The Munich putsch was a November 1923 attempt by Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists (NSDAP) to seize control of the Bavarian government. Though it failed after failing to attract wider support, the Munich putsch was a significant event in the rise of the NSDAP.
Hitler, who was arrested and charged with treason for leading the putsch, exploited his trial by bombarding the courtroom with his nationalist rhetoric and political philosophy. The consequent media attention boosted the national profile of both Hitler and the NSDAP.
In the early 1920s, there was little difference between the NSDAP and other right-wing fringe groups. By the end of 1921, however, the NSDAP had a charismatic leader, Hitler, and several thousand members. The party’s ranks were filled chiefly with ex-soldiers, small business owners and others who blamed the young Weimar Republic for their troubles.
NSDAP members 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 National Socialist Party also had its own paramilitary branch called the Sturmabteilung (or ‘Stormtroopers’). It was formed initially to safeguard NSDAP leaders and meetings but in time became the party’s muscle, engaging in street violence with communists and other rival groups.
Hitler’s bold ambitions
The context for the Munich putsch was clear. By 1923, Germany had been paralysed by France’s occupation of the Ruhr, the resulting general strike and devastating hyperinflation. The unpopularity of the Weimar government had reached new heights, as radical political groups grew in number.
More ambitious groups, like the NSDAP, dreamed of instigating a revolution. Adolf Hitler was inspired by Italian fascist leader, Benito Mussolini’s ‘march on Rome’ the previous year (1922). Hitler dreamed of seizing power in Germany in a similar fashion, atop a wave of public support.
If the NSDAP could seize control of Bavaria, Hitler believed, it would produce a boost to NSDAP membership, a surge in popularity and perhaps even incite a nationalist revolution.
Events at the Beer Hall
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 at 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 nobody was permitted to leave. The NSDAP leader then bombarded his captives with political rhetoric, demanding they support the NSDAP in its quest to take control of Bavaria.
A short time later, Hitler was joined by the World War I military commander 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.
The putsch collapses
About three hours after Hitler entered the beer hall, he allowed his captive audience 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 about what to do next. Ludendorff, in contrast, wanted decisive action. He urged the NSDAP leader to gather his supporters and march on the defence ministry.
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.
Arrests and recriminations
Two days later, the Bavarian and Weimar governments took action. 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 in its objective – the government of Bavaria held firm and the National Socialists were dispersed, discredited and embarrassed – yet the attempted revolution would still return benefits for the NSDAP.
Hitler’s treason trial was overseen by a sympathetic judge, who allowed the NSDAP leader to make grandiose political speeches in the witness box. The trial was also 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 of this sentence before being released. Most of his co-accused were either acquitted or found guilty but released.
“With the failure of the Munich putsch, the worst of the internal crisis was over. Hans von Seeckt, to whom Ebert had transferred the executive power of the Reich and supreme command of the Army on the night of November 8th, was not prepared to cross the Rubicon and become dictator. The NSDAP and other organisations of the extreme right were proscribed throughout Germany, as well the KPD. In the crucial test of the autumn weeks of 1923, the Republic had maintained itself against challenges from both right and left.”
1. The National Socialists, NSDAP or ‘Nazis’ began as the German Workers’ Party in 1919. By the early 1920s, their membership had grown under the leadership of Hitler.
2. The NSDAP was essentially a Bavarian fringe party, however, Hitler had grand ambitions of seizing control of the former kingdom to instigate a national revolution.
3. In November 1923, Hitler attempted a putsch (coup) in Munich by detaining 3,000 local officials and attempting to convince them to back the NSDAP.
4. The Munich or ‘Beer Hall’ putsch, as it became known, subsequently failed following action by local police. Hitler was arrested and charged with treason.
5. Despite the seriousness of the charge, Hitler served only a few months in prison. He was able to use his trial as a political platform, the press coverage helping to boost his profile both in Bavaria and nationwide.