On 8th November, 1923, the Bavarian government held a meeting of about 3,000 officials at the Munich Beer Hall when Adolf Hitler and 600 armed SA men entered the building. Hitler took Gustav von Kahr, the prime minister of Bavaria, Otto von Lossow, the commander of the Bavarian Army and Hans von Seisser, the commandant of the Bavarian State Police into an adjoining room. Hitler told the men that he was to be the new leader of Germany and offered them posts in his new government. Aware that this would be an act of high treason, the three men were initially reluctant to agree to this offer. Hitler was furious and threatened to shoot them and then commit suicide: "I have three bullets for you, gentlemen, and one for me!" After this the three men agreed to become ministers of the government. This became known as the Beer Cellar Putch.
Hitler dispatched Max Scheubner-Richter to Ludwigshöhe to collect General Eric Ludendorff. He had been leader of the German Army at the end of the First World War. Ludendorff had therefore found Hitler's claim that the war had not been lost by the army but by Jews, Socialists, Communists and the German government, attractive, and was a strong supporter of the Nazi Party.
Ernst Röhm, leading a group of stormtroopers, had seized the War Ministry and Rudolf Hess was arranging the arrest of Jews and left-wing political leaders in Bavaria. However, Von Kahr managed to escape and issued a proclamation: "The deception and perfidy of ambitious comrades have converted a demonstration in the interests of national reawakening into a scene of disgusting violence. The declarations extorted from myself, General von Lossow and Colonel Seisser at the point of the revolver are null and void. The National Socialist German Workers' Party, as well as the fighting leagues Oberland and Reichskriegsflagge, are dissolved."
On 9th November, Adolf Hitler, Hermann Kriebel, Eric Ludendorff, Julius Steicher, Hermann Göring, Max Scheubner-Richter, Walter Hewell, Wilhelm Brückner and 3,000 armed supporters of the Nazi Party marched through Munich in an attempt to join up with Röhm's forces at the War Ministry. At Odensplatz they found the road blocked by the Munich police.
Hitler began to plough his way towards the platform and the rest of us surged forward behind him. Tables overturned with their jugs of beer. On the way we passed a major named Mucksel, one of the heads of the intelligence section at Army headquarters, who started to draw his pistol as soon as he saw Hitler approach, but the bodyguard had covered him with theirs and there was no shooting. Hitler clambered on a chair and fired a round at the ceiling.
The Bavarian Ministry is removed. I propose that a Bavarian government shall be formed consisting of a Regent and a Prime Minister invested with dictatorial powers. I propose Herr von Kahr as Regent and Herr Pohner as Prime Minister. The government of the November Criminals and the Reich President are declared to be removed. I propose that, until accounts have been finally settled with the November criminals, the direction of policy in the national Government be taken over by me. Ludendorff will take over the leadership of the German National Army, Lossow will be German Reichswehr Minister, Seisser Reich Police Minister.... I want now to fulfil the vow which I made to myself five years ago when I was a blind cripple in the military hospital: to know neither rest nor peace until the November criminals had been overthrown, until on the ruins of the wretched Germany of today there should have arisen once more a Germany of power and greatness, of freedom and splendour.
A nationalist demonstration was held in beer cellars here today, in the course of which Herr von Kahr, the Dictator, amid the applause of those present, read a manifesto to the German nation in which he denounced particularly the principles of Marxism. The members of patriotic organisations were present in full force.
When Herr von Kahr had concluded his speech Herr Hitler, the Fascist leader, entered the cellars with 600 men and announced the overthrow of the Bavarian Government. The new Government, he added, was in the hands of General Ludendorff, who was the Commander-in-Chief, while he himself would act as General Ludendorff’s political advisor. Herr von Lohner, formerly Chief of Police in Munich, had been appointed Administrator, and General von Lossow Minister of Defence.
After this announcement, the cellars were surrounded by Hitler troops. Shortly before ten o’clock troops of the Oberland organisation, with the colours of the Reich, appeared in several parts of the city, and occupied a number of places, particularly the open spaces.
Everything seemed to be "going" well enough. The people cheered Ludendorff when he swaggered in or out of anywhere. The Hitler storm troops were in possession of the city and the sun was shining brightly on the following day. " Chancellor" Hitler and " Commander-in-Chief" von Ludendorff were within the War Office when the loyal Bavarian Reichswehr, commanded by the "disloyal" (to Berlin) General von Lossow, stormed the building, and after a short battle the "beer hall revolt" was crushed.
It appeared that Dictator von Kahr and General von Lossow were entirely out of sympathy with the movement and declared that their agreement with the Hitler move was forced by duress. After leaving the Bürgerbrau Keller, Dr. von Kahr had conferred with General von Lossow and they decided to suppress the revolt with the faithful Reichswehr (defense force). Ex-Bavarian Crown Prince Rupprecht, head of the Wittelsbach dynasty, emphatically repudiated the revolutionary movement.
The march took place the following morning, November 9th, at about eleven o'clock. It started from the Burgerbrau tavern, and was intended to reach the War Ministry and link up with Roehm's besieged group there. The column managed to pass one police cordon without a fight but in the centre of the city, near the War Ministry, it encountered a further police road-block, shutting off the entrance to the Odeonplatz ... The police, armed, were only about a hundred strong but the narrowness of the street gave them a sound defensive position. There was some shouting at them from the column, Hitler calling "surrender!", but almost immediately firing broke out - which side started is not clear. Within a minute sixteen of the marchers and three of the police were lying on the ground... To what extent Hitler behaved in a cowardly manner was subsequently much disputed. It could be held that he merely behaved like an old soldier in dropping to the ground at the sound of gunfire. He himself explained that he was pulled down by the mortally-wounded man next to him.
A shot was fired and in the next instant a volley of shots rang out from both sides, spelling in that instant the doom of Hitler's hopes. Scheubner-Richter fell, mortally wounded. Goering went down with a serious wound in his thigh. Within sixty seconds the firing stopped, but the street was already littered with fallen bodies - sixteen Nazis and three police dead or dying, many more wounded and the rest, including Hitler, clutching the pavement to save their lives.
There was one exception, and had his example been followed, the day might have had a different ending. Ludendorff did not fling himself to the ground. Standing erect and proud in the best soldierly tradition, with his adjutant, Major Streck, at his side, he marched calmly on between the muzzles of the police rifles until he reached the Odeonsplatz. He must have seemed a lonely and bizarre figure. Not one Nazi followed him. Not even the supreme leader, Adolf Hitler.
The future Chancellor of the Third Reich was the first to scamper to safety. He had locked his left arm with the right arm of Scheubner-Richter (a curious but perhaps revealing gesture) as the column approached the police cordon, and when the latter fell he pulled Hitler down to the pavement with him. Perhaps Hitler thought he had been wounded; he suffered sharp pains which, it was found later, came from a dislocated shoulder. But the fact remains that according to the testimony of one of his own Nazi followers in the column, the physician Dr Walther Schulz which was supported by several other witnesses, Hitler "was the first to get up and turn back", leaving his dead and wounded comrades lying in the street. He was hustled into a waiting motor car and spirited off to the country home of the Hanfstaengls at Uffing, where Putzi's wife and sister nursed him and where, two days later, he was arrested.
Ludendorff was arrested on the spot. He was contemptuous of the rebels who had not had the courage to march on with him, and so bitter against the Army for not coming over to his side that he declared henceforth he would not recognize a German officer nor ever again wear an officer's uniform. The wounded Goering was given first aid by the Jewish proprietor of a nearby bank into which he had been carried and then smuggled across the frontier into Austria by his wife and taken to a hospital in Innsbruck. Hess also fled to Austria. Roehm surrendered at the War Ministry two hours after the collapse before the Feldherrnhalle. Within a few days all the rebel leaders except Goering and Hess were rounded up and jailed.
Hitler wanted "to make himself scarce," to retreat with the fighting leagues to Rosenheim. This simply meant flight. The General had another plan. He was certain of success. No German, at any rate no German in uniform, would shoot at the "General of the World War," at the national hero. At about noon a procession of 2000 National Socialists marched, twelve abreast, through the town. At first shot Hitler had flung himself to the ground. He sprained his arm, but this did not prevent him from running. He found his car and drove into the mountains.
Hitler shouted. "Close the ranks," and linked arms with his neighbours. The body of the man with whom Hitler was linked shot up into the air like a ball, tearing Hitler's arm with him, so that it sprang from the joint and fell back limp and dead. Hitler approached the man and stooped over him. Blood was pouring from his mouth. Hitler picked him up and carried him on his shoulders. "If I can only get him to the car," Hitler thought, "then the boy is saved."
Questions for Students
Question 1: (a) Study source 1 and then explain whether it was painted by a supporter or an opponent of Hitler. (b) What are the disadvantages of using a painting as historical evidence?
Question 2: Read source 3 and explain what you understand by the following phrases: (a) "November Criminals". (b) "dictatorial powers".
Question 5: Study sources 8, 9 10 and 11. Explain how these accounts of the march to the War Ministry differ. Which account is most sympathetic to Hitler and which one is most hostile? Give reasons for your decision.
A commentary on these questions can be found here.