Letter of Hitler’s First Anti-Semitic Writing May Be the Original
By JACK EWING
FRANKFURT — In 1919, a soldier in Munich discovered that he could galvanize small groups of fellow trench warfare veterans with virulently anti-Semitic oratory. A superior officer, impressed with the soldier’s oral skills, asked him to commit his ideas to paper.
Thus came into existence the first written record of Adolf Hitler’s obsessive hostility toward Jews, an embryonic form of the worldview that would later lead to the Holocaust and millions of deaths.
Now, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles has acquired what it believes may be the original version of the document, known as the Gemlich letter. In July, the center plans to put it on public view for the first time, at its Museum of Tolerance, making the letter the centerpiece of its Holocaust exhibit.
The text of the letter is well known to scholars. It is considered significant because it demonstrates just how early in his career Hitler was formulating his anti-Semitic views.
“It is his first written statement about the Jews,” said the historian Saul Friedlander, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his study of the Holocaust. “It shows that this was the very core of his political passion.”
The version of the letter best known to scholars is in an archive in Munich, and news that another copy had made its way to Los Angeles met with some skepticism among historians. The market for Hitler memorabilia is notorious for forgeries.
“It has to have very good provenance,” said Klaus Lankheit, deputy director of the archive at the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich. “From my experience, I would be very skeptical.”
But Othmar Plöckinger, an expert on early Hitler documents, says it appears that the document acquired by the Wiesenthal Center is the original letter written by Hitler and that the one in Munich is a copy made about the same time. “There are a lot of points that make me believe it could be the original,” Mr. Plöckinger said of the Wiesenthal Center’s document.
This week, Mr. Plöckinger compared a copy of the document acquired by the center with the version of the Gemlich letter at the Bavarian State Archives in Munich. Mr. Plöckinger, who is working on an annotated version of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” for the Institute of Contemporary History, cautioned that more research would be needed to be 100 percent sure.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and director of the Wiesenthal Center, says he is convinced that the four-page letter, acquired by the organization for $150,000 last month through a dealer, is genuine. “I am absolutely certain our copy is signed by Adolf Hitler,” Rabbi Hier said.
Rabbi Hier provided records indicating that the document was found in the final months of World War II by a U.S. Army soldier named William F. Ziegler. In a handwritten letter in 1988 provided by the dealer who sold the document to the Wiesenthal Center, Mr. Ziegler said he had found the document among others scattered on the floor of what appeared to be a Nazi Party archive near Nuremberg.
Rabbi Hier also provided documents from the dealer showing Hitler’s signature on the letter was validated in 1988 and again in 1990 by Charles Hamilton Jr., a New York handwriting expert and dealer who was famous for exposing fake Hitler diaries in 1983. Mr. Hamilton died in 1996.
Rabbi Hier said he had a chance to acquire the letter when it first came on the market in 1988, but was skeptical of the document because it was typed. That seemed odd to him for the period in question, when Hitler was an ordinary soldier in a country devastated economically by war. Typewriters were very costly in 1919 and even many military units did not have them. “How did he get hold of a typewriter?” Rabbi Hier asked.
This year, Rabbi Hier learned that there was a plausible explanation. In 1919, during the upheaval that followed Germany’s defeat in World War I, Hitler was attached to a military propaganda unit of the Bavarian Army in Munich that was trying to stamp out Bolshevik sentiment carried home by prisoners of war in Russia.
Hitler’s ability to hold the interest of his listeners drew him to the attention of a superior officer, Capt. Karl Mayr. When a soldier named Adolf Gemlich, who was doing similar propaganda work for the army in Ulm, wrote asking for a clarification of “the Jewish Question,” Captain Mayr gave Hitler the assignment.
Hitler wrote to Mr. Gemlich that occasional pogroms against the Jews were not enough — the Jewish “race” must be “removed” from Germany as a matter of national policy.
Ian Kershaw, a British author of best-selling Hitler biographies who was knighted for his studies of Nazism, says it is very unlikely that Hitler already envisioned the industrialized extermination of the Jews that he would pursue.
“Not even Hitler was capable of imagining in 1919 what could be done,” Mr. Kershaw said.
But the letter, Mr. Kershaw said, showed that “already in 1919 Hitler has a clear notion of removal of the Jews altogether.”
Hitler either wrote the letter in longhand and it was typed by someone in Captain Mayr’s office, or Hitler dictated the letter, according to a 1959 article in a German historical quarterly, which appears to be the first scholarly mention of the document.
Captain Mayr later turned against Hitler and died at the Buchenwald concentration camp during the final months of the war.
The document in the state archives in Munich is not the original and is not signed by Hitler, said Johann Pörnbacher, a representative of the archives. He says the archives has no record of where the original is.
Mr. Plöckinger, the historian who examined both versions, said that the copy in the Munich archive corrected some typographical and punctuation errors in the Wiesenthal Center document. At the same time, the Munich copy adopted some nonsensical commas written by hand in the Wiesenthal Center document.
“This wouldn’t make sense to a forger,” Mr. Plöckinger said. “So structural aspects speak in favor of the authenticity” of the document acquired by the Wiesenthal Center.
The implication is that the signed version in Los Angeles was the letter originally sent to Adolf Gemlich.
Mr. Plöckinger, who two years ago was involved in authenticating newly discovered pages from “Mein Kampf,” said that to be absolutely sure it would be necessary to do more thorough research by, for example, analyzing the age and composition of the paper in the Wiesenthal Center’s document, and trying to trace the journey the letter made after 1919.
“If you want to have 100 percent certainty,” he said, “then you have to do a lot of other things.”
Rabbi Hier said he jumped at the chance to buy the letter when it was offered for sale recently by Profiles in History, a dealer in Calabasas Hills, California, that normally specializes in historical documents associated with the likes of Abraham Lincoln or Albert Einstein as well as Hollywood memorabilia. The dealer has been in the news recently as the auctioneer of a collection of Hollywood costumes owned by the actress Debbie Reynolds.
Rabbi Hier said he had persuaded members of the Wiesenthal Center board of trustees to donate the $150,000 purchase price for the Gemlich letter.
Joseph Maddalena, president of Profiles in History, said he first acquired the letter two decades ago from a small-time dealer in Kansas, who in turn had bought it from Mr. Ziegler, the soldier who is said to have found the letter. Mr. Maddalena said he never met Mr. Ziegler and did not know if he was still alive.
“In terms of the Holocaust,” Rabbi Hier said, “we have nothing that would compare to this document.”