How the Munich Beer Hall Putsch set Hitler on his road to power
A century on from the Munich beer hall putsch, Frank McDonough explains how Adolf Hitler turned a bloody fiasco into a political triumph.
What was the Beer Hall Putsch?
On 8 November 1923, Adolf Hitler strode into a beer hall, jumped on to a chair, and fired a single bullet into the ceiling.
“The National Revolution has begun,” he bellowed to his startled audience. “The hall is under the control of 600 heavily armed men. No one is allowed to leave.”
It was the most dramatic of entrances, and one that would signal the start of a defining episode in Hitler’s early life: the Munich beer hall putsch.
Hitler’s aim that autumn night was to seize Munich and use the city as a base from which to overthrow the Weimar Republic. Yet little did he know as stood on top of the table that his ‘national revolution’ was about to fall flat on its face.
Why did the putsch take place in a beer hall?
Hitler had chosen the location of his coup – the Bürgerbräukeller, a large beer hall in the centre of Munich – for a good reason.
For it was here, on that November evening, that Gustav von Kahr, state commissioner of Bavaria, was due to deliver a speech to Munich government officials.
Hitler, who had been leader of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (better known to history as the Nazis) since July 1921, decided to hijack this meeting to announce a ‘March on Berlin’, where he planned to have himself installed as German leader.
He had already won over the First World War leader General Erich Ludendorff – and assumed that Kahr and the Bavarian establishment would support him, too.
What Hitler did not know was that, on 6 November, Kahr had met leading paramilitary organisations in Munich, telling them the Bavarian government would not support any revolutionary action designed to bring down the Weimar Republic. General Otto von Lossow, head of the Bavarian Reichswehr, and Colonel Hans Ritter von Seisser, the head of the Bavarian State Police, also opposed Hitler’s proposed coup.
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What happened duing the Beer Hall Putsch?
In the minutes following Hitler’s entrance into the beer hall, Kahr was barely in a position to oppose the Nazis swarming into the building.
Standing at the speaker’s podium, he was led at gunpoint to an adjoining room, accompanied by Seisser, Lossow and Ernst Pōhner, the former Munich chief of police. Hitler threatened to kill them and himself, too, if they refused to join his march on the German capital.
In the meantime, Ludendorff had turned up, telling Kahr, Sesser and Lossow that he supported Hitler’s plan. However, Ludendorff was somewhat surprised to hear that, in Hitler’s proposed national government, he had been given the lesser role of commander of the army, as Hitler had already appointed himself ‘dictator of Germany’.
At 10.30pm, Hitler left the beer hall to go and calm down a clash between an SA paramilitary unit and government troops at the local barracks of the Army Engineers a few miles away. He left Ludendorff to control Kahr, Lossow and Seisser. It was a huge error of judgment: Ludendorff had soon allowed the three to leave.
Once free, Kahr took measures to strangle Hitler’s would-be revolution at birth. German president, Friedrich Ebert, gave full executive power over Bavaria to General von Seeckt, who issued a manifesto warning that the army would deal sternly with all conspirators. And so, a few minutes before midnight, Hitler accepted that his attempt to overthrow Weimar democracy had failed.
Yet he wasn’t about to go quietly into the night. As a final and futile revolutionary gesture, the following day the Nazi leader led a demonstration, numbering 3,000, through Munich, with Ludendorff at his side.
Their aim was to march to the War Ministry and capture it, but as they approached the Feldherrnhalle, in the city centre, they found their path barred by a heavily armed cordon of the Bavarian state police. Several shots were fired on both sides.
It left 14 National Socialists and four police officers dead.
What happened after the Beer Hall Putsch?
When it was all over, Hitler turned up at the house of his close friend, the wealthy landowner Ernst ‘Putzi’ Hanfstaengl. It didn’t take the authorities long to catch up with him.
On 11 November, Hitler was arrested and driven to Landsberg Fortress, a modern prison 33 miles to the west of Munich, to await trial on a charge of treason.
Why did the Beer Hall Putsch fail?
The coup had failed because Hitler allowed his party to become a purely paramilitary organisation, involved in an ill-defined conspiracy. Hitler had whipped up his own supporters into a frenzy, only to find that he had already been deserted by his supposed co-conspirators.
On the day of Hitler’s arrest, Gustav Stresemann, the German chancellor, gave a speech in which he reflected on recent events in Munich, admitting: “Germany was now confronted with the demand for a dictatorship.”
But he stressed that anyone thinking a dictatorship would improve matters was making a “great mistake”. Stresemann said a “destructive force” such as Hitler could never have provided competent government for Germany, even if he had succeeded.
But, of course, Hitler hadn’t succeeded. His coup had ended in abject failure.
What happened to Hitler after the Beer Hall Putsch?
As his trial got under way at Munich’s First District People’s Court, on 26 February 1924, his political career now seemingly lay in tatters, his dreams of seizing power cast to the wind. A long prison sentence surely awaited.
Yet Hitler wasn’t quite finished yet. That much became apparent on 27 March 1924 when, after four weeks of worldwide press coverage of his trial, he delivered his closing speech.
It lasted for more than an hour and would be remembered as one of the most important of his life.
Hitler began by saying the Weimar Republic was founded on a “crime of high treason” in which the German army had been “stabbed in the back” by socialists and Jews.
As the country suffered one catastrophe after another, the democratic leaders of the republic remained, he argued, subservient to the Allied powers. Germany was reduced to a pawn on the international chessboard.
The Treaty of Versailles was, Hitler raged, “immorality in 440 clauses”. As for the League of Nations, its only function was to guarantee the “corrupt peace treaty”. Now, this “so-called government was hauling German heroes into court and branding them traitors”. Respect for law would only return when the president of Germany was tried for high treason.
Looking straight at the judge, Hitler concluded his speech, with the following statement: “Even if you pronounce us guilty a thousand times, the eternal goddess of the eternal court of history will smilingly tear up the verdict of this court and she will acquit us.”
Hitler had undoubtedly seized his moment in the international spotlight. In that court in central Munich he had somehow turned a bungled fiasco into a triumph.
On 1 April, Georg Neithardt, a nationalist member of the rightwing Bavarian judiciary, delivered the verdicts. Hitler was found guilty of high treason and sentenced to five years, with a reduction for the four months he had already served. This made him eligible for release on parole after just six months. He also received a fine of 200 gold marks. The other chief defendant in the trial, General Erich Ludendorff – who arrived to hear the verdicts in full general’s regalia, displaying all his medals – was amazingly acquitted of all charges.
What was the impact of the Beer Hall Putsch?
News of the verdicts shocked not only the German press, but newspapers around the world. The leading SPD newspaper, Vorwärts, condemned the trial as “a farce and a mockery”, suggesting it was such an obvious injustice that the judge should be put on trial himself.
The Times asked if the crime of high treason was “worth more than a mere six months in prison?”, and The New York Times regarded the verdicts as “an excellent joke for All Fools’ Day”.
Far from snuffing out Hitler’s political aspirations, the trial had provided him with the oxygen of global publicity. It had made him famous.
To many, he was no longer the buffoon who had botched a coup in a beer hall, but a true patriot who tried to rescue Germany from democratic chaos.
Hitler’s time in prison also led him to begin writing Mein Kampf (My Struggle), which became the ‘Bible of National Socialism’, in which he cast himself in the role of political and philosophical Messiah.
Part autobiography, part ideological manifesto and part blueprint for political action, Mein Kampf remains an important book for understanding the essence of Nazi ideology, crystallising his virulent hatred for Jewish people and Marxists and setting out his living space in eastern Europe.
Nazism’s sacred text
How Hitler used his time in prison to produce a chilling political manifesto, Mein Kampf
Adolf Hitler spent just eight months and 20 days incarcerated in Landsberg Fortress for his part in the Munich beer hall putsch. To many onlookers, he had been handed a mystifyingly lenient punishment for an audacious act of treason.
Yet that was time enough for the Nazi leader to refine his political ideology, formulate his future plans for Germany and begin committing them to paper. The result was a 782-page manifesto published over two volumes. Hitler called it Mein Kampf (My Struggle).
The first volume of Mein Kampf presents a heavily redacted autobiographical story from Hitler’s early life up to the founding of the National Socialist Party (NSDAP) in February 1920. The second volume, written after his release, was more of a political manifesto, developing many of the ideas he mentioned in the first volume, but in more detail.
The dominant theoretical concepts in both volumes are race and space. Hitler depicts human history not as a class struggle, as Marx would have it, but a Darwinian struggle for existence between the strong and pure “Aryan” races over the “weak and mixed-race” ones.
The key objective of Hitler’s racial policy is to create a pure Aryan folk community of Germans, which he called Volksgemeinschaft. This “master race” would then become “the highest species of humanity on this Earth”.
If the Aryan possessed all the positive qualities Hitler ad- mired, the opposite was true of the two key enemies he outlined in Mein Kampf: Jews and Marxists. A virulent hatred of Marxism runs through many pages in the book. Hitler’s chief desire if he gained power was to “eliminate” or “exterminate” Marxism in German politics.
There is a similar passionate and violent hatred of Jews, especially in the chapter ‘Nation and Race’, in the first volume. Hitler defined Jews, not as a religious group, but as a united race planning a “world conspiracy”.
A large amount of space in Mein Kampf is devoted to foreign policy. Hitler had entered politics to demand the end of the Treaty of Versailles, primarily by settling accounts with France, thereby restoring Germany’s 1914 borders. This implied a future war concentrated in western Europe.
Yet the revision of the Treaty of Versailles was to be a mere prelude to gaining living space in eastern Europe. In Mein Kampf, Hitler sets out his belief that the Soviet Union had been militarily weakened by being under the control of “Jewish-Bolsheviks”. It was, he concluded, “ripe for collapse”, and would be subjugated through a war of conquest.
At 12.15pm on 20 December 1924, Hitler walked out of Landsburg Fortress. The New York Times ran an article to coincide with his release under the headline: “Hitler Tamed by Prison.”
The paper reported that the “demi-god of reactionary extremists” looked much wiser as he left prison, noting that his behaviour during imprisonment had convinced the authorities he was no longer to be feared. “It is believed he will retire to private life and return to Austria, the country of his birth.”
Hitler was, of course, planning nothing of the sort. While in prison, he had spent his time assessing his failure, learning from it, and, above all, formulating his next move on the political stage. He concluded that, to succeed, National Socialism needed a clear ideology and a national organisation – and that the path to power lay through votes in elections, not brute force.
Put that way, the Munich Beer Hall Putsch marked the birth of Hitler as a politician, and the end of his career as a beer-hall agitator. It was the true start of his road to power.
Hitler's war with the Weimar Republic
How Nazism eclipsed Germany's interwar democracy
9 November 1918
Proclamation of the Weimar Republic. Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert is elected its first president the following February.
29 July 1921
Adolf Hitler becomes leader of the National Socialist German Workers' Party, which will later be better known as the Nazi Party.
11 January 1923
French and Belgian troops occupy the Rhur to enfore payment of German reparations.
8 November 1923
Hitler leads the Munich beer hall putsch. He is jailed for his role in the bungled coup, and it is in prison that begins writing Mein Kampf.
26 April 1925
The First World War military leader Paul von Hindenburg is elected Reich president.
29 October 1929
Wall Street crashes, contributing to the ‘Great Depression’, which will see more than 6 million Germans unemployed.
29 March 1930
Hindenburg appoints Heinrich Brüning as chancellor of a ‘Presidential Cabinet’ that uses Article 28 of the Weimar Constitution to remain in power.
14 September 1930
The Nazis win 18.3 per cent of the vote and 107 seats in national elections.
Hitler makes a strong showing in the German presidential election but is defeated by Paul von Hindenburg.
31 July 1932
The Nazis poll 37.4 per cent in the national elections to become the largest party in the Reichstag.
28 January 1933
Following a wave of resignations and votes of no confidence, Kurt von Schleicher resigns as chancellor, paving the way for Hitler’s ascent to power.
30 January 1933
Hindenburg appoints Hitler chancellor of Germany, believing – mistakenly, as it turns out – that the Nazi leader can be controlled.
Frank McDonough is a leading historian of the Third Reich. His books include The Weimar Years, 1918–1933 (Apollo, 2023). This article was first published in the December 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
- On the podcast | The Munich Putsch: Hitler’s bungled revolution
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