Rupert Colley summarises the Munich Putsch of November 1923 when Hitler tried to seize power of Germany (sometimes called the ‘Beer Hall Putsch‘).
During the early 1920s Adolf Hitler became convinced that the way to power lay in revolution. Revolution had brought power to the Bolsheviks in Russia and had almost done the same for the Communists in Germany during the chaos of the immediate post-First World War period. Hitler watched, with fascination and admiration, as Mussolini took over power in Italy following his March on Rome in October 1922.
And so in Munich, Hitler planned his overthrow, or putsch, of the Bavarian government followed by a March on Berlin. The date set, Sunday November 11, 1923, was an auspicious anniversary – five years on from Germany’s defeat in the war, and, on a more practical level, being a Sunday, a day when the armed forces and police were on reserve strength. (Pictured is Hitler and his Munich entourage. Click to enlarge).
A Beer Hall in Munich
But when Hitler learnt about, and indeed was invited to, a public meeting in a Munich beer hall on the evening of November 8th, hosted by government figures such as Gustav Ritter von Kahr, leader of the Bavarian Government, and the Bavarian chiefs of police and army, the opportunity was too perfect to pass by. At his side were Hermann Goring and Rudolf Hess.
The National Revolution Has Begun
As the meeting progressed, Hitler’s armed corps of bodyguards, the SA, silently surrounded the building. With the bulk of his men in place, others noisily barged into the beer hall, interrupting proceedings and shouting ‘Heil Hitler’.
A machine gun was hurled in and the audience, fearing a massacre, cowered and hid beneath their chairs. Hitler took his cue and brandishing a revolver, charged to the front, leapt onto a chair and firing two shots into the ceiling, declared that he was the new leader of the German government and that the “National revolution (had) begun.” He then forced the three men on the stage, Kahr and his chiefs, into a side room, apologised to them for the inconvenience, and promised them prestigious jobs in his new Germany.
Returning to the stage, Hitler delivered a rousing speech, winning over his audience who applauded ecstatically. They applauded with equal enthusiasm when Hitler’s famous co-conspirator, General Erich von Ludendorff, made his appearance. Ludendorff, as the joint head of Germany’s military during the First World War, was well-known and respected, and Hitler hoped that with Ludendorff as his mascot it would win him support. It seemed to be working.
Ludendorff’s task was to persuade Kahr and his chiefs to support the revolution and join the March on Berlin. After some reluctance the three men eventually acquiesced.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the city, the SA, led by Hitler’s confidant, Ernst Rohm, was successfully securing vital strongpoints. Hitler, his speech done and his audience converted, left the beer hall to check on progress.
The Gullible Old General
During Hitler’s absence, Kahr and his chiefs confirmed to Ludendorff their new-found allegiance and asked permission to leave in order to issue orders. Ludendorff, always trusting of fellow men in uniforms, gave his approval. Hitler, on his return, was furious that Ludendorff should have been so gullible.
Across the city scuffles continued throughout the night and confusion reigned as night turned into day. In the morning Hitler ordered a march through the city to meet Rohm who, earlier, had seized the offices of the city’s War Ministry. With the chastised Ludendorff at his side and about 2,000 men behind him, Hitler set off. But in front of the Feldherrenhalle (the Field Marshals’ Hall) in central town their way was blocked by a contingent of police. A gunfight ensued and four police officers and sixteen Nazis were killed. Ludendorff marched towards the police lines and was promptly arrested; Goring was badly injured but made his escape (eventually to Austria); and Hitler, falling to the ground, dislocated his shoulder.
Hitler managed to escape to a friend’s house, where, suicidal, he wrote various letters, including one where he handed over the leadership of the party to Alfred Rosenberg.
But Hitler’s luck was about to run out. He was arrested. The Munich Putsch had failed.
Opening on February 26, 1924 and lasting 24 days, Hitler’s trial offered him his biggest platform to date. Outside Bavaria Hitler was little known. But following the trial Hitler’s name had become known throughout Germany.
I alone bear the responsibility
Presiding over the proceedings, the Minister of Justice, Franz Gurtner, was, at heart, a Nazi sympathiser, as were the judges. Whilst Ludendorff lied about having anything to do with the putsch and treated the judges as subordinates on the parade ground, Hitler declared his guilt with pride, appealing to the nationalistic patriotism of his listeners: “I alone bear the responsibility,” he told the bench, “but I am not a criminal because of that … There is no such thing as treason against the November criminals.” (Hitler was referring to the German politicians that had surrendered in November 1918).
The nation waited on the verdict. Ludendorff was acquitted. Hitler was found guilty and sentenced to five years. Given the evidence against him, an acquittal for Hitler risked the case going to the higher court where judges made of sterner stuff would not have tolerated Hitler’s long speeches and where the maximum penalty for high treason, the death penalty, would have been a distinct possibility. Thus the sentence of five years was deemed extremely light. Sentenced to the Landsberg prison, Hitler was spared prison uniform and permitted to wear his Lederhosen, granted a spacious room and greeted by the prison wardens with a ‘Heil Hitler’ whilst his fellow prisoners would wait at the table before mealtime until Hitler had sat down.
My 4 1/2 Year Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice
Although frequently depressed and talking of suicide, Hitler used his time in prison constructively, dictating to Hess his autobiographical, ideological rant Mein Kampf. Published on July 18, 1925, it was originally entitled My 4 1/2 Year Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice; the new title being suggested by his publisher.
Hitler served only eight months of his five year sentence and by the time of his release he had converted most of the prison staff and his fellow prisoners to National Socialism. Immediately on his release took up the reins of his party, and visited the Bavarian president, Dr Held, and promised that from then on the Nazi party would respect the legal process. The ban placed on the party within the province following the putsch was lifted, and Held boasted to his colleagues that he had tamed the wild beast. Little did he know…
Gustav Ritter von Kahr was made to pay for his treachery – he was murdered during the ‘Night of the Long Knives‘ in June 1934.
Ernst Rohm, head of the SA, became increasingly a menace and potential threat to Hitler and was the main reason and victim of the ‘Night of the Long Knives’.
Ruldof Hess was also sentenced for his part in the Munich Putsch and served alongside Hitler.
Alfred Rosenberg had been a member of the German Workers’ Party, forerunner to the Nazi Party, from its inception in January 1919, joining it even before Hitler, who joined in the October. Hitler’s handing over of power to Rosenberg following his arrest was a shrewd move. At the risk of the party disintegrating, he knew Rosenberg, lacking the necessary credentials, would make a poor leader and pose no threat to his own leadership. Sure enough on Hitler’s release from prison, Rosenberg stepped aside.
The proprietors of the Munich beer hall claimed on the damages: 143 broken beer mugs, 80 broken glasses, 98 stools, 148 pieces of cutlery, plus two unsightly holes in the ceiling.
November 8th and 9th became important occasions in the Nazi calendar as the sixteen ‘blood martyrs’ that died that night at the Munich Putsch were solemnly commemorated each year on the 8th. On the 9th, re-enactments were held of the dramatic events. The flag carried that night, stained with the blood of the Nazi martyrs, the ‘blood flag’, became a symbolic relic of the regime.
In 1935 Hitler had the martyrs reburied in front of the Field Marshals’ Hall in a ‘Temple of Honour’, adorned with flags and sarcophagi. The ceremony, on the anniversary in 1935, was accompanied by muffled drums, mournful parades down torchlit streets and the display of the blood flag.
Today in front of the Field Marshals’ Hall is a simple plaque to the four policemen who died that night (pictured). The inscription reads: To the members of the Bavarian Police, who gave their lives opposing the National Socialist coup on 9 November 1923″.
See also article on the failed Kapp Putsch of 1920.