On November 8, 1923, Adolf Hitler entered a beer hall in Munich and fired his pistol at the ceiling, the first step in his planned overthrow of Germany’s democratic government. The coup attempt, to be known as the Beer Hall Putsch, fizzled out almost immediately. Hitler was arrested and imprisoned, several of his followers were killed, and the Nazi Party was banned.

Yet instead of catastrophically setting him back, Hitler’s failed coup turned out to help advance his perverse ambitions. As Hitler himself later said, “The failure of the putsch was perhaps the greatest good fortune of my life.”

Germany in Chaotic, Weakened State After WWI

Following World War I, Germany was beset by food shortages, violent uprisings involving various political factions, and wounded national pride. Plus, with at least 1.7 million German soldiers dead, “every family, basically, is in mourning for a loved one,” says Benjamin Carter Hett, a professor of history at Hunter College and author of The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic.

By 1923, hyperinflation had cratered the economy. At the currency’s lowest point, 4.2 trillion German marks were worth a single U.S. dollar, causing the country to largely revert to a barter system and wiping out the savings of the middle class. To make matters worse, the French and Belgians sent in troops when Germany stopped making reparations payments, as it was required to do under the Treaty of Versailles. “It’s really hard to exaggerate what a mess Germany is in,” Hett says.

In this chaotic environment, Hitler jumped onto the scene. A high school dropout and failed artist with a knack for self-promotion, the Austria-born future dictator had served in Germany’s army in World War I prior to joining what would become the Nazi Party. By 1921, he had taken over leadership of the party and was giving speeches throughout Munich, where he railed against the Treaty of Versailles and falsely blamed Jews for Germany’s defeat in the war.

The Beer Hall Putsch Plot

Influenced by Benito Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome, Hitler concocted a scheme to seize power in Munich, the capital of Bavaria, which was then a “real hotbed of fringe political activity,” Hett explains. Once accomplished, Hitler next intended to infiltrate what he called “that godless Babel” of Berlin, overthrow the Weimar Republic, and install himself in charge. “In retrospect, it looks completely hairbrained,” Hett says. 

Hitler sprung his plan into action on November 8, 1923, during a mass meeting attended by some 3,000 people at the Bürgerbräukeller beer hall in Munich. As Gustav von Kahr, Bavaria’s state commissioner, spoke to the packed audience, Hitler barged in, jumped on a chair, and fired his pistol at the ceiling to silence the crowd. Drenched in sweat, he declared that “the national revolution has begun.” Meanwhile, his men surrounded the beer hall and blocked its main entrance with a machine gun. They also took several Jewish hostages, robbed two print shops, and destroyed an opposition newspaper.

Having been taken to a back room of the beer hall and threatened, Kahr and two military leaders agreed to join in the coup attempt. But although they likewise opposed the Weimar Republic, they turned on Hitler as soon as they were let free, informing the army and state police about his plot. Hitler’s men furthermore failed to secure certain key buildings, including an army barracks and the telephone exchange.

Seeing their plan crumbling, Hitler and his co-conspirators launched a large-scale march through Munich on November 9. But they were intercepted by a contingent of Bavarian state police and a firefight broke out, leading to the deaths of 15 of Hitler’s men, four policemen and one bystander. Hitler suffered a dislocated shoulder in the melee, and the Nazi next to him was fatally shot in the chest. “He survives by sort of a fluke,” Hett says.

Hitler's Arrest

Following the failed putsch, Hitler went into hiding for two days until the police tracked him down and hauled him off to Landsberg Prison west of Munich. At first, the future führer was despondent and even stopped eating. German authorities had banned the Nazi Party, shuttered its newspaper, and arrested much of its leadership. To many, Hitler seemed like a spent force. “The Munich putsch definitely eliminates Hitler and his National Socialist followers,” the New York Times declared.

As Hitler came to realize, however, jailtime had its benefits. For one thing, it prompted him to shift tactics. “He learns…you can’t trust anybody outside your party,” says Peter Black, a former senior historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, who helped litigate against Nazi war criminals. Moreover, Black says, “The Beer Hall Putsch proved to Hitler that the regime could not be toppled by a direct assault, that it had to be undermined from within.” Henceforth, Hitler would seek power largely through the democratic process, not through violent revolution.

The failed putsch and subsequent trial, at which Hitler and nine co-defendants were charged with high treason, also received much media coverage and elevated him into a national figure. Given wide latitude by the judges, one of whom was overheard calling him a “tremendous chap,” Hitler gave lengthy courtroom speeches portraying himself as a savior and patriot who only wanted what was best for Germany.

“He grabs this opportunity,” Black says, pointing out that “what Hitler harps on in the public domain, when he’s not talking to a Nazi audience, are German nationalistic grievances that many in Germany, even Jews in Germany, can sympathize with.”

Hitler Writes 'Mein Kampf' During Light Imprisonment

Adolf Hilter's room in the prison
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Adolf Hilter's room in the prison of Landsberg at Lech during his imprisonment after the failed Beer Hall Putsch.

In the end, Hitler received a prison sentence of five years, with eligibility for parole in just six months. Additionally, the court declined to deport him to Austria, where he was still a citizen, on the judicially shaky grounds that he had served in the German army and felt himself to be German. “It’s a laughably light punishment overall,” says Hett, who adds that the “court didn’t have jurisdiction to make that [deportation] finding, but they did anyway. Hitler being deported at that time might have really changed history.”

Reenergized, Hitler returned to Landsberg Prison and began writing the first volume of Mein Kampf, his pseudoscience-filled manifesto foreshadowing the later mass murder of Jews and invasion of Eastern Europe. Hitler would later say that, without his imprisonment, Mein Kampf would not have existed.

After the trial, a stream of visitors showed up at Landsberg, and Hitler’s room filled with mail and gifts of flowers and sweets. He was allowed to wear his own clothes, sat in a comfortable wicker chair, and even had his bed made for him. In the book, 1924: The Year That Made Hitler, journalist Peter Ross Range called it the “easiest prison time any convict could do in Bavaria.”

After Release, Hitler Resurges on Political Scene

In December 1924, Hitler was released after only about a year behind bars. He came out confident, convinced of his own greatness, much better known across Germany, and on the verge of becoming a published author, with an entrenched worldview and a new plan for taking power. Returning to Munich, he gave his first post-prison speech at the Bürgerbräukeller beer hall, the site of the putsch, where he declared himself the supreme leader of a reconstituted Nazi Party.   

Though the Nazis still garnered only a tiny share of popular support, their rise had begun. They never won an outright majority, topping out at 37 percent of the vote in the July 1932 parliamentary elections. But Hitler nonetheless became chancellor in January 1933 due in no small part to leftist infighting and establishment conservative enablers who thought they could control him in a coalition government.

These conservatives completely underestimate Hitler, Hett says. “They do not understand how ruthless, how cunning he is," he says. "And he makes extremely short work of them, it turns out.”

During Hitler’s 12 years in power, tens of millions of lives were lost, including some 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

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