The Beer Hall Putsch – also known as the Munich Putsch – was an attempt by Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists to seize control of the government of Bavaria. The Munich putsch took place over two days in November 1923, before it collapsed and several leading Nazis, including Hitler, were arrested. It was by no means the first coup attempt launched by right-wing nationalists in Weimar Germany. In March 1920 groups of regular soldiers and Freikorps nationalists, angered by the government’s decision to disband military units, marched on Berlin. They occupied the capital for several days, demanding the resignation of the government and the instalment of Wolfgang Kapp, a Prussian nationalist, as Reich president. The Kapp putsch, as it became known, failed because it was not supported by Reichswehr commanders or German workers. A lack of support ultimately caused Hitler’s 1923 Munich putsch to fail too.
By late 1923, Germany had been paralysed by the French occupation of the Ruhr, a series of general strikes, the economic disaster of hyperinflation, and political violence and turmoil. Many pundits expected the government to be challenged, if not replaced, by either a right-wing putsch, a left-wing revolution or a military coup d’etat. Hitler and the NSDAP – still comparatively small and with a supporter base confined to southern Germany – were in no position to move directly against the German government. But if they controlled Bavaria, Hitler believed he could instigate, build and mobilise a national movement that could take control of Germany. The Nazi leader drew inspiration from the Italian fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, who in 1922 marched from Naples to Rome; he gathered supporters along the way and was handed the prime ministership on reaching his destination. The trigger for Hitler’s putsch came in September 1923, when the Bavarian government attempted to ban a series of NSDAP-organised public rallies. On November 8th 1923, Hitler led around 600 armed Sturmabteilung (SA) troopers into the Burgerbraukeller beer hall, where a meeting of the Bavarian government was taking place. Interrupting a speech by provincial premier Gustav von Kahr, Hitler climbed onto a bench and fired a pistol. He announced the overthrow of the Bavarian government and an imminent takeover of the national government. Hitler then took aside von Kahr and Bavarian military leaders, hectoring them to agree to a ‘revolutionary alliance’.
As Hitler was holding the government to ransom in the beer hall, Ernst Rohm and Rudolf Hess, along with more SA troops, occupied government buildings in Munich. They did not seize control of radio or telegraph facilities, however, so news of the putsch soon reached Berlin. The following day, November 9th, around 3,000 NSDAP and SA members began marching through Munich, intending to link up with Ernst Rohm and his men. By this stage, Munich had been reinforced with extra police, who had set up roadblocks on key routes around the city. The Nazi procession encountered one of these roadblocks at the Odensplatz, manned by about 100 men. A gunfight ensued and several men were hit. Though they heavily outnumbered the police, almost all of the marchers, including Hitler himself, dispersed and left. By nightfall, Munich had been swamped by additional Reichswehr, to deal with any Nazi counter-attack.
The putsch was an irrefutable failure. Twenty people were killed, 16 of them SA troopers. Hermann Goering was seriously wounded, shot in the groin (an injury which left him reliant on drugs for the rest of his life). Hitler himself suffered a dislocated shoulder while being bundled into a car. Worse than that, he was exposed as a coward who fled the Odensplatz rather than staying to fight for control of the city. Ludendorff, who had risked his reputation supporting the Nazis – and placed himself in considerable physical danger also – was disgusted by Hitler’s indecisiveness in the heat of battle, then his flight from the scene. The old general remained alongside the Nazis during the coming trial but privately vowed never to support Hitler again. Hitler himself took refuge in a private house but was arrested two days later.
Hitler was charged with treason and committed for trial – but the hearing was overseen by a panel of judges sympathetic to nationalist political groups. During the trial Hitler was given considerable freedom: the judges allowed him to interject, cross-examine witnesses and deliver unrestrained monologues and political rants, both from the witness box and the floor of the courtroom. The press gave the trial extensive coverage, lapping up Hitler’s grandstanding and repeating his political rhetoric to a national audience. Hitler was found guilty and sentenced to five years’ prison, though with parole and remission he served less than nine months. The NSDAP leader was afforded considerable privileges while in Landsberg Prison: a private cell, frequent visitors, even a personal secretary (Rudolf Hess). Hitler used his isolation to complete something he had long planned: the writing of his political memoir, Mein Kampf (‘My Struggle’).
Despite its tactical and logistic failures, the Beer Hall putsch was hijacked by Nazi propagandists, who portrayed it as the first bold steps of a revolutionary movement. The history of the putsch was re-written, expunging the truth about Hitler’s flight and other miscalculations. The 16 NSDAP members killed during the putsch were remembered as martyrs; those who participated but survived were later awarded their own medal, the Blutorden (‘Blood Order’). The Blutfahne – the NSDAP flag carried during the putsch – became one of the party’s most sacred relics. November 8th and 9th became days of remembrance on the Nazi calendar; it was no coincidence that Kristallnacht – the violent pogrom against Germany’s Jews in 1938 – was initiated on the 15th anniversary of the putsch.
1. The Beer Hall putsch, also known as the Munich putsch, was a Nazi attempt to overthrow the Bavarian government and incite a national revolution.
2. The putsch was attempted in November 1923, following a year of social unrest and economic disaster that threatened the Weimar regime.
3. On November 8th, Hitler and 600 armed Sturmabteilung troopers invaded a Munich beer hall and took control of a provincial government meeting.
4. The following day they attempted to link up with SA troops elsewhere in Munich but became involved in a gunfight at a police roadblock.
5. Though the putsch was a logistical disaster, Hitler’s treason trial allowed him to outline his political vision to a much larger audience.