In February 1923, Adolf Hitler and Ernst Röhm, entered into negotiations with the Patriotic Leagues in Bavaria. This included the Lower Bavarian Fighting League, Reich Banner, Patriotic League of Munich and Oberland Defence League. A joint committee was set up under the chairmanship of Lieutenant Colonel Hermann Kriebel, the military leader of the Working Union of the Patriots Fighting Associations. Over the next few months Hitler and Rohm worked hard to bring in as many of the other right-wing groups as they could. (1)
Gustav Stresemann, of the German National People's Party (DNVP), with the support of the Social Democratic Party, became chancellor of Germany in August 1923. On 26th September, he announced the decision of the government to call off the campaign of passive resistance in the Ruhr unconditionally, and two days later the ban on reparation deliveries to France and Belgium was lifted. He also tackled the problem of inflation by establishing the Rentenbank. (2)
Alan Bullock, the author of Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962) has pointed out: "This was a courageous and wise decision, intended as the preliminary to negotiations for a peaceful settlement. But it was also the signal the Nationalists had been waiting for to stir up a renewed agitation against the Government." (3) Hitler made a speech in Munich attacking Stresemann, as showing "subserviency towards the enemy, surrender of the human dignity of the German, pacifist cowardice, tolerance of every indignity, readiness to agree to everything until nothing remains." (4)
Ernst Röhm, Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring and Hermann Kriebel had a meeting together on 25th September where they discussed what they were to do. Hitler told the men that it was time to take action. Röhm agreed and resigned his commission to give his full support to the cause. Hitler's first step was to put his own 15,000 Sturm Abteilung men in a state of readiness. The following day, the Bavarian Cabinet proclaimed a state of emergency and appointed Gustav von Kahr, one of the best-known politicians, with strong right-wing leanings, as State Commissioner with dictatorial powers. Kahr's first act was to ban Hitler from holding meetings. (5)
General Hans von Seeckt made it clear that he would take action if Hitler attempted to take power. As William L. Shirer, the author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1964), has pointed out: "He issued a plain warning to... Hitler and the armed leagues that any rebellion on their part would be opposed by force. But for the Nazi leader it was too late to draw back. His rabid followers were demanding action." (6)
Wilhelm Brückner, one of his SA commanders, urged him to strike at once: "The day is coming, when I won't be able to hold the men back. If nothing happens now, they'll run away from us." A plan of action was suggested by Alfred Rosenberg and Max Scheubner-Richter. The two men proposed to Hitler and Röhm that they should strike on 4th November during a military parade in the heart of Munich. The idea was that a few hundred storm troopers should converge on the street before the parading troops arrived and seal it off with machine-guns. However, when the SA arrived they discovered the street was fully protected by a large body of well-armed police and the plan had to be abandoned. It was then decided that the putsch should take place three days later. (7)
On 8th November, 1923, the Bavarian government held a meeting of about 3,000 officials. While Gustav von Kahr, the prime minister of Bavaria was making a speech, Adolf Hitler and 600 armed SA men entered the building. According to Ernst Hanfstaengel: "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." Hitler then told the audience: "The national revolution has broken out! The hall is filled with 600 armed men. No one is allowed to leave. The Bavarian government and the government at Berlin are hereby deposed. A new government will be formed at once. The barracks of the Reichswehr and the police barracks are occupied. Both have rallied to the swastika!" (8)
Leaving Hermann Göring and the SA to guard the 3,000 officials, Hitler took Gustav von Kahr, 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. Adolf 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. (9)
It was later reported: "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." (10)
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. However, according to Alan Bullock, the author of Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962): "He (Ludendorff) was thoroughly angry with Hitler for springing a surprise on him, and furious at the distribution of offices which made Hitler, not Ludendorff, the dictator of Germany, and left him with the command of an army which did not exist. But he kept himself under control: this was a national event, he said, and he could only advise the others to collaborate." (11)
While Adolf Hitler had been appointing government ministers, 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. Hitler now planned to march on Berlin and remove the national government. Surprisingly, Hitler had not arranged for the Sturm Abteilung (SA) to take control of the radio stations and the telegraph offices. This meant that the national government in Berlin soon heard about Hitler's putsch and gave orders to General Hans von Seeckt for it to be crushed. (12)
Gustav von Kahr, Otto von Lossow and Hans von Seisser, managed to escape and Von Kahr 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." (13)
The next day 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. What happened next is in dispute. One observer said that Hitler fired the first shot with his revolver. Another witness said it was Steicher while others claimed the police fired into the ground in front of the marchers. (14)
William L. Shirer has argued: "At any rate 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." (15)
According to another source: "In seconds 16 Nazis and 3 policeman lay dead on the pavement, and others were wounded. Goering, who was shot through the thigh, fell to the ground. Hitler, reacting spontaneously because of his training as a dispatch bearer during World War I, automatically hit the pavement when he heard the crack of guns. Surrounded by comrades, he escaped in a car standing close by. Ludendorff, staring straight ahead, moved through the ranks of the police, who in a gesture of respect for the old war hero, turned their guns aside." (16)
Hitler, who had dislocated his shoulder, lost his nerve and ran to a nearby car. Although the police were outnumbered, the Nazis followed their leader's example and ran away. Only Eric Ludendorff and his adjutant continued walking towards the police. Later Nazi historians were to claim that the reason Hitler left the scene so quickly was because he had to rush an injured young boy to the local hospital. (17)
Two hours after Hitler's march through the streets had been halted and dispersed by police bullets, Ernst Röhm realized the futility of the operation, surrendered, and was placed under arrest. Adolf Hitler, Eric Ludendorff, Wilhelm Frick, Wilhelm Brückner, Hermann Kriebel, Walter Hewell, Friedrich Weber and Ernst Pöhner were also charged with high treason. If found guilty, they could faced the death penalty. The trial began on 26th February, 1924. The court-case created a great deal of interest and it was covered by the world's press. Hitler realized this was a good opportunity to speak to a large audience. (18)
Franz Gürtner, the Minister of Justice in Bavaria, was an old friend and protector of Hitler and he saw to it that he would be treated well in court: "Hitler was allowed to interrupt as often as he pleased, cross-examine witnesses at will and speak on his own behalf at any time and at any length - his opening statement consumed four hours, but it was only the first of many long harangues." (19)
The State Prosecutor, Ludwig Stenglein, was remarkably tolerant towards Hitler in court: "His (Hitler) honest endeavour to reawaken the belief in the German cause among an oppressed and disarmed people.... His private life has always been clean, which deserves special approbation in view of the temptations which naturally came to him as an acclaimed party leader.... Hitler is a highly gifted man who, coming from a simple background, has, through serious and hard work, won for himself a respected place in public life. He dedicated himself to the ideas that inspired him to the point of self-sacrifice, and as a soldier he fulfilled his duty in the highest measure."
Hitler argued in court: "One thing was certain, Lossow, Kahr, and Seisser had the same goal that we had - to get rid of the Reich Government with its present international and parliamentary government. If our enterprise was actually high treason, then during this whole period Lossow, Kahr, and Seisser must have been committing high treason along with us, for during all these weeks we talked of nothing but the aims of which we now stand accused.... I alone bear the responsibility, but I am not a criminal because of that. If today I stand here as a revolutionary, it is as a revolutionary against the Revolution. There is no such thing as high treason against the traitors of 1918." (20)
On the 1st April, 1924, the verdicts were announced. Eric Ludendorff was acquitted. Hitler, Weber, Kriebel and Pöhner were found guilty and were sentenced to five years' imprisonment. Röhm, although found guilty, was released and placed on probation. As Ian Kershaw has pointed out: "Even on the conservative Right in Bavaria, the conduct of the trial and sentences prompted amazement and disgust. In legal terms, the sentence was nothing short of scandalous. No mention was made in the verdict of the four policeman shot by the putschists; the robbery of 14,605 billion Marks was entirely played down; the destruction of the offices of the SPD newspaper Münchener Post and the taking of a number of Social Democratic city councillors as hostages were not blamed on Hitler." (21)
Hitler was sent to Landsberg Castle in Munich to serve his prison sentence. He was treated well and was allowed to walk in the castle grounds, wear his own clothes and receive gifts. Officially there were restrictions on visitors but this did not apply to Hitler, and a steady flow of friends, party members and journalists spent long spells with him. He was even allowed to have visits from his pet Alsatian dog. (22)
Louis L. Snyder has argued: "On the surface the Beer-Hall Putsch seemed to be a failure, but actually it was a brilliant achievement for a political nobody. In a few hours Hitler catapulted his scarcely known, unimportant movement into headlines throughout Germany and the world. Moreover, he learned an important lesson: direct action was not the way to political power. It was necessary that he seek political victory by winning the masses to his side and also by attracting the support of wealthy industrialists. Then he could ease his way to political supremacy by legal means." (23)
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.
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.
Kahr was sending us off to sleep. He had just said the words "and now I come to the consideration" which, for all I know, was to be the high spot of his speech, when the door behind us which we had come through flew open and in burst Goering with about twenty-five brownshirts with pistols and machine-guns.
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. It is always maintained that he did this to terrify the gathering into submission, but I swear he did it to wake people up. Anyway, on home ground at last, Hitler barked an impromptu proclamation: "The national revolution has broken out. The Reichswehr is with us. Our flag is flying on their barracks."
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.
Under cover of darkness General Erich von Ludendorff, flagitious, inscrutable, unrelenting, sallied forth into the streets of Munich, capital of Bavaria, accompanied by his faithful Austrian, Herr Adolf Hitler, to make a coup for the Hohenzollerns by way of celebrating Nov. 9, the fifth anniversary of the abdication of the then Kaiser of Doorn.
With unerring instinct they led their men to a beerhouse, called the Bügerbrau Keller, famed Bavarian cellar. Within was Bavarian Dictator von Kahr, Minister President von Knilling, Minister of Interior Schweier and some others. Dr. von Kahr was in the middle of outlining his state policy in which he denounced Marxism, when the door opened and in walked Herr Hitler and General von Ludendorff with some of their followers, who fired a few shots into the ceiling by way of effect.
Herr Hitler declared the Bavarian Government had been superseded and elected himself not only head of Bavaria but Chancellor of all Germany.
Dr. von Kahr was offered the post of National Protector, à la Horthy in Hungary, which he accepted. His companions, Minister President von Knilling and Minister of Interior Schweier, were arrested and imprisoned. General Ludendorff was given command of the Army, which he accepted, and said: "We have reached the turning point in the history of Germany and the world. God bless our work!"
After this distribution of gifts by fairy godfather Hitler, there was wild talk of a march on Berlin, the destruction of the Treaty of Versailles, the deposition of President Ebert and the Berlin Government.
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.
In Berlin the news of the coup was received with undisguised alarm, despite subsequent contrary statements. President Ebert issued an appeal to the nation, an emergency Cabinet meeting was held, troops were ordered out by General von Seeckt, Commander-in-Chief of the Reichswehr. Hardly had this been done when the news was flashed from Munich that the revolt had been crushed.
Meanwhile in Munich Dr. von Kahr and General von Lossow quickly restored order. Minister President von Knilling and Minister of Interior Schweier were released and resumed their duties. Herr Hitler escaped from his enemies without hurt, but was found several days later hiding in the house of one, Ernst Franz Hanfstaengl, said to be a Harvard graduate and former Manhattan art dealer. Ludendorff was captured by the Reichswehr, but released after having given his parole not to plot against the Bavarian Government. Once free, however, he determined not to become the scapegoat of a beer-house brawl. With characteristic defiance he declared that he was bound only by his honor to refrain from attacking the Government while his and Hitler's conduct were under consideration. Beyond that he considered himself free to work for the Hohenzollern's return.
Thus it was clear that the career of a great German general is not over; that his iron fist, which proved stronger than that of Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenberg during the latter part of the War, is not rusty; that he is still intent upon being treated as a monster and not a weakling, a soldier of the old brigade and not a great pure fool. Perhaps, next putsch, he will not frolic with political opportunists such as Hitler.
The treason trial of General Erich von Ludendorff, Herr Adolph Hitler and eight lesser heroes of the "Beer Hall Brawl" recorded a five-hour speech by Hitler and a four-hour speech by the General.
Herr Hitler, taking up the main line of the defense, attempted to show that von Kahr, ex-Dictator of Bavaria, and Reichswehrgeneral von Lossow were inculpated. As this pointed to Bavarian Prince Ruprecht himself the trial was temporarily closed to the public.
But the General's speech - ineloquently written and ineloquently read - was heard by a full house. When he had finished, his friends began to apologize. As a politician the General had shown himself again incompetent. His defense consisted in attacking Socialists, Jews and Catholics in a Catholic country:
"I am an old man. I became old under the heavy burdens of the war, the physical efforts I was forced to make, and through my struggles with the people. Nevertheless, my heart is young and I am ever one who loves the freedom of my people and my people themselves.
"There cannot be the slightest doubt of my attitude towards the Communists. Before the War this Marxist world turned against every military power. Herr Scheidemann said to France, 'You are not our enemies, but our friends and allies.' Therefore I am opposed to all Marxist and Communist elements.
"In connection with this is the Jewish question. I made its acquaintance during the war. For me it is a question of race. Little as the Englishmen or Frenchmen can be permitted to obtain dominion over us, so little can the Jew be permitted. Freedom of the nation cannot be expected from him. Therefore I was against him.
"When peace was signed the Pope did not act as a neutral man, but he favored France. This was illustrated by a letter written at the time of the sanctification of Jeanne d"Arc."
Finally, after attacking Cardinal Faulhaber, the General gave his monarchical credo:
"The nation does not exist for the dynasty, but the dynasty for the nation. When Germany finds itself it will have a dynasty ready to serve it. I wish the German Empire to be strong and free and belong only to Germans."
Feldmarschall Erich von Ludendorff (flagitious, inscrutable, unrelenting) was acquitted of all blame for his part in the so-called "Beer Hall" uprising of last Fall.
The General appeared for his final day in court equipped in full military regalia with numerous orders, decorations. His acquittal was attributed to the strong feeling of favor which he had worked up as result of making no attempt to hide his Nationalistic sentiment. "Ludy" was unafraid. Last week, for example, he told his judges that they themselves sat "before the judgment of History, which does not send men who fought for the Fatherland to a fortress, but to a Valhalla."
Adolph Hitler, the other prime investigator of the revolt, together with former Chief of Police Poehner, was sentenced to five years of confinement in a fortress and fined 200 gold marks. Since it was understood, however, that he will be obliged to serve only six months - and then receive a parole for good behavior, his followers received the verdict with loud approval, signalled it from the housetops with wigwagging, deluged Hitler and Ludendorff with floral tributes, cried out: "Down with Von Kahr, Von Lossow, Seisser!"
At any rate 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."