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Hitler's Turncoat Tutor

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Benjamin Ziemann examines the enigma of Karl Mayr, the reclusive army officer who nurtured Adolf Hitler’s early political career and participated in the Kapp Putsch of 1920, only to join the Reichsbanner,  the million-strong social democrat group devoted to defending the Weimar Republic.

Karl Mayr in uniform seen to the left of Minister of Defence Gustav Norske at the entrance to Munich's Hotel Continental, August 1919. AKG ImagesKarl Mayr has often been described as Hitler’s political midwife and rightly so. As head of the intelligence and propaganda department in the Bavarian Reichswehr group command, Mayr organised political instruction courses in June 1919. One of the participants was a certain lance-corporal Adolf Hitler. Alerted to his rhetorical talent, Mayr recruited him to conduct further propaganda work and to act as an insider and informer. In that capacity in September 1919 Mayr ordered Hitler to attend a meeting of the German Worker’s Party (DAP) and report on one of the many right-wing nationalist groups in post-revolutionary Munich. Throughout the following months Mayr was in almost daily contact with his employee, following and supporting his every move. For his part, Hitler was rapidly finding his political voice and developing an increasing role within the party. When he announced the new manifesto of the renamed NSDAP in February 1920 he was still on the payroll of the Reichswehr as Mayr’s subordinate. Without Mayr’s nurturing Hitler might perhaps never have turned to politics. For Mayr, on the other hand, the systematic support of völkisch, anti-republican groups in 1919 and 1920 proved to be only a short-lived episode in his own political trajectory.

Who was this puppet master Mayr, the reclusive army officer, whose secretive string-pulling attracted suspicion from even his closest political friends? Why did he abandon the nascent Nazi Party and turn instead to social democracy and how sincere was his conversion? Exploring these questions reveals a turbulent life that ended in tragedy. Yet Mayr’s activism, seen in the context of a mass organisation of devoted republicans, helps to challenge a historiographical stereotype that Weimar democracy lacked substantial support.

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