This week marks the centennial of the infamous Munich Beer Hall Putsch, the failed coup led by Adolf Hitler to overthrow Germany’s democratic government, which occurred Nov. 8-9, 1923. Within months, Hitler was tried and convicted of treason. But he received a lenient sentence, and the failure to hold Hitler accountable for his crimes enabled the Nazi leader to build his national profile.
A decade later, Hitler had worked within the political system to become chancellor. He quickly installed a totalitarian fascist regime that would ultimately cause the deaths of tens of millions of people.
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What happened in Germany a century ago bears parallels with what’s happening today after former President Donald Trump’s failed coup on Jan. 6, 2021. And that leaves us only one election away from a possible fascist takeover.
After the attack on the U.S. Capitol, commentators immediately drew comparisons with the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. On Jan. 7, 2021, Nathan J. Robinson, editor of Current Affairs magazine, tweeted:
Michael Brenner, a history professor at the American University in Washington, D.C., noted in a Washington Post article in January 2021 that there were obvious differences between the two events. Hitler’s supporters began their coup attempt in a beer hall, while Trump’s supporters actually broke into the U.S. Capitol. Hitler was a little-known right-wing populist out to overthrow the government; Trump was a well-known figure desperate to use anti-democratic means to remain in office. Brenner wrote that what happened in Germany offers a crucial lesson ”about how democracies become imperiled.”
An offshoot of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, the Beer Hall Project, put out this video marking the first anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection:
In January 2023, The Nation published an article on “The Uncanny Resemblance of the Beer Hall Putsch and the January 6 Insurrection,” which emphasized how both Hitler and Trump used the Big Lie: “While Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch and Trump’s January 6 coup attempt to bore a striking resemblance in terms of the size of the insurrections and the resulting violence, the most notable similarity is the nature of the lies that led to the buildup of political tensions: Hitler’s lies about Germany’s defeat in World War I and Trump’s lies about voter fraud driving his loss in the 2020 election. Both were big lies that undermined faith in government institutions and gained credibility from frequent repetition.”
PRELUDE TO A PUTSCH
The National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) was founded in 1920, and Hitler became its leader a year later. Hitler propagated the Big Lie that Germany had not been defeated on the battlefield in World War I but had been ”stabbed in the back,” betrayed by civilian politicians who were controlled by Jews.
By 1923, Germany had fallen behind in paying reparations to the allied powers. French and Belgian troops occupied the industrial Ruhr region. And the government began printing more money, resulting in rising unemployment and extreme hyperinflation.
Hitler decided that the political and economic chaos had created conditions that would enable the Nazis to replicate the October 1922 “March on Rome,” which resulted in Benito Mussolini installing a fascist regime in Italy. Hitler’s plan was to unite the far-right factions in Munich, seize power in Bavaria, and then march on Berlin to overthrow the fragile democratic Weimar Republic, which was formed in November 1918. The right-wing Bavarian state government had declared a state of emergency in September 1923. It was led by General State Commissar Gustav Ritter von Kahr, Army Commander in Bavaria Gen. Otto von Lossow, and State Police Chief Hans Ritter von Seisser.
They also supported ousting the federal government and establishing an authoritarian regime, but they wanted to do so without the Nazis. Kahr scheduled a meeting for the night of Nov. 8, at one of Munich’s biggest beer halls to discuss strategy with Bavarian political, military, and business leaders.
THE PUTSCH BEGINS and fails
On the night of Nov. 8, 1923, the 34-year-old Hitler marched into the Bürgerbräu Beer Hall, which had been surrounded by hundreds of Nazi Storm Troopers. Hitler pulled out his pistol, fired a shot into the ceiling, and yelled “Silence!”
Hitler’s armed personal bodyguard detachment then pushed their way through the crowd to escort Hitler to the podium. "The National Revolution has begun!" Hitler shouted to the crowd. "No one may leave the hall. Unless there is immediate quiet I 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!“
None of what Hitler said was true, but it was said with conviction. Hitler ordered Kahr, Lossow, and Seisser into a back room. Waving his pistol, Hitler threatened to kill them unless they joined the putsch.
Hitler enlisted his co-conspirator, former Gen. Erich Ludendorff, a World War I hero, to advise the Bavarian leaders to support the Nazi revolution. They reluctantly declared their support for Hitler to the crowd. An ebullient Hitler told the crowd that he was determined to make Germany great again.
Hitler left the beer hall to deal with a crisis elsewhere, leaving Ludendorff in charge. The three Bavarian leaders then persuaded Ludendorff to let them leave the beer hall so they could make coup preparations. But once free, they denounced the putsch and ordered police and military units to suppress it.
Attempting to salvage the putsch, Ludendorff organized a march on Nov. 9, from the beer hall toward the Bavarian Defense Ministry in the city center. Hitler led the march of about 2,000 Nazi supporters. The marchers were confronted by a company of state police. A gun battle broke out in which 14 marchers, one bystander, and four state police officers were killed. Hitler was dragged to the ground and dislocated his shoulder when the marcher next to him was shot dead.
Hitler was arrested two days later. He was held in pre-trial detention at Landsberg Prison in southwestern Bavaria.
HITLER ON TRIAL
On Feb. 26, 1924, Hitler, Ludendorff and eight associates went on trial before a tribunal of five judges. The presiding judge, Georg Neithardt, a supporter of far-right politics, was quite deferential to Hitler, allowing him to make lengthy political speeches and question witnesses. In his opening statement, Hitler railed against racial minorities and left-wing ideologies. Hitler declared his codefendants to be “absolutely innocent,” and declared that he alone bore responsibility for the failed putsch:
“I cannot plead that I am guilty of high treason; for there can be no high treason against that treason to the Fatherland committed in 1918 … I do not feel like a traitor, but as a good German, who wanted only the best for his people.”
Historian David King, author of a book on Hitler’s trial, told The Times of Israel that the courtroom drama turned the little-known Nazi leader into an international celebrity. “During the trial the socialist and communist newspapers called Hitler a racist and said, ‘Don’t fall for this guy,’” King said. “But a lot of the far-right media built Hitler into a martyr and national hero from this moment on.”
On April 1, Hitler and three of his codefendants were found guilty of treason, but the judge gave them the minimum sentence of five years in prison. Five other defendants were placed on probation after being found guilty of aiding and abetting high treason. Ludendorff was acquitted.
Neithardt did not order Hitler to be deported to his native Austria, even though that was mandated by law, noting that Hitler had served in the German army during World War I. Hitler was sent back to Landsberg Prison, where he enjoyed special privileges. Most significantly, he was able to write his political manifesto “Mein Kampf” (“My Struggle”).
On Dec. 19, Hitler was released on parole, serving just under nine months of his five-year sentence. In February 1925, Hitler was slapped with a two-year ban on public speaking after addressing the first post-putsch Nazi rally held at the Bürgerbräu Beer Hall. But Hitler had decided to eschew violent revolution. Instead, his new strategy was to pretend that the Nazis were a legitimate political party and work from within to take power.
TRUMP BORROWS FROM HITLER’S PLAYBOOK
Trump is now facing four criminal indictments, yet his popularity has grown within the Republican base. Poll shows that he is in a historically strong position to win the GOP presidential nomination. Vox writer Nicole Narea wrote in an August 2023 article:
Rather than hiding from his legal problems, Trump is leaning into them, arguing that he’s “done nothing wrong” and that the charges represent a plot against him. By invoking the charges, and using them to his political advantage, historians say that Trump is echoing a familiar playbook. …
The putsch and Hitler’s trial … provides a cautionary tale about the fragility of democracy in the face of a charismatic autocrat whom the political establishment fails to squash while they have the chance.
Hitler showed no remorse for the coup. During his May CNN town hall, Trump said he had no regrets about what happened on Jan. 6. Trump repeated the Big Lie that “the election was rigged.”
Hitler referred to the Nazi Party members killed in the putsch as blood martyrs. Their bodies were moved to “two temples of honor” in downtown Munich. The Nazi swastika flag stained with the blood of dead insurgents became an important party symbol.
Trump has portrayed Ashli Babbitt—who was fatally shot by police as she tried to force her way through a barricaded door protecting House members—as a martyr. Trump has also cast the jailed Jan. 6 insurrectionists as “patriotic” heroes, promising to pardon many of them if elected. His campaign rallies now feature a recording of the J6 Prison Choir—consisting of more than a dozen jailed rioters—singing the “Star Spangled Banner” punctuated by Trump reciting the “Pledge of Allegiance.”
During his 1924 trial, Hitler testified that the three Bavarian leaders who put down his putsch should have been put on trial for treason. Hitler testified: “Our prisons will open and a time will come when today’s accused become the accusers.”
Kahr was killed during the Night of the Long Knives purge of Hitler’s opponents on June 30, 1934. Seisser was imprisoned at the Dachau concentration camp from 1933-1945.
In August, after pleading not guilty to charges that he orchestrated a criminal conspiracy to overturn the 2020 presidential election results, Trump threatened on his Truth Social platform: “IF YOU GO AFTER ME, I’M COMING AFTER YOU!”
In another Truth Social post, the former president threatened to “appoint a real special ‘prosecutor’ to go after the most corrupt president in the history of the USA, Joe Biden, the entire Biden crime family, & all others involved with the destruction of our elections, borders, & country itself!”
The Washington Post reported last week that Trump and his allies “have begun mapping out specific plans for using the federal government to punish critics and opponents should he win a second term.”
fascism is closer than we realize
We are nearing the third anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection. And the U.S. is much closer to a fascist takeover than Germany was three years after Hitler’s failed putsch.
By 1926, Hitler had already been convicted of treason, served time in prison, and was a parolee banned from speaking in public. The Nazis were a fringe party, steadily dropping in support from 5.7% of the vote in the 1924 parliamentary election to 2.8% in the 1928 election. The Nation wrote:
The German institutions successfully sidelined Hitler for nearly 10 years after the putsch, and might have kept him out of the mainstream longer if not for a worldwide economic depression that amplified popular disaffection. In contrast, what should really worry us Americans though is that Trump has raced ahead of Hitler’s timetable when it comes to recovering from an attempted coup.
Trump has yet to go to trial in any of his four criminal cases. His MAGA cultists have taken over the GOP, holding a narrow majority in the House of Representatives (though results from the midterms were promising). The Nation wrote that Trump and the GOP “are way ahead of Hitler and the Nazis when it comes to intimidating opponents and sabotaging democratic institutions.”
We could be in danger of a fascist takeover on the fourth anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection. Historian Thomas Zimmer, a visiting professor at Georgetown University, wrote in The Guardian that the U.S. could now go in two directions :
There are signs that the attack on the Capitol might ultimately play a crucial role in galvanizing the pro-democracy forces in America, in getting more people – starting with the leaders of the Democratic Party – to grapple honestly with the anti-democratic radicalization of the Republican Party. ... In this scenario, January 6 could mark an important moment in an intensified push towards finally realizing the promise of egalitarian, multiracial, pluralistic democracy.
There is another scenario, however – one in which democracy does not hold. In this scenario, January 6 didn’t accomplish its immediate goal, but still served as a catalyst for the radicalization of the Republican Party, a rallying cry for the Far-Right more generally, and a milestone on the path towards democracy’s eventual downfall.
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