The Nazis’ First Try
A century after Adolf Hitler's first attempt to seize power in Germany by force, it is worth remembering the economic and political conditions that gave the Nazis momentum in the first place. In an era of recrudescent nationalism and chauvinism, such historical lessons have gained new urgency.
DUBLIN – This month marks an instructive centenary. On the morning of November 9, 1923, a 34-year-old Adolf Hitler led a column of 2,000 armed men through central Munich. The goal was to seize power by force in the Bavarian capital before marching on to Berlin. There, they would destroy the Weimar Republic – the democratic political system that had been established in Germany during the winter of 1918-19 – and replace it with an authoritarian regime committed to violence.
Marching alongside Hitler was a 50-year-old Bavarian regional court judge, Baron Theodor von der Pfordten, who carried a legal document that would have become the basis for the constitution of the new state. It included provisions to justify the mass execution of the Nazis’ political opponents, as well as especially drastic measures targeting Germany’s Jews, who accounted for around 1% of the population. Jewish civil servants were to be immediately dismissed and any non-Jewish German who tried to help them was to be punished with death.
The march was led by men carrying Swastika flags and included at least one truck with a machine gun mounted on its back. Standing at the front was Hitler, who wore civilian clothing, whereas everyone else had donned military or paramilitary uniforms.
Inspired by Benito Mussolini, who had been appointed Italy’s prime minister following the Italian Fascists’ “March on Rome” in October 1922, the Nazi coup d’état had actually begun the previous evening. At about 8 p.m. on November 8, Hitler and his armed supporters had stormed into a political rally at a large Munich beer hall. As they entered, one of them fired a pistol in the air, while others trained their guns on the crowd to prevent them from leaving. Hermann Göring, commander of the Sturmabteilung (Storm Troopers), then took the stage, telling the irate audience that it should calm down, because at least everyone still had their beer.
The disrupted rally had been organized by Gustav Ritter von Kahr, the key figure in a triumvirate alongside Otto von Lossow and Hans Ritter von Seißer, the heads of the Reichswehr (armed forces) and the police in Bavaria, respectively. This triumvirate had ruled Bavaria since the end of September, having come to power as a reaction to the multiple crises that had enveloped Germany since the start of 1923.
By the autumn of that year, many feared that Germany was on the brink of civil war. Soldiers and paramilitaries from the conservative anti-democratic south were taking up arms against working-class militias and pro-democratic forces from the more liberal north. Germany was on a knife-edge, and everyone knew it.
FUEL ON THE FIRE
The political spiral had begun on January 11, 1923, when France and Belgium sent troops to occupy Germany’s coal-producing Ruhr district, which was the engine of the German economy. French Prime Minister Raymond Poincaré had ordered the occupation as a means of ensuring France’s future security and economic prosperity. By the summer of 1922, he had become so frustrated with Germany’s refusal to pay its World War I reparations at the rate that the victors demanded that he decided to take matters into his own hands.
With Belgium’s support, Poincaré sent in French engineers and technicians to seize German coal and coke, so that they could forcibly take “reparations in kind.” To complete this initial mission, the occupation consisted of some 100,000 soldiers, who took up residence in local schools, state buildings, and homes.
While France’s wartime ally, Great Britain, stayed out of the matter, Poincaré had widespread support at home. WWI, after all, had laid waste to a Netherlands-sized area of France, and the reality of the peace had not lived up to French expectations. Poincaré promised that French soldiers would deliver what the peace treaties had not.1
The occupation confronted the Weimar Republic with an existential crisis. Without a functioning army capable of resisting the French and Belgians, German Chancellor Wilhelm Cuno – a businessman with no party affiliation, who had been appointed by Germany’s Social Democratic President Friedrich Ebert the previous winter – declared that Germany would respond with “passive resistance.” France’s occupation plans would fail because German miners would stop going into the pits to extract coal, and German railways would cease to function. It was the first nationalist strike of any significance in modern German history.
To pay for the economic consequences of shutting down the Ruhr economy, the German central bank began printing money, an economic tool that it had used since 1914, first to finance its war effort, and then in response to various crises during the early years of the Weimar Republic. Reichsbank President Rudolf Havenstein calculated that Germany had enough financial reserves – including precious metals that it had hoarded during WWI – to prop up the value of the German mark in currency markets.
But Havenstein had assumed that the occupation would last for only a few weeks. In the event, the prospect of de-escalation soon faded as French and Belgian soldiers carried out atrocities – including an unknown number of mass rapes – against German civilians. In one incident on March 31, 1923, 13 protesting workers were shot dead at the Krupp works. Under such circumstances, there could be no cooling of hostilities.
Tensions were heightened further by German “active resistance,” most of it carried out by small groups of former spies and explosives experts, with the secret backing of the military and political leadership. They initially engaged in what we today would call economic terrorism, by bombing railway lines at critical points of the network.
But when the secret operatives went beyond the state’s goal of hitting economic targets and began killing civilians and targeting French soldiers, the campaign was wound down in the summer of 2023, angering right-wing German political activists. Germany, they complained, had once again been “stabbed in the back,” as had supposedly happened to its armed forces in November 1918.
Meanwhile, the occupiers retaliated against German resistance by depriving the Ruhr of food imports from unoccupied Germany and forcing German civilians to travel on trains as human shields. Children suffered especially, because the closure of the border reduced the supply of milk to keep newborns and toddlers alive. The fear that many would die of starvation became so great that the German state organized mass transportation of children out of the occupied zone (which was already home to some of the poorest working-class neighborhoods in the country).
Nor were children the only ones to leave the occupied district. As relations between occupier and occupied worsened, the French military expelled hundreds of thousands of German state employees and their families from the Ruhr, often at gunpoint. Though the initial intent was to help pacify the district, these expulsions also served France’s later goal of partial annexation of the territory.
France’s behavior elicited shock internationally. Even in Britain, there was growing sympathy for the plight of German civilians. By the summer, Poincaré knew that the occupation was not producing the results he wanted. At the end of May 1923, he instructed his soldiers in the Ruhr to execute a German prisoner, Albert Leo Schlageter, who had been caught during the campaign of active resistance. Germans were outraged. In Munich, Hitler was among the leaders who stood in front of mourning crowds condemning Poincaré. For the rest of the summer, he urged Germans to become a nation of Schlageters – resisters.
For his part, Havenstein decided to continue printing money to pay for the campaign of passive resistance. In its first half-year, this policy cost the Weimar state an extra trillion marks a month, on average. Then, on April 18, 1923, the central bank’s efforts to prop up the mark’s exchange rate came to an end, after a sudden increase in demand for pounds sterling in Berlin made further intervention impossible.
A livid Havenstein blamed special interests for putting their profits ahead of Germany’s national survival; but there was little he could do. From that point on, the value of the mark plummeted. Germans spent the summer of 1923 adding zeros to all prices. By mid-August, the American Consul in Cologne estimated that an average family of four would need 21 million marks per week to survive. It was the first instance of hyperinflation in a modern industrial state.
Cuno was the first to go. On August 12, 1923, he lost a no-confidence vote and resigned, to be replaced by Gustav Stresemann, who would later be described by his biographer as Weimar’s “greatest statesman.” Yet even though Stresemann knew that he had to end passive resistance and restore stability to the economy, his first crucial decision as chancellor was to maintain the status quo.
Since the summer, Britain had seemed poised to shift in favor of Germany. In early August, British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon told the French directly that the occupation of the Ruhr was illegal. As Stresemann saw it, a change in British policy could open the door to a German-British alliance, and that prospect was reason enough to wait.
But it wasn’t to be. On September 19, British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin met with Poincaré in Paris, where the two declared that they were in complete unity. Only then did Stresemann decide finally to raise the white flag. Passive resistance would cease. Poincaré had his victory.
Stresemann’s decision pushed Weimar Germany closer to the edge of the abyss. For opponents of the Republic, the time to act had come. The Communists were the first to move against it, and the first to fail. With workers rioting over hyperinflation, the German far left hoped that it could follow in the footsteps of Lenin’s Bolsheviks and seize power. But even in the heartlands, working-class Germans were against them. Most workers wanted stability, not revolution. The Communists’ plans for a German “October” were soon abandoned.
True, one exception was Hamburg, where a workers’ uprising on October 23 resulted in around 100 deaths. But the absence of similar mobilizations across Germany meant that the rebellion could be quickly repressed. There were also separatist uprisings in the Rhineland, where French- and Belgian-supported armed militias seeking to create a breakaway republic fought with German nationalists. On September 30, at least ten people were killed in clashes between separatists and police in the center of Düsseldorf.
Like the violence in Hamburg, these battles took place in the open. Far more threatening to the survival of Weimar democracy was the scheming behind closed doors. For example, a clique around Reichswehr General Hans von Seeckt conspired to overthrow the Republic, but ultimately refrained, owing to the strength of military factions that still supported democracy.
Hitler was connected to this group, but he was not one of its important figures. And, unlike the other conspirators, he could not step back. At the start of the year, his party had around 8,000 members, mostly in Bavaria. By November, that figure had swelled to around 50,000. This political breakthrough owed much to his promise to use violence to destroy the Republic. One of his allies even publicly declared that murdering 50,000 Jews would be sufficient to resolve the Ruhr crisis.
STREET FIGHTING MAN
By October 1923, Hitler was determined that the time had come to fight the state. In the first week of November, he set November 11 (the anniversary of the Armistice) as the date for what became the Munich putsch, before bringing it forward to November 8 when he learned of Kahr’s plans for an assembly in the beer hall.
Within moments of entering the beer hall, Hitler and his supporters had forced Kahr, Lossow, and Seißer into a side room. Threatening them, he promised that they would either assist in Germany’s rebirth or ensure their own deaths. Soon after, he led the three men back into the hall, where they declared that they had joined forces. This news was met with wild rejoicing from the largely pro-nationalist, anti-Republican crowd, many of whom believed they were witnessing the rebirth of the nation after five years of suffering.
But then Hitler miscalculated. Leaving Kahr, Lossow, and Seißer in the hands of Erich Ludendorff, the former wartime general who had joined the putschists, the Nazi leader marched his men into the center of Munich, where he intended to seize control of the levers of power. This was the turning point: while Hitler’s men were trying, but failing, to occupy central Munich, Ludendorff agreed to let the triumvirate go. Released from captivity, they changed sides again.
By the early morning hours on November 9, word had gone out that all forces associated with the Bavarian state were to resist the putschists. Contrary to Hitler’s wishes, Bavarian soldiers did not switch sides, and the putschists soon realized that they had lost the momentum. To regain it, they decided to march through the center of Munich, with the hope that a critical mass of the people would join their ranks.
They encountered their first test of strength at the Ludwig Bridge, where a Bavarian Army patrol had rushed to create a checkpoint during the night. Its commander probably had enough firepower to defeat the putschists militarily. But he dithered and his men were overwhelmed. Witnesses on a nearby tram later described how the first putschists – members of Hitler’s “Assault Troops,” a precursor to the SS – overpowered the soldiers and took their weapons.
The next challenge was not so easily overcome. At the Odeonsplatz (a large public square), Hitler and his supporters exchanged fire with the police and the army. While no one ever established with certainty which side fired first, there was never any doubt about the outcome. After just two minutes, four policemen and 14 putschists lay dead (another two putschists were shot dead soon after in a nearby barracks).
One of the dead was Erwin von Scheubner-Richter, who had been at the front of the march, his arm linked with Hitler’s. When the first shots were fired, the two men fell to the ground together. If the bullet that killed Scheubner-Richter had just been a few inches to the right, historian Ian Kershaw has pointed out, Hitler’s name today would be unknown.
But the future Führer survived.
Ten years later, Hitler returned to the same spot as chancellor of Germany. Surrounded by adoring crowds, there was total silence when he bowed his head in a moment of remembrance. It was the first time that the Third Reich commemorated the putsch, an event that the Nazis later celebrated as their movement’s first “blood sacrifice.” The ceremony became an annual event. In 1935, the Nazi authorities in Munich even exhumed the bodies of the dead putschists so that they could be reburied in a specially constructed temple at Munich’s Königsplatz, following a spectacular all-night ceremony. The temple was blown up by the Americans in 1947.
At the end of 1923, few liberal supporters of German democracy could have foreseen Hitler’s return. Marking the new year, the liberal journalist Erich Dombrowski even predicted that “our descendants will shrug their shoulders and sneer in contempt when they think about the nationalism and chauvinism of our times.” Others thought openly about a future of European integration.
The contrast between their expectations and subsequent history ought to weigh heavily on our understanding of the putsch’s significance a century later. When it happened, it lasted only 20 hours, and Hitler’s forces were easily defeated. But it was an illusory victory for supporters of Weimar democracy. The most destructive political movement in European history was just getting started. If the institutions of liberal democracy are shaken and weakened, even a shambolic insurrection may not remain a failure for long.
Mark Jones is Assistant Professor of History at University College Dublin and the author of 1923: The Forgotten Crisis in the Year of Hitler’s Coup (Basic Books, 2023).
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