Even those casually acquainted with the history of World War II and the Holocaust remember that the Beer Hall Putsch was instrumental in the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. But one man has done extensive research into the role beer, beer halls and other alcohol consumption played in the Nazi reign of terror.
Edward B. Westermann is a professor in the Department of Communication, History, and Philosophy at Texas A&M University – San Antonio, and author of the 2021 book “Drunk on Genocide: Alcohol and Mass Murder in Nazi Germany.” Westermann is visiting Milwaukee on May 25 for a talk called “Propaganda Over Pints: The Role of Beer Halls in the Nazi Rise to Power.”
The event will take place at the Milwaukee County Historical Society and is hosted by the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center, a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation. Additional support is provided by Jewish Museum Milwaukee and Molson Coors.
In the “Drunk on Genocide” book, Westermann told the Chronicle in an interview, he looked at “the way perpetrators integrated drinking rituals and alcohol into their acts. In the work, I look at the literal intoxication and how alcohol is used by perpetrators in a number of ways, and also the metaphorical intoxication of men and women, in this case Nazis.”
Beer halls, at the time of the pre-Nazi rise, had become “sites of political mobilization, they become sites of the normalization of ideological ideas — antisemitism, anti-Bolshevism being chief amongst those — but they also become sites at which bonding takes place, in which political violence becomes established.”
The author also said that there are some lessons to be learned today.
“When I started teaching the Holocaust many years ago, I knew it was an important topic,” Westermann said. “But if you’d have asked me 10 years ago, when I was teaching the class… I knew it was important for how we understand these issues of humanity, inhumanity, and hatred and prejudice.
“But the recent past, unfortunately, whether we look at shootings in synagogues, whether we look at a shooting in El Paso that was based on Great Replacement theory, or a shooting in Buffalo, aimed at the African-American community. What’s become obvious to me, is that some of these dynamics, of the normalization of rhetoric, of hatred, and bias… of some of this conspiracy rhetoric that we’ve seen in the last decade, we’ve seen a direct manifestation of that rhetoric into acts of political violence and terrorism.
“When we look at the Holocaust, it doesn’t start in Auschwitz, it doesn’t start with the gas chambers. It starts in those bars, in those beer halls.”
Westermann said he took something of a nontraditional route to academia, as well as his specific area of expertise. A graduate of the Air Force Academy, who earned two academic degrees during his time in the Air Force, Westermann participated in the establishment of the first-ever Holocaust course at the Air Force Academy.
The Catholic Westermann had done graduate work studying German police units during the war. This led him to study the topic once he transitioned into civilian academic work. Getting to know some survivors, as well as involvement with the Holocaust Educational Foundation in Evanston, Ill., led him to study the Holocaust specifically.
“The Holocaust is a topic that once you become involved with it, it’s one of those topics that really never lets you go,” he said. “Because of all of the questions it raises about human behavior, and about humanity in general.”
Ironically, beer (as well as soda) will be served at the Milwaukee event. Westermann said that, in fact, gatherings over alcohol can serve as a source for good as well.
“Alcohol doesn’t cause the Holocaust,” he said. “The Holocaust would have happened with or without alcohol. But it’s the way in which it’s used.”
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How to go
When: Wednesday, May 24, 6:30 -8 p.m.
Where: Milwaukee County Historical Society, 910 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive
Cost: $9 regular admission. This includes one drink ticket for a beer or soda.