Martyrs were an essential element of all three totalitarian political religions. Düsseldorf tried to get in on the act by creating a cult of relics connected with Albert Leo Schlageter, who had been shot by the French in the occupied Ruhr. His bed was reconstructed, and Hitler received a silver reliquary, allegedly containing the bullet with which he had been killed. This cult never took hold. The most solemn Nazi festival of martyrs was ‘Memorial Day for the Fallen of 9 November’, whereby the Nazi party commemorated the sixteen men killed in the abortive 9 November 1923 putsch. This was a very subtle blending of wartime remembrance days with Corpus Christi processions, whose purpose was to transform a squalid fiasco into one of the most significant events in German history. The defeat of the putsch became a victory because the dead men’s ‘sacrifice’ heralded the Nazi ‘seizure of power’ a decade later. The shots fired by Munich policemen had only succeeded, as Hitler unfortunately put it, in ‘stirring the river of blood that has flowed ever since’. Their blood, he explained in 1934, was ‘the baptismal water’ of the new Reich. That year, he merely laid a wreath at the Feldherrnhalle. By 1935 altogether more elaborate arrangements had been made, which never changed thereafter, whenever Hitler had to commune with his sixteen’ Apostles’ – for naturally he had to go four better than the original Messiah.
The religious parallels began on the evening of 8 November, when Hider and his ‘old guard’ had a ‘Last Supper’ in the historic Burgerbräukeller. The next day, a silent procession snaked through the streets of Munich, a procession literally signifying the Movement, with only drumbeats marking its progress. The procession passed 255 portentous-looking pylons or stelae supporting urns from which smoke rose, and on which the names of all the Party dead were inscribed. The lower floors and shop fronts were covered by red cloth to mask distractions, while banners hung from the upper floors and criss-crossed the streets. After pausing to honour the dead at the first cult site, the Feldherrnhalle, the procession turned into a triumphal march to the Königsplatz, the march symbolising the Nazi ‘seizure of power’ in 1933. Paul Ludwig Troost had constructed two mausoleums, each with a sunken chamber containing eight of the iron sarcophagi in which the sixteen martyrs were buried. These were exposed to the elements, so that both God and ‘the Reich’ could see them. Dedicating these temples in 1935, Hitler plumbed uncharted depths of bathos:
Because they were no longer allowed to personally witness and see this Reich, we will make certain that this Reich sees them. And that is the reason why I have neither laid them in a vault nor banned them to some tomb. No, just as we marched back then with our chest free so shall they now lie in wind and weather, in rain and snow, under God’s open skies, as a reminder to the German nation. Yet for us they are not dead. These pantheons are not vaults but an eternal guardhouse. Here they stand guard for Germany and watch over our Volk. Here they lie as true witnesses of our Movement.
A roll-call of the martyrs’ names was taken, with the Hitler Youth responding ‘Present!’ Hitler walked up the steps of the mausoleums to commune silently with the not-really-dead, who became figuratively present in the SS guards who took up stations after Hitler had left.