Munich Marienplatz, 8 November 1923 Munich Marienplatz, 8 November 1923. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 119-1486 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

One hundred years after the failed Munich Putsch in Germany, John Westmoreland looks at how it helped to create the myth of Hitler as the man sent by providence to rescue Germany

In November 1923, Adolf Hitler and the fledgling Nazi party attempted to overthrow the Weimar government and replace it with a military dictatorship. As a coup, it turned out to be a fiasco, but it proved to be a major turning point in history that ended with the Nazi dictatorship.

The attempted coup was poorly organised, misconceived, and should have put an end to Hitler and his Nazi thugs. However, after a sham trial where Hitler was allowed to give a four-hour monologue, he was given a minimum prison sentence of five years. The usual penalty for treason was death by beheading. Hitler came out of the fiasco of his ‘Beerhall Putsch’ with hero status.

On the nationalist right, Hitler started to be hailed as a national saviour from the economic and political chaos of the liberal Weimar regime. And so began the myth of Hitler leading a peoples’ revolution, a triumph of the will, that saw him become the Fuehrer.

The ‘Hitler myth’ of the great leader formed the basis of Nazi propaganda and ritual. The Hitler salute became compulsory as a form of official greeting and a confirmation of loyalty, from the schoolroom to the battlefield. But, like most myths, the reality of Hitler was vastly different from the man of fascist legend.

Becoming Hitler

Unique historical figures always seem to acquire a legendary biography that emphasises the exceptional, God-given qualities bestowed on them at birth. Roman dictators could often trace their ancestry back to the Gods. Hitler too, was alleged to be carrying out God’s will, but in his case, the divine instruction to save Germany came with the country’s defeat in 1918.

Hitler’s early life was deliberately simplified by Hitler himself. He wanted to be portrayed as just another ordinary German loyally serving his country. Little was made of the fact that he was an Austrian whose arrest had been ordered for evading the draft into the Austrian army, or of his pre-war years spent in a Viennese doss house.

In the nationalist circles that Hitler started to move in after the war, Hitler traded on his being a front-line fighter in the trenches. He had won the Iron Cross First Class after all. However, Hitler was never a front-line fighter as such. He was a messenger taking communications to the front, which had its dangers, but explains his survival too. Iron Crosses were given out widely towards the end of the war as a means of boosting morale, and Hitler lobbied his senior officer (who happened to be a Jew) for a medal. A telling point is that Hitler was never considered for promotion beyond corporal after four and a half years in the army. The death toll usually resulted in long-serving soldiers reaching the rank of sergeant or captain, but Hitler was not considered for promotion.

That is not to say that Hitler was not a dutiful soldier, he certainly was. His comrades remembered him as a skeletal figure, sipping tea and avidly reading newspapers about the war. He could be provoked into strong reactions if anyone showed signs of pacifism or defeatism. His comrades thought of him, somewhat affectionately, as a bit of a weirdo.

Hitler was to claim that when he learned of the armistice in November 1918 he was overcome with grief, and at that moment something, presumably God, told him he had to act to save Germany. Thus, he claimed, ‘I decided to go into politics’. Again the truth is a little different.

At the end of the war, Hitler was faced with the prospect of a return to poverty if he was demobilised. He had no property or wealth to fall back on. He desperately wanted to stay in uniform and so he was kept on as a guard in a prisoner-of-war camp.

When revolution broke out, in November 1918, it drew in many soldiers. In Bavaria, the revolution eventually resulted in the Räterepublik, or Council Republic, because it was rooted in the workers’ and soldier’s councils that led it. Hitler was actually one of the soldiers’ delegates.

The Räterepublik was brutally crushed by the army. Hitler avoided retribution for his part in it by becoming an informant. He was then recruited to the army intelligence unit in mid-1919. Hitler’s role, based on his capacity for speaking and argument, was to intervene in the many political meetings taking place and present the army’s political line.

Hitler was a V-mann, or political instructor. It was in this role that he learned the counterrevolutionary politics of the nationalist right that blamed Jews and socialists for Germany’s defeat. He took courses in history and politics that provided the ideological ammunition to take down left-wing speakers and disrupt meetings. In this sense, Hitler was very much a manufactured product of the nationalist right in the aftermath of war. For example, although Hitler was probably an antisemite by this time, his education as a V-mann amplified it. His wartime comrades never recalled him ranting against Jews at the front. But passionate antisemitism was a political card he learned to play with great effect, and he was to develop it eagerly under the influence of the vilest racists of the day, such as Alfred Rosenburg.

Hitler found his calling as a champion defending the army’s war-time record, and pouring scorn and opprobrium on the ‘November criminals’ who had signed the armistice. He was won over completely, and in the process realised that he had oratorical powers that made him a person to be reckoned with.

Hitler had always been an egotist and a narcissist, and now he was going to play an important role in saving Germany. After Hitler’s role as a V-mann came to an end, he found himself in demand as a speaker for the multitude of nationalist groupings forming in Munich.

Bavaria, at this time, attracted former Freikorps officers, often wanted for murder in other states, who carried on organising their criminal activities in Munich. Bavaria was referred to as ‘the cell of order’ by these desperadoes who wanted to overthrow the republic and install a military dictatorship. The army in Bavaria cooperated with right-wing paramilitary organisations, known as ‘patriotic associations’ to maintain a legal presence. These associations were armed to the teeth, and desperate to engage their democratic enemy.

The Beerhall Putsch

1923 was a crisis year for the Weimar Republic. French troops had occupied the industrial Ruhr to maintain war reparations, and this sent inflation through the roof. It also saw major gains for the German Communist Party (KPD) as a potentially revolutionary situation developed across Germany.

The threat of a German October had brought the nationalists in Bavaria to a state of frenzy. Three nationalist figures worked together in Bavaria to plan the overthrow of the Weimar Republic. Gustav von Kahr was the leader of the Bavarian government; General Otto von Lossow was in charge of the army in Bavaria; and Hans von Seisser was head of the police in Munich. This triumvirate had made contact with generals and paramilitaries in the north who also wanted to put an end to the republic. However, they were only prepared to move if they got approval from the head of the German armed forces, General von Seeckt.

Below the triumvirate were the murderous paramilitary groups. They had a huge arsenal of weapons stashed away; they drilled, marched, and beat up any socialists who got in their way. Someone who was later to play a decisive role in establishing the Third Reich, Ernst Roehm, was known as the ‘machine gun king’ because he had access to military stores and supplied the paramilitaries with weapons.

The idea of overthrowing the Berlin government was given a boost by Mussolini’s successful ‘March on Rome’. It didn’t matter that Mussolini had actually arrived in Rome by train, dressed in a suit and wearing a bowler hat, and was given power by the king of Italy without a shot being fired. The paramilitaries were hungry for action, and Hitler fed the flames with meetings in Munich and Nuremberg where he became a star performer. At this time, few had the idea of installing Hitler as Chancellor. The hero of the eastern front, General Ludendorff, who had been the virtual military dictator of Germany in the last two years of war, was willing to become a dictator once again.

Hitler saw himself as acting as ‘the Drummer’, whipping up the crowds of paramilitaries that would put Ludendorff at the head of government. But even at this stage, Hitler’s image and identity were shifting. Nationalism in Germany was strongly tied to racist ideology connected to the imagined triumph of an Aryan völk. Völkisch nationalism was based on mystical beliefs that connected believers to an imagined German blood and spirit. Many Germans who fell for it longed for the coming of the leader: a true German of blood and spirit who would save the country. These ideas were strong in the German middle class whose social position made them resentful and bitter. The middle class formed a weak and disintegrating layer between a powerful capitalist class and the collective strength of the working class. They longed for deliverance from their constant alienation and were eventually willing to believe Hitler was the coming strong man.

Despite the desperation of the Bavarian fanatics, the moment for the march on Berlin kept getting put off. Hitler became increasingly angry. He knew he could not keep stoking the flames of counterrevolution and maintain his standing on the right if nothing came of it. A date for action needed to be set. A lead needed to be given.

The triumvirate waited for von Seeckt to give the order. If it didn’t come, they planned to declare Bavarian independence and reinstate the monarchy. This further antagonised Hitler, who wanted to unite Germany against ‘Jewish Marxism’. But nationally the crisis that was stoking the anger was passing. The right-wing Gustav Stresemann became Chancellor in August, and he had the confidence of von Seeckt and the big capitalists.

On top of that, the ‘worker’s governments’ in Saxony and Thuringia were overthrown at the end of October. Inflation was starting to turn down and a mood of optimism returned to investors. The moment for the right-wing coup was passing by the hour. In desperation, Hitler decided to act. He promised the paramilitaries that he himself would lead the coup, and egotistical to the last, would give his life for the cause.

The putsch was planned in the space of a couple of days. On 8 November, Kahr and Lossow would be speaking to an audience of three thousand nationalists in the Bürgerbräukeller. Hitler with the backing of his Storm Troopers would take over the meeting, declare the ‘revolution’ and the march on Berlin would be underway.

Hitler and his sidekicks entered the beerhall armed with pistols. A heavy machine gun was wheeled in by men in uniform. More paramilitaries could be seen outside, surrounding the premises. Hitler, who may have been drunk – he was certainly teetotal thereafter – mounted a chair, raised his pistol and fired a bullet into the ceiling. As silence fell upon the crowd, he declared that the revolution had started. He then invited Kahr and Lossow into a back room at pistol-point. Shortly after, the arrival of Ludendorff added to the excitement.

Hitler thought he had provided the courage lacking in the triumvirate. He made Kahr and Lossow swear their allegiance to his plan. Then, leaving them with Ludendorff, Hitler left the beerhall to see how the rest of the revolution was going. Not everything was going to plan. The army and police hadn’t surrendered as Hitler thought they might. When he got back to the beerhall, Kahr and Lossow had gone, after giving Ludendorff their word as gentlemen that they would return.

Through the long night, some of the crowd went home. Hitler’s nerve went too, and he looked like breaking down. Ludendorff had to take him in hand and restore some confidence. The Reichswehr will obey their war-hero general, he said. As morning broke, the putsch got going. Hitler and Ludendorff were at the front of about 2,000 Nazis. The plan was to march to Munich’s military bases and gather more support, but that was never going to happen.

When Kahr and Lossow had left the beerhall the night before, they contacted General von Seeckt, who ordered the putsch to be ended. After sweeping the first police cordon aside, the marchers faced a more substantial police force outside the Felderrnhalle. Shots were exchanged and fourteen Nazis were killed, including the man next to Hitler. Hitler dislocated his shoulder as he hit the ground, and then fled to a motor car that was handily ready to receive him.

On 11 November Hitler was arrested and taken into custody. That should have been the end of him, but it was not.

Zero to hero

Hitler’s performance in court was to make him a nationally and internationally known figure, widely admired by conservatives and nationalists. It was to make Hitler’s autobiography cum manifesto, Mein Kampf, a best seller, and Hitler a man of wealth.

While being held for trial in prison, Hitler once again lost his nerve and became suicidal. Denied the opportunity to end it all, Hitler played another card that paid off handsomely.

The prosecution originally wanted to make Hitler take the wrap for the whole affair. This would be necessary to rescue Ludendorff. The imprisonment of the old general for treason was unthinkable, when the army’s anti-democratic feelings were widely known, and Hitler soon came to see how he could use it to make his defence.

Hitler informed his interrogator that he intended to implicate not only Ludendorff, but the army high command and the Bavarian triumvirate. Hitler had met with them well before the Beerhall Putsch and had discussed marching on Berlin and plotting a military coup. Ludendorff had agreed to become a dictator, supported by the Reichswehr. The triumvirate had given assistance to the paramilitaries and led the accusations that SPD deputies in Berlin were ‘November criminals’.

Inch by inch, the authorities gave in. The trial, originally scheduled to be held in camera in Leipzig, was moved to an open trial in Munich. The judge was a known admirer of Hitler and his brown-shirted SA thugs. Hitler was allowed to appear in court in civilian clothes rather than his prison garb, interrogate witnesses, and speak at length. From being a trial that could get him beheaded, Hitler turned the whole thing, with the connivance of the prosecutors, into a political stage on which for him to perform.

Hitler’s defence in these circumstances didn’t matter. He was never going to face the justice that the law required. He could present the political case of the nationalist right as his defence, and in so doing, make it part of the Hitler myth attributed to this unique German hero. Hitler lived up to the part he planned. He took full responsibility for the putsch, and claimed he was prepared to give his life for Germany. The man whose nerves had failed him, was now a self-sacrificing hero. The media lapped it up.

Hitler was sentenced to the minimum of five years in prison. His cell resembled hotel accommodation. His guards fawned over him. He used his time to dictate Mein Kampf to his robotic fanboy, Rudolf Hess. Fan mail poured in. He was now being described as the man who could save Germany and restore it to greatness. Hitler soaked up the praise, believed every word, and turned himself into the power figure his admirers believed him to be. Mein Kampf read like a religious tract that embellished the myth. God had ordained Hitler’s role. Hitler’s sole task was to rescue Germany and so on.

The Beerhall Putsch was a turning point with disastrous consequences in the fortunes of the Nazis and Germany. Hitler shrewdly decided that the Nazis could never take power by armed force. The state would have to be subverted from within, and the Nazis pursued a purely propagandist strategy for the time being. Their propaganda trump card was Hitler who had been transformed from the Drummer to the Fuehrer. The Heil Hitler salute was born. Hitler insisted that he was the sole leader of the movement, and the movement’s submission to him increased the aura and mystique surrounding him.

The midnight of the twentieth century was less than a decade away. But still, he could have been stopped if the parties of the working class had come together against him. Hitler was to admit as much when he later said that his enemies should have ‘crushed the [Nazi] movement in its cradle’, because, ‘once we had the streets, we had Germany’.

The Hitler myth has been kept alive by fascist organisations ever since, but we have to remember that the myth was constructed, and Hitler’s coming to power was avoidable. When capitalism is in crisis, as Germany was after the 1929 Wall Street Crash, and faced with working-class power, the ruling class will readily throw away parliamentary democracy in favour of fascism. It is a lesson we need to keep in mind.

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John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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