The History Place - World War II in Europe

The Beer Hall Putsch

In April of 1921, the victorious European Allies of World War One, notably France and England, presented a bill to Germany demanding payment for damages caused in the war which Germany had started. This bill (33 billion dollars) for war reparations had the immediate effect of causing ruinous inflation in Germany.

The German currency, the mark, slipped drastically in value. It had been four marks to the US dollar until the war reparations were announced. Then it became 75 to the dollar and in 1922 sank to 400 to the dollar. The German government asked for a postponement of payments. The French refused. The Germans defied them by defaulting on their payments. In response to this, in January of 1923, the French Army occupied the industrial part of Germany known as the Ruhr.

The German mark fell to 18,000 to the dollar. By July, 1923, it sank to 160,000. By August, 1,000,000. And by November, 1923, it took 4,000,000,000 marks to buy a dollar.

Germans lost their life savings. Salaries were paid in worthless money. Groceries cost billions. Hunger riots broke out.

For the moment, the people stood by their government, admiring its defiance of the French. But in September of 1923, the German government made a fateful decision to resume making payments. Bitter resentment and unrest swelled among the people, inciting extremist political groups to action and quickly bringing Germany to the brink of chaos.

The Nazis and other similar groups now felt the time was right to strike. The German state of Bavaria where the Nazis were based was a hotbed of groups opposed to the democratic government in Berlin. By now, November 1923, the Nazis, with 55,000 followers, were the biggest and best organized. With Nazi members demanding action, Hitler knew he had to act or risk losing the leadership of his Party.

Hitler and the Nazis hatched a plot in which they would kidnap the leaders of the Bavarian government and force them at gunpoint to accept Hitler as their leader. Then, according to their plan, with the aid of famous World War One General Erich Ludendorff, they would win over the German army, proclaim a nationwide revolt and bring down the German democratic government in Berlin.

They put this plan into action when they learned there would be a large gathering of businessmen in a Munich beer hall and the guests of honor were to be the Bavarian leaders they wanted to kidnap.

On November 8, 1923, SA troops under the direction of Hermann Göring surrounded the place. At 8:30 p.m. Hitler and his storm troopers burst into the beer hall causing instant panic.

Hitler fired a pistol shot into the ceiling. "Silence!" he yelled at the stunned crowd.

Hitler and Göring forced their way to the podium as armed SA men continued to file into the hall. State Commissioner Gustav von Kahr, whose speech had been interrupted by all this, yielded the podium to Hitler.

"The National Revolution has begun!" Hitler shouted. "...No one may leave the hall. Unless there is immediate quiet I shall have a machine gun posted in the gallery. The Bavarian and Reich governments have been removed and a provisional national government formed. The barracks of the Reichswehr and police are occupied. The Army and the police are marching on the city under the swastika banner!"

None of that was true, but those in the beer hall could not know otherwise.

Hitler then ordered the three highest officials of the Bavarian government into a back room. State Commissioner Kahr, along with the head of the state police, Colonel Hans von Seisser, and commander of the German Army in Bavaria, General Otto von Lossow, did as they were told and went into the room where Hitler informed them they were to join him in proclaiming a Nazi revolution and would become part of the new government.

But to Hitler's great surprise, his three captives simply glared at him and at first even refused to talk to him. Hitler responded by waving his pistol at them, yelling, "I have four shots in my pistol! Three for you, gentlemen. The last bullet for myself!"

The revolution in the back room continued to go poorly for Hitler. On a sudden emotional impulse, Hitler dashed out of the room and went back out to the podium and shouted...

"... The government of the November criminals and the Reich President are declared to be removed. A new national government will be named this very day in Munich. A new German National Army will be formed immediately. ...The task of the provisional German National Government is to organize the march on that sinful Babel, Berlin, and save the German people! Tomorrow will find either a National Government in Germany or us dead!"

This led everyone in the beer hall to believe the men in the back room had given in to Hitler and were joining in with the Nazis. There was wild cheering for Hitler.

General Ludendorff now arrived. Hitler knew the three government leaders in the back room would listen to him.

At Hitler's urging, Ludendorff spoke to the men in the back room and advised them to go along with the Nazi revolution. They reluctantly agreed, then went out to the podium and faced the crowd, showing their support for Hitler and pledging loyalty to the new regime. An emotional Hitler spoke to the crowd.

"I am going to fulfill the vow I made to myself five years ago when I was a blind cripple in the military hospital - to know neither rest nor peace until the November criminals had been overthrown, until on the ruins of the wretched Germany of today there should have arisen once more a Germany of power and greatness, of freedom and splendor."

The crowd in the beer hall roared their approval and sang "Deutschland über Alles." Hitler was euphoric. This was turning into a night of triumph for him. Tomorrow he might actually be dictator of Germany.

But then word came that attempts to take over several military barracks had failed and that German soldiers inside the barracks were holding out against Hitler's storm troopers. Hitler decided to leave the beer hall and go to the scene to personally resolve the problem.

Leaving the beer hall was a fateful error. In his absence the Nazi revolution quickly began to unravel. The three Bavarian government leaders, Kahr, Lossow, and Seisser, slipped out of the beer hall after falsely promising Ludendorff they would remain loyal to Hitler.

Meanwhile, Hitler had no luck in getting the German soldiers who were holding out in the barracks to surrender. Having failed at that, he went back to the beer hall.

When he arrived back at the beer hall he was aghast to find the revolution fizzling. There were no plans for tomorrow's march on Berlin. Munich wasn't even being occupied. Nothing was happening.

In fact, only one building, Army headquarters at the War Ministry had been occupied, by Ernst Röhm and his SA troopers. Elsewhere, rogue bands of Nazi thugs roamed the city of Munich rounding up some political opponents and harassing Jews.

In the early morning hours of November 9, State Commissioner Kahr broke his promise to Hitler and Ludendorff and issued a strong statement against Hitler saying, "...Declarations extorted from me, Gen. Lassow and Colonel von Seisser by pistol point are null and void. Had the senseless and purposeless attempt at revolt succeeded, Germany would have been plunged into the abyss and Bavaria with it."

Kahr also ordered the breakup of the Nazi party and its fighting forces.

Gen. Lossow also abandoned Hitler and ordered Army reinforcements into Munich to put down the Nazi putsch. Troops were rushed in and by dawn the War Ministry building containing Röhm and his SA troops was surrounded.

Hitler was up all night frantically trying to decide what to do. General Ludendorff then gave him an idea. The Nazis would simply march into the middle of Munich and take it over. Because of his World War One fame, Ludendorff reasoned, no one would dare fire on him. He even assured Hitler the police and the Army would likely join them. Hitler went for the idea.

The arrival in Munich of troops supporting HitlerAround 11 a.m., a column of three thousand Nazis, led by Hitler, Göring and Ludendorff marched toward the center of Munich. Carrying one of the flags was a young party member named Heinrich Himmler.

After reaching the center of Munich, the Nazis headed toward the War Ministry building but they encountered a police blockade along the route. As they stood face to face with a hundred armed policemen, Hitler yelled out to them to surrender. They didn't. Shots rang out. Both sides fired. It lasted about a minute. Sixteen Nazis and three police were killed. Göring was hit in the groin. Hitler suffered a dislocated shoulder when the man he had locked arms with was shot and dragged Hitler down to the pavement.

Hitler's bodyguard, Ulrich Graf, jumped onto Hitler to shield him and took several bullets, probably saving Hitler's life. Hitler then crawled along the sidewalk out of the line of fire and scooted away into a waiting car, leaving his comrades behind. The rest of the Nazis scattered or were arrested. Ludendorff, true to his heroic form, walked right through the line of fire to the police and was then arrested.

Hitler wound up at the home his friends, the Hanfstaengls, where he was reportedly talked out of suicide. He had become deeply despondent and expected to be shot by the authorities. He spent two nights in the Hanfstaengl's attic. On the third night, police arrived and arrested him. He was taken to the prison at Landsberg where his spirits lifted somewhat after he was told he was going to get a public trial.

With the collapse of the Nazi beer hall putsch, it now appeared to most observers that Hitler's political career and the Nazi movement had come to a crashing, almost laughable end.

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(Photo Credit: William O. McWorkman, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives)

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