In 1923 the National Socialists would try to move things along by launching a putsch in Munich, it would go very poorly.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War episode 16 The Third Reich Part 2 - The Munich Years. Thank you to Tim and Salty The years after the First World War were a tumultuous time in Germany. In 1919 and 1920 there was the very real possibility of a revolution in Germany led by far left political groups like the Communists and the Spartacists. The government in Berlin, led by the Weimar coalition, was tenuously placed in the middle, attempting to hold the center against radical political agitation from both ends of political extremes. Political agitation was not in any way limited to the confines of Berlin, and political unrest was present in many of the German states, with Bavaria being no exception. It would be in Bavaria that the National Socialist German Workers Party, or the Nazi party, would make their move in the form of the Beer Hall Putsch. This event, which would take place in November 1923 was a complete and utter disaster for the party. The mistakes made during the putsch were almost comical in nature, and in retrospect it clearly displayed that the leaders had no idea what they were doing and greatly overestimated their ability to sway events within the country. Even with so many mistakes being made the party would somehow survive the putsch and would actually emerge from its aftermath stronger than ever. It would however not be changed, and the failure in Munich would have important ramifications on the party which would eventually put it on the path to leading Germany in 1933. The most important alteration of the path of the party would be that it would cause the party leaders to believe that the best course to power was not through a spontaneous violent uprising which they had tried and failed to execute in Munich but instead better to pursue a path through normal national electoral politics. Also in the aftermath of the failed putsch Adolf Hitler would find time to write Mein Kampf, a book that would lay out his world view quite clearly, if perhaps not in the greatest of prose. We will discuss how the book was written and its contents, as they are an important early blueprint for the later events in Germany.
To execute an action like the Beer Hall Putsch, and to then emulate Mussolini’s triumphant march into Rome, the Nazi party would need individuals who were ready and willing to do what was necessary, and perhaps even put their lives on the line to make it happen. This is where the militaristic wing of the Nazi party came into play, the Sturmabteilung, better known simply as the SA. The SA had started as a group used by the Nazi party to protect its meetings, to keep the wrong people out, and to at times break up the meetings of other parties. This involved no small amount of violence, which the members of the SA proved ready and able to distribute when they believed it was necessary. This caused the SA to garner attention from the authorities even before the putsch was launched, with both local and national groups calling on the government to try introduce laws that would hopefully curtail the ability of groups like the SA to perpetrate violence. These would be put in place over the years, but they would be less than successful, for reasons we will discuss in later episodes. Most importantly for this episode is the fact that the SA was a large group of men, which numbered in the thousands, which were organized, ready, and waiting to follow the orders of the party even if those orders resulted in revolution.
The events in Munich would begin just before 9PM in Munich on November 8th, 1923. It was at this point that members of the SA surrounded the Buergerbraukeller beer hall. Inside the hall was an ongoing meeting of Bavarian officials including Gustav von Kahr the state commissioner, General Otto von Lossow, and Chief of Police Hans von Seisser. Hitler entered the building and forced the three men into a private side room. There he would begin to try and convince them to cooperate, first by worlds and then even at gunpoint. Unfortunately, none of them would play along with Hitler’s plans, and for some time they would simply refuse to speak to him at all. Tempers began to flare, and Hitler would resort to shouting, as he would often do in moments of stress. None of these actions would have their intended result and the officials continued to refuse to cooperate. Eventually Hitler, frustrated, ran back into the hall and announced that the three men had in fact agreed to form a new national government with him, which of course they had not really done. He would announce to the crowd that “The National Revolution has begun! 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.” Choosing to forge forward even in the face of failure appeared to work, at least in the immediate short term. It excited his supporters, and then shortly thereafter General Ludendorff would arrive. Ludendorff’s presence and participation was important due to Ludendorff’s reputation within the nation and most importantly his reputation among the Reichswehr and among war veterans. He was, to put it simply, a war hero, with all of the benefits that came along with such a title. Ludendorff was not fully read into the plan that the party had put in place, although he had agreed to participate, he would be somewhat indignant when he learned that they planned to bestow the position of dictator on Hitler, but that did not prevent his participation.
When news arrived at the beer hall that a group of SA men were fighting with army troops near the Army Engineer’s barracks Hitler, fresh off of one victory, hoped to be able to go to the barracks and resolve the situation, hopefully very quickly. He would leave the beer hall, hoping that planning would continue in his absence for what to do next. The situation at the barracks would be resolved, but then he arrived back at the hall he found that everything had fallen apart. As soon as Hitler had left people had started to leave the meeting, and even though SA men were guarding all the exits and attempting to ensure that any important individuals were detained most of the truly important Bavarian officials found their way out. This meant that instead of arriving back at the hall to find people dutifully planning for the future of the revolution Hitler instead found that many had simply left. With no clear path forward the putsch, and the revolution, stagnated. Throughout the night the hall was filled with SA troops as many tried to find a way to get some sleep. As with all such actions the putsch was dependent on momentum so that a coherent response could not be initiated, but during the night whatever momentum it may had once had was destroyed. By the next morning news arrived that Reichswehr troops and the police were already organizing their response and had already surrounded the army barracks which Roehm and some SA men had tried to capture during the night. There was still a lot of confusion on both sides, but it was clear that the whole putsch was in danger of falling apart. This was not expected, and it seems clear that there was not really any kind of backup plan in place in case of such a drastic setback. It would be Ludendorff who would suggest the next steps. The new plan was for all of the men in the beer hall to march to the War Ministry, although specifically what they would accomplish by this was ambiguous. There would still be somewhere around 2,000 men who would participate in the march, since is nothing to sneeze at due to the fact that most of them were armed in some way, and even if their uniforms were very diverse they still cut a very imposing picture. Hitler, Ludendorff, and other Nazi leaders would be at the front of the column as it began to move through Munich in the late morning.
As the march continued through the city they came upon the Residenzstrasse which would lead them to the Odeonsplatz. On the southern edge of the platz was, a monument to Bavarian soldiers. It was here that they encountered a group of state policemen and Reichswehr soldiers who barred their path. There were not very many men, around one hundred, but they had blocked the way out of the narrow street which gave them an advantage should any fighting begin. Up to this point the SA had been able to successfully intimidate any police or soldiers that they had encountered, and they attempted to do so once again by continuing forward. However, when this movement began there was a shot, and both sides opened fire. The firing would continue for less than a minute, but it would result in 3 policemen and 16 Nazis dead or mortally wounded. Larger numbers were wounded in some way. As soon as the shooting started those at the front of the marching column dived to the ground to avoid further shooting. Those at the rear of the column were very confused, many had been continuing to sing the same marching songs that they had been singing since the march had started. There was chaos and confusion. There are many questions about the confrontation to which precise answers may never be known, which is common in situations like this were there was a quick and chaotic clash. It is not clear who fired the first shot that had caused the firefight to begin, although of course both sides would blame the others afterwards. There is also some disagreement about the exact actions of those involved in the March, specifically the leaders. It seems clear that Hitler and almost everybody else at the head of the column immediately took to ground when the firing started. The one exception may have been Ludendroff with there being some accounts that indicate he remained standing and moved forward. There would also later be testimony from Dr. Walther Schulz, one of the members of the march and apparently near the front, which would state that Hitler was “the first to get up and turn back” after the firing had ended, without stopping to help any of the wounded individuals. The reason that this gets so fuzzy is that this was an incredibly important event in Nazi mythology. Every single year after they took power in 1933 there would be celebrations in Munich, Hitler would speak, and there would be a reenactment of the march. When this was combined with the legitimate confusion that always occurs, it is hard to know exactly what did and did not happen and who did what at the exact moment of greatest confusion. What is known is that people were killed, and in the aftermath the march broke up in panic. With the end of the march was also the end of putsch, and the leaders of the putsch were soon on the run, Hitler would manage to avoid the authorities before being arrested 2 days later.
After they were arrested Hitler, Ludendorff, and others would be tried for High Treason. When the trial took place it was well covered by the press, with German newspapers from all over the nation coming to Munich. Hitler would use the trial as an opportunity to reach a new audience. Instead of shying away from the charges, he would lean into them “I alone bear the responsibility. But I am not a criminal because of that. If today I stand here as a revolutionary, it is as a revolutionary against the revolution. There is no such thing as high treason against the traitors of 1918.” In other situations such brazen defiance might have been problematic, but in the atmosphere of Germany in 1923 it was not a bad decision. German law specified that High Treason against the state, and any act of force that attempted to alter the state was punishable by life in prison. However, the judges in the trial were sympathetic, even supportive, of the putsch’s goals of overthrowing the government in Berlin. This would be a recurring theme during this period, when individuals would be charged with violence against against the state or against Socialists or Communists, the judges would be incredibly lenient in the punishment, because many of the German judges were very conservative in their political views. In this case Ludendorff would simply be acquitted. Hitler would receive a sentence of just five years, and he would be eligible for parole after just 6 months, a far cry from a lifelong sentence. In the end he would serve just 9 months in prison for the attempt at overthrowing the government.
During this time in prison Hitler would begin writing a book, which he would title Mein Kampf, or My Struggle. Just the fact that Hitler was able to leisurely write a book while in prison says something about the rather luxurious structure of his imprisonment. It would be published in 1925, after being heavily edited by several other individuals. The result was, well it isn’t the most readable book that I have ever tried to wade through. Richard Evans would call it “turgid and tedious” in The Coming of the Third Reich, and I would agree with that assessment. If you would like to check it out, I have put a link in the show notes to a page on the website with links to two different English Translations and one in the original German. The book is part biographical and part a general statement on Hitler’s beliefs and what he believed was the best path forward for Germany. He would downplay some aspects of his biography, and in some cases he would greatly stretch the truth. Should you read it, I would remind you that the purpose of writing the book, and I guess most autobiographies in general for that matter, was to emphasize the role that Hitler played in events and to downplay the actions of others. The book also goes into some detail about Hitler’s beliefs on a wide range of topics. Within these topics he would discuss what he thought was wrong with German society, why the problems existed, and how to fix them. William Shirer would say in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich that “For whatever other accusations can be made against Adolf Hitler, no one can accuse him of not putting down in writing exactly the kind of Germany he intended to make if he ever came to power and the kind of world he meant to create by armed German conquest.” However, it is worth emphasizing again that it is easy to connect lines backwards from events in later years to the content of Mein Kampf but most of the content of the book, just like Hitler’s political speeches, does not involve details but instead big picture concepts and theories. The book was not a detailed discussion of policies, or a specific program of reform. There are also important topics missing from the book, like really anything about economics, which was common in Hitler’s writings. Not all topics were lacking in detail though, for example on the topic of the type of government that Germany required, he stated that it could not be a democratically elected leader, but instead a single person into which was given the final power of decision. When it came to who that person should be, he would of course claim that he was uniquely qualified for the position, and in fact he was possibly the only person that could accomplish the task at hand. In this way, with a singular leader having absolute authority, the structure of the somewhat mythical Prussian Army of old could be replicated throughout all of German society, however the details of how this would be accomplished or what specifically this would look like in an entire society within a modern state was not fully considered. The book also just discusses and touches on so many different topics: education, marriage, culture, literature, and a whole host of others. These all circled around Hitler’s attempts to outline the entirety of the structure of his world view, and the problems that he saw with German society and how he hoped to fix them. His view of life, which would be based in the concept of an eternal struggle of men against men, with the strong being morally obligated to dominate the weak, it was Social Darwinism much like what Mussolini was advocating for in Italy at this same time. This social Darwinism would tie into many other concepts within the book, especially those around racism and anti-Semitism. In retrospect it is clear that many of the ideas contained within Mein Kampf would provide a blueprint or a roadmap for the later actions of Hitler and others but it is worth noting that the book did not gain great popularity until after the Nazis started to increase in popularity in the late 1920s and into the 1930s.
The two largest themes throughout the book, and the two that are most important in relation to the war that would later occur were the need for living space, lebensraum, and of course a constant and continual restatement of Hitler’s hatred of Jews and Marxist and a general racism based on the idea that the German race was superior to any other. “The National Socialist movement must endeavour to eliminate the discrepancy between our population and our area–the latter viewed not only as a source of nourishment, but also as a point of support for power politics–between our historical past and the hopelessness of our impotence today. It must, moreover, remain conscious that we are also obligated to a high duty as the guardians of the highest human race on this earth, and it will be all the more able to fulfill this duty, the more it contrives that the German people recovers its racial sense and takes mercy on its own blood.” To book would then to go on to explain in its own wandering way that the only viable path forward for such expansion was in the east. In such a movement Germany would inevitably come into conflict with Russia, which would be the most important fight for Germany’s future. Hitler’s writings on the acquisition of living space are perhaps the clearest blueprint for what he planned to do in the future if given the opportunity. There is a clear desire and a lengthy justification of why Germany must move forward with territorial expansion, and not just to recapture the territory lost in 1918, but to expand far beyond it. All of the justification for this expansion is tinged with racism, the belief not just that Germany needed more territory and space, but that it was a moral imperative for the German race to conquer those around it. This was Hitler’s Darwinism coming to the fore with the belief that the strong races of the world, and specifically the German race, should assert dominance over those around them, and the violence that would most likely result was justified and desirable.
This concern with stronger and weaker races would be well discussed within the book and is the framework in which Hitler would discuss all racial relations. It would also be the vehicle he would use to discuss his views on eugenics and anti-Semitism. “The stronger has to rule and his is not to amalgamate with the weaker one, that he may not sacrifice his own greatness. […] if this law were not dominating, all conceivable development toward a higher level, on the part of all organically living beings, would be unthinkable for man.” Just as an example of how Hitler’s anti-Semitism was tied in throughout the book, shortly after the passage I just quoted he then claims that it is all a Jewish plot to prevent the kind of racial purity that Hitler was advocating for. He then ends that section of the book with a somewhat dubious claim about the role of such racial purity throughout history “The blood-mixing, however, with the lowering of the racial level caused by it, is the sole cause of the dying off of old cultures; for the people do not perish by lost wars, but by the loss of that force of resistance which is contained only in pure blood.” I could keep pulling quotes like this for awhile, but I hope you get the point. It is clear that even at this stage, Hitler’s ideas on racial superiority, specifically of a race he called the Aryans, was a central tenant of his world view, and he would apply it to the concept of eugenics with the result of some pretty brutal discrimination against other races, those with genetic diseases, and any other person that was, in Hitler’s eyes, weak. On the spectrum of Hitler’s hatred of other races, a unique and special place would always be reserved for Jewish individuals. He hated Jews for many reasons, one of them being that he believed that by mixing with them the other races, especially those Aryans, were lessening themselves. He also believed that there was a concerted effort by Jews both inside and outside of Germany to see the nation destroyed. The solution was to remove them, “One can only succeed in winning the soul of a people if, apart from a positive fighting of one’s own for one’s own aims, one also destroys at the same time the supporter of the contrary. […] The nationalization of our masses will only be successful if, along with all positive fighting for the soul of our people, its international poisoners are extirpated.” There remains some debate about if Hitler was calling for genocide in Mein Kampf. at the very least he was calling for the removal from Germany of Jews, which is exactly what would happen in the years immediately following 1933, with many Jews encouraged to leave Germany. However, it is hard to ignore that while maybe not specifically saying that all Jews should be killed, he did support violence against those he saw as enemies of the state, and Jews were at the top of that list.
When the book released it would not be very popular, and it would only sell a small number of copies before 1930, at which point the Nazi Party, with Hitler at its head, would catapult onto the national political stage. After 1933 it was almost mandatory that a copy be found in every household, which obviously caused it to sell several million copies. Many of those who actually read it at the time would discount it, and mostly treat it as a statement of ideas that were simply too extreme to be taken seriously. Discounting the seriousness of Hitler’s beliefs, and the belief that they would be tempered in time, would continue well into the period in which Hitler was in power. I hope you will join me next episode as we discuss the political situation in Germany in the late 1920s, and how the National Socialist German Workers Party would try to grow their support.