Before the Beer Hall Putsch
In 1923, Adolf Hitler was 34, an age when most people have finished school and settled into an occupation. He was a high-school dropout, however, and a failed artist whose military service during World War I (1914-18) had been the high point of his life. Injured by a British mustard gas attack in October 1918, Hitler was recuperating in a field hospital when the war ended in November 1918. He became convinced that his life’s mission was to “save Germany,” as he later put it.
Frustrated by Germany’s defeat in World War I, which left the nation economically depressed and politically unstable, Hitler returned to Munich, where he had lived before the war, and found employment as a police spy. Told to infiltrate a small group called the German Workers’ Party, Hitler was attracted to the group’s nationalistic and anti-Semitic ideology. He joined the party in 1919 and soon became one of its early leaders. He also met Dietrich Eckart (1868-1923), co-founder of the party and a member of the Thule Society, an occultist group devoted to theories of racial purity and the origins of Germanic culture. Eckart became Hitler’s mentor, introducing him to influential people and teaching him to be an effective public speaker. By 1921, Hitler was addressing crowds of several thousand people in local beer halls, which were common places for Bavarians to gather for political meetings. The German Workers’ Party changed its name to the National German Socialist Workers’ Party, or Nazi Party, and elected Hitler as its leader in July 1921.
In the two years that followed, the Nazi Party grew as people in southern Germany lost respect for the leadership of the Weimar Republic in Berlin. Germany’s payment of reparations to the Allies, required by the Treaty of Versailles, the 1919 peace settlement that ended World War I, had triggered runaway inflation that wiped out people’s savings. Additionally, starting in January 1923, French and Belgian forces occupied the Ruhr, the center of German heavy industry, an act that contributed to a sense of national humiliation.
By November 1923, Hitler and his associates had concocted a plot to seize power of the Bavarian state government (and thereby launch a larger revolution against the Weimar Republic) by kidnapping Gustav von Kahr (1862-1934), the state commissioner of Bavaria, and two other conservative politicians. Hitler’s plan involved using Erich Ludendorff (1865-1937), the right-wing World War I general, as a figurehead to lead a march on Berlin to overthrow the Weimar Republic. Hitler’s proposed putsch was inspired by the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), whose march on Rome in October 1922 had been successful in ousting the liberal Italian government.
Hitler had initially approached von Kahr to lead the march on Berlin, but when von Kahr began to back away from the plan, Hitler moved ahead without him. Hearing that von Kahr was scheduled to address a large crowd in the Bürgerbräukeller, one of the biggest beer halls in Munich, on November 8, 1923, Hitler took hundreds of his followers and surrounded the hall that evening. The Nazi Party leader and about 20 of his associates burst into the hall, and Hitler fired a shot into the ceiling and declared a “national revolution.” Von Kahr and two colleagues were herded into a back room while one of Hitler’s associates telephoned Ludendorff. When the general arrived at the hall, he convinced the three Bavarian leaders to give in to Hitler’s demands for the march on Berlin.
Hitler made the mistake of leaving the beer hall later that night to deal with crises elsewhere in the city. His followers were supposed to take over government buildings throughout Munich but their attempts were largely foiled by the city’s military troops. Meanwhile, Ludendorff had allowed von Kahr and the other two leaders to leave the beer hall after Hitler’s departure. By the next morning, the putsch had fizzled.
Ludendorff attempted to salvage the situation by calling on Hitler’s followers for a spontaneous march on the city center. He led about 2,500-3,000 supporters in the direction of the Bavarian Defense Ministry. On their way, the marchers were blocked by a group of state police officers. The two groups exchanged fire, and four police officers were killed along with 16 Nazis. Hitler suffered a dislocated shoulder when he fell to the ground. He crawled along the pavement and was taken away in a waiting car, leaving his comrades behind. Ludendorff walked straight ahead into the ranks of the police, who refused to fire on him.
Hitler’s Trial and Imprisonment
Hitler fled to the nearby house of a friend, Ernst Hanfstaengl (1887-1975), where he was reportedly talked out of committing suicide. He hid in Hanfstaengl’s attic for two days but was arrested on November 11, 1923. Accused of high treason, Hitler was tried on February 26, 1924, and sentenced to five years in the Landsberg prison. Hitler’s popularity increased during his trial, as his defense speeches were printed in the newspapers. He served less than a year of his sentence, obtaining a pardon and early release on December 20, 1924.
Landsberg was a relatively comfortable prison, intended for inmates who were considered misguided rather than dangerous. Hitler was allowed to receive visitors as well as fan mail from admirers. Assisted by his deputy Rudolf Hess (1894-1987), Hitler produced the first volume of his political autobiography, “Mein Kampf” (“My Struggle”), in Landsberg. The book, first published in 1925, was dedicated to his early mentor Dietrich Eckart.
The Beer Hall Putsch had several significant consequences. First, it led to a split between Hitler and Ludendorff; the general considered Hitler a coward for sneaking away after the police had begun to fire. Second, Hitler decided that armed revolution was not the way to obtain power in Weimar Germany. After the failure of the putsch, he and the Nazi Party worked to manipulate the political system rather than plan another violent seizure of power.
Third, the putsch brought the Nazi Party to national attention in Germany. The deaths of the 16 party members were also a propaganda victory for the Nazis. The men became martyrs, remembered in the foreword to “Mein Kampf” and entombed in two “temples of honor” in downtown Munich. Hitler held an elaborate march every year on the anniversary of the putsch, retracing the route from the Bürgerbräukeller to the spot where the shots had been fired in 1923. A flag that had been stained with blood from the putsch became a symbol of Nazi ideology. Hitler used this so-called “Blutfahne,” or blood flag, to consecrate all new Nazi banners and flags.
In 1933, a decade after the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler became chancellor of Germany. He went on to lead his country into World War II (1939-45) and mastermind the Holocaust, the systematic, state-sponsored murder of some 6 million European Jews, along with an estimated 4 million to 6 million non-Jews.
On November 8, 1939, Georg Elser (1903-45), a Nazi opponent, planted a bomb at the Bürgerbräukeller, where Adolf Hitler was delivering a speech commemorating the Beer Hall Putsch. However, Hitler left the beer hall shortly before the bomb detonated, killing seven people and injuring dozens more.