“The government calmly goes on printing these scraps of paper because, if it stopped, that would be the end of the government,” he cried. “Because once the printing presses stopped—and that is the prerequisite for the stabilization of the mark—the swindle would at once be brought to light … Believe me, our misery will increase. The scoundrel will get by. The reason: because the State itself has become the biggest swindler and crook. A robbers’ state! … If the horrified people notice that they can starve on billions, they must arrive at this conclusion: we will no longer submit to a State which is built on the swindling idea of the majority. We want a dictatorship …”5
No doubt the hardships and uncertainties of the wanton inflation were driving millions of Germans toward that conclusion and Hitler was ready to lead them on. In fact, he had begun to believe that the chaotic conditions of 1923 had created an opportunity to overthrow the Republic which might not recur. But certain difficulties lay in his way if he were himself to lead the counterrevolution, and he was not much interested in it unless he was.
In the first place, the Nazi Party, though it was growing daily in numbers, was far from being even the most important political movement in Bavaria, and outside that state it was unknown. How could such a small party overthrow the Republic? Hitler, who was not easily discouraged by odds against him, thought he saw a way. He might unite under his leadership all the antirepublican, nationalist forces in Bavaria. Then with the support of the Bavarian government, the armed leagues and the Reichswehr stationed in Bavaria, he might lead a march on Berlin—as Mussolini had marched on Rome the year before—and bring the Weimar Republic down. Obviously Mussolini’s easy success had given him food for thought.
The French occupation of the Ruhr, though it brought a renewal of German hatred for the traditional enemy and thus revived the spirit of nationalism, complicated Hitler’s task. It began to unify the German people behind the republican government in Berlin which had chosen to defy France. This was the last thing Hitler wanted. His aim was to do away with the Republic. France could be taken care of after Germany had had its nationalist revolution and established a dictatorship. Against a strong current of public opinion Hitler dared to take an unpopular line: “No—not down with France, but down with the traitors of the Fatherland, down with the November criminals! That must be our slogan.”6
All through the first months of 1923 Hitler dedicated himself to making the slogan effective. In February, due largely to the organizational talents of Roehm, four of the armed “patriotic leagues” of Bavaria joined with the Nazis to form the so-called Arbeitsgemeinschaft der Vaterlaendischen Kampfverbaende (Working Union of the Fatherland Fighting Leagues) under the political leadership of Hitler. In September an even stronger group was established under the name of the Deutscher Kampfbund (German Fighting Union), with Hitler one of a triumvirate of leaders. This organization sprang from a great mass meeting held at Nuremberg on September 2 to celebrate the anniversary of the German defeat of France at Sedan in 1870. Most of the fascist-minded groups in southern Germany were represented and Hitler received something of an ovation after a violent speech against the national government. The objectives of the new Kampfbund were openly stated: overthrow of the Republic and the tearing up of the Treaty of Versailles.
At the Nuremberg meeting Hitler had stood in the reviewing stand next to General Ludendorff during a parade of the demonstrators. This was not by accident. For some time the young Nazi chief had been cultivating the war hero, who had lent his famous name to the makers of the Kapp putsch in Berlin and who, since he continued to encourage counterrevolution from the Right, might be tempted to back an action which was beginning to germinate in Hitler’s mind. The old General had no political sense; living now outside Munich, he did not disguise his contempt for Bavarians, for Crown Prince Rupprecht, the Bavarian pre tender, and for the Catholic Church in this most Catholic of all states in Germany. All this Hitler knew, but it suited his purposes. He did not want Ludendorff as the political leader of the nationalist counterrevolution, a role which it was known the war hero was ambitious to assume. Hitler insisted on that role for himself. But Ludendorff’s name, his renown in the officer corps and among the conservatives throughout Germany would be an asset to a provincial politician still largely unknown outside Bavaria. Hitler began to include Ludendorff in his plans.
In the fall of 1923 the German Republic and the state of Bavaria reached a point of crisis. On September 26, Gustav Stresemann, the Chancellor, announced the end of passive resistance in the Ruhr and the resumption of German reparation payments. This former mouthpiece of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, a staunch conservative and, at heart, a monarchist, had come to the conclusion that if Germany were to be saved, united and made strong again it must, at least for the time being, accept the Republic, come to terms with the Allies and obtain a period of tranquillity in which to regain its economic strength. To drift any further would only end in civil war and perhaps in the final destruction of the nation.
The abandonment of resistance to the French in the Ruhr and the resumption of the burden of reparations touched off an outburst of anger and hysteria among the German nationalists, and the Communists, who also had been growing in strength, joined them in bitter denunciation of the Republic. Stresemann was faced with serious revolt from both extreme Right and extreme Left. He had anticipated it by having President Ebert declare a state of emergency on the very day he announced the change of policy on the Ruhr and reparations. From September 26, 1923, until February 1924, executive power in Germany under the Emergency Act was placed in the hands of the Minister of Defense, Otto Gessler, and of the Commander of the Army, General von Seeckt. In reality this made the General and his Army virtual dictators of the Reich.
Bavaria was in no mood to accept such a solution. The Bavarian cabinet of Eugen von Knilling proclaimed its own state of emergency on September 26 and named the right-wing monarchist and former premier Gustav von Kahr as State Commissioner with dictatorial powers. In Berlin it was feared that Bavaria might secede from the Reich, restore the Wittelsbach monarchy and perhaps form a South German union with Austria. A meeting of the cabinet was hastily summoned by President Ebert, and General von Seeckt was invited to attend. Ebert wanted to know where the Army stood. Seeckt bluntly told him. “The Army, Mr. President, stands behind me.”7
The icy words pronounced by the monocled, poker-faced Prussian Commander in Chief did not, as might have been expected, dismay the German President or his Chancellor. They had already recognized the Army’s position as a state within the State and subject only to itself. Three years before, as we have seen, when the Kapp forces had occupied Berlin and a similar appeal had been made to Seeckt, the Army had stood not behind the Republic but behind the General. The only question now, in 1923, was where Seeckt stood.
Fortunately for the Republic he now chose to stand behind it, not because he believed in republican, democratic principles but because he saw that for the moment the support of the existing regime was necessary for the preservation of the Army, itself threatened by revolt in Bavaria and in the north, and for saving Germany from a disastrous civil war. Seeckt knew that some of the leading officers of the Army division in Munich were siding with the Bavarian separatists. He knew of a conspiracy of the “Black Reichswehr” under Major Buchrucker, a former General Staff officer, to occupy Berlin and turn the republican government out. He now moved with cool precision and absolute determination, to set the Army right and end the threat of civil war.
On the night of September 30, 1923, “Black Reichswehr” troops under the command of Major Buchrucker seized three forts to the east of Berlin. Seeckt ordered regular forces to besiege them, and after two days Buchrucker surrendered. He was tried for high treason and actually sentenced to ten years of fortress detention. The “Black Reichswehr,” which had been set up by Seeckt himself under the cover name of Arbeitskommandos (Labor Commandos) to provide secret reinforcements for the 100,000-man Reichswehr, was dissolved.*
Seeckt next turned his attention to the threats of Communist uprisings in Saxony, Thuringia, Hamburg and the Ruhr. In suppressing the Left the loyalty of the Army could be taken for granted. In Saxony the Socialist-Communist government was arrested by the local Reichswehr commander and a Reich Commissioner appointed to rule. In Hamburg and in the other areas the Communists were quickly and severely squelched. It now seemed to Berlin that the relatively easy suppression of the Bolshevists had robbed the conspirators in Bavaria of the pretext that they were really acting to save the Republic from Communism, and that they would now recognize the authority of the national government. But it did not turn out that way.
Bavaria remained defiant of Berlin. It was now under the dictatorial control of a triumvirate: Kahr, the State Commissioner, General Otto von Lossow, commander of the Reichswehr in Bavaria, and Colonel Hans von Seisser, the head of the state police. Kahr refused to recognize that President Ebert’s proclamation of a state of emergency in Germany had any application in Bavaria. He declined to carry out any orders from Berlin. When the national government demanded the suppression of Hitler’s newspaper, the Voelkischer Beobachter, because of its vitriolic attacks on the Republic in general and on Seeckt, Stresemann and Gessler in particular, Kahr contemptuously refused.
A second order from Berlin to arrest three notorious leaders of some of the armed bands in Bavaria, Captain Heiss, Captain Ehrhardt (the “hero” of the Kapp putsch) and Lieutenant Rossbach (a friend of Roehm), was also ignored by Kahr. Seeckt, his patience strained, ordered General von Lossow to suppress the Nazi newspaper and arrest the three free-corps men. The General, himself a Bavarian and a confused and weak officer who had been taken in by Hitler’s eloquence and Kahr’s persuasiveness, hesitated to obey. On October 24 Seeckt sacked him and appointed GeneralKress von Kressenstein in his place. Kahr, however, would not take this kind of dictation from Berlin. He declared that Lossow would retain the command of the Reichswehr in Bavaria and defying not only Seeckt but the constitution, forced the officers and the men of the Army to take a special oath of allegiance to the Bavarian government.
This, to Berlin, was not only political but military rebellion, and General von Seeckt was now determined to put down both.8
He issued a plain warning to the Bavarian triumvirate and to Hitler and the armed leagues that any rebellion on their part would be opposed by force. But for the Nazi leader it was too late to draw back. His rabid followers were demanding action. Lieutenant Wilhelm Brueckner, one of his S.A. commanders, urged him to strike at once. “The day is coming,” he warned, “when I won’t be able to hold the men back. If nothing happens now, they’ll run away from us.”
Hitler realized too that if Stresemann gained much more time and began to succeed in his endeavor to restore tranquillity in the country, his own opportunity would be lost. He pleaded with Kahr and Lossow to march on Berlin before Berlin marched on Munich. And his suspicion grew that either the triumvirate was losing heart or that it was planning a separatist coup without him for the purpose of detaching Bavaria from the Reich. To this, Hitler, with his fanatical ideas for a strong, nationalist, unified Reich, was unalterably opposed.
Kahr, Lossow and Seisser were beginning to lose heart after Seeckt’s warning. They were not interested in a futile gesture that might destroy them. On November 6 they informed the Kampfbund, of which Hitler was the leading political figure, that they would not be hurried into precipitate action and that they alone would decide when and how to act. This was a signal to Hitler that he must seize the initiative himself. He did not possess the backing to carry out a putsch alone. He would have to have the support of the Bavarian state, the Army and the police—this was a lesson he had learned in his beggarly Vienna days. Somehow he would have to put Kahr, Lossow and Seisser in a position where they would have to act with him and from which there would be no turning back. Boldness, even recklessness, was called for, and that Hitler now proved he had. He decided to kidnap the triumvirate and force them to use their power at his bidding.
The idea had first been proposed to Hitler by two refugees from Russia, Rosenberg and Scheubner-Richter. The latter, who had ennobled himself with his wife’s name and called himself Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter, was a dubious character who, like Rosenberg, had spent most of his life in the Russian Baltic provinces and after the war made his way with other refugees from the Soviet Union to Munich, where he joined the Nazi Party and became one of Hitler’s close confidants.
On November 4, Germany’s Memorial Day (Totengedenktag) would be observed by a military parade in the heart of Munich, and it had been announced in the press that not only the popular Crown Prince Rupprecht but Kahr, Lossow and Seisser would take the salute of the troops from a stand in a narrow street leading from the Feldherrnhalle. Scheubner-Richter and Rosenberg proposed to Hitler that a few hundred storm troopers, transported by trucks, should converge on the little street before the parading troops arrived and seal it off with machine guns. Hitler would then mount the tribune, proclaim the revolution and at pistol point prevail upon the notables to join it and help him lead it. The plan appealed to Hitler and he enthusiastically endorsed it. But, on the appointed day, when Rosenberg arrived early on the scene for purposes of reconnaissance he discovered to his dismay that the narrow street was fully protected by a large body of well-armed police. The plot, indeed the “revolution,” had to be abandoned.
Actually it was merely postponed. A second plan was concocted, one that could not be balked by the presence of a band of strategically located police. On the night of November 10–11, the S.A. and the other armed bands of the Kampfbund would be concentrated on the Froettmaninger Heath, just north of Munich, and on the morning of the eleventh, the anniversary of the hated, shameful armistice, would march into the city, seize strategic points, proclaim the national revolution and present the hesitant Kahr, Lossow and Seisser with a fait accompli.
At this point a not very important public announcement induced Hitler to drop that plan and improvise a new one. A brief notice appeared in the press that, at the request of some business organizations in Munich, Kahr would address a meeting at the Buergerbräukeller, a large beer hall on the southeastern outskirts of the city. The date was November 8, in the evening. The subject of the Commissioner’s speech, the notice said, would be the program of the Bavarian government. General von Lossow, Colonel von Seisser and other notables would be present.
Two considerations led Hitler to a rash decision. The first was that he suspected Kahr might use the meeting to announce the proclamation of Bavarian independence and the restoration of the Wittelsbachs to the Bavarian throne. All day long on November 8 Hitler tried in vain to see Kahr, who put him off until the ninth. This only increased the Nazi leader’s suspicions. He must forestall Kahr. Also, and this was the second consideration, the Buergerbräukeller meeting provided the opportunity which had been missed on November 4: the chance to rope in all three members of the triumvirate and at the point of a pistol force them to join the Nazis in carrying out the revolution. Hitler decided to act at once. Plans for the November 10 mobilization were called off; the storm troops were hastily alerted for duty at the big beer hall.