The year of 1923 seemed to point towards the impending collapse of the Weimar state; hyper-inflation, crisis in the Ruhr with the French and Belgian occupation and an increasingly disconnected, depressed and desperate population still angry about the humiliation of Versailles seemed on the brink. Emboldened by the rapid rise of his own party and personal political reputation, Hitler gambled on using his growing stature in Bavarian politics and spectacularly mounting an audacious coup to overthrow the Weimar govt. in Berlin itself.
In many ways the time seemed perfect for a relative underdog such as Hitler to overthrow the status quo. Kemal Ataturk in Turkey and Mussolini in Italy had embarked upon similar audacious nationalistic coups and power grabs, and Hitler felt the situation and dynamics of 1923 in Weimar Germany was as ripe an opportunity as any to carry out similar. From their power-base in Munich and wider Bavaria, the Nazi’s would seize control of key government buildings and organisations and install a revolutionary government there. It was to be hoped that this act – portrayed as saving Germany from the clutches of the ‘November Criminals’ and foreign domination of a Marxist flavour – would in turn inspire the other states of Germany to support and enact similar uprisings, paving the way for a triumphalist march from Munich to Berlin and the keys to power for Hitler and (his still fringe) Nazi Party, echoing the footsteps of Mussolini and his ‘March on Rome’ the year prior.
But the situation in Germany differed from that of Italy. Whilst Italy emerged from WW1 as one of the ‘victors’ the spectre of political violence between left- and right- wing extremists ravaged both nations and political upheaval and turmoil was an experience shared by those in Italy and Germany alike. However where the respective situations of Mussolini and Hitler diverge is in that Mussolini could call on support from much of the Italian political and economic establishment as well as the sympathies of many of the military elites; Hitler meanwhile was not that well known outwith Bavaria and could enlist one figure of a genuinely national level of reputation in support of his cause, General Luddendorf. Despite this, Germany was in dire straits in November 1923 and Hitler gambled on peoples exasperation at the Weimar government and desperation at living through times of hyper-inflation as they catalyst which would springboard the Nazi’s to power – firstly at state (Bavarian) level then onwards to national level.
His faith was to be sorely misguided. Whilst the Nazi’s were undeniably popular in Munich – particularly in the beer halls where their rousing demagogue-infused rhetoric went down well – they did not have the same cachet or gravitas as Mussolini did in Italy or Ataturk did in Turkey to inspire a truly national movement. Indeed Hitler could not even count on the widespread support of his fellow Bavarians, not least those he sought to neutralise in his scramble for power. The 3 main leaders of the Bavarian state government – von Kahr, von Seisser and von Lossow – were not enamoured at being taken hostage and strong-armed into supporting Hitler’s coup on the night of 8th November 1923 and in an example of how poorly organised the whole ‘Putsch’ was were able to escape their captors, sound the alarm bells and notify the military forces stationed in Munich that an attempt to overthrow the German state was underway.
The key ingredient in all successful coups is that of having the military on your side; without this muscle an attempt to overthrow the state will be doomed to failure. Despite their – quite stunningly – naive mismanagement of the situation overnight, by morning the Nazi’s still hoped that their embryonic revolution could cling on to life by attracting the support and sympathies of the military units stationed in Munich. And of course having such a decorated war hero and national icon such as General Luddendorff as your figurehead was something to cling to as the Nazi’s found their attempted coup drifting aimlessly as the morning of 9th November progressed. Deciding to ‘march’ around the city they had hoped to have under the total control by now, the Nazi revolution was a perfect example of incompetence and farce. When they reached the city centre they were met by the army and police. Shots broke out, but the Nazis were poorly equipped and badly organised. Many of their rifles which they had bought off the German Army lacked firing pins. They were no match for the State Police and the army. In the scuffle that followed 16 Nazis and 4 policemen were shot dead. Hitler fled the scene, but was soon captured and arrested, along with Goering, Rohm and Ludendorff. They were all charged with High Treason – a grave offence punishable by up to life imprisonment.
Aftermath of the Putsch
Hitler and his fellow conspirators had been shown to be sorely out of their depth and completely deluded as to their role in the bigger picture of German politics. Despite all the trials, tribulations and problems facing the Weimar government the vast majority of the German people – and most importantly the German military forces and police – were still loyal to them. In terms of understanding the lay of the land politically in Germany in 1923 Hitler miscalculated and misfired badly. However the resulting exposure both in the immediate aftermath of the Putsch and the legal trial which followed was far more positive for Hitler and the Nazi’s. Hitler became a household name through newspaper stories and this reputation grew further through his performances whilst defending himself in court. He utilised his excellent oratory skills to maximum effect and won not only the sympathies of those in the court room but the wider German population through a heady mix of nationalist rhetoric and savaging the weak and ineffective – as he saw it – Weimar Government who had failed the German people. As they say any publicity is good publicity and its better to be talked about negatively than not talked about at all, and the notoriety and appeal of Hitler grew immeasurably from the platform afforded him at the trial.
Hitler realised that trying to seize power using force alone was not going to work. There was little desire amongst the people of Germany for armed revolution. They had seen enough bloodshed over the previous years. He had to devise a new strategy. Hitler came to the decision while in prison that the Nazi Party would take part in elections and win power democratically. Propaganda would be used to build up support for the Party. Once the Nazis were elected to power, then they could stage their revolution. Also it was clear that the Nazi’s were too naive and lacked the necessary political depth and gravitas to be in power at this stage of their development. In a way the failed Putsch bought the Nazi’s time.
Hitler was sent to prison for five years for his part in the Putsch, but he got off lightly. He could have faced life imprisonment, but he had the support of the judges, many of whom disliked the Weimar Republic themselves. Hitler was put in a cell in Landsberg prison, which was relatively comfortable. There, Hitler received all sorts of privileges and enjoyed a very easy life. In the end he served only 9 months of his sentence and used this time to write down his ideas. This he turned into a book entitled ‘Mein Kampf’ (My Struggle) which became an instant best seller.
Hitler now set about reorganising the Party for the struggle that lay ahead. Young men were recruited into the S.A. and the Party. Hitler knew now that their energy and enthusiasm would be vital for any future success. Joseph Goebbels was put in charge of a new Propaganda campaign and regional Party branches were set up around Germany under the control of Party officials called Gauleiter’s. These officials would spread Nazi ideas over a wide area, listen to local complaints and drum up further support for the Nazi cause.