The Beer Hall Putsch

This is a reprint of an article by Professor Gerhard Rempel,

who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts.


Although financial contributions, favorable economic, political, and social circumstances, and new members and supporters help to explain the growth of Nazism from 1920 to 19233, the role of Adolf Hitler remains crucial. it was Hitler's fiery oratory that attracted thousands to the Nazi rallies. He had the ability to sense and express the fears, hatreds, and hopes of his Munich listeners, whose worsening economic circumstances made them susceptible to Hitler's emotional speeches against those responsible for Germany's plight.


But he also managed to convey a sense of determination to defeat those guilty parties and to restore Germany to greatness. Hitler's use of rallies, outings, festivals, and cookouts was calculated to fulfill the human need for belonging. The task, as Hitler perceived it, was to provide the masses with a place where they could find emotional rest. The growth of the Nazi party indicates the strength of this appeal.

In its early years, the Nazi movement had been only one of many radical right-wing political groups in Bavaria. The crises of 1923, however, brought a dramatic increase in the growth of the Nazi party, which became the strongest of the nationalist-voelkisch parties in southern Germany. In this same year, Hitler made his first and last attempt to seize power solely by force.

Background: Bavarian Politics and the Crises of 1923

Hitler's attempt to seize power in 1923 was played out against a backdrop of crises for the democratic Weimar government. As we have seen, the French and Belgian occupation of the Ruhr in January 1923 due to Germany's inability to pay reparations was met by a government-inspired policy of passive resistance that led to runaway inflation and economic chaos. These crises created fertile soil for right-wing dreams of overthrowing the Weimar democracy and establishing a right-wing dictatorship.

Nowhere were these dreams more pronounced than in Bavaria and its capital, Munich. A right-wing regime had been established in Bavaria in 1920 . Since the police under the Weimar constitution were responsible to the federal states and not to the central government, the Bavarian police had used their power to protect radical right-wing groups such as the Nazis. The police chief of Munich, Ernst Poehner, had openly helped Hitler's party, and one of his aides, Wilhelm Frick, later became a prominent Nazi. Bavarian courts were notoriously harsh to left-wingers while coddling right-wing extremists.

The army in Bavaria likewise opposed the republic and aided right-wing groups. General Ritter von Epp, who had played a leading role in the liberation of Bavaria from its Soviet Republic, was a Nazi symphatizer. His staff officer Ernst Roehm, as we have seen, joined the Nazi party and provided it with considerable material support. General Otto von Lossow, head of the Bavarian military district, also demonstrated pronounced right-wing sympathies. In 1923 the army began protecting extremist paramilitary groups, such as the Nazis' SA.

In 1923 the Nazi party clearly became the leading party among the extremist right-wing groups. Party membership swelled to 55,000 and the SA grew to 15,000 members. Hitler became head of the Kampfbund (Combat League), an umbrella organization for various right-wing paramilitary groups, including the SA. The Kampfbund found itself sympathizing with Gustav von Kahr and other conservative Bavarian leaders. Following the example of Mussolini's march on Rome in October 1922, both parties favored a "march on Berlin" to overthrow the Weimar government and establish a new nationalist, right-wing government.

They hoped to achieve this goal with the support of right-wing groups in northern Germany and elements of the regular German army that had never really accepted the new democratic system. Even an excuse for the military march on Berlin was at hand-the necessity to suppress the leftist governments in the states of Thuringia and Saxony that had been created by the cooperation of Socialists and Communists. In the spring and summer of 1923, Hitler's SA and other right-wing paramilitary groups held a series of mass demonstrations in Munich, exciting the paramilitary units with calls for a national uprising. Expectations of action soared among the enthusiastic rank and file.

The Beer Hall Putsch of 1923

In the fall of 1923, events came to a head. A new Weimar government under Gustav Stresemann had ended the policy of passive resistance against the French. This new government came into conflict with the Bavarian authorities. On September 26, the Bavarian government had proclaimed a state of emergency and given Gustav von Kahr dictatorial authority.

The new Weimar government likewise declared a state of emergency in Germany and conferred executive powers on the head of the Reichswehr, General von Seeckt. The government tried to force the Bavarian government to control the Nazis by banning the party newspaper, the Voekischer Beobachter When the head of the Bavarian military district, General von Lossow, rejected this order, he was relieved of his command. The Bavarian government insisted that Lossow remain in his post. A clash between the Weimar and Bavarian governments seemed inevitable.

Unfortunately for the conspirators, Hitler's Kampfbund and Kahr's government now began to divide on the best way to proceed. When the Stresemann government used the army to crush the leftist governments in Saxony and Thuringia in October, the Bavarian conspirators lost their justification for a march on Berlin. Kahr became very reluctant to pursue a coup. Likewise, north German right-wing groups counseled against precipitous action. General von Seeckt, certainly no fan of the Weimar Republic and a believer himself in a right-wing coup, now became hostile to the idea. His primary concern was the independence of the Reichswehr, the regular army, and he feared that a rightist putsch could create a civil war that would ultimately harm the army. By the end of October the idea of a march on Berlin was beginning to appear less feasible, and on November 6 Kahr cautioned Hitler and the Kampfbund against any hasty military action.

Hitler was left in a difficult position. He had aroused the paramilitary forces with great expectations. To fail to act threatened his own leadership position with these men. Moreover, it was evident that the crises of 1923 were ending with the Weimar government in ever-growing control. To wait longer would eliminate any hope of success. Hitler decided to try to force Kahr and other Bavarian leaders to join the Kampfbund in a march on Berlin.

Hitler seized the first opportunity for action. On November 8 a rally was to be held in one of Munich's large beer cellars, the Buergerbraeukeller, to honor Kahr. Kahr was the featured speaker, along with General Lossow and Colonel Seisser, head of the police. Hitler surrounded the building with SA troops, broke in, took over the meeting, and melodramatically proclaimed: "The national revolution has broken out." Taking Kahr, Lossow, and Seisser into an adjoining room, Hitler pressured them to join him in overthrowing the national government. They refused until General Erich Ludendorff, who in Hitler's scheme for the new government was to be head of the army, came in to apply new pressure. Ultimately the three agreed and returned to the beer cellar with Hitler and Ludendorff to the acclaim of the audience.

Hitler accepted their promises of support and allowed them to go free, much to his undoing. Circumstances changed dramatically for Hitler overnight. Although Ernst Roehm had seized the local army headquarters, the leadership of the army refused to support Hitler. Lossow, upon his release, telephoned Bavarian army headquarters for new troops to be sent to Munich to crush Hitler's revolt. Kahr also reneged on his promise. Hitler, faced with the complete collapse of his plans, tried a last desperate gamble by marching with Ludendorff and 2000 supporters through Munich to gain popular support for the coup.

Their march was stopped by police barricades and after a brief gun battle the Hitler group, with the noticeable exception of General Ludendorff, ignominiously fled. The Beer Hall Putsch had collapsed. The leaders, including Hitler, were arrested. Some observers considered it the end of the upstart Austrian.

The treason trial against Hitler, Ludendorff, and other leaders of the Kampfbund took place in February and March 1924. Considerable public attention became focused on the trial and gave Hitler the opportunity to establish his name outside of Bavaria. He used the publicity brilliantly to transform defeat into propaganda victory.

At the trial, Hitler did not deny that he had planned to overthrow the national government. But he refused to admit that this had been an act of high treason. The real criminals, Hitler proclaimed, were the betrayers of Germany who had signed the Versailles treaty and perpetuated the Weimar Republic. Hitler also attacked the credibility of the state's chief witnesses, Kahr, Lossow, and Seisser, saying they all wanted the same thing he did. Hitler portrayed himself as the real patriot opposing the Weimar Republic, since he had had the courage to act: "I consider myself not a traitor but a German, who desired what was best for his people." But he was more than just a patriot, for he pictured himself as Germany's man of destiny:

"I aimed from the beginning at something more than being a Minister. I wanted to become the destroyer of Marxism. I am going to achieve this task, and if I do, the title of Minister will be an absurdity for me."

The right-wing judges were sympathetic to Hitler's words. Ludendorff was acquitted and Hitler was given the most lenient sentence possible for treason - five years in prison with an understanding of early probation.

The putsch had failed, but Hitler had not. He would have time in prison to mull over the lessons of the past months and would emerge convinced that the real struggle for the soul of Germany was just beginning.

Source: Jackson J. Spielvogel, Hitler and Nazi Germany (Prentice Hall, 1996)