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BERLIN (Reuters) - How could a German court find a man guilty of high treason yet impose such a mild sentence that he later seized power and laid waste to Europe?
A new German film seeks to find out.
"Hitler vor Gericht" (Hitler on Trial) explores the 1924 trial of Adolf Hitler in Munich for his part in an abortive coup d'etat that could have earned him the death penalty.
Instead, he served just nine months in prison and was able to rebuild the shattered Nazi party soon after his release.
Had Hitler been given a long sentence, the history of Europe might have been very different, said Ian Kershaw from the University of Sheffield in England.
"The Fuehrer cult would have had no opportunity to expand," Kershaw, a leading biographer of Hitler, told Reuters on Friday. "The radical right would have remained fragmented. A Hitler dictatorship would, therefore, probably not have happened."
At a time when anger over Germany's defeat and treatment after World War One was widespread, reactionary politicians held key positions of power in Bavaria, helping to shield Hitler from the German court with jurisdiction for high treason in Leipzig.
The presence of right-wing sympathizers on the judges' bench meant the Austrian-born Hitler was not expelled from Germany.
"The astonishing thing is the degree of understanding the court showed him," said Bernd Fischerauer, who is directing the film for Bavarian broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR). "He was able to use the court hearings to deliver his party manifesto."
The television film, which producers say is the first to focus exclusively on the trial, is due to be premiered on the 85th anniversary of Hitler's sentencing in April next year.
Despite extensive schooling about the Third Reich, Germans know too little about the trial that resulted from the 1923 Munich beer hall putsch in which 20 died, the filmmakers said.
"Time and again people thought we were making some fictional film about Hitler -- like what would have happened if he had been caught and put on trial like Saddam Hussein," said Martin Choroba, head of the production firm behind the film.
"There is a lack of awareness about this trial.
Shooting is now underway in Munich on the documentary-style drama, which sticks closely to the original court transcripts of the trial, of which there is no known footage.
The judges handed down a five-year jail term to Hitler, but deemed him eligible for early parole in spite of the fact he was already on probation for an earlier offence.
"It was the lightest sentence the court could have given him," said Werner Reuss, head of educational programming at BR.
"The whole thing was a farce. There was applause whenever Hitler spoke. It was like a theatre. Yet this trial was the germ for the biggest disaster of the 20th Century."
Germany now has extreme right parties in three of its 16 state parliaments, and Reuss said the film was intended to have an element of "political education" in it.
"It's important that we show there are limits to tolerating those who would undermine democracy," Reuss said.
Austrian-born director Fischerauer said the fact 200,000 people turned out on Thursday evening to hear an address from U.S. Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama in Berlin showed strong leaders still held an attraction for Germans.
"It was almost like a German election rally," he said. "When did (Chancellor Angela) Merkel last draw 200,000 people?"
Editing by Paul Casciato