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Oct. 24, 2013
Count Anton Graff von Arco auf Valley
by David Robb
“Wach auf!” the prison guard shouted in German – the language best for shouting orders. “Wake up!”
It was November 11, 1923, and Count Anton Graff von Arco auf Valley was sound asleep in his comfortable jail cell at Landsberg Prison in Bavaria. Arco-Valley was the prison’s most famous inmate – but not for long. A new prisoner was coming that day and the warden wanted Arco-Valley moved to another cell to accommodate his new prisoner – Adolf Hitler, who’d just been arrested for treason for leading an attempted overthrow of the Bavarian government.
Arco-Valley rubbed the sleep from his eyes and got out of bed. The jailer threw a box on his bed and told him to put all his belongings in it. That done, he was taken down the hall to a new, less-comfortable cell.
Arco-Valley was an assassin whose dastardly crime would shape the course of the 20th century. Today he is all but forgotten.
Four years before being moved from his cell to make room for Hitler, Arco-Valley, then a handsome 22-year-old student, former lieutenant in the German Army during World War I, and member of a noble German family, had assassinated Kurt Eisner, the Jewish premier of Bavaria. Young Arco-Valley, a virulent anti-Semite – despite the fact that he himself was half-Jewish – had shot Eisner in the hope of restoring the monarchy that Eisner had overthrown.
“Eisner is a Bolshevist,” Arco-Valley proclaimed. “He isn’t German, he doesn’t feel German, he subverts all patriotic thoughts and feelings. He is a traitor to this land.”
In fact, Eisner was a German, and he was not a Communist. He was a journalist, socialist, pacifist and patriot who, on November 7, 1918 – four days before the end of World War I – had led a revolt that overthrew the corrupt and militaristic Wittelsbach monarchy that had ruled Bavaria for 700 years.
A few months later, however, Eisner would be soundly defeated in state elections by Johannes Hoffmann, his former minister of education and a member of the Bavarian People’s Party – a group aligned with Bavaria’s deposed monarchy. Eisner received less than 3 percent of the vote.
On February 21, 1919, Eisner was on his way to the Bavarian Parliament in Munich to tender his resignation. As he was walking along the bustling Prannerstrasse on his way to the opening day of Parliament, Arco-Valley snuck up from behind him and fired two bullets into the back of his head. Eisner crumpled to the sidewalk and his bodyguards returned fire, severely wounding Arco-Valley, who was dragged away from the scene, presumed to be dead.
Arco-Valley, however, was not dead, but his cowardly act would destroy any hope of Bavaria becoming a democratic state. It was the spark that sent Munich spiraling into chaos, instability and madness, making it the perfect cradle for the birth of the Nazi Party.
Less than an hour after Eisner was killed, the Bavarian Minister of the Interior announced the news of the assassination to Parliament. As he was speaking, right-wing fanatics opened fire from the public gallery, showering the majestic hall with bullets. The Minister was wounded in the fusillade, his deputy was killed and two other officials were seriously wounded. Hell was coming to Munich. But Hitler was already there.
Hitler was still in the army – now the Reichswehr (the National Defense) – and he was stationed in Munich that day, working as a Verbindungsmann (police spy), informing on Communists within the military ranks. His testimony would send several of his fellow soldiers to the gallows.
Hitler, in military uniform, even attended Eisner’s funeral a few days later, as seen in this rare photo.
Adolf Hitler, far right, at the funeral of Kurt Eisner, Feb. 26, 1919
After Eisner’s assassination, riots and looting broke out all over the city, and within days, radical anarchists and Communists staged a series of revolts in an attempt to install a Soviet-style government in Bavaria. Aristocrats were arrested and wealthy businessmen were taken hostage, 10 of whom were massacred at a local Munich high school.
But reactionary paramilitary groups, called the Freikorps, fought back, and after more than 600 people were killed in brutal street fights, wrested control of the city from the Bolsheviks. Munich, the Bavarian capital, would be a right-wing bastion for the next quarter-century.
Amid this chaos, newspapers around the world report that an angry mob had broken into the hospital where Count Arco-Valley was recovering and lynched him. “Munich Mob Slays Eisner Assassin,” The New York Times reported on April 27, 1919. But it wasn’t true. History had more in store for this anti-Semitic assassin.
Arco-Valley was put on trial, and in January 1920 was found guilty and sentenced to death. At the end of his trial, he told the court: “I hate Bolshevism. I love my Bavarians and hate the Jews. I am a faithful monarchist and a good Catholic.”
There was, however, widespread sympathy in the courtroom – and throughout Bavaria – for Arco-Valley. Even the prosecutor in his trial said of him: “If the whole German youth were imbued with such a glowing enthusiasm we could face the future with confidence.”
The next day, the Bavarian cabinet commuted Arco-Valley’s death sentence to life imprisonment, and he was hauled off to the Landsberg Prison. During his confinement, students and right-wing patriotic groups were allowed to visit him in prison, where he had become something of a national hero.
And it was there, in cell # 7 – which was more like a nicely appointed room with a view than a prison cell – that Count Arco-Valley was awakened on the morning of November 11, 1923, and moved to another cell to make way for Hitler, who had been sent to Landsberg after his failed putsch in Munich the year before. And it was here in cell # 7 that Hitler would write Mein Kampf, his hate-filled screed and blueprint for the Third Reich.
The prison cell would later become a shrine and place of pilgrimage for Hitler Youth organizations from all over Germany. In the 1930s, they would trek there by the thousands to see where their Fuehrer had been “unjustly” imprisoned. Upon entering, they would see a plaque that read: “Here a dishonorable system imprisoned Germany’s greatest son from November 11, 1923, to December 20, 1924.” And upon leaving, each of the visiting children would be given a copy of Mein Kampf – “My Struggle” – written in this room, which contained such anti-Semitic observations as these:
A month after he was moved from this cell to make way for Hitler, Count Arco-Valley’s life sentence was commuted by a right-wing judge, George Neithardt, to five years – to time served – and he was released from Landsberg. He had assassinated a head of state, the premier of Bavaria – a Jew – and now he was a free man.
In June of 1933 – just a few months after Hitler took power in Germany – the city council of Munich ordered that the ashes of Kurt Eisner be exhumed and that the monument erected over his grave be destroyed. And so it was.
That same year, the Nazi regime declared Arco-Valley a “hero of the movement.” But within a few weeks, the Count was arrested for plotting to assassinate Hitler. German newspapers reported that Arco-Valley had told a friend: “I wouldn’t mind removing Hitler as I once did Eisner.”
The charges were eventually dropped, and the Count was once again a free man. The next year, he married a distant cousin and together they had four daughters. He would survive World War II, but on June 29, 1945 – less than two months after the war’s end – he was killed in a traffic accident in Salzburg, Austria.