felt well beyond the original epicenter. One after another banks collapsed and businesses that had weathered adversity for generations were wiped out within weeks or even days; the streets of nearly every major city in the world became choked with legions of unemployed people while images of seemingly endless bread lines became a staple of American newsreel films. The economic chaos triggered by the Great Depression created a corresponding political turmoil that would prove fertile ground for the flowering of new dictatorships and the further entrenchment of existing ones.
In May of 1930, Russian premier Alexander Kerensky was voted out of office by ordinary citizens frustrated with his lack of progress in resolving the myriad and growing economic problems facing their country as a result of the Great Depression. Joseph Stalin, by now the leader of a revitalized Communist Party, was paroled by the new premier after signing a pledge not to incite rebellion against the democratic government in Moscow; this was not as surprising a move on Stalin’s part as one might think, given that during his long term in prison Stalin had come to the conclusion that ballots instead of bullets represented Marxism’s best hope for coming to power in post- World War I Russia.
Recasting himself and his party in the mold of social democrats6, Stalin pitched an ambitious economic platform to the Russian masses aimed at dramatically cutting unemployment and making Russia into one of the world’s great industrial powers. His ideas, collectively known as the New Economic Plan(NEP), impressed many of the people who listened to them, and within just over a year after his release from jail Stalin had transformed the Communists into the second-most powerful political party in Russia. Stalin’s own personal magnetism had more than a little to do with this; an influential figure within the Communist Party’s ranks from the time he first joined the party in the 1890s, he was one of the most persuasive speakers of his day, and while a perceptive handful warned that neither Stalin nor the Communists had truly forsaken their old desire to attain absolute power in Russia, those warnings were lost in the clamor of voices calling for him to save their country from certain economic disaster before it was too late.
With near-perfect timing, Stalin declared himself as a candidate for the premiership in the Russian national elections of 1932, when the Depression was at its absolute worst not only in Russia but in most of the industrialized world. Convinced that he was the one to cure the fiscal and social ills with which the Great Depression had infected their country, millions of Russian citizens voted to put him and his Communist Party into power in Moscow. However, the cure would turn out to be ten times worse than the disease....
In Germany around this same period, Adolf Hitler began to get serious consideration as a possible successor to then-chancellor Paul von Hindenburg, who was getting on in years and showing signs of mental incapacity. After the beer hall putsch Hitler had been moving from strength to strength, and as the Depression continued to debilitate German society his appeals to traditional values mixed with his vision of a new and stronger Germany had steadily won him more and more converts to the Nazi cause. Recalling the vitriolic anti-Semitic philosophy he had propounded in Mein Kampf, Germany’s Jewish community looked with dread on the possibility of this man gaining control of the German government-- though they weren’t fully aware of the scope of his envisaged program to eliminate them from mainstream German society, they knew he intended to do everything in his power to make their lives miserable and reduce them to second-class citizens.
Even some non-Jewish Germans had doubts about the wisdom of putting the reins of power in Hitler’s hands. One such doubter was Dietrich Bonhoffer, a Catholic pastor who rightly feared that Hitler would one day plunge Germany into a bloodbath if he became the new chancellor; Bonhoffer was particularly disturbed by Hitler’s stated goal of ‘purifying’ German culture by purging it of ‘non-Aryan’ influences, since for the pastor it invoked 19th century author Heinrich Heine’s famous warning "Where one burns books, there one eventually burns people".
But the majority of Germans didn’t didn’t share Bonhoffer’s fears about Adolf Hitler or the Nazis; if anything they viewed Hitler as a savior, or at least a useful tool for keeping control of the German government out of the hands of socialists. When in December of 1932 Germany held elections to determine its next chancellor, Hitler won by a comfortable if narrow margin. In his victory speech he told an enthusiastic audience of supporters: "Give me just five years and I promise you you won’t recognize Germany!" His words would later come back to haunt the German people.
As Hitler was basking in his electoral triumph, the man who would ultimately prove his toughest foreign adversary was getting ready to move from the Roosevelt family estate in Hyde Park, New York and into the Oval Office. In November of 1932 the American public had made up their minds that they were fed up with Herbert Hoover, who was widely deemed to be the main culprit in America’s economic woes, and chosen Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the 32nd President of the United States; the new commander-in-chief, an ex-Assistant Secretary of the Navy, had gotten a crash course in the art of dealing with adversity when he was stricken with polio in the early 1920s. The tone for his administration was set in his inaugural address in the spring of 1933 when he told his listeners "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself!" With those words, Roosevelt made it plain the cautious, don’t-rock-the-boat attitude which had defined the Hoover economic policy was now a thing of the past.
It would take a bit longer for the Roosevelt Administration to shift the isolationist mindset which had defined American foreign policy since 1918. Nonetheless, FDR would keep a wary eye on Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin; he didn’t any of those three men any further than he could throw them...
To Be Continued
1The executive leadership committee of the Fascist Party; after Mussolini took power, this group became Italy’s de facto legislative branch, superseding the prewar Parliament.
2Italian for "leader" or "boss"; this title was bestowed on Mussolini by his admirers.
3Mussolini’s suit had been somewhat dusty at the time and his tie a bit askew from his having been jostled by admirers as he stepped into the royal carriage for his journey to meet with the King. He apparently thought the ‘battlefield’ quip would reinforce his image of toughness and martial determination as leader of the Fascist Party.
4German for "revolt" or "uprising". 5 Lied is German for "song".
6Over Leon Trotsky’s protests, no doubt.