Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 - Volker Ullrich (2016)
Chapter 6. Putsch and Prosecution
“When I fell flat on my face in 1923, the only thing I thought about was getting back up again,” Hitler once tersely remarked about the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 8 and 9 November 1923.1 It was no surprise that Hitler did not enjoy talking about this event, which after his rejection by the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts represented his second-biggest failure. After four years of what seemed like an unstoppable rise to populist political prominence, Hitler suddenly plummeted back into irrelevance. His own fate and that of his movement seemed to have been sealed. The New York Times concluded that the putsch represented the certain end of Hitler and his National Socialist supporters.2
If the Bavarian judicial system had enforced the letter of the law, Hitler would have spent many years in prison for his attempted coup d’état, making a political comeback almost inconceivable. Thus the leader of the NSDAP had every reason to be grateful to his judge for giving him the minimum sentence. Moreover, he was also allowed to use his trial as a stage for self-aggrandisement, during which he styled his dilettantish attempt at armed rebellion into a heroic defeat. The failed putsch was to become a central element in Nazi Party legend. The party comrades who died in it were glorified as “blood witnesses” to the movement’s struggle, and Hitler would dedicate the first volume of Mein Kampf to them. After 1933, 8 and 9 November 1923 would become the high point of the Nazi calendar. Every year, Hitler would commemorate those events with a speech to the “old fighters” in the Bürgerbräukeller, a ceremony which ended with a ritual re-creation of the Nazis’ march from the beer hall to the Feldherrnhalle, where four policemen and fourteen Nazis had been killed.3
The year 1923 had started with a bang. On 11 January, French and Belgian troops entered the industrial Ruhr Valley region to punish Germany for falling behind in its reparations payments for the First World War. A wave of animosity arose throughout the country, and the simmering German nationalism reminded some observers of the mood in August 1914. The politically independent Reich Chancellor Wilhelm Cuno, who had led a minority government formed by the parties of the political centre since November 1922, called upon Germans to engage in “passive resistance.” Economic life along the Rhineland and Ruhr Valley pretty much came to a standstill. The French and Belgian occupiers responded by imposing harsh sanctions, arresting striking workers and taking railways and mines into their own hands. This only increased German outrage. “1923 looks as though it will be a year of destiny for Germany,” prophesied Georg Escherich, the founder of the anti-Communist Bavarian home guards. “It’s a matter of existence or non-existence.”4
Much to the surprise of his supporters, Hitler did not join the “unified front” against the French and Belgians. He was more concerned with redirecting the general hostility at Germany’s purported enemies within. On the evening of 11 January, Hitler gave a speech in Zirkus Krone in which he excoriated the “November criminals.” By “stabbing the army in the back,” Hitler raged, political leaders at the end of the First World War had left Germany defenceless and exposed to “total enslavement.” A Germany reborn vis-à-vis the rest of the world would only be possible “when the criminals are held accountable and condemned to their just fates.” The “babble about a unified front,” Hitler proclaimed, only served to distract the German people from their main task.5 Hitler thus refused to take part in a demonstration by the Fatherland Associations against Germany’s arch-enemy France in Munich on 14 January. It was a sign of how self-confident he had become in his ability to stake out political positions on his own.
The economic consequences of “passive resistance” were disastrous. The only way the Reich could cover the costs for wages in the dormant factories, mines and companies was to print massive amounts of money. The devaluation of the reichsmark, which had already begun at the end of the war, reached a dizzying pace. Overnight, the middle and working classes saw their savings disappear, while financial adventurers and speculators exploited the chance to amass huge fortunes. The demise of the currency was accompanied by the decay of fundamental social values. Cynicism was the mood of the day. In his book Defying Hitler, Sebastian Haffner described the dramatic events his generation went through: “We had just put the great game of war and the shock at how it ended behind us, as well as a very disillusioning political lesson in revolution, and now we were treated to the daily spectacle of all rules of life breaking down, and age and experience being revealed as bankrupt.”6
One side effect of the almost apocalyptic despair produced by spiralling currency devaluation was the appearance of travelling preachers known in popular parlance as “inflation saints.” They included Friedrich Muck-Lamberty, nicknamed the “messiah of Thuringia,” who intoxicated audiences with his troupes of dancers and performers, and the former sparkling-wine manufacturer Ludwig Christian Häusser, who employed modern advertising methods to attract masses of people to his sermons.7
In Bavaria, Hitler was the one attracting the desire for religious awakening and salvation of those who had fallen down the social ladder or who feared they might be about to. The National Socialists were one of the main profiteers from Germany’s economic catastrophe. “While other political events are poorly attended due to the enormous entry fees and beer prices, the halls are always full when the National Socialists put on one of their mass meetings,” Munich police reported.8 Crowds of people felt drawn to the NSDAP and Hitler’s tirades against capitalist and Jewish criminals and usurers: the sudden impoverishment of broad segments of the German populace made Hitler’s words seem much more plausible. In Munich the National Socialists were stronger than all the other parties on the right and in many other towns and cities the movement was flourishing too, Rudolf Hess reported in early 1923. Between February and November 1923, the party picked up 35,000 new members. By the time of the putsch, total enrollment was 55,000. Maria Endres, who worked at the party headquarters in Corneliusstrasse, recalled that so many people wanted to sign up that she could hardly process all the membership applications.9
Rumours that the National Socialists were planning a putsch had been circulating since the autumn of 1922. In early November, Count Harry Kessler reported that the diplomat and author Victor Naumann had told him that Hitler and his de facto deputy Hermann Esser had complete control over the streets. They had a “large, well-organised and armed group of followers,” capable of striking any day “against the Jews and against Berlin.” The Reichswehr, Naumann warned, would be “unable to resist.”10 On the other hand, the president of Bavaria, Eugen von Knilling (BVP), who had just succeeded Lerchenfeld-Köfering, told the American consul in Munich, Robert Murphy, in November 1922 that Hitler did not have it in him to become anything more than a populist speaker and would fail to achieve the successes of either Benito Mussolini or Kurt Eisner. “He has not the mental ability,” Knilling scoffed, “and furthermore the government is now on its guard, as was not the case in 1918.”11 Knilling was yet another person who gravely underestimated Hitler’s abilities and the danger he represented. But not all members of the Bavarian government shared the president’s estimation. In an official note from mid-December 1922, the ministerial councillor in the Bavarian Interior Ministry, Josef Zetlmeier, described the Nazi movement as “undoubtedly a threat to the state.” If the Nazis were able to realise even some of their “grim ideas” concerning Jews, Social Democrats and banking capital, Zetlmeier warned, there would be “considerable unrest and bloodshed.” Hitler had heeded none of the official admonitions to be more moderate, which was not surprising given the energy of a movement “that was aiming for dictatorship.” Zetlmeier called upon the Bavarian government to change its practice of tacit tolerance towards the NSDAP.12
And in fact the Bavarian government, alarmed by persistent rumours of a putsch, did impose some restrictions on the annual Nazi Party conference scheduled for late January 1923 in Munich. The large rally planned for the Königsplatz was forbidden, and only small gatherings and marches were permitted outdoors. In a heated discussion with Pöhner’s successor as police president, Eduard Nortz, on 25 January, Hitler threatened to use violence to get his way. “He would lead the columns of his supporters, and the government could get out their guns and shoot him, if they wished,” Hitler was quoted as braying. The first shot would precipitate a bloodbath, and the government would be finished. “We’ll meet again at Philippi,” Hitler said, quoting Shakespeare, and stormed out of the room.13 The Bavarian government took him at his word and declared a state of emergency throughout Bavaria on 26 January. Hitler might have suffered an embarrassing defeat if his influential patrons had not intervened on his behalf. Thanks to mediation by Röhm and Ritter von Epp, Hitler was granted an audience with the commander of the Reichswehr in Bavaria, Lieutenant General Otto von Lossow, to whom he swore that there would be no attempted putsch. Hitler repeated his solemn promise to Gustav von Kahr, who was once again the head of government in Upper Bavaria. Lossow and Kahr then had a word with Knilling. Another meeting was scheduled with Nortz for the evening of 26 January. Hitler suddenly behaved quite tamely, pledging “on all his honour that the party conference would not give rise to a single objection.” The event was allowed to proceed with only minor restrictions.14
Hitler, however, was unwilling to observe any limits. On the evening of 27 January, the NSDAP staged twelve gatherings—not the six that had been approved. “Celebrated by the masses like a saint,” Hitler spoke at every one of them, and he scarcely missed an opportunity to heap scorn on the Knilling government. “So, Herr Minister, where do you get your information that the National Socialists are planning a putsch?” Hitler asked sarcastically. “Of course, the milkwoman must have told him! A tram conductor said something to that effect, and an operator overheard something of that sort in a telephone conversation. And the Münchener Post newspaper wrote that.” National Socialists, Hitler boasted, had no need for putsches since they were not a “soon-to-be-extinct” political party but rather a youthful movement that was growing in strength and numbers from week to week. They could wait for their day to come, and when it did, it would not require a putsch to clear away the old government: a small breeze would suffice.15
During the three-day party conference, Munich was more or less in Nazi hands. Columns of marching SA men were everywhere on the streets, and the party’s disregard for official rules resulted in a severe loss of face for the Bavarian state president. Carl Moser von Filseck, the envoy of the state of Württemberg to Bavaria, noted that people generally felt the government had “completely embarrassed itself” and damaged its reputation.16 Yet instead of learning that the idea of coexisting with Hitler and his movement was illusory, government officials maintained their accommodating attitude towards the NSDAP. One reason was that they feared they would lose popular support if they moved decisively to block Nazi activities. After all, in nationalist circles the Nazis were considered useful allies in the struggle against the socialist left. The Bavarian military leadership also saw a “healthy core of the Hitler movement” capable of instilling patriotism in the minds of the working classes. “We did not want to suppress the Hitler movement with force, but rather to place it on the solid ground of what was possible and attainable,” Lossow later testified during Hitler’s trial.17
The Reichswehr leadership also considered paramilitary units in general, including the SA, as a secret military reserve they could activate in case of a conflict. In early February 1923, after Ernst Röhm’s encouragement, a “Working Association of Patriotic Fighting Organisations” was constituted—at its core were the SA and paramilitary Freikorps organisations like Bund Oberland and Reichsflagge. Its military leader was the retired first lieutenant Hermann Kriebel, formerly chief of staff for the citizens’ militias. The Reichswehr itself trained the association’s members. Its involvement in this changed the character of the SA, which went from being a party militia to a fighting force reorganised along military lines under its new boss Göring. The storm troopers were organised into companies, battalions and regiments. The self-defined task of the Working Association, as spelled out in a memorandum by Hitler in mid-April 1923, was: “1. To take over political power. 2. To brutally cleanse the fatherland of its internal enemies. 3. To train the nation, both in terms of its will and practical skills, for the day when the fatherland will be liberated, the period of November betrayal will come to an end and we will be able to hand over a German empire to our sons and grandsons.”18 These paramilitary organisations were quick to demonstrate their determination to act outside the law. On 15 April they staged large-scale military exercises in the moorland north of Munich and violated the non-military zone around the Bavarian Landtag when they marched back into the city. Hitler also inspected a Nazi parade directly in front of the home of the Prussian envoy on Munich’s Prinzregentenstrasse—a clear provocation. “Hitler is becoming a megalomaniac,” remarked the director of the press office at the Bavarian Foreign Ministry in reaction to the lack of police curtailment of the Nazi leader.19
At the same time, young SA men were increasingly throwing their weight around in the streets. When they forced the owner of a bookshop in Brienner Strasse to remove works they found objectionable from his main window display, he complained in an angry letter to Hitler about “thugs posing as dictators.” At the end of one of Hitler’s appearances, a woman who had been taking notes of his speech was subjected to a humiliating body search by the SA security men in the venue. Her companion, a female doctor, was outraged: “What we encountered there was sheer terror, worse than anything in the Eisner era.” Jews were accosted and even physically attacked on the streets; Jewish shopkeepers were accused of stirring up animosity towards Hitler’s cause “in the most unheard-of fashion.”20
In late April, Hitler decided that it was again time to test the Bavarian government. The bone of contention was 1 May, which was both the German Labour Day celebrated by leftists and the anniversary of Munich’s conservative “liberation” from the rule of the soviets in 1919. Hitler demanded the government ban the SPD’s and the unions’ celebrations on Munich’s Theresienwiese; and when it refused, he called upon the Working Association to prevent the “Reds” from holding their parade by “aggressive intervention including the use of weapons.”21 In the early morning hours of 1 May, some 2,000 paramilitaries assembled on the Oberwiesenfeld in the north of the city. They were armed with rifles and machine guns from the Reichwehr’s arms depot, in direct defiance of Lossow’s orders. While they were still forming their ranks—with Hitler, decked out in a steel helmet and wearing his Iron Cross, First Class, at their centre—they were encircled by units of the Bavarian police. In addition, Reichswehr troops were put on alert in their barracks. This time, the Bavarian government and the military leadership were willing to confront the challenge head-on and show Hitler that there were limits to his power. “The decisive and unambiguous stance of the police forces manning the cordon was to thank for the fact that any inclination towards action on the part of those assembled on the Oberwiesenfeld was quickly banished,” the final report by the Munich Police Directorship would conclude.22
Around noon, a Reichswehr commando appeared and demanded that the stolen weapons be returned. Hermann Kriebel and other hotheads wanted to resist this order, but Hitler shied away from an armed battle with the Reichswehr and the police, which, as he knew all too well, could quickly put an end to his political ambitions. The paramilitaries handed over the weapons and dispersed. By that time the leftist festivities on Theresienwiese had ended without disturbance. Munich breathed a sigh of relief. The confrontation that so many people feared had been averted.
For Hitler, the ignominious end to his 1 May agitation was an early political blow. Years later in his monologues, he still spoke of it as the “greatest humiliation” of his life.23 He tried to buoy the spirits of his disappointed SA men by telling them that their day would come, but that could not paper over his own loss of prestige in the wake of the fiasco.24 Hitler had “no clear goals and is pushed by backstage figures who increasingly called for a ‘deed’ of salvation,” noted Georg Escherich, who had only known Hitler since that February and who had an unfavourable impression of him, describing him as “a small-time demagogue who can only sling slogans.” Escherich publicly accused Hitler of being unable to constrain the “desperadoes” in his own ranks.25 Many observers at the time thought Hitler had passed his zenith. U.S. Consul Murphy reported to Washington that the National Socialists were “on the wane.”26 That impression, however, was mistaken. The defeat of 1 May only temporarily slowed the Hitler movement’s momentum.
Nonetheless, Hitler faced the unpleasant reality that the Bavarian state prosecutor’s office, after prodding by the Bavarian interior minister, had begun investigating him for “forming an armed mob.” That was a criminal offence subject to punishment by several months’ imprisonment. Hitler threatened to reveal details about the secret collaboration between the SA and the militias with the Reichswehr, should it come to a trial. After that Bavarian Minister of Justice Franz Gürtner, who had only been in office since August 1922, postponed the investigation—for reasons of state—until a “calmer time.” No progress was ever made towards indicting Hitler.27 It was another instance of how the accommodating Bavarian government was utterly unable to restrain the demagogue.
After all the excitement of the previous months, Hitler apparently needed a rest and temporarily withdrew from the limelight. He travelled to the remote mountain village on the Obersalzberg near Berchtesgaden, where his friend Dietrich Eckart, who had fled the threat of arrest, had been hiding out for some time. Using the alias “Wolf,” he checked into the Pension Moritz, a guest house run by a couple who were well disposed towards the Nazi leader. It was then, he later recalled, that he “fell in love with the landscape…For me the Obersalzberg had become a magnificent place.”28 It was only with difficulty that he was coaxed back to Munich on 10 June to take part in the Fatherland Associations’ memorial for Leo Schlageter, an insurgent in the Ruhr region who had carried out a number of bombings, for which he was sentenced to death by French occupiers and executed on 26 May 1923. Hitler returned to his mountain idyll immediately after his speech. Rudolf Hess, who visited in July, found him in excellent health: “Thankfully, Hitler is now getting some rest and relaxation in the mountains. It’s an unusual sight to see him in lederhosen with his knees exposed and his shirtsleeves rolled up. He looks better than he did before.”29
Joachim Fest believes that Hitler lapsed into his old habits of lethargy and idleness on the Obersalzberg.30 Hess, however, painted a different picture: “His life is still strenuous, morning till night. One meeting follows another, and sometimes he doesn’t even take time to get a bite to eat in between.”31 Hitler was now being chauffeured comfortably from one event to another in the new Mercedes-Benz he had just acquired.
Starting in the summer of 1923, the economic and political crisis in Germany came to the boil, which did not allow the head of the NSDAP to absent himself from Munich for very long. Hyperinflation was reaching its high point. “In August, [the exchange rate with] the dollar reached one million,” Sebastian Haffner recalled.
We read the news with bated breath, as though the reports were of some astonishing new record. Fourteen days later we could only laugh about it. It was as if the dollar had gained a tenfold of energy from surpassing the million mark. Its value began to increase by increments of hundreds of millions and even billions. By September, the million-mark note was practically worthless. The billion became the new standard unit, and by the end of October it was the trillion.32
The bottomless plunge in the value of the reichsmark meant hardship and despair for broad segments of the German populace. An eyewitness in south-western Germany reported in late August that the mood was unusually depressed: “There’s unemployment and hunger on many people’s doorsteps, and no one knows how to ward off these dangers.” In October the Senior state official of Upper Bavaria compared the mood to that of November 1918: “Statements to the effect that it makes no difference whether everything is smashed to bits…are no rarity.”33
A wave of demonstrations, strikes and food riots shook the entire country. In August, Wilhelm Cuno stepped down as chancellor, to be replaced by the chairman of the German People’s Party (Deutsche Volkspartei, or DVP), Gustav Stresemann, who had gone from being a national expansionist and supporter of Erich Ludendorff in the First World War to a converted democrat who believed the parliamentary system was the least of all evils. He formed a grand coalition with the German Democratic Party (Deutsche Demokratische Partei, or DDP), the Centre Party and the SPD. The new government faced the daunting task of stopping hyperinflation, since without a stable currency, economic recovery would be impossible. But that demanded an end to the financially ruinous struggle in the Ruhr. On 26 September 1923, the government announced it was ceasing the policy of passive resistance. The political Right immediately launched an emotionally charged campaign accusing Stresemann and his grand coalition of capitulating to foreign interests.34
Resentments towards “Red Berlin” were greater in Bavaria than in other parts of Germany, and resistance towards this governmental change of course formed immediately. On 1 and 2 September, the Fatherland Associations convened for a “Germany Day” in Nuremberg. “The streets were a sea of black-red-and-white and white-and-blue flags,” reported the Nuremberg-Fürth police department, referring to the colours of Imperial Germany and Bavaria.
Masses of people surrounding the guests of honour and the parade called out “Heil” in greeting…It was a joyous expression of relief of hundreds of thousands of despondent, cowed, mistreated, desperate people who thought they glimpsed a sliver of hope of liberation from enslavement and destitution. Many men and women stood there crying, overcome with emotion.35
In Nuremberg there was a public display of solidarity between Hitler and Ludendorff. Hess had introduced the two men in 1921, and at his trial in February 1924, Hitler said that he had been very happy to make the acquaintance of the general, whom he had once “idolised.” For his part, Ludendorff testified that after their first meeting he had foreseen Hitler’s rise. “Here was someone the people could understand, someone morally elevated who could offer salvation,” Ludendorff stated. “That was how Herr Hitler and I found our way to one another.”36 As a wartime hero, Ludendorff was particularly valuable to Hitler. With Ludendorff backing him, the leader of the NSDAP could realistically hope that the Reichswehr would support his plans for a coup d’état. The events of 1 May had taught Hitler that without military support, all his plans were condemned to failure from the very start.
Another major result of Nuremberg was the founding of a Patriotic Fighting Association, which united the activist cores of militia organisations like the SA, the Bund Oberland and the Reichsflagge. Here, too, Hermann Kriebel functioned as military leader, while the diplomat Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter ran the day-to-day operations. On 25 September, Hitler was made the association’s “political leader.” Its “action plan” was utterly unambiguous: the goal of “putting down Marxism,” that document read, required the association “to seize the instruments of state power in Bavaria.” Furthermore, “The national revolution must not be allowed to precede the takeover of political power in Bavaria. On the contrary, the takeover of the political instruments of power of the state is the precondition for a national revolution.”37
The constant invocation of an imminent national revolution fuelled right-wing hopes that a coup d’état would soon be at hand. Rumours of a putsch again made the rounds and ratcheted up the feverish mood. Hitler and his movement felt increased pressure to act. Wilhelm Brückner, the leader of the SA’s Munich regiment, warned that the day was fast approaching when he would be unable to restrain his men: “If nothing happens now, the men will simply start devouring things.”38
Mountains of letters from all parts of Germany arrived at the NSDAP’s headquarters in September and October, urging Hitler to take action. As one correspondent put it, all hope rested on the “rescuer from Bavaria” who would clean out the Aegean stables with his “iron broom.” With a “truly energetic act,” comparable to Mussolini’s takeover in Italy, Hitler could do Germany an “extraordinary service.” Ordinary people were waiting for the signal to “storm forward” and prayed that “Our Lord might lead our Hitler to complete victory.” One of the letter-writers was a resident of the affluent Munich district of Bogenhausen, who had attended every speech Hitler gave in Zirkus Krone for the previous two years and queued for hours to secure a good spot, so that she could “take in every word, every subtlety of tone, and call out ‘Heil’ to our honoured Führer from close proximity.” She wrote in early November: “Now may the Almighty make your arm as strong as your words are beautiful so that the day of liberation will be upon us.”39 Such overwhelming declarations of loyalty must have strengthened the Nazi leadership’s belief that they had to hurry up and take action.
Hitler further whipped up enthusiasm with a rabble-rousing speech in Zirkus Krone on 5 September. The German people, he said, were in the grip of a “great emotion”: “There are only two possibilities—either Berlin goes on the march and ends up in Munich, or Munich goes on the march and ends up in Berlin.”40 In mid-September, Hess described Hitler being welcomed as a messiah at a “Germany Day” in Hof:
In no time at all, six halls were filled beyond capacity, and masses of people lined up outside, hoping in vain for admittance…In one venue he was once again suddenly seized by something indescribable. It grabbed me so fiercely that I had to clench my teeth…There were many good, critical minds in the hall—and by the end, they all were beside themselves with enthusiasm.41
When would the big day come? That was the question on everyone’s minds. Hitler himself still did not know in mid-September, although Hess had “rarely” seen him “so serious.” Hitler, Hess recorded, was conscious of his “responsibility…concerning the start, his decision to toss the fire onto the powder keg.”42 For 27 September alone, the NSDAP chairman had fourteen mass events planned in Munich. In a sense, the date was a prelude that would bring judgement day closer.
But something Hitler had failed to anticipate intervened. On 26 September, the Knilling cabinet declared a state of emergency, appointing Kahr “general state commissar” and giving him near-dictatorial powers. On the one hand, the move was directed against the national government in Berlin, which had just proclaimed the end of Germany’s passive resistance in the Ruhr. But it was also aimed at the Hitler movement, whose increasing readiness to stage a putsch had not remained concealed from the Bavarian authorities. As one of the first measures taken under the new order, Kahr prohibited the Nazi events scheduled for 27 September. Hitler registered his “most vigorous” protest but failed to get the ban lifted.43 Thereafter the relationship between Kahr and Hitler was chilly, with the latter seeking to marginalise the new state commissar. Kahr, Hitler fumed, was “a milquetoast civil servant who lacked political instincts and a firm will” and was as such “not the right man to lead a decisive battle.” Hitler’s message was unmistakable: he and he alone was the man destined to become “the pioneer of the great German liberation movement.”44
The atmosphere in Munich throughout October was one of feverish tension, as Kahr and Hitler circled one another like mistrustful tomcats. Cordial overtures alternated with obvious threats. Even those well initiated into local politics found it difficult to orient themselves amidst all the political manoeuvring and game-playing, and the situation was made even more opaque by the continuing rivalry between Bavaria and the Reich. On 26 September, in reaction to Kahr’s appointment, Reich President Friedrich Ebert had also declared a state of emergency and charged Reich Defence Minister Otto Gessler with asserting the nation state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. A day later, Gessler banned the Völkischer Beobachter for publishing a slanderous article about Reich Chancellor Stresemann and the Head of Army Command Hans von Seeckt. However, Lossow defied the order as given against Kahr’s will, whereupon Ebert dismissed him from his post as Bavaria’s highest military commander. That went too far for Kahr, who reconfirmed Lossow’s command over Reichswehr troops in Bavaria. The break between Munich and Berlin was complete. Bavaria was now essentially ruled by a triumvirate of Kahr, Lossow and Colonel Hans von Seisser, the head of the Bavarian police.45
At times, the conflict between Bavaria and the Reich obscured the stand-off between the triumvirate and the restless far-right circles around Hitler and the Fighting Association. But the tug of war was continuing behind the scenes. Everyone on the right agreed that the goal was to get rid of Weimar democracy and establish a national dictatorship. But leaders did not see eye to eye on how to achieve this end, who should become the nation’s new leader and when action should be taken. In Kahr, Lossow and Seisser’s opinion, the national revolution would have to begin in Berlin. They knew that there were plans in the Reich capital to form a “directory,” which would assume power after the expected fall of the Stresemann government. Along with General von Seeckt, it was to encompass the former director of the Stinnes conglomerate, Friedrich Minoux, and Germany’s ambassador to the United States, Otto Wiedfeldt.46 The triumvirate wanted to join forces with these men. For that reason it was important, Kahr testified at Hitler’s trial, “to gather nationalist forces in Bavaria and to create a strong Bavaria capable of lining up beside and supporting the directory.”47 In other words, Kahr and consorts hoped that they themselves would not have to take the initiative, but rather leave that up to Reichswehr leaders in Berlin and their contacts in northern Germany. Hitler and the Fighting Association would be required to subordinate themselves to the goal of “concentrating nationalist forces in order to create a firm and vigorous state authority” in Bavaria. In a press conference on 1 October, Kahr declared that the Association was welcome to participate but would have to integrate itself into the whole. Demands for special treatment would not be tolerated.48
In the minds of Hitler and the Association, in contrast, the “national dictatorship” would be proclaimed in Bavaria, followed by a “march upon Berlin.” In a speech to SA leaders on 23 October, Hitler described his vision: “To unfurl the German flag in the final hour in Bavaria and to call into being a German army of liberation under a German government in Munich.” In a speech at Zirkus Krone on 30 October, Hitler was even more explicit: “Bavaria has a great mission…We have to break through our limitations and do battle with the Marxist brood in Berlin…We have to take the fight to them and stab them through the heart.” And Hitler left no doubt as to who would lead the planned coup d’état: “For me the German question will first be solved when the black-red-and-white swastika flag flies from Berlin’s Imperial City Palace.”49 Hitler planned to put the military leadership of the putsch in Ludendorff’s hands. The First World War general’s reputation, Hitler hoped, would encourage the Reichswehr to fall in line. But Hitler reserved the political leadership of the coup d’état for himself—a sure sign that he no longer saw himself as a mere drummer, but as the coming Führer. At his later trial he said: “The man who feels called to lead a people doesn’t have the right to say: ‘If people want me or come and get me, then I’ll do it.’ He has a duty to do it.”50
While the triumvirate played for time, Hitler pressed for action. He considered his hand forced not just by the expectations of his supporters throughout Germany and the Fighting Association men in Munich, but by the shift in political conditions. When the Reichswehr moved against socialist-communist “united front” governments in Saxony and Thuringia in late October and early November, it removed one of the pretexts right-wing conspirators in Munich cited for the need to push Bavarian troops to the borders with those central German states. Moreover, the establishment of a new central bank, the Rentenbank, which issued a revalued reichsmark in mid-October, made it clear that the Stresemann government was tackling the currency crisis. Hitler and the other leaders of the Association were under pressure. Hitler may have promised Seisser on 1 November not to move against the Reichswehr or the Bavarian police or attempt a putsch,51 but he also demanded that the triumvirate take action: “It’s high time. Economic misery is so pushing our people that we have to act or risk our supporters going over to the Communists.”52
In early November Seisser travelled to Berlin on behalf of the triumvirate to confer about the situation. In a conversation with the head of the Reichswehr, he mentioned the “severe pressure” being exerted by all radical nationalist groups on Kahr to get him to “intervene against Berlin” with the goal of creating a “national dictatorship.” Seeckt declared that this was his objective as well, but made it crystal clear that “the legal path would have to be followed.” A “march on Berlin” of the sort supported by Hitler and his followers was out of the question.53 On 6 November, Kahr summoned the leaders of the Fatherland Associations, including Hermann Kriebel from the Fighting Association, and warned them not to act on their own. “I alone and nobody else will give the sign to march,” he declared. Lossow said he agreed and reminded those present of the failed Kapp-Lüttwitz putsch of 1920. “I am prepared to support a right-wing dictatorship, if it has a chance to succeed,” Lossow declared. “But if we’re just going to be rushed into a putsch, which will come to a pathetic end in five or six days, then count me out.”54
The meeting of 6 November made it absolutely clear that the triumvirate was unwilling to seize the initiative. The three leaders wanted to wait and see what course developments in northern Germany took and then perhaps join forces with the “directory.” After his grandiloquent pronouncements of the previous weeks, however, Hitler could not afford to remain idle for much longer. “We couldn’t keep preparing our people for the cause and reeling them back in,” he admitted at his trial. “We couldn’t keep them constantly agitated. We had to make a clear decision.”55 Before the night of 6 November was even over, Hitler decided to attack, a decision that was confirmed the next day by the leaders of the Fighting Association. The date was set for 11 November, the anniversary of the armistice in the First World War. Kriebel suggested taking the fighting units out to the Fröttmaninger heath on Munich’s northern border for night-time exercises on 10 November and then marching them into the city the following day. But this plan was abandoned when it emerged that Kahr had called a meeting in the Bürgerbräukeller for the evening of 8 November. Everyone who was anyone in Munich politics was set to attend.
The last-minute scheduling of Kahr’s meeting convinced Hitler that Kahr was trying to head him off at the pass. He even suspected that the general state commissar might try to reinstate the Wittelsbach dynasty—rumours to that effect had been circulating in Munich since the beginning of November. Hitler was dead set against the restoration of the monarchy. “Never,” he had dictated to his secretary Fritz Lauböck in late September, “will the National Socialist German Workers’ Party accept any attempt to move the utterly degenerate Houses of Hohenzollern and Wittelsbach and their repulsive courts to again take over the government of our German people.”56
So Hitler decided to move the putsch forward to 8 November. If his supporters succeeded in seizing the Bürgerbräukeller, they would have the unique opportunity to bring the entire political class of Munich under their control. The plan was to leave the triumvirate with no other option by presenting them with a fait accompli. “We have to force them to get involved and then they won’t be able to turn back,” Hitler told Ernst Hanfstaengl.57 At his trial, he declared that he had wanted to give the three hesitant leaders “a push from behind…so that they would finally jump into the water they always found too cold.”58
Over the course of 8 November, the leaders of the Fighting Association received their orders, in part by motorcycle courier. The circle of those in the know was kept small in an attempt to preserve the element of surprise.59 Early that morning, Hitler secured the support of Ernst Pöhner, his former patron in the police force, whom he promised the office of Bavarian president in the post-putsch government. Pöhner was surprised by Hitler’s plan, but he welcomed the fact that someone was taking action. “When Hitler asked me, I answered without hesitation: ‘Yes, I’m with you,’ ” Pöhner testified at Hitler’s trial.60 At 9 a.m., Hitler summoned Hess by telephone and tasked him with arresting all the members of the Bavarian government present in the Bürgerbräukeller. “I assured him with a handshake of my complete discretion, and we parted ways until the evening,” Hess wrote afterwards.61
Around noon, Hitler marched into the offices of the Völkischer Beobachter, “with his riding crop in hand—the very picture of grim determination,” and told the astonished Rosenberg and Hanfstaengl: “The time to act has come…But don’t reveal a word of this to any living soul.” Hitler told them to come to the Bürgerbräukeller that evening and to make sure to bring their pistols.62 In this fashion, the inner circles of the conspiracy were gradually informed about the putsch. Having been pushed forward, the entire undertaking was hasty and improvised. There was no time for intensive preparations, which would be one main reason why the putsch failed.
Even before the official start time of 8 p.m. the Bürgerbräukeller was filled beyond capacity. Outside the doors crowded hundreds of people who had failed to get in. Shortly after Kahr had begun his speech, Hitler rode up in his Mercedes with Alfred Rosenberg, his bodyguard Ulrich Graf and Anton Drexler, who was only told then what was in store. “Best of luck,” the honorary NSDAP chairman is supposed to have remarked drily.63 Seeing the unexpectedly large crowds before the Bürgerbräukeller, Hitler began to fret that his storm troopers would not be able to follow him without inciting a panic that could have doomed the whole endeavour. Spontaneously, Hitler went up to the policemen on duty in front of the venue and ordered them to clear the street. Thus it was that, in the words of Konrad Heiden, “the police cleared the way, on Hitler’s command, for Hitler’s putsch.”64
Soon the first trucks full of armed SA men arrived, and the “Stosstrupp Hitler,” a special troop about one hundred men strong, secured the entrance to the beer hall and surrounded the building. Hitler, dressed in a dark suit for the occasion, entered the foyer, where he paced nervously.65 Finally, at around 8:45 p.m., he smashed a beer glass Hanfstaengl had handed him on the floor, drew his pistol and stormed into the beer hall proper, while at the entrance SA men under the command of Göring took up positions with machine guns. “Obviously you couldn’t just go in with a palm frond,” Hitler said during his trial in an attempt to justify his martial posturing.66 “Pale, a dark lock of hair hanging down his forehead, and with a pistol-wielding storm trooper on either side,” Hitler began to negotiate the clogged way to the stage.67 When he was ten steps away from Kahr, he got up on a chair and fired a shot into the ceiling to quiet the tumult. Then he took the stage and proclaimed excitably: “National revolution is under way. The hall is under the control of 600 heavily armed men. No one is allowed to leave. If things don’t immediately quieten down, I will have a machine gun posted on the gallery. The Bavarian government has been deposed. The Reich government has been deposed. A provisional government has been formed.”68
Hitler then asked Kahr, Lossow and Seisser to accompany him into an adjoining room, guaranteeing their safety. In his unpublished memoirs, Kahr described feeling “anger and disgust,” but he hoped that the police would soon put an end to the entire spectacle. Kahr was playing for time. As they left the main hall, Lossow had whispered “Play along,” and the three men had exchanged glances, agreeing to do precisely that.69 At least that was their official version afterwards. In fact, it is doubtful that the triumvirate spontaneously agreed to play along with Hitler in order to turn on him later. Much to his surprise and despite being as persuasive as he could, Hitler met with resistance in the adjoining room. Sweating, foaming at the mouth and waving his pistol about in excitement, Hitler declared: “No one gets out of this room alive without my permission.” Then he calmed down and apologised for having taken this drastic step, saying he had no choice. “What’s done is done,” Hitler said. “There’s no turning back.” He explained briefly the future make-up of the Bavarian and Reich governments: “Pöhner becomes president with dictatorial powers. You [indicating Kahr] will be Bavarian administrator. Reich government: Hitler. National army: Ludendorff. Seisser: minister of police.” Hitler said he knew how difficult it was for the three men to agree to this plan, but he wanted to make it easier for them to “take the plunge.” He followed that up with a threat: he had four bullets in his gun, three for them and one for himself. Kahr, who was outraged at being treated in such fashion, responded coolly: “You can arrest me, have me shot or shoot me yourself. I don’t care whether I live or die.”70 Ten minutes passed without Hitler making any progress whatsoever.
Outrage was also spreading throughout the beer hall. Many of the respectable Munich citizens in attendance were shocked by what they were experiencing and called out “theatre,” “South America” and “Mexico” to express their dissatisfaction.71 In an attempt to calm things down, Göring took to the stage and told the crowd with his booming military drone that the action was not directed against Kahr. On the contrary, they hoped Kahr would join them. And in any case, Göring added, the people had their beer so they had every reason to be satisfied.72 That snotty remark only enraged the crowd all the more.
Hitler returned to the hall, and what happened next still dumbfounded one of the eyewitnesses, the historian Karl Alexander von Müller, more than forty years later when he wrote his memoirs. Hitler, who had seemed insane to most of the audience only a few minutes before, suddenly mastered the situation. In a short speech—“an oratorical masterpiece that would have done any actor proud,” as Müller described it—Hitler completely turned the mood in the beer hall. “It was like someone turning a glove inside out,” the historian wrote. “It was almost like a bit of hocus-pocus, like a magic trick.” When he was certain he had people on his side, Hitler asked the crowd: “The Herren Kahr, Lossow and Seisser are outside. They’re wrestling with their decision. Can I tell them that you stand behind them?” “Yes! Yes!” Müller reported the crowd echoing from all sides. With a triumphal voice, Hitler got in one last, theatrical line: “Tomorrow will see a German nationalist government, or it will see us dead.”73
At that moment, Erich Ludendorff—accompanied by cries of “Heil!”—appeared on the scene. Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter had been instructed to bring him by car to the Bürgerbräukeller, although it is unlikely that the general would not have been informed in advance about the attempted putsch. A few hours previously, at 4 p.m., he had turned up unannounced at Kahr’s office and declared in the presence of Lossow and Seisser that “everything demanded a decision.” Kahr invoked the well-known plan to establish a directory and had once again dismissed the idea of a right-wing dictatorship proceeding from Bavaria. Ludendorff took his leave with the thinly veiled threat that “the people may take matters into their own hands in the end.”74 By contrast, that evening he acted as though he had been surprised by Hitler’s action. “Gentlemen, I’m just as astonished as you are,” he said. “But the step has been taken, and the fatherland and our great national cause are at stake, so I can only advise you: come with us and do as we do.” Ludendorff’s appearance immediately altered the atmosphere in the adjoining room. The pistols were put away, and both sides seemed to want to discuss the matter “like civilised people.” Lossow was the first to give in after Ludendorff appealed to him as a fellow military man, and Seisser followed. Only Kahr held out. But in the end, he relented in the face of united insistence, telling the others: “I am prepared to take over directing Bavaria’s fate as the placeholder of the monarchy.” Hitler had no intention whatsoever of restoring the monarchy, but he needed Kahr’s support, so he replied: “There’s nothing standing in the way of that.” He himself, Hitler said, would inform Crown Prince Rupprecht that the uprising was not directed against the House of Wittelsbach, but aimed to redress the injustice that had been done to it in November 1918. With simulated subservience, Hitler promised: “Your Excellency, I assure you that from now on I will stand behind you as loyally as a dog.”75
Hitler now demanded that the others return with him to the hall to publicly seal their agreement. Again Kahr resisted, objecting that he could not re-enter a space from which he had been led in such humiliating fashion. Hitler reassured him: “You’ll be received with great applause—they’ll kneel before you.” In the end they all retook the stage to thunderous acclaim from the audience. His face an iron mask, Kahr spoke first, telling the crowd that he saw himself as a “placeholder of the monarchy” and had only decided with a heavy heart, and for the good of Bavaria and Germany, to support the uprising. Hitler shook his hand for a long time with an expression of “gleaming, completely open, almost childlike joy,” as Müller recalled. After the tension of the initial hour of the putsch, Hitler found himself in a state approaching euphoria. With quasi-religious fervour, he once again addressed the crowd:
In the coming weeks and months, I intend to fulfil the promise I made myself five years ago to the day as a blind cripple in an army hospital: never to rest or relax until the criminals of November 1918 are brought to the ground! Until a Germany of power and greatness, of freedom and majesty, has been resurrected on the ruins of Germany in its pathetic present-day state! Amen.
Afterwards Ludendorff, “sallow with suppressed internal excitement,” declared that he was placing himself “at the disposal of the German national government.” Lossow and Seisser also stated their support after being bidden by Hitler to the lectern.76 Hitler triumphantly shook their hands as well. He—and not Ludendorff—was the star of the evening. The “drummer” had discarded his mask and impressively underscored his ambition to lead the “national revolution.”
Hardly anyone in the beer hall would have suspected that this fraternal-looking ceremony was a calculated put-on. “We were all more deeply moved than rarely before,” Hitler himself later said, describing the atmosphere.77 Most of the people in attendance shared the sentiment that they were witnessing a historic moment. Many were unable to join in the German national anthem, which was sung at the end, because they were so overcome with emotion. Before the crowd dispersed, as arranged, an SA commando under Hess arrested all the members of the Knilling cabinet in the audience. They were taken to the villa of the pan-Germanic publisher Julius F. Lehmann.
It was at that point, just as he seemed to have succeeded in his surprise offensive, that Hitler made his decisive mistake. Having received news that the seizure of the military barracks housing pioneer units had run into difficulties, he decided to go there with Friedrich Weber, the head of the Bund Oberland paramilitary group. That left Kahr, Lossow and Seisser under Ludendorff’s supervision. When Hitler returned, he discovered to his horror that the general had allowed the triumvirate to leave the beer hall with only a promise that they would stick to the agreement they had made. When Hitler expressed his scepticism, Ludendorff responded sharply that he would tolerate no doubts being cast upon a German officer’s word of honour.78
Hitler’s misgivings soon proved justified. Hardly had Kahr, Lossow and Seisser left the beer hall when they used their freedom to betray Hitler and Ludendorff and order action taken against them. The putsch was thus condemned to failure since everything depended on getting the triumvirate behind the uprising. The rebels had made no further plans about occupying key institutions like army and police barracks, transport and communication centres and newspaper offices. Now their dilettantish preparations and improvised activism would come back to haunt them—and the one responsible for the fiasco was clearly Hitler, who had moved forward the putsch. The only success the rebels achieved was Ernst Röhm taking over Lossow’s local defence commando. Among Röhm’s followers was a 23-year-old man with metal-rimmed spectacles, an unemployed agriculture expert named Heinrich Himmler, for whom the putsch marked the start of a political career that would make him the second most powerful man in the Third Reich.79
Meanwhile, the triumvirate had hardly been idle. Since his office was occupied by SA men, Lossow drove from the Bürgerbräukeller to the city military headquarters. The generals present welcomed him with the question, “Surely, Your Excellency, this was all a bluff?” Bavaria’s military leader may have vacillated in the preceding hours, but now he assured his subordinates that the declaration he had made in the beer hall was “just a show he had been forced to perform under the threat of violence.”80 Shortly after 11 p.m. the officers went to the barracks of the 19th Infantry Regiment in order to coordinate their counter-measures. At around 1 a.m. on 9 November, Kahr and Seisser joined them. The triumvirate agreed on the text for a radio message to be broadcast at 2:50 a.m. on all Munich stations: “General State Commissar von Kahr, General von Lossow and Colonel Seisser reject the Hitler putsch. Statements they were forced to make at gunpoint at the meeting in the Bürgerbräukeller are invalid. People should beware of the misuse being made of their names.”81 Local authorities and border police were instructed to arrest the leaders of the coup d’état should they try to flee.
The insurgents failed to realise that things had turned against them. After midnight, they were still putting up a “proclamation to the German people” on advertising columns and building walls. It announced that “the government of the November criminals” had been deposed and replaced by a “provisional national German government.”82 In reality, the momentum had long since shifted to the triumvirate, who spent the night issuing orders to bolster troop numbers in Munich and put down the uprising.83 An emissary sent by Hitler and Kriebel to the barracks early in the morning to determine Lossow’s position was immediately arrested. The general took him into custody with the words: “There’s no negotiating with rebels.” And Kahr chimed in: “The assurances forced from us with a pistol are null and void.”84
As dilettantish as the putsch and as burlesque as the scenes in the Bürgerbräukeller may have been, what happened in the night of 9 November was all the more serious since in many respects it foreshadowed what would take place ten years later, after Hitler had been named Reich chancellor.85 For several hours, storm troopers thought they had seized political power and began to carry out terror campaigns against their political adversaries and Jewish citizens in Munich. Immediately after the conclusion of the Bürgerbräu gathering, members of the Stosstrupp Hitler marched to the headquarters of the left-wing Münchener Post newspaper and caused considerable damage. Shortly after midnight they forced their way into the apartment of editor-in-chief and SPD politician Erhard Auer and tried to arrest him. Only Auer’s wife and son-in-law were at home, so the SA men took them along in Auer’s stead and kept them locked in a room in the Bürgerbräukeller. The chairman of the Central Association of Jewish Citizens in Munich, Ludwig Wassermann, was already detained there after the insurgents had identified him leaving the beer hall. Over the course of the night, SA men swarmed out taking Jewish hostages wherever they could get them, but several prominent Jewish families had quickly fled the city or gone into hiding. On the morning of 9 November, members of the Bund Oberland moved into the Bogenhausen district, considered a neighbourhood full of wealthy Jews, and began carrying out arrests on the flimsy basis of address books and nameplates on doors. Those detained were locked up in the Bürgerbräukeller, where they joined eight city councillors from left-wing parties whom the Stosstrupp Hitler had apprehended that morning at the city Rathaus.86
The British consul general in Munich, Robert Clive, reported on 11 November: “As instances of the sort of thing we should have had to expect if Hitler was in power, I may mention that orders were immediately given the same night to round up the Jews.”87 Indeed, only the rapid collapse of the putsch prevented much worse abuses. The pocket of a Nazi lawyer who worked for the Bavarian Supreme Court, Baron Theodor von der Pfordten, and who was shot dead in front of the Feldherrnhalle around noon on 9 November, contained a draft constitution that was to take effect after the successful putsch. It decreed that “all risks to security and useless consumers of food” be brought to “collection camps.” Those who tried to resist being transported were to be sentenced to death, together with “members of the Jewish people,” who had profited from the war and resisted the confiscation of their assets.88 In early summer 1923, Ernst Hanfstaengl recalled, Hitler had mentioned with “great and quasi-intoxicated admiration” the Roman dictator Sulla’s policies of proscription, expropriation and execution as a “model for the indispensable cleansing of post-war Germany from the pustulent Bolshevik hordes.” Even during his subsequent trial Hitler made little secret of his aims. The putsch was intended to bring about the “most overwhelming transformation of Germany in…historical memory since the founding of the state of New Brandenburg-Prussia.”89
By the early hours of the morning, the conspirators finally realised that they could not count on the triumvirate, and every new report from the outside world confirmed that the Reichswehr and police were preparing to respond to the coup. In the Bürgerbräukeller, the previous night’s euphoria was replaced by sobriety. Hitler vacillated between hope and despair. On the one hand, during the night, he charged Gottfried Feder with drawing up a proclamation nationalising the banks. On the other hand, he seemed to accept the inevitable. He was quoted as saying: “If it comes off, everything’s fine. If it doesn’t, we’ll hang ourselves.”90 The leaders of the uprising conferred for hours about what to do next. Kriebel suggested an orderly retreat to Rosenheim, the epicentre of the movement, but Ludendorff refused, stating that he did not want the “ethnic-popular movement to end in the dirt of the streets.”91 Instead he proposed to stage a protest march to the centre of town. With Hitler having run out of ideas, the general finally seemed to grow in stature and halted any further discussion with a command to march. But there was little hope of winning over popular sentiment for their cause by it and somehow reversing their fortune.92
The march formed at around noon. At the front, Hitler, Ludendorff, Scheubner-Richter, Weber, Graf and Göring led around 2,000 paramilitaries and cadets from Munich’s Infantry School, who had joined the rebels under the leadership of the former Freikorps commander Gerhard Rossbach. After overrunning a police cordon at Ludwigs Bridge, the march continued on to the Isar Gate and Marienplatz, Munich’s central square. Thousands of onlookers had gathered and cheered the demonstrators on. “The enthusiasm was unprecedented,” Hitler later said, “and I couldn’t help but remark to myself during the march that the people were behind us.”93 But the demonstrators could hardly fail to notice that many of the posters proclaiming their new government had been torn down or were covered over with Kahr’s renunciation of the rebellion.94 The marchers continued on to Residenzstrasse singing the old military song “O Deutschland hoch in Ehren” (O Germany, high in honour). Shortly before the march reached the Odeonsplatz near the Feldherrnhalle, a mêlée broke out between the demonstrators and police. Then came a gunshot—no one has ever determined who fired it—and the two sides exchanged heavy fire for thirty seconds.95 In the end, fourteen members of the putsch and four policemen lay dead on the cobblestones.
Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter was one of the first casualties. He had locked arms with Hitler, who fell with him, dislocating his left shoulder. Göring was seriously wounded by a bullet to the hip. While the rest of the vanguard of the demonstration instinctively dropped to the ground and then fled backwards chaotically, Ludendorff marched straight and stiff as a candle through the police lines and allowed himself to be arrested without resistance on Odeonsplatz.
Amidst the tumult, Hitler had got up and made his way down a side street, where Dr. Walter Schultze, head of the SA medical service, found him and pulled him into a car. It headed south at high speed. Seventy kilometres outside Munich, just before the village of Uffing am Staffelsee, the motor gave out. Together with the doctor and an orderly, Hitler proceeded on foot to Hanfstaengl’s holiday home. “Just after 7 p.m., the servant girl came and said that somebody had knocked quietly on the door,” Helene Hanfstaengl recalled.
I went downstairs and to my astonishment I heard Hitler’s unmistakable, if weakened, voice. I quickly opened the door. There he stood, pale as a ghost, without a hat, his face and his clothing covered in dirt and his left arm hanging from his shoulder at a strange angle. Two men, a young doctor and an orderly, were supporting him.96
The fugitive, who had not slept for many hours, was still in shock. He lamented the deaths of Ludendorff and Graf, who had thrown himself in front of his boss to protect him. In fact, the former had emerged from the gunfight unscathed, while the latter had been seriously wounded. Hitler was in great pain from his dislocated shoulder. It was not until the following day that the doctor succeeded in resetting the joint. A sling prevented Hitler from donning his jacket so Helene Hanfstaengl gave him a blue bathrobe that belonged to her husband, recalling: “The patient smiled and said he felt like a Roman emperor.”
Over the course of the afternoon of 11 November, Hitler grew ever more restless. He had sent the orderly to the Bechsteins in Munich to ask if they would loan Hitler their car so he could flee across the Austrian border, but the car did not arrive, and Hitler knew that his hideaway would not remain undiscovered for long. At 5 p.m. the phone rang. It was Hanfstaengl’s mother, who lived nearby and reported that police were searching her home. “Now all is lost,” Helene Hanfstaengl recalled Hitler saying. He reached for his revolver, which he had placed atop a cupboard, but she managed to take it off him and hid it in a flour container. “Then, I got some paper and a fountain pen and asked him to write down instructions for his closest comrades, while there was still time—one page per person,” Helene Hanfstaengl reported. Hitler obediently did as he was told.97
A short time later, cars pulled up and police surrounded the house. The young police lieutenant Rudolf Belleville, an acquaintance of Hess, introduced himself and politely requested to search the premises. Helene Hanfstaengl led him upstairs and opened a door. “In the room stood Hitler in white pyjamas with his arm in a sling,” read the official police report. “Hitler was staring absent-mindedly and when informed that he was being taken into custody, he extended his hand to the arresting officer and said that he was at his disposal.”98 Hitler was brought that same day to Landsberg prison and put in cell number 7. To make room for him, its previous occupant—Eisner’s murderer, Count Anton Arco auf Valley—had been moved elsewhere.99
The seriously wounded Göring had been treated at a private clinic in Munich and was apprehended trying to cross the border with Austria, but thanks to police bungling, he succeeded in getting away to Innsbruck. He was joined there by a host of others who had taken part in the putsch, including Hermann Esser and Ernst Hanfstaengl. Hess hid out in the apartment of his paternal professor Karl Haushofer. He then also fled to Austria before turning himself in to the Bavarian authorities in April 1924 after Hitler’s conviction. Gottfried Feder, who had also escaped injury, found refuge with friends in Czechoslovakia from late November 1923 to mid-January 1924. Ernst Pöhner and Wilhelm Frick, who had conspired with the uprising, had already been arrested during the night of 8-9 November. Ernst Röhm had been apprehended in the afternoon of 9 November after the home defence commando he had taken over surrendered. Erich Ludendorff, who had essentially turned himself in, was released on his word of honour.100
After the coup was put down, Munich was like a pressure cooker, with “members of the so-called better classes” openly hostile to the Reichswehr and the police. “When we marched through Maximilienstrasse,” a police captain reported, “we were greeted with insults like ‘Jew-protectors!—Traitors to the fatherland!—Bloodhounds—Heil Hitler—Down with Kahr’—and the like. When we crossed Odeonsplatz, pedestrians yelled, whistled, jeered and shook their fists at us.”101 In the days following the attempted putsch, there were demonstrations against the “clique of traitors”—Kahr, Lossow and Seisser—in Munich and other Bavarian cities. “It was clear that the feeling of the crowd was all for Hitler,” reported British Consul General Clive to London.102 Students in particular tended to sympathise with Hitler and his co-conspirators. At a mass event at the University of Munich on 12 November, speakers were repeatedly interrupted by cries of “Up with Hitler, down with Kahr.” As the university dean called upon those present to sing the German national anthem, the audience sang the Freikorps song “Swastika on a Steel Helmet” instead. Together with the professor of medicine, Ferdinand Sauerbruch, the historian Karl Alexander von Müller tried “to bring the students to reason,” as he put it.103 It took a while for the situation to calm down, and when it did, developments in the Reich were partially responsible. By mid-November 1923, the worst of Germany’s crisis was over. Currency reform had throttled hyperinflation, and the economy had begun to recover. Weimar democracy had survived. A period of stabilisation commenced, signalling the end of the immediate post-war era.104
During his first days of imprisonment at Landsberg, Hitler was completely demoralised and toyed with the idea of suicide. He went on hunger strike, probably in an attempt to end his life, but that just landed him in the infirmary. “He sat there before me in his chair like a lump of misery, badly shaven, exhausted, and listened to my simple words with a tired smile and complete indifference,” prison guard Franz Hemmrich recalled.105 Hitler revealed to prison psychologist Alois Maria Ott that “I’ve had enough. I’m done. If I had a revolver, I’d use it.” Ott succeeded in calming his patient down, and with the help of Hitler’s lawyer, they convinced him to end his hunger strike.106 Visitors, however, remained shocked by Hitler’s condition. He was pale, haggard and, as Hess learned by letter, “emotionally very down.”107 Nonetheless, little by little, he recovered. When his half-sister Angela Raubal spoke with him for half an hour in mid-December, he was back in good mental and psychological form. “Physically he is quite well,” she told her brother Alois. “His arm still gives him trouble, but they think it is almost healed. How moving is the loyalty he is accorded these days.”108
Among those who still had complete faith in Hitler were the Wagners. They had happened to be in Munich on 9 November for the scheduled premiere of Siegfried Wagner’s symphonic poem Happiness. The concert was cancelled after the putsch was put down, and the Wagners returned to Bayreuth embittered. “There has never been such a scandalous betrayal!” the outraged Siegfried proclaimed. “Even people as pure as Hitler and Ludendorff aren’t immune from such dirty tricks being played on them…How much easier the Jews and the clerics have it.” His wife Winifred tried to bolster the spirits of disappointed NSDAP followers in Bayreuth: “Believe me, despite everything, Adolf Hitler is the man of the future. He’ll draw the sword from the German oak.” In early December 1923, Winifred wrote a letter to her “dear esteemed friend Hitler,” in which she sent him the libretto for Siegfried’s The Blacksmith of Marienburg. “Perhaps this little book will help you pass a long hour or two,” she wrote. She told Hitler that she and Siegfried would be visiting their mutual friends the Bechsteins and assured him he would be there in spirit. On 6 December, Winifred told a friend that she had sent her idol in Landsberg “a care package with a woollen blanket, jacket, socks, warm linings and books.” In the run-up to Christmas she turned Villa Wahnfried into a veritable collection point for packages of affection ultimately bound for Landsberg. Siegfried was delighted: “My wife is fighting like a lioness for Hitler! Wonderful!”109
On 13 December 1923, the deputy state prosecutor Hans Ehard travelled to Landsberg to interrogate Hitler. He initially refused to make any statement at all. “He wasn’t a criminal, and he refused to be interrogated like a criminal,” the protocol recorded Hitler saying. When Ehard pointed out that such recalcitrance only meant that he would spend longer in investigative custody, Hitler responded that he was solely interested in justifying his actions and his mission before history and that he rejected any authority the court might claim to pass judgement upon him. He would only play “his best trumps…in the courtroom.” Then one would see whether “certain gentlemen” would dare to “raise their hand in perjury”—a reference to Kahr, Lossow and Seisser.
Realising that he was getting nowhere with the stubborn inmate, Ehard sent his stenographer out of the room and talked with Hitler off the record for five hours. Hitler was initially mistrustful, but he thawed out and was soon drowning the state prosecutor in wave after wave of words. It became immediately clear what Hitler’s defence strategy would be. He would dispute the accusation of high treason by claiming that not only had the representatives of legal state power in Bavaria participated in the coup but that they had planned everything that had been decided in the Bürgerbräukeller together months in advance. “In their hearts they stood by the cause and only changed their minds later,” Ehard reported Hitler saying.110
One open question was where the trial should take place. Despite his opposition to the 1922 Law on the Defence of the Republic, Hitler preferred the State Court in Leipzig because he hoped judges there would be less favourably disposed towards the triumvirate than those in Munich. “In Leipzig, various gentlemen might well enter the court as witnesses and leave it as prisoners,” he told Ehard. “That of course wouldn’t be the case in Munich. Here that wouldn’t be allowed.”111 In fact, the powers that be in Bavaria had no interest in revealing to the public how entwined Kahr and Lossow, who both resigned before the start of the trial, had been in the plans for the coup d’état. It was decided to hold the main trial in Munich’s First District Court; the venue was the former war academy on Blutenburgstrasse 3. On 26 February 1924, under the scrutiny of the German and international press, proceedings were opened against Hitler, Ludendorff, Röhm, Pöhner, Frick, Kriebel, Weber and the SA leaders Wilhelm Brückner, Robert Wagner and Heinz Pernet. The building was protected with barbed wire and guards, and anyone entering was thoroughly frisked. The courtroom was full to the very last seat.112
Hitler, who was transferred to the court’s holding cells on 22 February, seemed confident about the outcome of the trial. “What can they do to me?” he bragged to Hanfstaengl, who had hastened back to Munich after a warrant had been issued for his arrest. “I only need to say a few things, especially about Lossow, and there will be a big scandal.”113 Shortly before 9 a.m. on 26 February, the defendants and their counsel entered the courtroom. Ludendorff took the lead in a simple blue suit, followed by Pöhner and then Hitler in a dark jacket bearing his Iron Cross, First Class. “He looks good,” a court reporter remarked. “Imprisonment has not left any marks on him.” While the other defendants immediately took their seats, Hitler remained standing for a minute and surveyed the courtroom audience.114
The prosecutor named Hitler “the soul of the whole undertaking,”115 and right from the initial days of the trial there was no question who was the focus of attention. In his four-hour self-defence, Hitler took the entire responsibility for the putsch: “Ultimately, I was the one who wanted it. In the end, the other gentlemen only took action with me.” On the other hand, he disputed the state’s charges, claiming that there was no such thing as “high treason against the national traitors of 1918.” Moreover, if this were a case of high treason, he was surprised that “the gentlemen who wanted the same things we did and held talks to prepare them” were not sitting beside him on the defendants’ bench. He was talking about Kahr, Lossow and Seisser, and Hitler promised to make revelations about them in the closed segment of the trial.116
The leading judge was Georg Neidhardt, who had already revealed his political colours at Count Anton Arco’s trial when he had attributed “the most fervent love of his people and his fatherland” to Eisner’s murderer.117 At Hitler’s trial, too, Neidhardt did not conceal his sympathies and allowed Hitler to use the tribunal as a pulpit. Occasionally, when Hitler launched attacks against government representatives or raised his voice to volumes he was accustomed to use at party meetings, the judge did order him to be more moderate. Otherwise, Neidhardt gave Hitler every licence, even the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses, including the members of the triumvirate. Swapping the role of the defendant for that of the prosecutor, Hitler used all of the rhetorical skills at his disposal to direct blame at those he felt had abandoned him on 9 November.
Lossow was the only one to put up any effective resistance, showing how transparent Hitler’s pretence of selflessness really was. The Führer of the National Socialists, Lossow countered, considered himself “the German Mussolini,” and his followers celebrated him as “the German messiah.” Lossow denied ever supporting a national dictatorship under Hitler and Ludendorff. “I wasn’t some unemployed Chetnik who thought that the only way of gaining honour and dignity was to launch another putsch,” Lossow huffed.118 The barb stung, and Hitler showered Lossow with crass insults. Neidhardt deemed him to be out of order, but there were no consequences. The general decided to leave the courtroom and never returned.119
The journalist Hans von Hülsen wrote of an “unworthy piece of theatre,” adding: “What was unfolding there was Munich’s version of political carnival.”120 To the very end of the trial, Hitler was allowed to play the master of ceremonies. In his concluding speech, a paradigm of calculating rhetoric, he invoked the hour “when the masses who wander the streets today with our cross [i.e. the swastika] will unite with those who lined up against them on 8 November.” Turning directly to the judges, he announced:
Not you will render the final verdict, but the goddess of the Last Judgement who will rise from our graves as “history”…And while you may find us “guilty,” this eternal goddess of the eternal court will tear up the prosecutor’s petition and the court’s verdict with a smile, for she will acquit us.
When asked by Neidhardt if he had anything to add, Röhm replied, “After the statements of my friend and Führer Adolf Hitler, I eschew any further words.” The other defendants followed suit.121
The verdicts were announced on 1 April. The court was unusually jam-packed, and many in the gallery had brought flowers for the defendants. Given the course of the trial, it was no great surprise that Ludendorff, who appeared in full general’s regalia with all his medals, was acquitted. Much to the court’s dismay, Ludendorff remarked that the ruling was “a shame this uniform and these medals do not deserve.” The court stenographer noted: “Feverish cries of ‘Heil!’ ”122 Hitler, Weber, Kriebel and Pöhner were found guilty of the “crime of high treason” with a minimum sentence of five years’ imprisonment, although their sentences could be suspended for good behaviour after only six months. The court also ruled that Hitler, who “is so German in his thinking and feeling,” was exempt from possible deportation to Austria under the Law for the Defence of the Republic. That drew “bravos” from the gallery. Brückner, Röhm, Pernet, Wagner and Frick were given suspended sentences of one year and three months.123 The sentences were scandalously mild, and the press rushed out of the courtroom to pass them along via telephone. The Münchener Neueste Nachrichten reported: “Shortly after 11:15 a.m., Ludendorff drove off in a car to vigorous cries of ‘Heil…’ Hitler, Kriebel and the other convicted defendants appeared in the window of the court building and were also greeted by the masses…with boisterous cries of ‘Hooray’ and ‘Heil.’ ”124
“Munich is chuckling over the verdict, which is regarded as an excellent joke for All Fools Day,” commented The Times in London,125 but the court’s ruling came in for sharp criticism among adherents of the Weimar Republic. “Judicial murder has been carried out against the republic in Munich,” wrote the left-wing journal Die Weltbühne.126 In fact, the court’s verdict praised the defendants as “having acted in a purely patriotic spirit, led by the most noble, selfless will.”127 It was the moral equivalent of an acquittal. The court failed to mention that the putsch had cost four policemen their lives, and that SA commandos had terrorised the Munich populace during the night of the attempted coup and that the draft constitution found on the dead rebel Pfordten had contained an outline for a system of concentration camps. The verdict was a travesty of justice, and as such it foreshadowed what would happen to Germany’s judicial system in the Third Reich. Hitler knew he had reason to be grateful to Neidhardt. In September 1933, he named the judge president of the Bavarian Supreme Court in Munich.128
The putsch and subsequent trial established Hitler’s notoriety well beyond Bavaria. For months, the media were fascinated by the man who had been able to turn a fiasco into a propaganda triumph. Most observers were convinced that Hitler would return to prominence once his time in Landsberg was served. For Hitler, a five-year apprenticeship was over. He had gone from being the “drummer” for a movement to becoming the “Führer” of an anticipated “national revolution.”129 The most important lesson he learned from the failed enterprise of 8 and 9 November was that he was going to have to take another path if he wanted to come to power. Instead of a putsch, he needed to ensure at least the pretence of legality in cooperation with the Reichswehr. It was while imprisoned in Landsberg, Hitler recollected in February 1942, that he “became convinced that violence would not work since the state is too established and has all the weapons in its possession.”130
Several of Hitler’s main characteristics and behavioural patterns came to the fore even more clearly during the critical days of November 1923. Among them were the extreme vacillations between euphoria, apathy and depression. Hitler had repeatedly announced that he would kill himself if the putsch failed, and this latent tendency towards self-annihilation would accompany him throughout his political career. In his 1940 book Germany: Jekyll & Hyde, Sebastian Haffner rightly called Hitler “a potential suicide par excellence.”131
Another constant was the all-or-nothing attitude of the political gambler. Consciously or not, he seemed to be imitating the Prussian king Friedrich the Great, whom he much admired and whose biography he knew from Franz Kugler’s 1840 History of Friedrich the Great. In 1740, Friedrich had bet everything on a single card by launching a surprise attack against Silesia, and he had repeatedly demonstrated a near-suicidal proclivity for risk-taking during the Seven Years War from 1756 to 1763.132 Forced to act, Hitler had similarly gone all out when he detained and blackmailed the triumvirate.133 Once he had decided to strike what he hoped would be a decisive blow, Hitler had no more time for counter-arguments. “Herr Hitler does not engage with objections,” Lossow said at the trial by way of explaining Hitler’s missionary convictions and immunity to criticism. “He is the Chosen One and everyone else has to accept whatever he says.”134
As far as we know, however, none of Hitler’s entourage ever made any attempts to restrain him. Although they were only initiated at a late stage into the plans for the putsch, they followed his call without hesitation.135 That is another indication of how unquestioned his authority as Führer had become within the party. The failed putsch would do nothing to undermine this status. On the contrary, it reinforced Hitler’s image as a man who not only talked, but acted in critical situations—and who was willing to take great personal risks. He would continue to feed off this aura even after he became Germany’s chancellor.