Military history

THE BEER HALL PUTSCH

About a quarter to nine on the evening of November 8, 1923, after Kahr had been speaking for half an hour to some three thousand thirsty burghers, seated at roughhewn tables and quaffing their beer out of stone mugs in the Bavarian fashion, S.A. troops surrounded the Buergerbräukeller and Hitler pushed forward into the hall. While some of his men were mounting a machine gun in the entrance, Hitler jumped up on a table and to attract attention fired a revolver shot toward the ceiling. Kahr paused in his discourse. The audience turned around to see what was the cause of the disturbance. Hitler, with the help of Hess and of Ulrich Graf, the former butcher, amateur wrestler and brawler and now the leader’s bodyguard, made his way to the platform. A police major tried to stop him, but Hitler pointed his pistol at him and pushed on. Kahr, according to one eyewitness, had now become “pale and confused.” He stepped back from the rostrum and Hitler took his place.

“The National Revolution has begun!” Hitler shouted. “This building is occupied by six hundred heavily armed men. No one may leave the hall. Unless there is immediate quiet 1 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.”

This last was false; it was pure bluff. But in the confusion no one knew for sure. Hitler’s revolver was real. It had gone off. The storm troopers with their rifles and machine guns were real. Hitler now ordered Kahr, Lossow and Seisser to follow him to a nearby private room off stage. Prodded by storm troopers, the three highest officials of Bavaria did Hitler’s bidding while the crowd looked on in amazement.

But with growing resentment too. Many businessmen still regarded Hitler as something of an upstart. One of them shouted to the police, “Don’t be cowards as in 1918. Shoot!” But the police, with their own chiefs so docile and the S.A. taking over the hall, did not budge. Hitler had arranged for a Nazi spy at police headquarters, Wilhelm Frick, to telephone the police on duty at the beer hall not to interfere but merely to report. The crowd began to grow so sullen that Goering felt it necessary to step to the rostrum and quiet them. “There is nothing to fear,” he cried. “We have the friendliest intentions. For that matter, you’ve no cause to grumble, you’ve got your beer!” And he informed them that in the next room a new government was being formed.

It was, at the point of Adolf Hitler’s revolver. Once he had herded his prisoners into the adjoining room, Hitler told them, “No one leaves this room alive without my permission.” He then informed them they would all have key jobs either in the Bavarian government or in the Reich government which he was forming with Ludendorff. With Ludendorff? Earlier in the evening Hitler had dispatched Scheubner-Richter to Lud-wigshoehe to fetch the renowned General, who knew nothing of the Nazi conspiracy, to the beerhouse at once.

The three prisoners at first refused even to speak to Hitler. He continued to harangue them. Each of them must join him in proclaiming the revolution and the new governments; each must take the post he, Hitler, assigned them, or “he has no right to exist.” Kahr was to be the Regent of Bavaria; Lossow, Minister of the National Army; Seisser, Minister of the Reich Police. None of the three was impressed at the prospect of such high office. They did not answer.

Their continued silence unnerved Hitler. Finally he waved his gun at them. “I have four shots in my pistol! Three for my collaborators, if they abandon me. The last bullet for myself!” Pointing the weapon to his forehead, he cried, “If I am not victorious by tomorrow afternoon, I shall be a dead man!”

Kahr was not a very bright individual but he had physical courage. “Herr Hitler,” he answered, “you can have me shot or shoot me yourself. Whether I die or not is no matter.”

Seisser also spoke up. He reproached Hitler for breaking his word of honor not to make a putsch against the police.

“Yes, I did,” Hitler replied. “Forgive me, but I had to for the sake of the Fatherland.”

General von Lossow disdainfully maintained silence. But when Kahr started to whisper to him, Hitler snapped, “Halt! No talking without my permission!”

He was getting nowhere with his own talk. Not one of the three men who held the power of the Bavarian state in their hands had agreed to join him, even at pistol point. The putsch wasn’t going according to plan. Then Hitler acted on a sudden impulse. Without a further word, he dashed back into the hall, mounted the tribune, faced the sullen crowd and announced that the members of the triumvirate in the next room had joined him in forming a new national government.

“The Bavarian Ministry,” he shouted, “is removed…. 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 here in Munich. A German National Army will be formed immediately … I propose that, until accounts have been finally settled with the November criminals, the direction of policy in the National Government be taken over by me. Ludendorff will take over the leadership of the German National Army … 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!”

Not for the first time and certainly not for the last, Hitler had told a masterful lie, and it worked. When the gathering heard that Kahr, General von Lossow and Police Chief von Seisser had joined Hitler its mood abruptly changed. There were loud cheers, and the sound of them impressed the three men still locked up in the little side room.

Scheubner-Richter now produced General Ludendorff, as if out of a hat. The war hero was furious with Hitler for pulling such a complete surprise on him, and when, once closeted in the side room, he learned that the former corporal and not he was to be the dictator of Germany his resentment was compounded. He spoke scarcely a word to the brash young man. But Hitler did not mind so long as Ludendorff lent his famous name to the desperate undertaking and won over the three recalcitrant Bavarian leaders who thus far had failed to respond to his own exhortations and threats. This Ludendorff proceeded to do. It was now a question of a great national cause, he said, and he advised the gentlemen to co-operate. Awed by the attention of the generalissimo, the trio appeared to give in, though later Lossow denied that he had agreed to place himself under Ludendorff’s command. For a few minutes Kahr fussed over the question of restoring the Wittelsbach monarchy, which was so dear to him. Finally he said he would co-operate as the “King’s deputy.”

Ludendorff’s timely arrival had saved Hitler. Overjoyed at this lucky break, he led the others back to the platform, where each made a brief speech and swore loyalty to each other and to the new regime. The crowd leaped on chairs and tables in a delirium of enthusiasm. Hitler beamed with joy. “He had a childlike, frank expression of happiness that I shall never forget,” an eminent historian who was present later declared.9

Again mounting the rostrum, Hitler spoke his final word to the gathering:

I want now to fulfill the vow which 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.

This meeting began to break up. At the exits Hess, aided by storm troopers, detained a number of Bavarian cabinet members and other notables who were trying to slip out with the throng. Hitler kept his eye on Kahr, Lossow and Seisser. Then news came of a clash between storm troopers of one of the fighting leagues, the Bund Oberland, and regular troops at the Army Engineers’ barracks. Hitler decided to drive to the scene and settle the matter personally, leaving the beer hall in charge of Ludendorff.

This turned out to be a fatal error. Lossow was the first to slip away. He informed Ludendorff he must hurry to his office at Army headquarters to give the necessary orders. When Scheubner-Richter objected, Ludendorff rejoined stiffly, “I forbid you to doubt the word of a German officer.” Kahr and Seisser vanished too.

   Hitler, in high spirits, returned to the Buergerbräu to find that the birds had flown the coop. This was the first blow of the evening and it stunned him. He had confidently expected to find his “ministers” busy at their new tasks while Ludendorff and Lossow worked out plans for the march on Berlin. But almost nothing was being done. Not even Munich was being occupied by the revolutionary forces. Roehm, at the head of a detachment of storm troopers from another fighting league, the Reichs-kriegsflagge, had seized Army headquarters at the War Ministry in the Schoenfeldstrasse but no other strategic centers were occupied, not even the telegraph office, over whose wires news of the coup went out to Berlin and orders came back, from General von Seeckt to the Army in Bavaria, to suppress the putsch.

Though there were some defections among the junior officers and some of the troops, whose sympathies were with Hitler and Roehm, the higher officers, led by General von Danner, commander of the Munich garrison, not only were prepared to carry out Seeckt’s command but were bitterly resentful of the treatment meted out to General von Lossow. In the Army’s code a civilian who pointed a revolver at a general deserved to be smitten by an officer’s side arms. From headquarters at the 19th Infantry barracks, where Lossow had joined Danner, messages went out to outlying garrisons to rush reinforcements to the city. By dawn Regular Army troops had drawn a cordon around Roehm’s forces in the War Ministry.

Before this action Hitler and Ludendorff joined Roehm at the ministry for a time, to take stock of the situation. Roehm was shocked to find that no one besides himself had taken military action and occupied the key centers. Hitler tried desperately to re-establish contact with Lossow, Kahr and Seisser. Messengers were dispatched to the 19th Infantry barracks in the name of Ludendorff but they did not return. Poehner, the former Munich police chief and now one of Hitler’s supporters, was sent with Major Huehnlein and a band of the S.A. troopers to occupy police headquarters. They were promptly arrested there.

And what of Gustav von Kahr, the head of the Bavarian government? After leaving the Buergerbräukeller he had quickly recovered his senses and his courage. Not wishing to take any more chances on being made a prisoner of Hitler and his rowdies, Kahr moved the government to Regens-burg. But not before he had ordered placards posted throughout Munich carrying the following proclamation:

The deception and perfidy of ambitious comrades have converted a demonstration in the interests of national reawakening into a scene of disgusting violence. The declarations extorted from myself, General von Lossow and Colonel Seisser at the point of the revolver are null and void. The National Socialist German Workers’ Party, as well as the fighting leagues Oberland and Reichskriegsflagge, are dissolved.

VON KAHR
General State Commissioner

The triumph which earlier in the evening had seemed to Hitler so near and so easily won was rapidly fading with the night. The basis for a successful political revolution on which he had always insisted—the support of existing institutions such as the Army, the police, the political group in power—was now crumbling. Not even Ludendorff’s magic name, it was now clear, had won over the armed forces of the state. Hitler suggested that perhaps the situation could be retrieved if he and the General withdrew to the countryside near Rosenheim and rallied the peasants behind the armed bands for an assault on Munich, but Ludendorff promptly rejected the idea.

Or perhaps there was another way out which at least would avert disaster. On first hearing of the putsch, Crown Prince Rupprecht, a bitter personal enemy of Ludendorff, had issued a brief statement calling for its prompt suppression. Now Hitler decided to appeal to the Prince to intercede with Lossow and Kahr and obtain an honorable, peaceful settlement. A Lieutenant Neunzert, a friend of Hitler and of Rupprecht, was hurried off at dawn to the Wittelsbach castle near Berchtesgaden on the delicate mission. Unable to find an automobile, he had to wait for a train and did not arrive at his destination until noon, at which hour events were taking a turn not foreseen by Hitler nor dreamt of as possible by Ludendorff.

Hitler had planned a putsch, not a civil war. Despite his feverish state of excitement he was in sufficient control of himself to realize that he lacked the strength to overcome the police and the Army. He had wanted to make a revolution with the armed forces, not against them. Bloodthirsty though he had been in his recent speeches and during the hours he held the Bavarian triumvirs at gunpoint, he shrank from the idea of men united in their hatred of the Republic shedding the blood of each other.

So did Ludendorff. He would, as he had told his wife, string up President Ebert “and Co.” and gladly watch them dangle from the gallows. But he did not wish to kill policemen and soldiers who, in Munich at least, believed with him in the national counterrevolution.

To the wavering young Nazi leader Ludendorff now proposed a plan of his own that might still bring them victory and yet avoid bloodshed. German soldiers, even German police—who were mostly ex-soldiers—would never dare, he was sure, to fire on the legendary commander who had led them to great victories on both the Eastern and the Western fronts. He and Hitler would march with their followers to the center of the city and take it over. Not only would the police and the Army not dare to oppose him, he was certain; they would join him and fight under his orders. Though somewhat skeptical, Hitler agreed. There seemed no other way out. The Crown Prince, he noted, had not replied to his plea for mediation.

   Toward eleven o’clock on the morning of November 9, the anniversary of the proclamation of the German Republic, Hitler and Ludendorff led a column of some three thousand storm troopers out of the gardens of the Buergerbräukeller and headed for the center of Munich. Beside them in the front rank marched Goering, commander of the S.A., Scheubner-Richter, Rosenberg, Ulrich Graf, Hitler’s bodyguard, and half a dozen other Nazi officials and leaders of the Kampfbund. A swastika flag and a banner of the Bund Oberland were unfurled at the head of the column. Not far behind the first ranks a truck chugged along, loaded with machine guns and machine gunners. The storm troopers carried carbines, slung over their shoulders, some with fixed bayonets. Hitler brandished his revolver. Not a very formidable armed force, but Ludendorff, who had commanded millions of Germany’s finest troops, apparently thought it sufficient for his purposes.

A few hundred yards north of the beer cellar the rebels met their first obstacle. On the Ludwig Bridge, which leads over the River Isar toward the center of the city, stood a detachment of armed police barring the route. Goering sprang forward and, addressing the police commander, threatened to shoot a number of hostages he said he had in the rear of his column if the police fired on his men. During the night Hess and others had rounded up a number of hostages, including two cabinet members, for just such a contingency. Whether Goering was bluffing or not, the police commander apparently believed he was not and let the column file over the bridge unmolested.

At the Marienplatz the Nazi column encountered a large crowd which was listening to an exhortation of Julius Streicher, the Jew-baiter from Nuremberg, who had rushed to Munich at the first news of the putsch. Not wishing to be left out of the revolution, he cut short his speech and joined the rebels, jumping into step immediately behind Hitler.

Shortly after noon the marchers neared their objective, the War Ministry, where Roehm and his storm troopers were surrounded by soldiers of the Reichswehr. Neither besiegers nor besieged had yet fired a shot. Roehm and his men were all ex-soldiers and they had many wartime comrades on the other side of the barbed wire. Neither side had any heart for killing.

To reach the War Ministry and free Roehm, Hitler and Ludendorff now led their column through the narrow Residenzstrasse, which, just beyond the Feldherrnhalle, opens out into the spacious Odeonsplatz. At the end of the gullylike street a detachment of police about one hundred strong, armed with carbines, blocked the way. They were in a strategic spot and this time they did not give way.

But once again the Nazis tried to talk their way through. One of them, the faithful bodyguard Ulrich Graf, stepped forward and cried out to the police officer in charge, “Don’t shoot! His Excellency Ludendorff is coming!” Even at this crucial, perilous moment, a German revolutionary, even an old amateur wrestler and professional bouncer, remembered to give a gentleman his proper title. Hitler added another cry. “Surrender! Surrender!” he called out. But the unknown police officer did not surrender. Apparently Ludendorff’s name had no magic sound for him; this was the police, not the Army.

Which side fired first was never established. Each put the blame on the other. One onlooker later testified that Hitler fired the first shot with his revolver. Another thought that Streicher did, and more than one Nazi later told this author that it was this deed which, more than any other, endeared him so long to Hitler.*

At any rate a shot was fired and in the next instant a volley of shots rang out from both sides, spelling in that instant the doom of Hitler’s hopes. Scheubner-Richter fell, mortally wounded. Goering went down with a serious wound in his thigh. Within sixty seconds the firing stopped, but the street was already littered with fallen bodies—sixteen Nazis and three police dead or dying, many more wounded and the rest, including Hitler, clutching the pavement to save their lives.

There was one exception, and had his example been followed, the day might have had a different ending. Ludendorff did not fling himself to the ground. Standing erect and proud in the best soldierly tradition, with his adjutant, Major Streck, at his side, he marched calmly on between the muzzles of the police rifles until he reached the Odeonsplatz. He must have seemed a lonely and bizarre figure. Not one Nazi followed him. Not even the supreme leader, Adolf Hitler.

The future Chancellor of the Third Reich was the first to scamper to safety. He had locked his left arm with the right arm of Scheubner-Richter (a curious but perhaps revealing gesture) as the column approached the police cordon, and when the latter fell he pulled Hitler down to the pavement with him. Perhaps Hitler thought he had been wounded; he suffered sharp pains which, it was found later, came from a dislocated shoulder. But the fact remains that according to the testimony of one of his own Nazi followers in the column, the physician Dr. Walther Schulz, which was supported by several other witnesses, Hitler “was the first to get up and turn back,” leaving his dead and wounded comrades lying in the street. He was hustled into a waiting motorcar and spirited off to the country home of the Hanfstaengls at Uffing, where Putzi’s wife and sister nursed him and where, two days later, he was arrested.

Ludendorff was arrested on the spot. He was contemptuous of the rebels who had not had the courage to march on with him, and so bitter against the Army for not coming over to his side that he declared hence forth he would not recognize a German officer nor ever again wear an officer’s uniform. The wounded Goering was given first aid by the Jewish proprietor of a nearby bank into which he had been carried and then smuggled across the frontier into Austria by his wife and taken to a hospital in Innsbruck. Hess also fled to Austria. Roehm surrendered at the War Ministry two hours after the collapse before the Feldherrnhalle. Within a few days all the rebel leaders except Goering and Hess were rounded up and jailed. The Nazi putsch had ended in a fiasco. The party was dissolved. National Socialism, to all appearances, was dead. Its dictatorial leader, who had run away at the first hail of bullets, seemed utterly discredited, his meteoric political career at an end.

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