Marcel Krueger looks at Hitler’s first attempt to seize power in Germany…
‘The Weimar Republic was born in defeat, lived in turmoil, and died in disaster.’
– Peter Gay
The Weimar Republic was a fragile construct. Throughout its existence it was constantly harassed by strikes, coup attempts and the overall reluctance of the majority of German people to accept that a Republic was not for them. Indeed, while it seemed to provide degrees of personal liberty and cultural progression in metropoles like Cologne and Berlin, societal structures in the rural areas of Germany did not change much between the realms of the Kaiser and the President.
In 1923, a partially-moustachioed Austrian painter from Braunau am Inn tried to capitalise on this general resistance to overthrow the Weimar Republic in an event that became known as the Beer Hall Putsch. In September of that year, Bavarian Prime Minister Eugen von Knilling had declared a state of emergency and appointed Gustav von Kahr state commissioner. Together with Bavarian State Police head Colonel Hans Ritter von Seisser and Reichswehr General Otto von Lossow, Kahr had formed an administrative triumvirate to govern Bavaria.
Hitler had moved to Munich in 1919 and joined the newly founded Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP), and was elected chairman of the party in 1921. He was granted nearly absolute powers as the party’s sole leader and soon acquired the title Führer (‘leader’).
Hitler at this time saw the party as a revolutionary organization, whose aim was the overthrow of the Weimar Republic, which he saw as controlled by the socialists, Jews and the ‘November criminals’ who had betrayed the German soldiers in 1918. During 1921 and 1922, the Nazi Party grew significantly, partly through Hitler’s oratorical skills, partly through its appeal to unemployed young men, and partly because there was a backlash against liberal politics in Bavaria, as Germany’s economic problems deepened.
The party also recruited former World War I soldiers, to whom Hitler as a decorated frontline veteran could particularly appeal. Nazi rallies were often held in beer halls, where the crowd would receive free beer – another reason for unemployed workers to join these meetings.
On November 8 and 9, 1923, together with Erich Ludendorff, commander of the German forces in World War I and a German national hero, Hitler gathered a large detachment of the stormtroops to march to the centre of Munich and attack Kahr directly at the Bürgerbräukeller, a Munich beer hall where Kahr was making a speech in front of 3,000 people in the evening of November 8.
The putsch was inspired by Benito Mussolini’s March on Rome, the takeover of the Italian government by the Fascists in 1922, and Hitler planned to use Munich as a base for a bigger march against the Weimar Republic government in Berlin. But the circumstances were different from those in Italy. In the cold November evening, 600 stormtroopers surrounded the beer hall while Hitler and his associates (Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter, a former diplomat who had helped to plan the events of the day) marched through the crowded hall.
Unable to be heard above the noise of the crowd, Hitler fired a shot into the ceiling and jumped on a chair yelling: “The national revolution has broken out! The hall is filled with six hundred men. Nobody is allowed to leave.” He declared the Bavarian government officially deposed and announced the formation of a new government with Ludendorff, ordering the triumvirate into an adjoining room at gunpoint and demanding they support him. However, when Kahr and the others refused to collaborate, Hitler ordered his cronies to bring in Ludendorff.
Meanwhile, Ernst Röhm, who was waiting with another group of storm troopers in another beer hall was at the same time ordered to seize key buildings throughout the city. Hitler ordered Göring and Hess to take even more members of the Bavarian government into custody. By the time Ludendorff showed up a little before 9pm, he was able to convince the triumvirate to give in. Hitler and Ludendorff returned to the main hall, where they gave speeches and shook hands. The crowd was eventually allowed to leave the hall, and Hitler himself left shortly thereafter.
Around 10:30 pm, Ludendorff released Kahr and the others, who immediately returned to their offices, recalled their orders from the beer hall and called for reinforcements of the Reichswehr to march on Munich. By mid-morning on 9 November, Hitler realized that his putsch was not going to plan. Ludendorff decided to collect around 2,000 men and march, quite spontaneously. to the Bavarian Defence Ministry whereupon they met a force of 100 soldiers under the command of State Police Senior Lieutenant Baron Michael von Godin.
In front of the Feldherrnhalle, a gothic loggia built to remember the liberation wars of 1813, the two groups exchanged fire. Four state police officers and 16 Nazis were killed. Scheubner-Richter was shot in the lungs and killed instantly. He fell on Hitler and pulled a blood-splattered Nazi flag with him to the ground. This became the Blutfahne, the blood flag, later one of the most revered objects of the Nazi Party. Göring was shot in the groin but managed to limp away.
The rest of the Nazis also scattered or were arrested. Hitler was arrested two days later, after hiding in a friends attic. The conspirators were charged with treason, and after a 24-day trial, Hitler and Hess were sentenced to five years in Landsberg fortress. Ludendorff was acquitted.
After having served only nine months, Hitler was released. He had used his time in prison to write Mein Kampf, the outline of his political program. The other outcome of the putsch was his decision to change party tactics and the furthering of Nazi propaganda. Hitler decided that he would never come to power by armed force and that he would have to use constitutional means instead.
The 16 killed Nazis were regarded as ‘blood martyrs’ of the party and mentioned by Hitler in the foreword of Mein Kampf. Shortly after he came to power, a memorial was placed at the south side of the Feldherrnhalle crowned with a swastika. The bodies of the fallen were later interned in a so-called Ehrentempel (honour temple), nearby.
The Weimar Republic lived for another ten years. Erich Ludendorff died in 1937, after witnessing the installment of Adolf Hitler first as chancellor and then the ‘leader’ of all Germans. In 1945, after the downfall of the Hitler and destruction of his 1000-year plans, the Allies removed the bodies from the honour temple and destroyed the building. Today, a commemorative plaque in the pavement in front of the Feldherrenhalle contains the names of the four Bavarian policemen who died here fighting the Nazis.