An Irish historian’s new theory of Nazism. ‘The idea makes people nervous’

UCD’s Mark Jones has found himself at the centre of a debate over his book, 1923

Every few years in Germany the toxic legacy of Adolf Hitler and his fascist regime are perused once more in heated debates between historians – so-called Historikerstreit. Usually inward-looking affairs, what makes the latest such row interesting is the Irishman at its centre: UCD historian Mark Jones.

On the evening of January 1st last, in something of a master-stroke of timing and marketing, the Dubliner appeared on German evening television news, strolling through the Brandenburg Gate to be interviewed about his new book, 1923: The Forgotten Crisis in the Year of Hitler’s Coup.

This was when the first serious cracks appeared in the Weimar Republic, the first attempt at democracy that arose from the ashes of the 1918 war defeat. For Germans 1923 is a fateful year but they are not used to hearing a new take – from an Irishman.

“There is a simple story everyone knows of bad Nazis destroying the Weimar Republic,” says Dr Jones, a 42-year-old assistant professor of history in Belfield. “But when you look at it in more detail it gets more complex because it goes against the ‘German-as-aggressor’ narrative of today. And many Germans don’t know what to do with this because it doesn’t fit into the boxes they want it to fit into.”


So what is so interesting about the year 1923? And why does he think the Germans – in particular his historian colleagues – have it wrong?

The violent prologue came in June 1922 with the assassination in broad daylight of Walther Rathenau, the industrialist turned liberal foreign minister. The two assassins were not Nazi thugs but, as Jones points out, “young men from respectable families” who had been radicalised by Germany’s defeat in the first World War. They were members of a right-wing nationalist terror network, Organisation Consul, which saw in Rathenau, as a German Jew, the perfect target in its campaign to destabilise what they viewed as a puppet democracy controlled by international – read Jewish – capital.

Though the Rathenau killing rocked Germany, an old boy’s network in its police and judiciary ensured that subsequent trials for conspirators ended with light sentences, sending a clear signal to Weimar’s enemies: democracy and its representatives were fair game.

For many Germans, the main focus of 1923 has always been November 8th-9th, when Hitler co-opted a Munich beer hall gathering to launch a 20-hour failed putsch.

Hitler in 1923 tapped into what most Germans saw as the vindictive Versailles war reparations agreement and its unsustainable drag on the German currency. That such resentment was running at an all-time high in November 1923, argues Jones, is because the French had marched in to occupy Germany’s western industrial Ruhr region nine months earlier, ostensibly to extract by force coal and other outstanding reparations payments.

This drastic move triggered a fateful train of events: passive resistance and bloody confrontations in the region, a chaotic Rhineland separatist push, a failed political response from Berlin – as well as the mass rape of women by French soldiers. At least 70 cases are documented, though most German historians prefer to either avoid this awkward historical fact or play it down, says Jones.

“The idea of Germans in the victim role makes people nervous, as does the idea that France treated Germany in 1923 the way an empire treats a colony – simply because that was the mentality French leaders had back then.”

Similarly taboo among German historians, he says, is to acknowledge how the popular surge in nationalist feeling in 1923 saw most mainstream German politicians on the same page – for a time at least – as agitators like Hitler.

Modern Germany – and its historians – shun all shows of nationalist fervour, thanks to the Nazis, but Jones says that has left them blind to nationalism’s mainstream – even unifying – legitimacy a century ago.

“People seem to fear that even mentioning these things might be dangerous and awaken sleeping ghosts today. But you cannot explain how nationalism ran its course in Germany without thinking about what happened to Germans at the time and how they felt about it. Our job as historians is to explain things and make people feel uncomfortable.”

Another taboo he challenges surrounds the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Germany’s oldest active political party, which – rightly – sees itself as a primary victim of the Nazis. The party was banned after the Hitler takeover in 1933 and, of 96 persecuted Reichstag MPs honoured in a memorial before the Berlin parliament building today, nearly half were SPD politicians.

[Germans] think they are the world champions in coming to terms with the past and that their model doesn’t have to evolve. But their approach to its history is stale, lead by people doing nothing innovative

But as Jones points out in his rigorous yet readable book, the Nazis built on a culture of political violence established by the SPD in the founding year of the Weimar Republic.

The party of future leader Olaf Scholz had a hand in more political killings on taking office in 1919, Jones argues, than the Nazis in 1933. But because this uncomfortable truth doesn’t compute with Germany’s “the left as victims of fascism” narrative, he says, people prefer to ignore it.

Similarly Jones’ book points out how much of Hitler’s growth in political support lay in borrowing others’ ideas – Mussolini’s fascist march on Rome, or synthesising and repackaging racial hatred and anti-Semitism that were widespread in 1920s Germany and beyond.

Even in 1920s Bavaria, Hitler was just one loudmouth in a crowded market. Take Gustav von Kahr, a senior Bavarian official, who ordered the expulsion of Jews from the southern German state. Or Andrea Ellendt, a war widow and travelling agitator in Bavaria whose rants – “the Jewish star must perish” – were accompanied by her own gang of stormtroopers who, with clubs and brass knuckles, roamed the streets of every town they visited chanting “Jews out, string them up!”

That Germany’s four-year-old democracy survived such rabble-rousing and political attacks in 1923 is, for Jones, a remarkable achievement. The later complacency of mainstream politicians towards their democracy, he thinks, made a significant contribution to Weimar’s eventual death a decade later alongside anti-democratic extremism.

Some German historians have sniffed at Jones’ arguments; others have mixed personal slights – referring to him in reviews as a “British historian” – with sweeping attacks on his book as a “total failure”. Other reviews have been positive and sales of 20,000 and counting – along with regular invitations to speak, most recently at the Hay Festival in Wales – tell a different story.

I used to think comparing Trump with Hitler was a bit far-fetched... but, like Hitler after 1923, every time Trump fails and his ego is burst, his statements get darker

For Jones, being at the centre of a Historikerstreit has been an interesting, if sobering, experience. A regular research visitor to the country, and married to a German, he worries that Germany’s memory culture and historical research has been “frozen in time and space since the 1990s”.

“When I point out in Germany that Ireland has had a good, by no means perfect, decade of remembrance, the Germans are not interested,” he said. “They think they are the world champions in coming to terms with the past and that their model doesn’t have to evolve. But their approach to its history is stale, lead by people doing nothing innovative.”

The risk of historical complacency is worrying, Jones argues, given the rise of populist, conspiratorial thinking across the western world – often using the 1923 playbook of racist agitation, scapegoating and fear of the other.

“I used to think comparing Trump with Hitler was a bit far-fetched,” he said, “but, like Hitler after 1923, every time Trump fails and his ego is burst, his statements get darker.”

Looking on at our own recent anti-immigrant protests, Jones suggests Ireland is no longer immune to the extreme forces at play in Europe.

“We know how liberal democracy ends from Germany but, because we don’t talk clearly about how it happened, we are not able to see how it is happening in the same way now,” he says.

After years of professional caution towards the comparing of historical eras, Jones says his close study of 1923 in Germany has made him more wary of modern Ireland’s future: “2023 was the breakthrough year for the far-right in Ireland, particularly in setting the agenda.

“German history shows it is not enough to say you are opposed to something, you have to actively oppose it or else you wake up with an extremist party with 15 per cent support.”

1923: The Forgotten Crisis in the Year of Hitler’s Coup by Mark Jones is published by Basic Books/Hachette

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin