Lessons from the Beer Hall Putsch

Hitler,_A_Study_in_Tyranny

In many ways the attempt of 8-9 November was a remarkable achievement for a man like Hitler who had started from nothing only a few years before. In less than a couple of hours on the night of 8 November he had transformed the political situation in Bavaria and made a revolution by sheer bluff. However impermanent a triumph, the scene in the Bilrgerbraukeller, with Kahr and Hitler shaking hands before the cheering crowd, and Generals Ludendorff and von Lossow agreeing to serve under the dictatorship of the ex-corporal – a scene which would have seemed incredible an hour before – was evidence of political talent of an unusual kind.

But the mistakes had been gross. The Kampfbund disposed of considerable forces – many more than those who took part in the march. They only needed to be concentrated and used to occupy such obvious positions as police headquarters, the central tele- phone exchange, the railway station and the power station. For all their talk of a putsch, not one of the rebel leaders had thought out the practical problems of making a revolution. Instead, S. A. detachments straggled into Munich all through the night and half the next day, and were left to stand about while the commanders argued what they should do. Finally, when they did decide to march, their leaders, who for years had appealed openly to violence, crumpled up and fled before one volley from a force of armed police whom they outnumbered by thirty to one. Worst of all, from Hitler’s point of view, was the contrast between his own behaviour under fire – the first to get to his feet and make his escape by car, leaving the wounded, the dead, and the rest of his followers to fend for themselves – and that of Ludendorff, who, in the sight of all, had marched steadily forward and brushed aside the police carbines with contemptuous ease.

The truth is, however, that Hitler’s plans had miscarried long before the column set out for the Odeonsplatz. As he admitted later: ‘We went in the conviction that this was the end, in one way or another. I know of one who, on the steps as we set out, said: “This Is now the finish.” Everyone In himself carried with him this conviction.’Hitler had never intended to use force; from the beginning his conception had been that of a revolution in agreement with the political and military authorities. ‘We never thought to carry through a revolt against the Army: It was with it that we believed we should succeed.’ This explains why no adequate preparations had been made for a seizure of power by arms. The coup was to be limited to forcing Kahr and Lossow into acting with him, in the belief that it was only hesitation, not opposition, that held them back. Again and again Hitler had told his men that when the moment came they need not worry, neither the Army nor the police would fire on them. The shots on the Odeonsplatz represented something more than the resistance any revolutionary party may expect to meet and take in its stride; they represented the final collapse of the premises upon which the whole attempt had been constructed. It was this that accounted for Hitler’s despondency on the morning of 9 November and the absence of any plan. From the moment it became certain that Lossow and Kahr had taken sides against him, Hitler knew that the attempt had failed. There was a slender chance that a show of force might still swing the Army back to his side, and so he agreed to march. But it was to be a demonstration, not the beginning of a putsch; the last thing Hitler wanted, or was prepared for, was to shoot it out with the Army…

…But the unsuccessful putsch of 1923 has a still more important place in the history of the Nazi movement for the lessons which Hitler drew from it and by which he shaped his political tactics in the years that followed. In 1936, three years after he became Chancellor, he summed up the lessons of that earlier attempt to seize power: ‘We recognized that it is not enough to overthrow the old State, but that the new State must previously have been built up and be practically ready to one’s hand. And so only a few days after the collapse I formed a new decision: that now without any haste the conditions must be created which would exclude the possibility of a second failure. Later you lived through another revolution. But what a difference between them! In 1933 it was no longer a question of overthrowing a state by an act of violence; meanwhile the new State had been built up and all that there remained to do was to destroy the last remnants of the old State – and that took but a few hours.’

When Hitler spoke of a ‘new decision’ he was exaggerating; he had never intended to seize power by force. His revolution – even in 1923 – had been designed as a ‘revolution by permission of the Herr President’. But the failure of 1923 strengthened his hand. ‘After the putsch I could say to all those in the Party what otherwise it would never have been possible for me to say. My answer to my critics was: Now the battle will be waged as I wish it and not otherwise.’  ‘This evening and this day (8-9 November) made it possible for us afterwards to fight a battle for ten years by legal means; for, make no mistake, if we had not acted then I should never have been able to found a revolutionary movement, and yet all the time maintain legality. One could have said to me with justice: You talk like all the others and you will act just as little as all the others.’

References:

  1. Bullock, Alan. Hitler: A Study in Tyranny. New York: Harper & Row, 1964. Print. 113-119.
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Filed under History, Notes on History, Politics

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