The distinguished white-haired gentlemen who came to the cafeteria about once a week was very old. He wore a dark gray suit and walked with a cane assisted by what I took to be his chauffeur. As my table was closest to the entrance he came there first. He politely asked in German-accented English with a Prussian’s aristocratic bearing if he could share my table. I nodded my assent and he slowly lowered himself into the chair. As old as he was I noticed his blue eyes were alert with curiosity. We exchanged some pleasantries. I did not recognize him at first, but when he introduced himself, I recognized his name. His name was Arnold Brecht. He was 91 years-old, and was, in fact, a Prussian, a long-retired professor emeritus. I was 24 years old.
We sat in the cafeteria of the old Graduate Faculty for Political and Social Science of the New School for Social Research building that occupied the block on Fifth Avenue between 13th and 14th street in Manhattan. The Graduate Faculty, founded in 1933 as a University-in-Exile after the Nazi takeover of Germany, was housed in a squat Bauhaus-type building now replaced with a new structure.
Arnold Brecht was one of the original University-in-Exile professors, scholars from Hitler’s Europe who found refuge in the 1930s in American universities. I talked with Professor Brecht many times through 1975 and 1976, always in the cafeteria (he died in September 1977 while visiting West Germany at a time that I, coincidentally, was on a train traveling through East Germany).
At the time all I knew about Prof. Brecht was that he was a retired political science professor and one of the “originals,” that is, one of the New School’s original refugee professors who arrived in 1933 after Hitler came to power in Germany. However, someone told me about Brecht’s role in shutting down an attempted overthrow of the Weimar Republic and his encounters with Hitler. For a New School student at the time it was the equivalent of being able to sit and chat with Bilbo Baggins about his travels. It was extraordinary. I sat with a man who was a portal to History itself.
To have met Hitler or even to have met someone who met him is exceedingly rare. I didn’t know that was the case at the time, but I have met two people who had met Hitler. I was in my twenties when I met them and for years I never fully understood how extraordinary this was.
On March 13, 1920 Wolfgang Kapp, a Prussian civil servant and Walther von Lüttwitz, a German general, led an attempted coup aimed at undoing the German Revolution of 1918-19 and overthrowing the Weimar Republic. The coup attempt, called the Kapp Putsch, hoped to establish a right-wing autocratic government in its place and was supported by conservative, nationalist, and monarchist elements of the Reichswehr (military) and other factions. Brecht played an instrumental role in stopping it in its tracks.
Appointed as a delegate from Prussia to the federal Reichsrat, Brecht participated in the eventually unsuccessful efforts to reorganize the German constitution. The Reichsrat was like the British House of Lords. In February 1921 the Chancellor sent Brecht on a fact-finding mission to Munich to find out something about the leader of a small group as yet unknown to the wider public, Adolf Hitler. Although Brecht didn’t use these words with me, he clearly felt Hitler was just a punk. The Hitler Brecht visited in 1921 was a little man, a rioter, a rabble-rouser, and mob orator. Brecht was interested in knowing more about this Hitler group because unlike other Bavarian groups at the time, Hitler condemned Bavarian particularism and called for strong German unity which was an idea that could appeal to all Germans.
Brecht went to the Sterneckerbräu, a Munich beer hall first built as a brewery in 1570, and there in a small dark room at the rear, four men were sitting around a table, putting leaflets into envelopes. One was Hitler. “I cannot claim to have recognized his future significance,” Brecht said. A mere eleven years later the Nazis were on the verge of taking power.
On January 30, 1933 Hitler was appointed Chancellor. However, Hitler still did not have absolute power, only the power given to the Chancellor by the Weimar Republic. Most of his cabinet, in fact, were Conservatives not Nazis. And there was still Hindenburg whose constitutional power as president was superior to that of the Chancellor. On the third day of his appointment as Chancellor, February 2, 1933, Hitler presented himself to the Reichsrat. The Reichsrat was one of two legislative bodies in the Weimar Republic, the other being the Reichstag whose representatives were popularly elected.
When they reached the Chancellor’s seat, Hitler was also introduced to Arnold Brecht because his place was next to him. As Brecht related “Hitler held my hand firmly for a considerable time and looked fixedly without saying a word. This gesture lasted for so long that it attracted general attention and gradually became embarrassing. His glance seemed to pose a question ‘Can’t something be done with you?’
After Hitler’s address to the body, Brecht as the delegate of the largest Land in Germany, Prussia, responded for the Reichsrat. In his address to the Reichsrat Hitler made references to tradition and legality and Brecht warned Hitler not to subvert the constitution. Hitler was furious and said nothing and left the hall. This was likely the last free speech given in Germany. Within months political parties were banned and the Nazis had total control. Brecht was arrested by the Gestapo in April 1933 but was soon released through the intervention of non-Nazi ministers. In November 1933, there was a real danger to his life and he quickly left Germany for the New School for Social Research where, some 45 years later I met him.