The Beer Hall Putsch
The Beer Hall Putsch was a failed attempt at revolution that occurred between the evening of 8 November and the early afternoon of 9 November 1923, when Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler, General Erich Ludendorff, and other heads of the Kampfbund unsuccessfully tried to seize power in Munich.
By early 1923, Adolf Hitler had seized control of the NSDAP. With the party as his political base, Hitler could call on about 15,000 brown shirts representing several revanchist Bavarian political groups: the Kampfbund, a feared fighting society. With their support, Hitler announced that starting on 27 September 1923, he would be holding 14 mass meetings. This prompted the Bavarian Prime Minister Eugen von Knilling to declare a state of emergency and name Gustav von Kahr as Bavarian Commissioner, Bavarian State Police head Colonel Hans Ritter von Seisser, and Reichswehr General Otto von Lossow as triumvirs (i.e. dictators) to keep order.
Nazis, with other leaders in the Kampfbund, searched out the survivors and the leaders of the conservative-nationalist-monarchist groups to convince them to march upon Berlin and seize power. In April, before the establishment of the triumvirate, Hitler would call von Kahr almost every day. Each thought to use the other to propel himself into power. Von Kahr sought to restore the monarchy; Hitler wanted to be a dictator.
The attempted putsch was inspired by Benito Mussolini’s successful March on Rome. Hitler and his associates planned to use Munich as a base for a big march against Germany’s Weimar Republic government. But the circumstances were different from those in Italy. Once Hitler realized that von Kahr either sought to control him or was losing heart (history is unclear), Hitler decided to take matters into his own hands. Hitler, along with a large detachment of SA, marched on the Bürgerbräukeller, a Munich beer hall where von Kahr was making a speech in front of 3,000 people.
In the cold, dark evening, 600 SA surrounded the beer hall and a machine gun was set up pointing at the auditorium doors. Hitler, surrounded by his associates Hermann Göring, Alfred Rosenberg, Rudolf Hess, Ernst Hanfstaengl, Ulrich Graf, Johann Aigner, Adolf Lenk, Max Amann, Scheubner-Richter, Wilhelm Adam, etc. (some 20 in all), burst through the doors at 8:30 pm, pushed their way laboriously through the crowd, 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. The Bavarian government and the government at Berlin are deposed. A new government will be formed at once. The barracks of the Reichswehr and those of the police are occupied. Both have rallied to the swastika.
Hitler, accompanied by Rudolf Hess, Adolf Lenk and Ulrich Graf, forced the triumvirate of von Kahr, von Seisser, and von Lossow into a side room (previously rented by Rudolf Hess) at gunpoint and demanded that they support his putsch, or they would be shot. Hitler thought that he would get an immediate response of affirmation from them, imploring von Kahr to accept a position as Regent of Bavaria. Von Kahr replied that he could not be expected to collaborate, especially as he had been taken out of the auditorium under heavy guard.
During this time, speeches were held in the main hall by Göring, among others, obtaining a temporary calm, while no one was allowed to leave, not even to go to the toilet. Some, however, escaped via the kitchen, especially those foreign correspondents eager to file copy. At the same time, Heinz Pernet, Johann Aigner and Scheubner-Richter were dispatched to pick up Ludendorff, whose personal prestige was being harnessed to give the Nazis credibility. A telephone call was made from the kitchen by Hermann Kriebel to Ernst Röhm, who was waiting with his Reichskriegflagge in the Löwenbräukeller, another beer hall, and ordered him to seize key buildings throughout the city. At the same time, co-conspirators under Gerhard Rossbach mobilized the students of a nearby Officers Infantry school to seize other objectives.
Hitler became irritated by von Kahr and summoned Ernst Pöhner, Friedrich Weber and Hermann Kriebel to stand in for him while he returned to the auditorium to make a speech (as he had promised some fifteen minutes earlier). Flanked by Rudolf Hess and Adolf Lenk, Hitler returned to the auditorium to make an extemporaneous speech that changed the mood of the hall almost within seconds. Dr. Karl Alexander von Mueller, a professor of modern history and political science at the University of Munich and a supporter of von Kahr, was an eyewitness. He reported:
I cannot remember in my entire life such a change in the attitude of a crowd in a few minutes, almost a few seconds … Hitler had turned them inside out, as one turns a glove inside out, with a few sentences. It had almost something of hocus-pocus, or magic about it.
Hitler started quietly reminding the audience that his move was not directed against von Kahr and launched into his speech ending with:
Outside are Kahr, Lossow and Seisser. They are struggling hard to reach a decision. May I say to them that you will stand behind them?
The audience roared its approval. He finished triumphantly:
You can see that what motivates us is neither self-conceit or self-interest, but only a burning desire to join the battle in this grave eleventh hour for our German Fatherland … One last thing I can tell you. Either the German revolution begins tonight and the morrow will find us in Germany a true nationalist government, or it will find us dead by dawn!
Hitler returned to the ante-room, where the triumvirs remained incarcerated, to ear-shattering acclaim which the triumvirs could not have failed to notice. On his way back, Hitler ordered Göring and Hess to take Eugen von Knilling and seven other members of the Bavarian government into custody.
During Hitler’s speech, Pöhner, Weber, and Kriebel had been trying in a conciliatory fashion to bring the triumvirate round to their point of view. The atmosphere in the room had become lighter but von Kahr continued to dig in his heels. Ludendorff showed up a little before 9 p.m. and, being shown into the ante-room, concentrated on von Lossow and von Seisser, appealing to their sense of duty. Eventually the triumvirate reluctantly gave in.
Hitler, Ludendorff, et al. moved back into the auditorium, where they gave speeches and shook hands; and then the crowd was allowed to leave. In a tactical mistake, Hitler decided to leave the Bürgerbräukeller shortly thereafter to deal with a crisis elsewhere. Around 10:30 p.m., Ludendorff released von Kahr and his associates.
The night was marked by confusion and unrest among government officials, armed forces and police units, and individuals deciding where their loyalties lay. Units of the Kampfbund were scurrying around to arm themselves from secret caches, seizing buildings. At around 3 am, the first casualties of the putsch occurred when the local garrison of the Reichswehr spotted Röhm’s men coming out of the beer hall. They were ambushed while trying to reach the Reichswehr barracks and had to fall back. In the meantime, the Reichswehr officers put the whole garrison on alert and called for reinforcements. In a prefiguration of things to come, a list of prominent Jews was made up and squads of SA were sent around to arrest them. Some were taken into custody while others escaped. The foreign attachés were also seized in their hotel rooms and put under house arrest.
In the early morning, Hitler ordered the seizure of the Munich city council as hostages. He further sent the communications officer of the Kampfbund, Max Neunzert, to enlist the aid of Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria to mediate between von Kahr and the putschists. Neunzert failed in the mission.
By midmorning on the 9th, Hitler realized that the putsch was going nowhere. The Putschists didn’t know what to do and were about to give up. At this moment, Ludendorff cried out, “Wir marschieren!” (We will march!), and Röhm’s force together with Hitler’s (a total of approximately 2000 men) marched out with no plan of where to go. On the spur of the moment, Ludendorff led them to the Bavarian Defense Ministry. However, at the Odeonsplatz in front of the Feldherrenhalle, they met a force of 100 soldiers blocking the way under the command of State Police Senior Lieutenant Baron Michael von Godin. The two groups exchanged fire, killing four state police officers and 16 Nazis. This was the origin of the Blutfahne (blood-flag). Hitler and Göring were both injured, the latter escaping while the former was captured shortly thereafter.
The putsch forever became a wedge between Hitler and Ludendorff. When the skirmish broke out at the Odeonsplatz and Hitler fled, Ludendorff continued to march undaunted into the hostile fire. To irritations already felt toward Hitler, Ludendorff added a perception that Hitler was a coward. Ludendorff, from then until his death in 1937, refused to have anything positive to do with Hitler.
State Police and Police units were first notified of trouble by three police detectives stationed at the Löwenbräukeller. These reports reached Major Sigmund von Imhoff of the State police. He immediately called all his green police units and had them seize the central telegraph office and the telephone exchange, although his most important act was to notify Major General Jakob Ritter von Danner, the Reichswehr city commandant of Munich. As a staunch aristocrat, he loathed the “little corporal” and those “Freikorps bands of rowdies”. He also didn’t much like his commanding officer, Generalleutnant Otto von Lossow, “a sorry figure of a man”. He was determined to put down the putsch with or without von Lossow. Ritter von Danner set up a command post at the 19th Infantry Regiment barracks and alerted all military units.
Meanwhile, Captain Karl Wild, learning of the putsch from marchers, mobilized his command to guard von Kahr’s government building, the Commissariat, with orders to shoot.
Around 11:00 p.m., Ritter von Danner, along with fellow officers General Adolf Ritter von Ruith and General Friedrich Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein, compelled von Lossow to repudiate the putsch.
There was one member of the cabinet who was not at the Bürgerbräukeller: Franz Matt, the vice-premier and minister of education and culture. A staunchly conservative Catholic, he was having dinner with the Archbishop of Munich, Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber and the Papal Nuncio to Bavaria, Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli (who would later become Pope Pius XII), when he learned of the putsch. He immediately telephoned von Kahr. When he found the man vacillating and unsure, Matt decisively began plans to set up a rump government-in-exile in Regensburg and composed a proclamation calling upon all police, armed forces, and civil servants to remain loyal to the government.
The action of these few men spelled doom for the putschists.
On Wednesday, 3,000 students from Munich University rioted and marched to the Feldherrnhalle to lay wreaths. (They continued to riot through Friday until learning of Hitler’s arrest.) Von Kahr and von Lossow were called Judases and traitors.
Trial and Prison
Two days after the putsch, Hitler was arrested and charged with high treason. Some of his fellow conspirators were arrested while others escaped to Austria. The Nazi Party headquarters were raided, and its newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter (The People’s Observer), was banned.
This, however, was not the first time Hitler had been in trouble with the law. In an incident in September 1921, he and some SA had disrupted a meeting of the Bayernbund, and the Nazis who had gone there to cause trouble were arrested as a result. Hitler had ended up serving a little over a month of a three-month jail sentence. Presiding Judge Georg Neithardt was judge in both Hitler cases.
His trial began on 26 February 1924, and Hitler and Hess were both sentenced to five years in Festungshaft (literally fortress confinement) for treason. Festungshaft was a type of jail that excluded forced labor, featured reasonably comfortable cells, and allowed the prisoner to receive visitors almost daily for many hours. It was the customary sentence for people whom the judge believed to have had honorable but misguided motives.
However, Hitler used his trial as an opportunity to spread his ideas. Every word he spoke was reported in the newspaper the next day. The judges were impressed (Presiding Judge Neithardt was inclined to favoritism towards the defendants prior to the trial), and as a result Hitler only served a little over eight months and was fined 500RM. Due to his story that he was there by accident, which he had also used in the Kapp Putsch along with his war service and connections, Ludendorff was acquitted. Both Röhm and Dr. Wilhelm Frick, though found guilty, were released. Göring, meanwhile, suffered bullet wounds in his leg, which led him to become increasingly dependent on morphine and other painkilling drugs.
Though Hitler failed to achieve his immediate stated goal, the event did give the Nazis their first exposure to national attention and a propaganda victory. While serving his prison sentence at Landsberg am Lech, he and Rudolf Hess wrote Mein Kampf. Also, the putsch changed Hitler’s outlook on violent revolution to effect change. From then on he thought that, in order to win the German heart, he must do everything by the book, strictly legal.