Early in his political career, long before he became the all-powerful ruler of the Third Reich who was the target of assassination plots, Adolf Hitler narrowly escaped death. On 9 November 1923, when he and General Ludendorff led their followers in the final act of the Munich Beer Hall Putsch, they were met by a hail of machine-gun fire from the police. One of the bullets struck down Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter, a close confidant of the Nazi leader; the two men had been marching arm-in-arm, and a slight difference in the trajectory of that bullet would have changed the course of history.
That was pure chance, but what happened the next day was something else. It is impossible to know whether Hitler was really about to shoot himself when he picked up his revolver in Helen Hanfstaengl’s house as the police were arriving to arrest him. But by grabbing the gun away from him and berating him for even thinking of such a thing, the American wife of Hitler’s propagandist Putzi Hanfstaengl may have played as pivotal a role as chance had the day before. If so, this was a clear case of the wrong person appearing at the wrong time.
All of which raises the biggest “what if” question of history: without Hitler, what would have happened to Germany after World War I? The Americans who lived through the collapse of the Weimar Republic, Hitler’s rise to power, and the Nazi era did not explicitly address that question, which can never have a definitive answer. But the common thread that runs though so many of the Americans’ accounts is their fascination with Hitler. Their experiences and observations strongly suggest that, without Hitler, the Nazis never would have succeeded in their drive for absolute power. The country still might have embarked on an authoritarian course, possibly a military dictatorship. But whatever might have emerged would not have been on the terrifying scale of the Third Reich, with all its terrifying consequences.
Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power