The Failed Coup That Led To Hitler's 'Mein Kampf' | KERA News

The Failed Coup That Led To Hitler's 'Mein Kampf'

Jan 14, 2016
Originally published on January 14, 2016 3:33 pm

Years before he led the Nazis in the genocide of 6 million European Jews, Adolf Hitler staged a coup and spent several months in prison. Though his attempt to overthrow the government was unsuccessful, his trial and subsequent time behind bars would be pivotal.

Peter Ross Range, the author of 1924: The Year That Made Hitler, tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies that Hitler's public trial for the so-called "Beer Hall Putsch" was a confidence-builder that allowed him to sharpen the speaking skills that would help him win the German chancellorship nine years later.

Though sentenced to five years in prison for the coup, Hitler wound up serving less than one year. During that time, Range says, "Hitler went into a period of reflection, and building his willpower and self-confidence, or self-belief, and he came out of it in many ways a new man."

While incarcerated, Hitler also wrote Mein Kampf, a memoir and manifesto that outlines his political ideology. The reproduction of Mein Kampf had long been restricted by copyright laws, but on Jan. 1 those restrictions expired, and a new, 2,000-page annotated version is being published.

"It's an attempt to break down Mein Kampf sentence by sentence, almost word by word, and explain it historically, philosophically; show the contradictions, show the lies and show the truths as well," Range says.


Interview Highlights

On what happened during Hitler's Munich Beer Hall Putsch, in which he cornered local politicians in a beer hall and demanded that they support his coup

He kidnaps those leaders. He takes them hostage on the spot, fires his pistol into the ceiling to get control of the room, has a platoon of storm troopers with him, including a machine gun team, takes those leaders into a side room and tells them they have the choice of joining him in his plot to march to Berlin and start a national revolution, or to die with him. ... He tells them that he is going to go back out into the beer hall and propose to the crowd what he's trying to get them to do, which is to become part of his new government for Germany.

He goes back out, he makes a speech, which according to an eyewitness, "Turned the crowd inside-out like a glove." This was the best proof we've ever had really of Hitler's extraordinary speaking and persuasive powers in a mass situation. And indeed, the people by the end of a very short speech were cheering and stomping and approving of his new plan.

So after he has convinced the crowd that this national revolution is a great and good thing, he takes the three leaders back into the hall, everybody has an emotional moment of handshakes and deep looks in the eyes, and the whole event ends with the whole crowd singing "Deutschland, Deutschland ├╝ber alles," the so-called song of Germany. Hitler seems to have won.

On how the Beer Hall Putsch ended

As [Hitler] and 2,000 of his men marched through the center of Munich, they got a lot of cheers and support from the crowd, but as they emerged on the other side of downtown at the Odeon Square, they came up against a company of riflemen from the Bavarian state police who went into a kneeling and firing position and indeed fired on them. The putsch came to a very violent end. Hitler came within 24 inches, probably, of being shot dead. Sixteen people ... were killed as well as four of the Bavarian state police troops. That ended the putsch and Hitler went down with a very badly dislocated shoulder, but he escaped and was caught two days later at a friend's villa outside Munich.

On Hitler's trial for treason

The putsch had been a sensational event, even though Hitler had not been known nationally before then. ... So many reporters showed up [to the trial that] they had to have an overflow room. At one point there were supposedly 50 foreign journalists present. ...

[At the trial,] he tells his life story, for one thing, and he gives his political worldview, for another thing. And he opens right up in the first paragraph by saying, "I am an absolute, committed anti-Semite." He is baldfaced and clear about that and says that that's what he became during his years as a down-and-out worker in Vienna before World War I. But he's basically preaching his version of the salvation of Germany. He sees Germany as going to hell in a handbasket and suffering under the yoke of the Versailles Treaty, the French occupation and the very bad leadership [of the] ... governments in Berlin. ... The Hitler name was suddenly on the front pages all over the country and all sorts of people now knew about him.

On Hitler's time in prison

Initially he went into a deep, deep depression. He went into a hunger strike; he basically tried to commit suicide by starvation. ... It lasts eight or nine days until he's finally talked out of it. He was in pretty bad shape and they were about to give him forced feeding. ... That didn't happen because he ... gave up the hunger strike, but that was the starting point of this extraordinary comeback.

On why he wrote Mein Kampf

He had to write a book. He had to talk. This was a guy who was obsessed with his own sense of mission, his belief that he was a man of destiny who had to save Germany from itself. And since he didn't have beer hall podiums from which to speak and declaim and share with the world the urgently needed gospel that he had within him, he set it down in writing. He was able to get his hands on a small Remington portable typewriter, a brand new one, given to him by a rich friend, and started writing this book. Some people say he also did it for money, which I think is probably true, but in Hitler's case, there was an obvious need to get his message out, and that's why he wrote the book.

On the many "what ifs" of the Beer Hall Putsch story

What if Hitler had been struck by the bullet that hit the man next to him [during the putsch]? Or if his bodyguard had not protected him during the putsch? What if he had killed himself in the hunger strike, or in his suicide attempt just when he was being captured? What if he had gotten a serious trial with a serious sentence? And then finally, what if he had been deported [to Austria] as, in fact, the law stipulated?

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. On January 1, the copyright expired that had restricted publication of "Mein Kampf," Adolf Hitler's memoir and political manifesto. This has cleared the way for its publication in Germany for the first time since it was banned there after World War II. Our guest, journalist Peter Ross Range, has a new book that explores the year in Hitler's early career that produced "Mein Kampf" and transformed him from a regionally known right-wing activist into a national figure with a clear, if frightening, ideology and a plan to achieve power in Germany.

In late 1923, Hitler's failed attempt to overthrow the German government landed him in prison, facing charges of high treason. Range says the botched uprising that began at a Munich beer hall should have ended his career, but Hitler managed to turn his trial into a national showcase for his speaking ability and political ideas. And the brief prison term that followed gave him time to refine his thinking and write "Mein Kampf," which eventually sold over 12 million copies. Peter Ross Range has written for many publications, including TIME, The New York Times and U.S. News and World Report. He's also been a fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a guest scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies about his new book "1924: The Year That Made Hitler."

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Peter Ross Range, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, the events in this book are so remarkable, it's hard to imagine some of this stuff happening, and it makes more sense if you understand what was happening in Germany in 1923. We're talking about five years after the defeat that Germany faced. Give us a sense of what was happening in German society and German politics then.

PETER ROSS RANGE: Dave, 1923 was really the annus horribilis of the postwar era for Germany for the entire Weimar Republic. That's when they hit bottom, basically. At the beginning of that year, the French and Belgians invaded the rural region - the German industrial heartland - in retaliation for arrears in the German payment of reparations for World War I. Soon thereafter, there were strikes. There were reprisals by troops in the rural region, including executions. Hyperinflation set in as the German government printed money to cover the lost wages of the passive resistance in the rural region, eventually rising so far as up into the trillions of marks per dollar. Farmers wouldn't release their stores, even though they had good crops that year, because of the falling prices - falling literally by the hour. This led to hunger strikes and food riots, which in turn led to German police shooting at German people. So it was a horrible year, and the politics was correspondingly roiled and uncertain, with talk of putsches and rebellions in the air.

DAVIES: Right. There was an active right wing and a very active left wing. What was the level of political violence in the country?

ROSS RANGE: Well, it was rising, particularly between those two extremes that you mentioned. The communists had a foothold in Germany already. They were getting regularly about 10 percent of the vote. The social Democrats who had sprung from the same Marxist teachings 20, 30 years earlier, but with a totally democratic orientation, were the strongest party. They had a plurality of the votes. And then on the far right, you had the nationalist movement - the so-called volkisch movement - which included many, many parties, including one called the National Socialist Democratic Work - German Workers Party - the Nazis. And it was in this milieu that Hitler began agitating and simply became one of the best agitators because of his speaking ability. And they clashed often and had very bloody clashes with the communists.

DAVIES: You write about how Hitler quickly became recognized for his ability to stir a crowd with his oratory. How well known was he as a national figure then?

ROSS RANGE: Not very well known nationally. He was very well known in Bavaria and particularly in Munich, where most of the action was taking place on the nationalist right. He did not yet have a national name.

DAVIES: And give us a little bit of a sense of the program of the Nazi party and of Hitler's views at the time. Was he vehemently anti-Semitic? Did he advocate overthrow of the government or working to get representatives in parliament, for example?

ROSS RANGE: No, he was very anti-parliamentarian. He called democracy a joke. He was for the violent overthrow of the Weimar Republic government, which was the product of a revolution in 1918. The program that they put forth which they never followed very closely was actually a mix of far left things like taking property from big landowners and other far right programmatic items, like building up the military. The heart of Hitler's program was nationalism, restoring German pride, talking a lot about German greatness and getting out from under the yoke of the Versailles Treaty.

DAVIES: And was anti-Semitism a prominent part of their message?

ROSS RANGE: Absolutely, from the beginning. It became sort of the heart of Hitler's ideological worldview at an early stage. Even in 1919, he had already written a letter at the request of his army captain, explaining the various forms and degrees of anti-Semitism and why it was important to be anti-Semitic. Later in his trial, he claimed that he had become an anti-Semite much earlier - before World War I in Vienna. So it was at the heart of his personal thinking, as well as his political program.

DAVIES: And did the Nazi party have a military or paramilitary wing? Did they have street thugs? Did they engage in violence?

ROSS RANGE: Absolutely. These was the famous storm troopers - the infamous storm troopers. It must be said that the Nazis weren't the first to have their own sort of battle battalions. Because of the roiling political scene and because political events were often held in beer halls - most often held in beer halls - where it was very easy for people to have a few sips to many and start throwing their beer mugs, it was common for the communists and even the social Democrats to have their own so-called hall monitors. They always started off as hall monitors - guys who were supposed to keep order in the room during the event and keep out the hecklers. Well, these things grew into practically paramilitary organizations. And in the case of the Nazis, they did become a paramilitary called the stormtroopers - the sturmabteilung - the SA.

DAVIES: So in 1923, the political situation in Germany is roiling with conflict. Hitler decides it's time for a bold stroke to start a revolution which begins in Munich and then proceeds to Berlin. He walks into this beer hall where there are 3,000 people hearing speeches by some other leaders. What does he do? What happens?

ROSS RANGE: Well, he kidnaps those leaders. He takes them hostage on the spot, fires his pistol into the ceiling to get control of the room, has a platoon of storm troopers with him - including a machine gun team - takes those leaders into a side room and tells them they have the choice of joining him in his plot to march to Berlin and start a national revolution or to die with him. But the civilian head of the government says, it doesn't matter if you shoot me - living or dying doesn't matter. Hitler, on the other hand, threatens that if they don't cooperate with him, he has four bullets in his pistol. And - one for each of them and the last one for himself, at which point he holds the gun up to his head. Everybody is disgusted and horrified at what's going on, but finally he tells them that he is going to go back out into the beer hall and propose to the crowd what he's trying to get them to do, which is to become part of his new government for Germany. He goes back out, he makes a speech which, according to an eyewitness, turned the crowd inside-out like a glove. This was the best proof we've ever had, really, of Hitler's extraordinary speaking and persuasive powers in a mass situation. And indeed, the people, by the end of a very sort speech, were cheering and stomping and approving of his new plan. So after he has convinced the crowd that this is - this national revolution is a great and good thing, he takes the three leaders back into the hall. Everybody has an emotional moment of handshakes. And the whole event ends with the whole crowd singing "Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles." Hitler seems to have won.

DAVIES: But in the end he doesn't. I mean, the leaders eventually turn against him and the official government of Bavaria organizes to stop this attempted overthrow of the government. What does Hitler do?

ROSS RANGE: That's right, the putsch was poorly planned in some ways, and the military aspects that were supposed be happening in other parts of Munich succeeded less than halfway. And in the end, Hitler has no choice but to stage a march on the following day, the idea - his last-ditch idea being that if you can get the support of the people, maybe it will sway things back in his direction. He always reaches for the popular mood. And indeed, as he and 2,000 of his men marched through the center of Munich, they got a lot of cheers and support from the crowd. But as they emerged on the other side of downtown at the Odeon Square, they came up against a company of rifleman from the Bavarian state police who went into a kneeling-and-firing position and indeed fired on them. And the putsch came to a very violent end. Hitler came within 24 inches, probably, of being shot dead. Fifteen of his men and a bystander were killed, as well as four of the Bavarian state police troops. And that ended the putsch. And Hitler went down with a very badly dislocated shoulder, but he escaped and was caught two days later at a friend's villa outside Munich.

DAVIES: Peter Ross Range's book is "1924: The Year That Made Hitler." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Peter Ross Range. He's written a book about Hitler's early days. It's called "1924: The Year That Made Hitler."

So Hitler attempts an overthrow of the government. It goes badly - he is injured; others are killed. And he's arrested and sent to Landsberg prison. And it's this time in prison that, you argue in the book, really turned his career and his movement around. How did he react to being in jail initially?

ROSS RANGE: Initially, he went into a deep depression. He went into a hunger strike. He basically tried to commit suicide by starvation. He had mentioned suicide, by the way, three times during the putsch - the time that he held the pistol up to his head, the time that they were discovering it was failing, and then just before they made their final and disastrous march. He said, this will either work out or we'll all hang ourselves. He was constantly talking like that. So in the prison, he goes on a hunger strike. It lasts eight or nine days until he's finally talked out of it. He was in pretty bad shape. But that was the starting point of this extraordinary comeback that you mention, Dave.

DAVIES: He and his confederates are charged with high treason for attempting to overthrow the government. And it's the trial that really, it seems, turned things around for Hitler. Let's talk about that. To begin with, how much attention was the trial going to get? How much interest was there in this nationally and internationally?

ROSS RANGE: A great deal. The putsch had been a sensational event. Even though Hitler had not been known nationally before then, of course it made front-page headlines. In fact, it was a banner headline in The New York Times the next day in New York. An old infantry officers' training academy was converted into the courtroom. It had 120 seats, 60 of which were assigned to the press. At one point, there were supposedly 50 foreign journalists present. So the trial was bound to get a great deal of attention.

DAVIES: Now, you've made the point that this is happening in Bavaria, which is a conservative province and had a lot of people in the government who sympathized with right-wing extremists. How were Hitler and his fellow prisoners treated in jail and by the judge at the trial?

ROSS RANGE: Very good question, Dave. They were treated very well. Germany had a tradition of a thing called honorable imprisonment, which had stemmed from the 19th-century traditions of putting in jail people who committed such crimes as dueling or political crimes, which were considered crimes of honor as opposed to straightforward criminal crimes. People lived under much better conditions. The cells were more like dorm rooms. The prisoners didn't have to work, and they didn't have to wear prison clothes, and they got better food than the rest of the prison. So those were the conditions under which Hitler and his co-conspirators were living at Landsberg prison.

DAVIES: And the judge at the trial gave Hitler a lot of leeway, it seems.

ROSS RANGE: That's right. He already had a reputation case as a man of the right. He had given a very light sentence - or he had changed the sentence of a right-wing fanatic who had murdered the sitting prime minister of Bavaria in 1919 - reduced it to honorable prison even though he had been sentenced to death in the beginning.

DAVIES: This is a remarkable moment. This is Kurt Eisner, right, who was assassinated in 1919 and kind of a left-leaning official in Bavaria

ROSS RANGE: Exactly. More than left-leaning, he was a strong socialist.

DAVIES: And the judge, in explaining why he commuted the sentence, said what?

ROSS RANGE: He said that the man acted out of pure love for his country and his countrymen. And that gave him grounds to reduce the sentence - to make it easier.

DAVIES: And also noted that Mr. Eisner, the socialist, hadn't been doing so well at the polls.

ROSS RANGE: Yeah, sorry, you're right, exactly.

DAVIES: So Hitler makes - what is it? - a five-hour opening address at the trial?

ROSS RANGE: Nearly four hours - there's conflicting data on that, but I'm going with the nearly four hours version.

DAVIES: What does he say?

ROSS RANGE: (Laughter) Well, he tells his life story for one thing. And he gives his political worldview for another thing. And he opens right up in the first paragraph by saying, I am an absolute, committed anti-Semite. He is bald-faced and clear about that and says that's what he became during his years as a down-and-out worker in Vienna before World War I. But he is basically preaching his version of the salvation of Germany. He sees Germany as going to hell in a handbasket and suffering under the yoke of the Versailles Treaty, the French occupation and the very bad leadership, he thinks, of the socialist-dominated governments in Berlin - the social democratic- dominated governments in Berlin.

DAVIES: So did the extensive coverage of this, as well as the coverage of the attempted overthrow itself, transform Hitler from a regional figure to a politician of national significance?

ROSS RANGE: Yes. One example that I cited in the book is the example of a young man who was 4 or 500 miles away in a northwestern German city in the Ruhr region who was reading about the trial every day, not having heretofore really heard about this guy. And by the end of the trial, he was converted into a committed Nazi. His names was Joseph Goebbels. And likewise, the Hitler name was suddenly on front pages all over the country, and all sorts of people now knew about him.

DAVIES: So the judge, who was very deferential to Hitler throughout the course of the trial, indeed finds him guilty of high treason. But what punishment does he impose?

ROSS RANGE: Well, he could have given him life or anything between life and the minimum, which was five years, and he chose the minimum. In point of fact, he had a hard time getting that sentence. There was a five-judge panel - three lay judges and two professional judges. It was a special arrangement under a thing called the People's Courts, which had been established after World War I in Bavaria. And he needed four votes to convict, and the lay judges - just average citizens, in theory, off the streets, jurors, in effect - were so taken with Hitler that they didn't want to convict him of anything. They wanted to let him go free. Judge Neithardt, the chief judge, knew he had to get something, so he went for the five-year minimum, but could get the four votes he needed only by agreeing that he would proffer a six-month parole deadline for Hitler if he maintained good behavior.

DAVIES: So Hitler could be out of jail in six months

ROSS RANGE: Exactly.

DAVIES: This is after leading an uprising that resulted in the deaths of four policemen.

ROSS RANGE: Those deaths were never mentioned in the trial, which is one of the scandals of the trial. I should say that this was certainly historically, in retrospect, but also even at the time, regarded in many circles as a scandal, this trial - the way it was conducted and the way it ended. Those forces, however, were not sufficient to do anything about it. So he was able to get this very lenient sentence for Hitler and the other defendants. And, in fact, Hitler was a little worried about whether he would get out in six months.

DAVIES: You also note that because Hitler was born not in Germany but in Austria, he might have been deported as part of a sentence for a serious crime like this.

ROSS RANGE: Yes, and you know, that's one of the many what-ifs in the Hitler story. There so many. What if Hitler had been struck by the bullet that hit the man next to him, or if his bodyguard had not protected him during the putsch? What if he had killed himself in the hunger strike, or in his suicide attempt just when he was being captured? What if he had gotten a serious trial with a serious sentence? And then finally, what if he had been deported, as in fact the law stipulated? It was quite clear in the 1922 law for the protection of the republic that any foreigner who committed these acts was to be deported regardless of whatever other punishment he might receive. Hitler, in fact, pleaded against the enforcement of this paragraph in his final statement before the court. And the judge in his sentence spoke to that point and said that because Hitler considered himself a true German and had served for five years in the German army - not the Austrian army - during World War II - World War I, he deserved to be treated as a German and would not be deported. But as you point out, Dave, during his time in prison, this was probably Hitler's single greatest worry - that he might still be deported. And he knew, and he was right, that that could've ended his career.

DAVIES: So this trial was a huge victory for him, wasn't it?

ROSS RANGE: It was, and it was a confidence builder for two reasons. One, he jsf kind of beaten the system, as we're showing here. But furthermore, it had given him his self-confidence back as a speaker, as a politician. The court room served as his beer hall for month. And he could stand up and declaim and run over people and interrupt people and show that he had an extraordinary speaking gift, which he really did have. So he came out of that trial being put into a paddy wagon, driven back 38 miles west of Munich to the Landsberg prison and put back in his cell - all of that was a triumph. And it set the stage for what followed.

DAVIES: Nine years later, he was Chancellor of Germany.

ROSS RANGE: Exactly.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Peter Ross Range, author of the new book "1924: The Year That Made Hitler." After a short break, we'll the talk about how Hitler wrote "Mein Kampf" in prison. And David Edelstein will review the new film about Benghazi, "13 Hours." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with journalist Peter Ross Range about his new book "1924: The Year That Made Hitler." It was the year after Hitler's failed attempt to overthrow the government.

DAVIES: So after Hitler was tried for high treason for this attempted overthrow of the government, he has - what? - another nine months or so in prison before he's going to get out and resume his political career. And it is in this period, at this prison where he really has pretty comfortable surroundings, that he writes "Mein Kampf," his story. And this is interesting. You know, Hitler was not, you know, a terribly educated man. Why did he want to write a book?

ROSS RANGE: Ah, yes, that is one of the big questions. But it's actually, I think, fairly easy to answer. He had to write a book; he had to talk. This was a guy who was obsessed with his own sense of mission - his belief that he was a man of destiny who had to save Germany from itself - and since he didn't have beer hall podiums from which to speak and declaim and share with the world the urgently-needed gospel that he had within him, he set it down in writing. He was able to get his hands on a small Remington portable typewriter - a brand-new one, given to him by a rich friend - and he started writing this book. Some people say he also did it for money, which I think is probably true. But in Hitler's case, there was an obvious need to get his message out. And that's why he wrote the book.

DAVIES: You write that his four months at a typewriter were his 40 days in the wilderness, referring to the Jesus story. What do you mean?

ROSS RANGE: Well, the thing about - Hitler said, had I not gone to Landsberg prison, I never would've written "Mein Kampf." And that's true. This was a kind of exile. He was lifted out of the hurly-burly of daily politics. He had time on his hands. He had time to reflect. He walked every day in the prison garden, talking with his fellow inmates. He made little speeches at dinnertime as well. But he had time to put all these thoughts into some kind of organized form, and to hone things down in some ways, although he ended up with almost 800 pages by the time he wrote a second volume after prison. In any case, it seems clear that Hitler went into a period of reflection. And he also went into a period of building his own will - his will power and his self-confidence, or self-belief, as some historians call it. And he came out of it in many ways a new man, and that's why it felt to me like an appropriate analogy.

DAVIES: So he clarified his thinking. I mean, he came out of prison and out of writing this book with a more crystallized set of views.

ROSS RANGE: Yes. One of the questions that was asked of him towards the end of this writing period by a visitor - a Nazi from Czechoslovakia - was how has being in prison, writing a book, changed you? Has it changed your view, for instance, of dealing with the Jews? This guy wanted guidance. The party was falling apart in disarray. So how had Hitler's views been affected by writing a book? And Hitler said, oh yes, it has changed them - I've discovered that I've been much too mild so far, and in the future I'll be using much harsher measures.

DAVIES: Much too mild an anti-Semite.

ROSS RANGE: Exactly.

DAVIES: Well, let's talk about some of the ideas that are in the book that emerge from this period of his own reflection. And one of them has to do with his theories about race and their effect on history. So what does he say in the book about this?

ROSS RANGE: Basically, he sees the world and world history as the struggle among races. And he divides the world into three basic groups. There's the culture-creating races - that would be the Aryans, of whom the Germans are the prime example - culture-bearing races, like the Japanese, who don't create anything but don't destroy anything, and then the Jews, whom he thinks are the great destroyers of everything and who have no proper home of their own, and sort of the wandering tribe living as parasites on other host nations.

DAVIES: They're the culture-destroying race.

ROSS RANGE: They are the culture-destroying race.

DAVIES: You know, I think you tell us that he says at some point that he came to his anti-Semitism not as some, you know, crude prejudice but after a lot of thinking and soul-searching - you know, that it was really the result of an intellectual consideration of the facts of history. What does he mean and what do you make of it?>>ROSS RANGE: Well, that was partly his version of events. You have to remember that his life story, especially as told in "Mein Kampf," was like a pre-campaign biography - the kind that we see even today - which of course is designed to make him look good. And Hitler wanted to make it look like he came to his anti-Semitism honestly, by his experiences as a young man in Vienna where he discovered, for instance, Jews from the east who he felt were a drain on society and the cause of many of the problems in Vienna. It's been later shown by many historians that maybe he didn't even decide he was an anti-Semite until much later - after World War I. Certainly he didn't put it into practice until after World War I. But then he made it the center of everything. As one historian said to me, he found a good horse to ride, and that was quite true because anti-Semitism was already a common theme among many political parties. And he simply rode it to a higher level.

DAVIES: So is it as much the issue a demagogue seizes as a personal commitment? Hard to see it that way, given subsequent events.

ROSS RANGE: Well, exactly. No, his hatred for Jews certainly whether it started viscerally or started intellectually, certainly became the real thing. There's no question about that. It became the center of his life along with the second obsession, which was to create living space for Germans in the east.

DAVIES: Does he talk about a final solution for Jews in "Mein Kampf"?

ROSS RANGE: No. There's one line which is often seized upon that was written near the end of the second volume in which he says that if 12 or 15,000 Hebrew corrupters of the people had been held under gas at the beginning of World War I, it would've saved the lives of 1 million worthwhile and orderly Germans. That he might have conceived of some modern gas-based method of mass murder is not considered plausible by most students of the era. That he wanted to remove Jews from Germany, yes - that was already stated in 1919 in his original letter on anti-Semitism.

DAVIES: Another idea that he explores in "Mein Kampf" is the imperative of German territorial expansion. Tell us about that.

ROSS RANGE: Right, from the beginning Hitler had this theory that Germany could not live in the space that it had. It couldn't support a growing population. And this was - this thinking took place in the context of the colonial era, where Britain and France especially had huge colonial possessions overseas, and their economies depended heavily on this. And he - Germany had come late to the great game of colonialism, had not done well, had gotten in trouble with it, and Hitler criticized this in previous leadership of the country and said they shouldn't be thinking about overseas colonies. They should be thinking about continental colonization, he called it. And that meant only in one direction, to the east, which was a historical thing. Germans since the Teutonic movements 600 years earlier had been migrating east. So he wanted - and he claimed that western Russia from the Urals to the western border of Russia was underpopulated. Germany, he said, was overpopulated and growing by 900,000 people per year - which is an exaggerated number, but it is true that they had population growth - and that the country could not support itself by simply increasing its productivity technologically. It had to have more land. And he had this grand vision of a great colonial empire on Russian soil with modern German farming methods and new cities and great autobahn roads connecting them. That was Hitler's grand vision, and this was all called living space, or Lebensraum. Even though he came late to that word, once he came to it, he loved it and started using it. And this happened while he was in Landsberg prison.

DAVIES: So when the war began and he attacked France and then Britain while making an alliance with Stalin who was the head of the Soviet Union - if we are to believe the precepts presented in "Mein Kampf," the plan all along was to invade Russia.

ROSS RANGE: Yes. He even at one point in "Mein Kampf" - and we're talking, you know, many years, 15 years before the war - talked about Rucken decken, which means covering your back or covering your flank. He saw the war in the west as just a way of neutralizing France and other troublemakers, as he saw it, on his western flank so that he could do what it was really all about, which was take land in the east. And the pact with Stalin was a neutralizing move - a temporary move to keep Stalin neutral while he took Poland.

DAVIES: Peter Ross Range's book is "1924: The Year That Made Hitler." We'll continue our discussion in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Peter Ross Range. He's looked at Hitler's early career. His book is called "1924: The Year That Made Hitler." You know, you've written about what a compelling speaker Hitler was - how he could turn around a crowd of 3,000 in a beer hall who opposed him, just by the force of his oratory. As you read "Mein Kampf," does that come through? Is it a compelling read?

ROSS RANGE: That's a good question. No, you don't feel like you're sitting in a beer hall, listening to Hitler. "Mein Kampf" is not hard to read, either in English or in German, but it's scattered, it's repetitive, and it's often unconvincing. He makes no attempt to put his declarative statements into any kind of context that you can go along with and find the argument building. He doesn't actually make arguments. He just makes statements.

So - and yet, at the same time, it's easy to read, occasionally persuasive, and occasionally, he seems to have good insights. I mean, he understood very early, for example, that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was going to be swept away. I mean, he's talking about that in retrospect in the memoir part of his book. But it is not the same thing, I think, as having sat in beer hall and heard Hitler speak and whip up a crowd, although, I should say, in "Mein Kampf," he explains how he does that. He talks about the importance of feeling the emotional reaction of the crowd in the words that you choose and adapting your speech as you go along. These are what we would consider standard political skills today, but it was fairly unique at that time, where people would - most people would get up and read a - read a very stiff speech and behave in a very stiff way. Hitler was interacting viscerally with the crowd. One of his pieces of advice in this section of the book is to make sure you only have one enemy. And that enemy almost always for him was the Jews, but what he wanted - and then his second piece of advice is if you have two enemies, make sure you portray them as one. And the way Hitler did that was to always refer to the Marxists as Jewish Marxists and always refer to the - whenever possible, he would denounce Jews as being Bolsheviks. So he had kind of reduced all of the evil in the world to one great, big bugaboo - Jewish Bolshevism.

DAVIES: He finished one volume before he left Landsberg Prison, eventually added a second volume, and by 1945, I believe 12 million copies had been sold. Was it read in Germany, or was it something that people just, you know, bought as a status symbol or as a measure of your commitment to the Nazi cause?

ROSS RANGE: The latest research indicates that it was read. Now, it wasn't read a lot in the beginning. The first printing was 10,000 books, and it took two years for that printing to sell out. And the second volume then appeared, and 9,000 books were printed, and it took quite a while for that to sell out. Over the next six or seven years, the book sold about 250,000 copies. And then Hitler came to power, and it sold more than a million copies in one year and went on, as you said, to 12 million before he died. The research shows, for example - the later research in recent years - that the public libraries - their lending statistics were analyzed by a scholar. And it was shown that the book was borrowed fairly heavily. Their lending statistics were analyzed by a scholar, and it was shown that the book was borrowed fairly heavily. And various other things have been done to discover whether it seemed to be more of a gift item or a prestige item or in fact was being read. And the conclusion is it was being read a lot more than it used to be. There was a myth for many years - decades - that "Mein Kampf" was the world's biggest unread bestseller. That myth has been pretty well destroyed now.

DAVIES: After Germany was defeated in World War II and Hitler committed suicide - well, explain what happened to the publishing rights to "Mein Kampf."

ROSS RANGE: The Americans were the occupying force in South Germany, in Bavaria. They immediately took possession of the Eher Verlag - the Eher publishing house, which was in effect a part of the Nazi party by the end, which owned the rights to "Mein Kampf" and Hitler's writings and work. And then after about six months, as the occupying powers began rebuilding Germany, those rights were passed to the new Bavarian government. The Bavarian government considered "Mein Kampf" an extremely radioactive thing, as everybody else did at the time, and wouldn't even think of printing or publishing the book. It was to be suppressed, and this went on for 70 years.

In the meantime, as early as 1959, at least one German leader - the president - first postwar present of Germany, Theodor Heuss, recommended that "Mein Kampf" be taught in the schools, that it be printed and republished so that people could see the origins of evil. But the German political establishment decided this was not a good idea, both officially and unofficially. Officially, it was only the Bavarian government that had the decision to make. In any case, those rights were scheduled to run out on the last day of 2015.

DAVIES: "Mein Kampf" has not been published in Germany since the war. It's been up to the Bavarian government to make that decision, and it's decided not to. The copyright has now expired, and anyone can publish it. The Munich Institute for Contemporary History has been working on and is now prepared an annotated edition of "Mein Kampf." Do you want to explain what that is - what they're up to?

ROSS RANGE: Think, Dave, of the Talmud. I make this comparison because it was made to me by a scholar in Israel. The new "Mein Kampf" published the institute in Munich in almost 2,000 pages long. It has 3,500 footnotes. The footnotes are streamed around the text - around Hitler's 782-page text - throughout this book. So that it looks indeed like an annotated Bible. It's an attempt to break down "Mein Kampf" sentence by sentence - almost word by word - and explain it historically, philosophically, show the contradictions, show the lies and show the truths, as well, and try to decipher where Hitler got some of his wild ideas because he didn't tell us anything. He left no footnotes. He made almost no attributions. He simply wrote, as I said before, in declarative sentences. So they've now published this book as a research document - they're only printing 4,000 at first - for academics, for teachers, for journalists, in order to make it easier for the topic of "Mein Kampf" to be taught in the schools, but also to defang and defuse what is considered a very incendiary and evil text. And they did this for two reasons. One is research and education, as I said, but the other was to steal a march on anybody in Germany who might want to publish it purely for commercial purposes or sensationalism or for political purposes, like a neo-Nazi group.

DAVIES: Some Holocaust survivors have objected to this, you know, saying it's going to stir racial hatred. What's your view?

ROSS RANGE: Well, my personal view is that it should be published, that it's a good thing for this to be brought out of the closet, into the light of day, that the goal of educating and inoculating future generations in Germany against Hitler and "Mein Kampf" is much better served by having it out there. I would argue that even if it were not annotated with 3,500 footnotes, but especially in this case, I think it should be out there. And I interviewed quite a few scholars - Jewish and non-Jewish - in Israel, in Germany, in the United States, and 95 percent of them favored the publication of the book.

DAVIES: Well, Peter Ross Range, it's been interesting. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

ROSS RANGE: Thank you, Dave.

GROSS: Peter Ross Range is the author of the new book "24 Hours: The Year" - I'm sorry. The book is called "1924: The Year That Made Hitler." And Range spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies, who's also WHYY's senior reporter. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews Michael Bay's new film about Benghazi. It's called "13 Hours." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.