On November 8 and 9, 1923, Adolf Hitler and his followers attempted to take over the Bavarian government. The coup d’etat, known as Beer Hall Putsch, was meant to be the first step of a national revolution aimed at overthrowing the Weimar Republic. However, the Bavarian state police blocked the putschists as they marched to Odeonsplatz, a square in downtown Munich. Since 1921, when he took on the leadership of the Nazi Party, Hitler had capitalized on the widespread discontent with the punishing terms of the Versailles Treaty to promote his anti-Semitic and nationalist propaganda. In the aftermath of the failed putsch, Hitler gained national fame, wrote Mein Kampf, and abandoned the plan of seizing power through a coup d’état.
The Beer Hall Putsch & the End of World War I
After the end of World War I, the Weimar Republic, born after Emperor William II’s abdication, was plagued by political and economic problems, leading to social unrest. The harsh terms of the Versailles Treaty had weakened Germany’s economy. As a result, the country struggled to pay the war reparations demanded by the Allied powers. Faced with the looming threat of a budget deficit, the German federal government decided to inject more money into the market. The consequence was a runaway inflation that would eventually lead to the collapse of the country’s economy.
In an article published in Everybody’s Monthly, British economist John Maynard Keynes claimed that the treaty “leaves Europe more unsettled than it found it.” Keynes, who had participated at the Paris Peace Conference as Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s economic adviser, famously predicted the dangerous repercussions of the punishing terms imposed on Germany in his 1919 The Economic Consequences of the Peace. According to Keynes, the Allied powers’ demands “will sow the decay of the whole of civilized life of Europe.”
The terms of the Versailles Treaty, which included the loss of colonial territories and the disbanding of the national army, caused a wave of shock and indignation among the German population. In particular, right-wing nationalist parties accused the government of betrayal. As a result, the immediate postwar years saw a string of revolutions, counterrevolutions, and attempted coups d’état that undermined the authority of the Weimar Republic.
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In the spring of 1920, the Communists organized a workers’ uprising in the Ruhr region. In March of the same year, General Wolfgang Kapp and General Walther von Lüttwitz tried to overthrow the government but failed to win the support of the far-right groups.
In Munich, Adolf Hitler, then the leader of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), held rousing speeches in the beer halls, rejecting the Versailles Treaty and calling for the exclusion of all German Jews from citizenship and the enjoyment of civil rights.
“Only those of German blood, whatever their creed, may be members of the nation,” claimed the fourth point of the program of the Nazi party, “accordingly, no Jew may be a member of the nation.”
The worsening economic conditions (and Hitler’s skills as an orator) contributed to the increasing popularity of the far-right party. In 1921, crowds of several thousand people listened to Hitler’s violent, anti-Semitic speeches. In the same year, Hitler created the SA (Sturmabteilung), a paramilitary organization that supported the party’s fight against “foreign races” and protected its members.
The Occupation of the Ruhr & the Rise of Nationalism in Bavaria
In January 1923, when Germany failed to pay the due installment of its war reparations, France and Belgium occupied the industrial Ruhr region, Germany’s first source of coal. The Reich government responded to the occupation by ordering passive resistance against the invaders. As a result, mines and factories shut down. While the French and Belgian authorities proceeded to make mass arrests and deportations, the Germans resorted to sabotage and guerilla warfare. As the situation escalated, the occupying forces enforced an economic blockade that caused food shortages and debilitated the German economy. Prices went up. Inflation skyrocketed.
By October, Germans began to load banknotes on carts to pay for groceries. “A normal loaf of bread now costs 540 million,” wrote Betty Scholem in a letter to her son Gerschom. “Tomorrow, surely twice as much. The streetcar fare is 20 million (tomorrow it’ll be 50!).”
When Betty sent her letter, one US dollar cost 25.3 billion marks. In December, the value of the mark fell to an all-time low of 4.2 trillion to the dollar. “It seems inevitable,” added Betty Scholem in her letter, “that we will lose the Rhine and the Ruhr, that Bavaria will break away, and that Germany will once again fall apart into minuscule petty states.”
Indeed, the occupation of the Ruhr worsened the already rocky relationship between Bavaria and the Weimar Republic in Berlin. When Reich chancellor Gustav Stresemann decided to break off the passive resistance in the Ruhr, the Bavarian nationalist government responded by declaring a state of emergency and appointing Gustav von Kahr, the former Bavarian Minister-President who made no secret of his dislike of democracy, General State Commissioner. The position granted Kahr de facto absolute power. Along with the chief of State Police Hans von Seisser and the Bavarian Commander of the Reichswehr Otto von Lossow, Kahr openly defied the central government, advocating for Bavaria’s independence from the rest of the country.
Meanwhile, the nationalist parties, united in the Kampfbund (Combat League), urged a violent overthrow of the Weimar Republic and the “November criminals” who had signed the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Inspired by the March on Rome organized in 1922 by Benito Mussolini, Hitler began to form a plan to seize power in Bavaria. After forcing Kahr and the other two members of the Bavarian triumvirate to legitimize his action, he intended to lead his followers on a march on Berlin.
Before the putsch, Hitler won the support of Erich Ludendorff, a World War I general who believed the Weimar Republic had “stabbed in the back” the German army at Versailles. Hitler and Ludendorff decided to put their plan into motion on the evening of November 8, 1923, when Kahr was scheduled to give a speech in the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich.
November 8 and 9, 1923: The Beer Hall Putsch
On November 8, hundreds of armed SA members surrounded the beer hall where Kahr was holding a public speech. At the same time, the Nazi party’s leader and other Brownshirts burst into the building. Hitler interrupted Kahr’s rally by firing his gun and announcing the beginning of a “national revolution.” He then forced Kahr, Lussow, and Seisser into a back room, where he coerced them at gunpoint into supporting his coup d’état against Berlin.
After securing the triumvirs’ backing, Hitler left the beer hall to join the other conspirators who had the crucial task of seizing control of government buildings and communication centers. However, their attempts largely failed.
Only Ernst Röhm, the leader of the SA, managed to take over the headquarters of the Reichswehr (the former War Ministry) on Ludwigstraße. Meanwhile, Erich Ludendorff made the mistake of allowing Kahr, Lussow, and Seisser to leave the beer hall, supposedly to secure the support of the state police. However, they immediately ordered law enforcement to suppress the putsch.
The following day, Hitler, on Ludendorff’s suggestion, made a last attempt to regain control of the situation by leading about 2,500 members of the Kampfbund in a march to Ludwigstraße to join Röhm at the Reichswehr. When the marchers reached the Feldherrnhalle on Odeonsplatz, the police opened fire. Four policemen, sixteen putschists, and one innocent bystander were killed in the ensuing shootout. Hermann Goering, then Hitler’s lieutenant, was wounded in the groin. Hitler, who dislocated his shoulder falling to the ground, fled the scene, possibly in a car waiting nearby. After hiding for a few days, the police arrested him on November 11.
The trial against the putschists began in the Munich Völksgericht (people’s court) in February 1924. The defendants stood accused of high treason. The decision to hold the trial in the Bavarian capital resulted from a compromise between the Reich government and Bavaria. Indeed, the central government had initially opted to try the conspirators at the Staatsgerichtshof zum Schutze der Republik (Constitutional Court for the Defense of the Republic) in Leipzig. The special court, established after the assassination of former Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs Walther Rathenau in 1922, had jurisdiction over all high treason cases. However, in 1922, the Weimar Republic had also assigned the same jurisdiction to the Bavarian people’s courts. After some negotiations, the Berlin government allowed Bavaria to try the November putschists in their Völksgericht.
The tribunal panel was presided over by Judge Georg Neithardt. From the beginning, it was clear that Neithardt was biased in favor of the defendants, often using leading questions that helped them present their actions as “honorable.” He regularly addressed Ludendorff as Exzellenz (Your Excellency). After Hitler rose to power in 1933, Georg Neithardt joined the Nazi party. He was also appointed president of the Munich High Regional Court.
Georg Neithardt’s leniency for the putschists gave Hitler ample opportunity to address the court (and people attending the trial) with hours-long speeches against the government in Berlin and the Communist party, which, according to his rhetoric, presented the only real threat to Germany.
“We wanted to create order in the state,” claimed Hitler in his last speech, “throw out the drones, take up the fight against international stock exchange slavery, against our whole economy being cornered by trusts, against the politicizing of the trade unions.”
On April 1, 1924, Hitler was sentenced to five years in Landsberg am Lech, a minimum security prison. The court also fined him 200 gold marks. It was the lightest sentence for high treason. During his imprisonment in Landsberg, Hitler received visitors and regularly corresponded with his supporters. He also wrote the autobiographical Mein Kampf (My Struggle). Among his visitors was Winifred Wagner, Richard Wagner’s daughter-in-law, who provided him with the writing materials for his work. In the end, Hitler served only nine months of his five-year sentence. He received an early release on December 20, 1924.
The Aftermath of the Beer Hall Putsch
The trial against the putschists was criticized by journalists, jurists, and most Bavarian government officials. Mannheim jurist Max Hachenburg, for example, wrote that the trial was a “damage to Germany.”
Similarly, Hugo Preuß, an expert in constitutional law and one of the fathers of the Weimar Constitution, described the proceedings as a “travesty of justice.” The Frankfurter Zeitung, a daily newspaper based in Frankfurt, denounced the verdict as a “farce” and a “mockery of the German people.”
While the putsch failed, it gave Hitler national and international exposure. During the subsequent trial, the Nazi party’s leader gained popularity with his empathic anti-Semitic speeches, which the press regularly printed. Hitler also learned from his failure. Indeed, after his release from prison, he abandoned the idea of achieving power through a coup d’état. When the Bavarian government lifted the ban against the NSDAP in 1925, he radically restructured the party. In the 1930 national election, the Nazis won over 18 percent of the vote, thus becoming the second-largest political movement in the country. In January 1933, Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany.
Hitler transformed the Beer Hall Putsch into a propagandistic myth. The 16 putschists killed on November 9 became martyrs to the National Socialist cause. After the Nazi party rose to power, their names were inscribed in the Mahnmal der Bewegung (Memorial to the Movement), a plaque commemorating the putsch. Every year, on the anniversary of the event, the regime organized a memorial procession and ceremony. A flag stained with the blood of one putschist, the so-called Blutfahne (blood flag), became a sacred object for the Nazis. Hitler regularly used it to “sanctify” all other banners in a ceremony known as Fahnenweihe (flag consecration).