ONE hundred years ago today, the world came close to being rid of Adolf Hitler long before he could inflict his evil on humanity. It happened on the morning of November 9, 1923, as the Nazi leader’s attempted coup d’etat against the German government, known as the Beer Hall Putsch, descended into defeat and ignominy.
After failing to seize power the previous night by kidnapping key ministers during a political rally at the Burgerbraukeller in Munich, Hitler led 2,000 armed cohorts on a defiant march through the city. Linked arm-in-arm-with him was a fellow Nazi, Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter.
As they approached the Bavarian Defence Ministry on the Odeonsplatz, the marchers were met by a phalanx of soldiers and police blocking their way. Gunfire broke out and Scheubner-Richter fell to the ground, mortally wounded by a bullet in his chest. Hitler also fell, but only dislocated his shoulder. As Ian Kershaw says in his 1998 book Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris, ‘Had the bullet which killed Scheubner-Richter been a foot to the left, history would have taken a different course.’
Sixteen Nazis and four policemen died in the shootout and Hitler fled, his conspiracy crushed, his credibility shattered. But just ten years later, he became dictator of Germany. Six years after that, he would plunge the world into war.
The shambolic Munich coup attempt came amid the turmoil and violence that raged between right and left in the bitter aftermath of Germany’s defeat in the Great War, with hyperinflation ravaging the lives of the masses. In 1922, one US dollar was worth 320 marks. By November 1923, a dollar was worth 4,210,500,000,000 marks. One egg cost six million marks.
In the political ferment of Bavaria, where the Nazis had their power base, Hitler dreamed of emulating the March on Rome, which had led to Fascist leader Benito Mussolini’s takeover in Italy in 1922. The Fuhrer’s plan was first to take over the Bavarian state government, then organise a march on Berlin to overthrow Germany’s democratic government, the Weimar Republic.
On the evening of November 8, hundreds of Nazi stormtroopers surrounded Munich’s massive Burgerbraukeller beer hall, where Bavaria’s state commissioner Gustav Ritter von Kahr – who had dictatorial powers – was making a speech to an audience of 3,000.
Hitler and other leading Nazis, including Herman Goring and Rudolf Hess, infiltrated the hall and awaited their moment. In his 1976 book Adolf Hitler, John Toland tells how Hitler was standing by a pillar and one of his acolytes, Ernst Hanfstaengl, thought the Fuhrer would blend in better if he was holding a stein of beer. So he bought him a beer – which cost one billion marks.
The stormtroopers then burst in and Hitler stood on a chair and fired a pistol shot into the ceiling, shouting: ‘The national revolution has broken out!’ He and his cronies hustled Kahr and Bavaria’s two other senior leaders, police chief Hans Ritter von Seisser and army chief General Otto von Lossow, into a side room and demanded they agree to the putsch. When the three protested, the Nazis brought in one of their key supporters, Erich Ludendorff, Germany’s hero general of the Great War, to help persuade them.
As the wrangling went on, Hitler returned to the hall and won over a sceptical audience with a typical fiery speech. Meanwhile, throughout Munich the Nazi paramilitaries were seizing key buildings, bridges and roads. But Hitler then made a fatal mistake by leaving the Burgerbraukeller to try to persuade soldiers at the army’s engineer barracks to open the gates to the stormtroopers. In his absence, Ludendorff agreed to release the three detainees on their word of honour and from there the putsch unravelled.
Throughout the night, there were confrontations and stand-offs on the streets between stormtroopers and government forces, but no bloodshed. By morning however, it was clear the putsch was failing and Kahr was gaining the upper hand. Finally, as Hitler wondered what to do next, Ludendorff gave the dramatic and ultimately lethal order to march.
After the shootout, Hitler managed to escape from Munich and was driven 40 miles south to Hanfstaengl’s country house at Uffing, where he is said to have despairingly contemplated suicide. But by the time of his arrest two days later, he had recovered his swagger. In an underground message circulated to the Nazis, the abortive putsch was portrayed as a preliminary skirmish, just one battle in a long war.
The party faithful were told: ‘The first period of the national revolution is over. It has brought the desired clearing of the air. Our highly revered Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, has again bled for the German people. Through Hitler’s blood and the steel directed against our comrades in Munich by the hands of traitors, the patriotic battle leagues are welded together for better or worse. The second phase of the national revolution begins.’
Hitler and several other putsch participants, including Ludendorff, were charged with treason and put on trial in Munich in January 1924. The case made headlines in Germany and around the world, propelling Hitler from a provincial rabble-rouser to an internationally known figure as he used the courtroom as a platform to propound his politics. In March 1924, thanks to a sympathetic judge, he was sentenced to five years in the comfortable confines of Landsberg Prison, west of Munich. Ludendorff was acquitted.
Hitler served just nine months of his sentence. While imprisoned, he composed his rambling political-biographical testimony Mein Kampf (My Struggle), which he dedicated to the Nazis who had fallen in Munich. When he left Landsberg on December 20, 1924, he had not moderated his political fanaticism one iota. But the humiliating putsch attempt had taught him a lesson that would pay dividends – violent revolution would not work. If the Nazis wanted power, they had to become a legitimate political party, seeking the votes of the people. They had to embrace democracy before destroying it. And so they did.