June 06, 2017

A pivotal moment in history

By David King
Review by

If Georg Neithardt had actually done his job in 1924, would the Nazis have come to power a decade later?

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If Georg Neithardt had actually done his job in 1924, would the Nazis have come to power a decade later?

Neithardt was the dignified presiding judge who could have relegated Adolf Hitler to the dustbin of history when he and his fellow jurists convicted and sentenced Hitler in the treason trial that followed the Nazis' failed Beer Hall Putsch in Munich. Instead, Neithardt treated Hitler with the same patient leniency that one might accord a star quarterback caught jaywalking.

Far from stopping Hitler, the trial elevated his stature enormously. Author David King’s The Trial of Adolf Hitler is the first book-length account in English of how this happened, a powerful work that underlines what a pivot point the trial was—and how badly it went awry.

The international press dismissed the unsuccessful putsch of Nov. 8-9, 1923, as risible because it started in a beer hall. But the first exciting section of King’s account makes clear that it could very easily have led to civil war, if only Hitler hadn’t been too impetuous to wait for his allies in the Bavarian security forces to solidify their plans.

Neithardt wasn’t so much interested in helping Hitler as he was in protecting the senior Bavarian officials who had been trying to use Hitler’s followers in their own plot to overthrow the Weimar government in Berlin. The judges concealed the evidence of collusion and allowed Hitler to make bombastic, widely reported courtroom speeches, for fear that he might otherwise spill the beans. Then they sentenced him to a country-club prison, where he served less than six months.

Hitler was still an Austrian citizen then, and Neithardt was supposed to order him deported after his sentence. It never happened. The judge had a lot to answer for by the time he retired in 1937. Chancellor Hitler sent him a kind note, thanking him for his service.

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