The Beer Hall Putsch (also known as the Munich Putsch) was a failed coup d'état that occurred between the evening of Thursday, November 8 and the early afternoon of Friday, November 9 1923, when the Nazi party's leader Adolf Hitler, the popular World War I General Erich Ludendorff, and other leaders of the Kampfbund, unsuccessfully tried to gain power in Munich, Bavaria, and Germany. Putsch is the German word for coup d'état.
German power and prestige were destroyed in the aftermath of World War I. Hitler saw this as a betrayal by the central government. The former corporal and crowd-rousing speaker, who in the chaotic political atmosphere of postwar Munich had risen rapidly to head the small National Socialist party, could call on about 15,000 brown shirts representing several revanchist Bavarian political groups -- the Kampfbund. Hitler announced that starting on September 27 1923, he would be holding 14 mass meetings. This prompted the Bavarian Prime Minister Eugen von Knilling to declare a state of emergency and name Gustav von Kahr as Bavarian Commissioner, Bavarian State Police head Colonel Hans Ritter von Seisser, and Reichswehr General Otto von Lossow as dictators (they were called the triumvirs) to keep order.
Hitler, with other leaders in the Kampfbund, searched out the triumvirs and the leaders of the conservative-nationalist-monarchist groups to convince them to march upon Berlin and seize power. In April, before the establishment of the triumvir, Hitler would call von Kahr almost every day. Each thought to use the other to propel himself into power. Von Kahr sought to restore the monarchy; Hitler wanted to be a dictator.
The attempted putsch was inspired by Benito Mussolini's successful March on Rome. Hitler and his associates planned to use Munich as a base for a big march against Germany's Weimar Republic government in Berlin. But the circumstances were different from those in Italy. Once Hitler realized that von Kahr either sought to control him or was losing heart (history is unclear), Hitler decided to take matters into his own hands. Hitler, along with a large detachment of SA, marched on the Bürgerbräukeller, a Munich beer hall where von Kahr was making a speech in front of 3,000 people.
In the cold evening dark, 600 stormtroopers surrounded the beer hall and a machine gun was set up pointing at the auditorium doors. Hitler, surrounded by his associates Hermann Göring, Alfred Rosenberg, Rudolf Hess, Ernst Hanfstaengl, Ulrich Graf, Johann Aigner, Adolf Lenk, Max Amann, Scheubner-Richter, Wilhelm Adam, etc. (some twenty in all) burst through the doors at 8:30 pm, pushed their way laboriously through the crowd, fired a shot into the ceiling and jumped on a chair yelling, "The national revolution has broken out! The hall is filled with six hundred men. Nobody is allowed to leave. The Bavarian government and the government at Berlin are deposed. A new government will be formed at once. The barracks of the Reichswehr and those of the police are occupied. Both have rallied to the swastika."
At gunpoint, Hitler, accompanied by Rudolf Hess, Adolf Lenk and Ulrich Graf forced the triumvirate of von Kahr, von Seisser, and von Lossow into a side room (previously rented by Rudolf Hess) and demanded that they support his putsch, or they would be shot. Hitler thought that he would get an immediate response of affirmation from them, imploring von Kahr to accept a position as Regent of Bavaria. Von Kahr reasonably pointed out that he could not be expected to collaborate, especially as he had been taken out of the auditorium under heavy guard.
During this time, speeches were held in the main hall by Goering, amongst others, obtaining a temporary calm, whilst no one was allowed to leave, not even to go to the toilet. Some, however, managed to escape via the kitchen, especially those foreign correspondents eager to file copy. At the same time, Heinz Pernet, Johann Aigner and Scheubner-Richter were dispatched to pick up General Ludendorff, whose personal prestige was being harnessed to give the Nazis credibility. A telephone call was made from the kitchen by Kriebel to Ernst Röhm, who was waiting with his Reichskriegflagge in the Löwenbräukeller, another beer hall, and ordered him to seize key buildings throughout the city. At the same time, co-conspirators under Gerhard Rossbach mobilized the students of a nearby Officers Infantry school to seize other objectives.
Hitler became irritated by von Kahr and summoned Ernst Poehner, Friedrich Weber and Hermann Kriebel to stand in for him whilst he returned to the auditorium to make a speech (as he had promised some fifteen minutes earlier). Flanked by Rudolf Hess and Adolf Lenk, Hitler returned to the auditorium to make an extemporaneous speech that changed the mood of the hall almost within seconds. Dr. Karl Alexander von Mueller, a professor of modern history and political science at the University of Munich, a supporter of von Kahr, was an eyewitness. He reported: "I cannot remember in my entire life such a change in the attitude of a crowd in a few minutes, almost a few seconds ... Hitler had turned them inside out, as one turns a glove inside out, with a few sentences. It had almost something of hocus-pocus, or magic about it."
Hitler started quietly reminding the audience that his move was not directed against von Kahr and launched into his speech ending with:
To the historian Karl Alexander von Mueller, the histrionics and melodrama were painful. He could not make up his mind whether Hitler was a man consumed, a brilliant showman, or another Machiavelli. Hitler carried all three traits to extremes. Hitler returned to the ante-room, where the triumvirs remained incarcerated, to ear-shattering acclaim which the triumvirs could not have failed to notice. On his way back, Hitler ordered Goering and Hess to take von Knilling and seven other members of the Bavarian government into custody.
During Hitler's speech, Poehner, Weber, and Kriebel had been trying in a conciliatory fashion to bring the triumvirate round to their point of view. The atmosphere in the room had become lighter but von Kahr continued to dig in his heels. Ludendorff showed up a little before 9 p.m. and, being shown into the ante-room, concentrated on von Lossow and von Seisser appealing to their sense of duty. Eventually the triumvirate reluctantly gave in.
Hitler, Ludendorff, et al. moved back into the auditorium, where they gave speeches and shook hands; and then the crowd was allowed to leave. In a tactical mistake, Hitler decided to leave the Bürgerbräukeller shortly thereafter to deal with a crisis elsewhere. Around 10:30 p.m., Ludendorff released von Kahr and his associates.
The night was marked by confusion and unrest among government officials, armed forces and police units, and individuals deciding where their loyalties lay. Units of the Kampfbund were scurrying around to arm themselves from secret caches, seizing buildings. At around 3 am, the first casualties of the putsch occurred when the local garrison of the Reichswehr spotted Röhm's men coming out of the beer hall. They were ambushed while trying to reach the Reichswehr barracks and had to fall back. In the meantime, the Reichswehr officers put the whole garrison on alert and called for reinforcements. In a prefiguration of things to come, a list of prominent Jews was made up and squads of SA were sent around to arrest them. Some were taken into custody while others escaped. The foreign attachés were also seized in their hotel rooms and put under house arrest.
In the early morning, Hitler ordered the seizure of the Munich city council as hostages. He further sent the communications officer of the Kampfbund, Max Neunzert, to enlist the aid of Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria to mediate between von Kahr and the putschists. Neunzert failed in the mission.
By midmorning on the 9th, the realization hit that the putsch was going nowhere and Hitler was desperate. The Putschists didn't know what to do and were about to give up. At this moment, Ludendorff cried out "Wir marschieren!" (We will march!), and Röhm's force together with Hitler's (a total of approximately 2000 men) marched out with no plan of where to go. At the spur of the moment, Ludendorff led them to the Bavarian Defense Ministry. However, at the Odeonsplatz in front of the Feldherrenhalle, they met a force of 100 soldiers blocking the way under the command of State Police Senior Lieutenant Baron Michael von Godin. The two groups exchanged fire, killing four state police officers and sixteen Nazis. It was here that the Blutfahne came to be. Hitler and Hermann Göring were both injured, the latter managing to escape while the former was captured shortly thereafter.
Another effect of the putsch was that it forever became a wedge between Hitler and Ludendorff. When the skirmish broke out at the Odeonsplatz and Hitler fled, Ludendorff continued to march undaunted into the hostile fire. To irritations already felt toward Hitler, Ludendorff added a perception that Hitler was a coward. Ludendorff, from then until his death in 1937, refused to have anything positive to do with Hitler. In a description of Ludendorff's funeral, which occurred at the Feldherrenhalle in 1937, William L. Shirer writes as follows:
Meanwhile Captain Karl Wild, learning of the Putsch from marchers, mobilized his command to guard von Kahr's government building, the Commissariat, with orders to shoot.
There was one member of the cabinet who was not at the Bürgerbräu Keller: Franz Matt, the vice-premier and minister of education and culture. A staunchly conservative Catholic, he was having dinner with the Archbishop of Munich, Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber and the Papal Nuncio to Bavaria, Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli (who would later become Pope Pius XII), when he learned of the putsch. He immediately telephoned von Kahr. When he found the man vacillating and unsure, Matt decisively began plans to set up a rump government-in-exile in Regensburg and composed a proclamation calling upon all police, armed forces, and civil servants to remain loyal to the government.
The action of these few men spelled doom for the putschists.
On Wednesday, 3,000 students from Munich University rioted and marched to the Feldherrnhalle to lay wreaths. (They continued to riot through Friday until learning of Hitler's arrest.) Von Kahr and von Lossow were called Judases and traitors.
This, however, was not the first time Hitler had been in trouble with the law. In an incident in September 1921, he and some SA had disrupted a meeting of the Bayernbund, and the Nazis who had gone there to cause trouble were arrested as a result. Hitler had ended up serving a little over a month of a three-month jail sentence. Presiding Judge Georg Neithardt was judge in both Hitler cases.
His trial began on February 26 1924 and Hitler, along with Hess was sentenced to five years in Festungshaft (literally fortress confinement) for treason. Festungshaft was a type of jail that excluded forced labor, featured reasonably comfortable cells, and allowed the prisoner to receive visitors almost daily for many hours. It was the customary sentence for people whom the judge believed to have had honourable but misguided motives.
However, Hitler used his trial as an opportunity to spread his ideas. Every word he spoke was reported in the newspaper the next day. The judges were impressed (Presiding Judge Neithardt was inclined to favoritism towards the defendants prior to the trial), and as a result Hitler only served a little over eight months and was fined 500RM. Due to his story that he was there by accident - which he had also used in the Kapp Putsch- along with his war service and connections, Ludendorff was acquitted. Both Röhm and Dr. Wilhelm Frick, though found guilty, were released. Göring, meanwhile, suffered bullet wounds in his leg, which led him to become increasingly dependent on morphine and other painkilling drugs.
Though Hitler failed to achieve his immediate stated goal—and in fact there seems to be no turn of events which could have caused this rather poorly organized coup not to fail—the event did give the Nazis their first exposure to national attention and a propaganda victory. It was while serving his prison sentence at Landsberg am Lech that he and Rudolf Hess wrote Mein Kampf. Also, the putsch changed Hitler's outlook on violent revolution to effect change. From then on he thought that, in order to win the German heart, he must do everything by the book, strictly legal, since Germans obviously frowned on not following the rules. He decided to manipulate the German people so they would choose him as their dictator. Later on, the German people would call him Adolf Legalité or Adolf the Legal One.
The process of combination, where the conservative-nationalist-monarchist group thought that they could piggyback on to and control the National Socialist movement to garner the seats of power, was to repeat itself dangerously ten years later in 1933 when Franz von Papen would legally ask Hitler to form a government.
There is a bronze plaque on the ground of the Odeonsplatz, in front of the Feldherrenhalle, commemorating the four policemen who died during the Putsch. The plaque reads:
German: Den Mitgliedern der Bayerischen Landespolizei, Die Beim Einsatz gegen die Nationalsozialistischen Putschisten am 9.11.1923 Ihr Leben liessen: Friedrich Fink, Nikolaus Hollweg, Max Schobert, Rudolf Schraut
Rough translation: To the members of the Bavarian Police, who gave their lives opposing the National Socialist coup on November 9th, 1923: Frederick Fink, Nicholas Hollweg, Max Schobert, Rudolf Schraut.
Shortly after he came to power, a memorial was placed at the south side of the Feldherrnhalle crowned with a swastika. The back of the memorial read Und ihr habt doch gesiegt! (And you triumphed nevertheless!). Behind it flowers were laid, and either policemen or the SS stood guard in between a lower plaque. Passers-by were required to give the Hitler salute. The putsch was also commemorated on three sets of stamps. Mein Kampf was dedicated to the fallen and, in the book Ich Kämpfe (given to those joining the party circa 1943), they are listed first even though the book lists hundreds of other dead. The header text in the book read "Though they are dead for their acts they will live on forever." The army had a division named the Feldherrnhalle regiment, and there was also an SA Feldherrnhalle division.
Every year (even during the war up to 1942) a commemoration, attended by Hitler, took place in Munich, the centrepiece of which was usually a recreation of the march, from the Burgerbräukeller to the south side of the Feldherrnhalle. Every Gau (administrative region of Germany) was also expected to hold a small remembrance ceremony. As material given to propagandists said, the sixteen fallen were the first losses and the ceremony was an occasion to commemorate everyone who had died for the movement.
On November 9, 1935, the dead were taken from their graves and to the Feldherrnhalle. The SA and SS carried them down to the Königplatz, where two Ehrentempel (Honour Temples) had been constructed. In each of the structures eight of the martyrs were interred in a sarcophagus bearing their name.
In June 1945 the Allied Control Commission removed the bodies from the Ehrentempels and contacted their families. They were given the option of having their loved ones buried in Munich cemeteries in unmarked graves or having them cremated, common practice in Germany for unclaimed bodies. On January 9, 1947, the upper parts of the structures were blown up.
Since 1994, a commemorative plaque in the plaster in front of the Feldherrenhalle contains the names of the four Bavarian policemen who died in the fight against the Nazis.
Hitler was in the centre, slouch hat in hand, the collar of his trenchcoat turned up against the cold. To his left in civilian clothes, a green felt hat and a loose loden coat was Ludendorff. To Hitler's right was Scheubner-Richter. To his right came Alfred Rosenberg. On either side of these men were Ulrich Graf, Hermann Kriebel, Friedrich Weber, Julius Streicher, Hermann Goering and Wilhelm Brueckner.
Behind these came the second string of Heinz Pernet, Johann Aigner (Scheubner-Richter's servant), Gottfried Feder, Theodor von der Pfordten, Wilhelm Kolb, Rolf Reiner, Hans Streck and Heinrich Bennecke, Brueckner's adjutant.