The Munich putsch, launched by Adolf Hitler and the NSDAP in late 1923, was an attempt to seize control of the government in their home province of Bavaria. Though it was ultimately unsuccessful, the Munich putsch (or Beer Hall putsch, as it is sometimes called) began the transformation of the NSDAP from a tiny regional fringe party to a national political movement. Hitler, who was charged with treason for his part in the failed putsch, managed to exploit his trial, bombarding the courtroom with his nationalist rhetoric and political philosophy. The media attention given to Hitler and his group catapulted them into the national spotlight.
In the early 1920s there was little difference between the NSDAP and a dozen other right-wing fringe groups. But by the end of 1921, the NSDAP had a charismatic leader, Adolf Hitler, and several thousand members. The party’s ranks were filled mainly with ex-soldiers, small business owners and the unemployed – groups who blamed the young Weimar Republic for their troubles. They were drawn to Hitler’s rousing speeches, his attacks on the government and his conspiracy theories about Jews and communists. The free beer distributed at NSDAP rallies was also a factor. The party also had its own paramilitary branch, the Sturmabteilung (or ‘Stormtroopers’), which was formed to safeguard NSDAP leaders and meetings and engage in street violence with communists.
In 1923, Germany was paralysed by France’s occupation of the Ruhr, the resulting general strike and devastating hyperinflation. The unpopularity of the Weimar government reached new heights, while radical political groups on both the left- and right-wing grew in number. The more ambitious groups, like the NSDAP, dreamed of instigating a revolution. Adolf Hitler had been inspired by Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini’s 1922 ‘march on Rome’ and dreamed of launching something similar in Germany. The Nazi leader believed that if the NSDAP and its Sturmabteilung could seize control of Bavaria, the party could be expanded and exported to become a nationwide movement. From there, the NSDAP and its supporters might mount a challenge for the national government.
The Nazis made their move on November 8th 1923 – the fifth anniversary of the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II. About 600 Sturmabteilung, some of them armed, surrounded a meeting of 3,000 provincial and municipal politicians and civil servants, being held at the the Burgerbraukeller beer hall in Munich. Hitler and about a dozen of his cohort burst into the hall, screaming orders that all were being detained and that nobody was permitted to leave. The NSDAP leader then bombarded his captives with political rhetoric, demanding that they support the NSDAP in its quest to take control of Bavaria. A short time later, Hitler was joined by former World War I general Erich Ludendorff, who had thrown his weight behind the NSDAP, its leader and his proposed takeover of Bavaria. Hitler and Ludendorff both addressed those present and, according to an eyewitness, appeared to win them over.
Eberhard Kolb, historian
About three hours after Hitler had entered the beer hall, he allowed his captive audience was to leave. Some alerted the police, who by the next morning had mobilised sufficiently to confront groups of NSDAP stormtroopers around Munich. Hitler appeared uncertain what to do next, so Ludendorff urged him to gather his supporters and march on the defence ministry. But when the marchers encountered a roadblock of government police and were fired upon, their appetite for revolution dwindled. Hitler himself fled after receiving a minor wound (a dislocated shoulder, sustained as he was being pushed into the safety of a car). Rumours circulated that Hitler had been killed and the coup had failed, prompting many NSDAP members to go home. Ludendorff, once an admirer of Hitler, now considered him a coward. By the end of the day 18 NSDAP members had been killed, while dozens of others were injured and beaten up by the police.
Two days later, Hitler and Ludendorff were both arrested. NSDAP offices were raided and shut down; the party’s newspaper, Volkischer Beobachter, was forbidden from publishing any further editions. Several party leaders, including Hermann Goering and Rudolf Hess, fled to Austria. The putsch had failed to take over Bavaria – but it would yet deliver a significant propaganda victory for Hitler. His treason trial was overseen by a sympathetic judge, who allowed Hitler to make grandiose political speeches in the witness box. The trial was covered extensively in national newspapers, bringing the Nazis greater attention beyond their Bavarian heartland. Despite the seriousness of the charge, Hitler was sentenced to five years in a comparatively comfortable prison; he served barely eight months before being released. Most of his co-accused were either acquitted or found guilty but released.
1. The NSDAP or ‘Nazi Party’ began in 1919 with the formation of the German Workers’ Party.
2. Hitler arrived in the NSDAP as a spy, but quickly became a member and, later, the party leader.
3. The NSDAP homeland was Bavaria, and Hitler dreamed of seizing control of it as a path to national power.
4. In November 1923 Hitler acted by detaining 3,000 local officials to coerce them into supporting the NSDAP.
5. The Munich or ‘Beer Hall’ putsch subsequently failed, and Hitler found himself imprisoned for high treason.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The Munich putsch”, Alpha History, 2014, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/weimarrepublic/munich-putsch/.