- James Houser
November 9, 1923 - The Beer Hall Putsch
Updated: Jun 16, 2021
November 9, 1923. The radical right is in shambles. What started as an attempt to take power has ended with government troops flooding the streets, their followers scattered by a brief show of force, and their leader in custody. The liberals have won, and the country is back under control. With this event, the abortive National Socialist movement seems to be dead in the water. I’m sure no one will hear about this Adolf Hitler guy ever again.
This is going to be an interesting post. Yesterday I talked about Lenin’s Revolution in Russia, a successful series of events against a weak centrist government that helped bring about the Soviet Union. In a lot of ways, Hitler’s first attempt to seize power was very similar to Lenin’s October Revolution, with the difference that his initial movement was much weaker and much more localized than that of Lenin. Lenin was able to seize control of the capital and assume a central position in Russian politics in 1917, while Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch was an utter failure and ended with him in prison.
The left-wing revolution of Lenin and the right-wing revolution of Hitler occurred in an age of extreme ideologies and utter chaos across most of Europe: my much-beloved “massive mess after World War I” that I’ve been banging a drum about since basically January. Political violence, revolutionary organizations, and mass movements were everywhere. Nationalists, proto-fascists, socialists, anarchists, communists, liberals, republicans, and demagogues of every color all had their moments in the wreckage of the former European empires. This was something close to ridiculous anarchy, and it was just as rampant in Germany as it was anywhere else.
After the end of the First World War, Germany was in widespread turmoil. The Kaiser and his government had been overthrown, to be replaced by a German Republic, known forever after for its first meeting place: the Weimar Republic. The Weimar Republic, like the Russian Provisional Government in 1917, was born into an era where no one really trusted it. The left-wing socialists and communists, along with the right-wing conservatives and nationalists, were too far radicalized to allow it to remain stable for long. There wasn’t a balance to be struck, since both sides hated each other too much and no one was interested in seeing democracy succeed. Both the Left and the Right wanted complete dominance, and they held the struggling Weimar Republic in utter contempt.
The years 1918-1923 saw a positive pandemic of radical parties forming in many of Germany’s major cities. There were more splinter groups than you could shake a stick at. Socialist, anarchist, nationalist, fascist, what have you. The socialists, though, were struck a fatal blow in January 1919 when the Spartacist uprising was crushed. This communist insurgency in Berlin aimed at the overthrow of the Weimar Republic and the establishment of a socialist state. Thanks to the violent activities of Lenin and his Red Terror in Russia at about the same time, the prospect of a leftist government struck terror into the Republic’s leaders. With no reliable military force at hand, the Weimar government was forced to call on the right-wing paramilitary groups, known as the Freikorps, that had formed from Army veterans and disgruntled workers in the aftermath of the war. The Freikorps brutally overthrew the Spartacists, and that was about as close as the radical left ever got to power in post-Great War Germany.
The rise of the Freikorps, and the terror of a communist insurgency, caused a spike in radical right-wing organizations popping up across Germany’s major cities. Most of these groups had a lot of views in common, including: rejection of the Treaty of Versailles, xenophobia, nationalism, anti-communism, anti-capitalism, and especially antisemitism. One overriding core belief was the “stab-in-the-back myth,” the idea that blamed Germany’s defeat in World War I on conspirators, mostly socialists and Jews. They differed on minor points of principle, especially on the incorporation of some form of socialism into their platform. The term “National Socialism” was not a complete fabrication – many of these right-wing movements contained members with some Marxist views, though these were greatly outweighed by their radical right-wing ideals. My point here is that many of the beliefs the Nazis would later promote were EXTREMELY common in postwar Germany, especially the sharp rise of antisemitism.
Among these parties was the Munich-based German Workers’ Party (the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or DAP), which had been founded in January 1919 during the immediate aftermath of the Spartacist insurrection. Its leader, Anton Drexler, was a fervent believer in the ethno-nationalism of the far-right milieu of beliefs permeating throughout Germany at the time. He promoted nationalism, anti-communism and antisemitism – though the anti-Jewish bigotry was nowhere near as prominent as it would later become. The DAP remained small, however, and still mustered no more than about fifty members in September 1919, when its course changed forever.
On September 12, 1919, a DAP meeting was held in a Munich beer house. The speaker was the economic nationalist Gottfried Feder, but soon Feder was heckled by an invited guest named Professor Baumann, who challenged Feder’s views and promoted Bavarian separatism from Germany. At that moment, one of the spectators intervened. A 30-year-old man, pale and wilting, suddenly burst to life and denounced Baumann so fiercely that the professor took his hat and fled the beer hall even as his opponent was still speaking. Drexler, bemused and impressed, introduced himself to the newcomer, who said his name was Adolf Hitler. Drexler gifted the younger man with a copy of his pamphlet, “My Political Awakening,” and as he left remarked to another member “Goodness, he’s got a gob. We could use him.”
Hitler, of course, was far from a man to be used. Born in 1889 in Austria, he had been an aimless young man wandering the streets of Vienna and failing repeatedly to get into art school before migrating to Munich in the early 1910s. Despite many later myths, there was nothing special about Hitler at all in these years. He was obsessed with Germanic culture and architecture, especially Wagner’s operas and the classical edifices of Vienna’s public buildings, but disgusted with the diversity and “perversions” he claimed to see all around him. His flight to Munich was more to avoid conscription into the Austro-Hungarian Army than from any pure motive. But it was in Germany that Hitler would find his calling when World War I broke out. The young Austrian illegal immigrant enlisted immediately in August 1914 – there is a famous photo of one of the pro-war rallies on the streets of Munich where the young Hitler’s face can clearly be seen, many years before he was famous.
The Great War, more than any other belief, achievement, or experience, created Hitler. He served throughout the conflict in the 16th Bavarian Reserve Division, and in this unit experienced the absolute hell of many of World War I’s great battles. Hitler was present at both the Somme and Passchendaele – the two great horror shows of Britain’s World War experience. Hitler had been wounded at the Somme, and in 1918 he even earned the Iron Cross, First Class – a rare reward for a private. There’s no reason to think that Hitler was anything but a good, committed soldier during the war, personally brave and well thought of, even if his other soldiers thought him odd, withdrawn and suspicious. He was the squad weirdo. Every squad has one.
Very late in the war, Hitler was temporarily disabled by a mustard gas attack that blinded him for a period of time. Still recovering from this injury, he was in a hospital near Berlin on November 10, 1918 when he heard of Germany’s imminent surrender. He had seen mutineering sailors and soldiers pass beneath his window, but only when a pastor informed the room full of invalids that the war was about to end, and that Germany was now a Republic, did Hitler utterly lose his shit.
“I could stand it no longer. It became impossible for me to still one minute longer…everything went black before my eyes; I tottered and groped my way back to the dormitory and dug my burning head into my blanket and pillow. Since the day when I had stood at my mother’s grave, I had not wept, but now I could not help it. And so it had all been in vain. Did all this happen only so that a gang of wretched criminals could lay hands on the fatherland?”
“There followed terrible days and even worse nights – I knew that all was lost…in these nights hatred grew in me, hatred for those responsible for this deed.” He came to the conclusion that “There is no making pacts with the Jews, there can only be the hard: either-or. I, for my part, decided to go into politics.”
But not yet. Hitler remained in the Army after the war, and in 1919 found himself stationed in Berlin. His only plans were to stay in the Army, since he simply had nowhere else to go – he could not bear to return to Austria, and had no family or really any friends in Germany. After the left-wing upheavals of 1918 and 1919, though, the Army was intensely worried about the activities of radical parties in and around Munich. Both the far left and the far right were equally capable of causing trouble, and the local military authorities decided to send agents out to investigate and report on radical activity in and around the Bavarian city. It was as one of these agents that Hitler – quite by accident – stumbled into the DAP on that fateful September night in 1919.
It’s tempting to think of so many places where things could have gone differently here – Hitler is killed in World War I, Hitler is stationed somewhere else, Hitler is never picked for this job, or Hitler never shows up to that one meeting. There was never any reason that Hitler should have become…well, the person we know today. But he managed to find himself into that party meeting, and after that one thing led to another.
Hitler’s handlers in the Army ordered him to join the DAP in the hopes that this would enhance his effectiveness as an informer. They didn’t exactly realize what they were doing here, because Hitler was far more than just an informer: he had become a true believer. Hitler began to attend regular meetings of the DAP, and was given Party Number #555 – though the DAP had started the numbering at 500 to give the impression that they were much bigger than they were. Although he started out as a rank-and-file member, Hitler’s passion and charisma became a big selling point for the right-wing organization. Under their new member’s influence, the DAP changed their name to the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or NSDAP), better known simply as the “Nat-Sis,” or the Nazis. Hitler also designed their new slogan, the swastika – a popular symbol among many contemporary organizations – enclosed in a white circle on a red banner. But it was not Hitler’s party yet.
Hitler’s speaking tours and orations quickly became one of the NSDAP’s prime selling points, the “special something” that made it stand out among the plethora of competing right-wing groups in Munich. In March 1920, Hitler’s discharge from the Army allowed him to devote his full attention to the Party, and he soon began to work for it full-time. The Nazis were operating in very friendly ground: Munich was one of the core areas of radical right-wing nationalism and opposition to socialism. Throughout 1920 and early 1921, Hitler’s magnetism allowed the NSDAP to grow in power as he harangued the Weimar government, the Treaty of Versailles, Communists, and Jews in his powerful and malevolent speeches.
But some within the party were not happy with this upstart demagogue. Drexler, in particular, wanted the NSDAP to merge with the rival German-Socialist Party, the DSP; this would entail a left-wing turn for the Nazis, since the DSP – though right-wing – favored a classless German commonwealth free of Jews, the sort of literal “National Socialism” that combined xenophobic nationalism with working-class socialism. But Hitler was increasingly pushing the Nazis farther in conspiracist, revolutionary, near-mystical directions, emphasizing the global Jewish conspiracy and growing more obsessed with the need to conquer a great colonial empire in the east. Hitler was dragging the NSDAP towards his future goals for Germany, and the “old guard” was getting uneasy with this line of thinking.
In June, a struggle for power broke out between Hitler and Drexler for control of the Nazi Party, which was ultimately settled when Hitler resigned from the movement on July 11, 1921. The members of the Party’s committee realized that the resignation of their most famous member and advocate would doom the organization, so they pleaded with Hitler to return. Hitler would only return on the condition that he become party chairman, sidelining Drexler to an honorary “president” position. The committee agreed, and Hitler’s coup was complete. He was now fully in the driver’s seat, and continued his spree of agitation and demagoguery. The Nazi movement was on the march – though it was still only a local Munich movement, and not a Germany-wide uprising.
With Hitler fully in control, he began to attract a rabid core following. Many of his early supporters were World War I veterans and early members of the Freikorps, men such as famous fighter ace Hermann Goring, former infantryman and Verdun veteran Rudolf Hess, and yet ANOTHER Verdun veteran and Freikorps luminary Ernst Rohm. Rohm in particular became a power second only to Hitler in the Party as leader of the SA militia organization, the famed stormtroopers or “brownshirts.”
Throughout 1921 and 1922, Hitler’s movement grew significantly due to Germany’s economic woes and the backlash against Weimar’s increasingly unstable government. As a decorated frontline soldier himself, Hitler appealed to World War I veterans. By 1923, Nazi Party membership was up to 20,000, and Hitler had become Munich’s most prominent right-wing agitator. He was increasingly arrogant, confident, and ready for bigger things. Hitler became convinced that Weimar was on the edge of a cliff, and just needed a push – much like Russia’s Provisional Government had been ripe for a collapse when Lenin launched his October Revolution.
Two contemporary events fueled Hitler’s growing sense that the time was nigh to strike. First, Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party had seized control in Italy in October 1922. Much like the Nazis, Mussolini’s Fascists promoted national rebirth, hated liberalism and Marxism, and advocated territorial expansion. Mussolini’s “March on Rome” became Hitler’s chief inspiration for the imminent Beer Hall Putsch. Secondly, in January 1923 France occupied the Ruhr industrial region to punish Germany for failing to make reparations payments. This sparked a national upheaval and resurgence of right-wing fanaticism, especially when inflation began to shoot through the roof. By late 1923, Hitler was convinced. There would never be a better moment than now.
Hitler decided to stage his own coup in Munich and replicate Mussolini’s “March on Rome” to challenge the Berlin government. In contrast to his later behavior, though, Hitler did not intend to take personal power himself. He viewed himself as “The Drummer,” sort of a precursor to the real Leader (or Fuhrer) who would restore Germany, expel the Jews, and reconquer the lost territory. Who was he the precursor TO? To which Jesus did he intend to play John the Baptist?
Hitler had begun to work closely with Erich Ludendorff, one of Germany’s most famous generals from World War I. From 1916 to 1918, Ludendorff along with his partner Paul von Hindenburg had basically run Germany as a military dictatorship, only resigning when it was clear the war was lost and wanting the liberals to take the blame. Ludendorff had quietly returned to Germany after the war and had been living in Munich ever since, quickly becoming associated with many radical right-wing movements. Hitler intended his rebellion to place Ludendorff at the head of a revaunchist Germany that would achieve all of his nationalist dreams.
Hitler and Ludendorff sought support from some of the other conservative and right-wing figures in Bavaria, including the Police Chief, local garrison commander, and State Commissioner Gustav von Kahr; all these men, though, were already planning their OWN conservative coup and wanted nothing to do with Hitler. Kahr, who had virtually seized control over Bavaria, went so far as to cancel many of Hitler’s rallies for September 1923.
Many of the Nazi rank and file, especially the violent SA men, put Hitler under pressure to react to this provocation. He soon had a very real fear that if he did not make a move (now or never, remember) the party would abandon him for a more decisive figure. Hitler could not afford to be outflanked by Kahr, whose own plans for a coup were proceeding apace. When Hitler learned that Kahr would be making a proclamation in the Munich Burgerbraukeller – a massive Beer Hall – on November 8, he decided that he would strike.
Kahr was reading his speech to the 3,000 people packed into the Beer Hall when at 8:30pm, November 8, 1923, he was interrupted by a crowd of men in brown shirts and steel helmets rushing into the hall, some even carrying a machine gun. Hitler advanced in, flanked by bodyguards, and fired a shot into the ceiling to gain everyone’s attention. He announced that the revolution had begun, the hall was surrounded, the Bavarian government was deposed, and that everyone should remain calm. As Hitler conferred with Kahr in private and guaranteed his safety, Goring continued to calm the crowd, encouraging them to enjoy their beer.
Hitler had soon brought the unwilling Kahr on board as “Regent for the Monarchy” and proclaimed a new government for Germany, with Ludendorff as dictator and chief of the German National Army. After about an hour had passed since he entered the Beer Hall, Hitler emerged grasping Kahr’s hand. They were soon joined by Ludendorff himself, who had shown up wearing his splendid Imperial German uniform. With the reluctant cooperation of Kahr’s conservative cabal, and with war hero Ludendorff in public and on his side, it seemed Hitler was on the ascendancy. It was his night, and he was aglow with the scent of imminent victory.
From this point, though, things began to go wrong. As Hitler and Ludendorff gave their speeches, Rohm’s brownshirts and stormtroopers were failing to seize many of the key points around Munich, including the Army barracks and government buildings. Hearing of a crisis near the engineers’ barracks, Hitler made his first major mistake of the evening by departing the Beer Hall to try and intervene personally. Ludendorff was left in charge at the Beer House and, believing the word of esteemed gentlemen, allowed Kahr and his cabal to depart after promises to cooperate with the Putsch. Kahr and his cronies immediately set about trying to regain control and defeat Hitler’s coup, and by 2:55am on November 9, 1923, the radio broadcast stations were proclaiming that Bavaria was under control.
By 3:00am, the first casualties of the Putsch occurred when local troops fired on some of Rohm’s brownshirts, injuring a few and forcing the rest to fall back. Soon German Army troops were entering Munich from all directions and retook control of key points from the brownshirts, even as Hitler and Ludendorff sat paralyzed at the Beer Hall, puzzled over what to do next. Hitler had no more ideas than anyone else, and as inaction continued into the light of dawn, many of his followers began to drift away. With the momentum of their movement clearly fading, Hitler decided on a march through the streets in a vain effort to rally the people of Munich to their cause. Ludendorff agreed, crying out “We will march!” It was their only positive decision for hours.
2,000 Nazis, most of them armed, marched out in unison onto the streets of Munich, going…somewhere. The Nazis had no real plan. Ludendorff, on a whim, pointed them at the Bavarian Defense Ministry. Pistols at the ready, the procession swept aside a thin police cordon before they reached the Marienplatz at the center of the city. They gained encouragement from a handful of shouting and flag-waving supporters on the streets, but they couldn’t help but notice that most of the Putsch’s posters had been torn down and most people were hiding. One of them remarked that it was more like a funeral procession.
Finally, at the Odeonsplatz in front of the Feldherrnhalle Monument, they hit the second and larger police cordon. There, the two groups exchanged fire. When the smoke cleared, fourteen Nazis and four policemen were dead, and most of the Putschists were fleeing. Hitler himself had been pushed out of the way by one of his chief subordinates, Erwin von Scheubner-Richter, who had taken the bullet meant for Hitler. Had that bullet been a foot to the right, history would have ended different. Goring was shot in the leg, and later escaped over the Austrian border; Ludendorff, unharmed, surrendered and was released on his word as an officer; Hitler, with a dislocated shoulder, was taken into custody.
Thus ended the Beer Hall Putsch of November 8-9, 1923. And why shouldn’t that have been the end of the Nazis? How could someone come back from a humiliating, ignominious, total defeat like the failed coup in Munich? Hitler’s story should end here. That should have been the final chapter.
Because of COURSE Hitler wouldn’t turn his treason trial into a farce that functioned more as a publicity stunt than a judicial proceeding. Of COURSE he would be in prison for more than a year, and never write and publish a book called “My Struggle” or "Mein Kampf" from that cell. He could NEVER have been allowed to rebuild his party over the next several years, and of COURSE there wouldn’t be another big economic crisis in the early 1930s that helped him gain control. Because it’s ludicrous to think that someone who blatantly tried to seize power and failed utterly would EVER be allowed to try again.
After all, when you’ve defeated someone once, you don’t have to worry about them again, right?