Military history


‘I am nothing but a drummer and rallier.’

Hitler, to Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, 1922

‘Our task is to give the dictator, when he comes, a people ready for him!’

Hitler, in a speech on 4 May 1923

‘Not from modesty did I want at that time to be the drummer. That is the highest there is. The rest is unimportant.’

Hitler, at his trial, 27 March 1924

When Hitler assumed the leadership of his party in July 1921, he was still no more than a beerhall agitator – a local celebrity, to be sure, but otherwise scarcely known. The takeover of the party leadership itself followed internal squabbles – of little moment to the outside world – within the intrinsically fractious völkisch movement. The NSDAP certainly made a great deal of noise, and had made its presence felt on the Munich political scene. But it was hardly yet a significant force. Without the extraordinary conditions in Bavaria – the self-proclaimed ‘cell of order’ – and without the backcloth nationwide of political instability, economic crisis, and social polarization, everything suggests it would have remained insignificant. As it was, while völkisch parties struggled to make much of a mark in most German states, including Prussia – by far the largest state – the NSDAP could become by 1923 a key player in the upsurge of nationalist opposition in Bavaria to Weimar democracy. And from a local beerhall agitator, the party’s leader emerged between 1921 and 1923 as the ‘drummer’ of the nationalist Right. That would be his role down to the ill-fated attempt in November 1923 to take over the state by force – the notorious ‘Beerhall Putsch’. Only in the light of those dramatic events and their aftermath would a crucial transformation in his self-image be sealed.

Hitler was content in the early 1920s to be the ‘drummer’ – whipping up the masses for the ‘national movement’. He saw himself at this time not, as portrayed in Mein Kampf, as Germany’s future leader in waiting, the political messiah whose turn would arise once the nation recognized his unique greatness. Rather, he was paving the way for the great leader whose day might not dawn for many years to come. ‘I am nothing more than a drummer and rallier (Trommler und Sammler),’ he told Arthur Moeller van den Bruck in 1922.1 Some months earlier, he had reputedly stated in an interview in May 1921 with the chief editor of the Pan-German newspaper DeutscheZeitung that he was not the leader and statesman who would ‘save the Fatherland that was sinking into chaos’, but only ‘the agitator who understood how to rally (sammeln) the masses’. Nor, he allegedly went on, was he ‘the architect who clearly pictured in his own eyes the plan and design of the new building and with calm sureness and creativity was able to lay one stone on the other. He needed the greater one behind him, on whose command he could lean.’2

To be the ‘drummer’ meant everything to Hitler at this time. It was the ‘vocation’ that replaced his dreams of becoming a great artist or architect. It was his main task, practically his sole concern. Not only did it allow full expression to his one real talent. It was also in his eyes the greatest and most important role he could play. For politics to Hitler – and so it would in all essence remain – was propaganda: ceaseless mass mobilization for a cause to be followed blindly, not the ‘art of the possible’.


Hitler owed his rise to at least regional prominence on the nationalist Right in Bavaria not simply to his unparalleled ability as a mob-orator at mass meetings in Munich. As before, this was his chief asset. But linked to this, and of crucial importance, was the fact that he was the head of a movement which, in contrast to the earliest phase of the party’s existence, now came to develop its own substantial paramilitary force and to enter the maelstrom of Bavarian paramilitary politics.

Acceptance of a high level of political violence was a hallmark of the political culture of Germany between the wars. The brutalization of society engendered by war and near-civil war together with the upheaval and turmoil of the revolution prepared the ground for a readiness to tolerate violence paradoxically seen to be serving the interests of a return to order and normality. It was a mentality which not only contributed to the rise of National Socialism, but also to the moral indifference to violence that was so widespread during the Third Reich itself.3 The exponents of the extreme political violence were for the most part the counter-revolutionary private armies – the Freikorps, the Volunteer Associations, the Citizens’ Defence Forces – which sprang up in Germany after the war and were actively supported and deployed by state authorities. Gustav Noske had begun the use of non-state forces in the service of the state in the brutal suppression of the Spartacus Rising in January 1919. The Freikorps participated, as we have already noted, in the smashing of the Räterepublik in Munich four months later. A plethora of paramilitary organizations emerged across the political spectrum, but most prominently on the counter-revolutionary Right. It was above all in the peculiar conditions of post-revolutionary Bavaria that the private armies, with the toleration and often active support of the Bavarian authorities, could fully flourish.

The massive Citizens’ Defence Force (Einwohnerwehr) – comprising up to 400,000 men with 2½ million weapons – that was established in Bavaria immediately after the crushing of the Räterepublik was the product of a mentality obsessed by the need for protection against a presumed threat from the Left and ready, as the popularity of the counter-revolutionary violence in spring 1919 showed, to resort to any measures to ensure that protection.4 The Einwohnerwehr, and a number of other, similar, organizations that emerged alongside it, represented ‘white-blue’ Bavarian traditionalism and, as the name suggested, was in essence defensively orientated. But more sinister paramilitary organizations found a welcome refuge in the Bavarian ‘cell of order’ after the collapse of the Kapp Putsch in 1920. The vehemently anti-socialist, counter-revolutionary regime of Minister President Gustav Ritter von Kahr turned Bavaria into a haven for right-wing extremists from all over Germany, including many under order of arrest elsewhere in the country. From a new protected base in Munich, for example, Captain Hermann Ehrhardt, a veteran of orchestrated anti-socialist violence in the Freikorps, including the suppression of the Räterepublik, and a leader of the Kapp Putsch, was able to use his Organisation Consul to build up a network of groups throughout the whole of the German Reich and carry out many of the political murders – there were 354 in all perpetrated by the Right between 1919 and 1922 – that stained the early years of the troubled new democracy.5 And Kahr’s strident line of Bavarian frontal opposition to the central government of the Reich – feeding the traditional hatred of Berlin that had been acutely shored up during the war, and the resentments at the diminished powers of Bavaria in the Reich constitution – had the effect of linking ‘white-blue’ particularist feeling with ‘black-white-red’ nationalist antagonism towards ‘red’ Berlin. The theologian Ernst Troeltsch commented in September 1921:

Since Reich policy stood, and must stand, strongly under the influence of socialism, this has continued to be identified with the hated Berlin and with Jewry, thus directing the torrents of particularism and antisemitism on to the mills of anti-socialism… In addition there is then the strong force of monarchism, the bitterness of former members of the military, the collaboration of Prussian emigrants, and the very understandable disaffection of idealist patriots. All this is knotted together into the idea of allocating Bavaria the mission of saving the Reich from socialism, and seeing it as the cell of order and starting-point of reconstruction.6

By spring 1921 Kahr was no longer able to prevent the dissolution of the Bavarian Einwohnerwehr after holding out for a year against the Reich’s insistence (under Allied pressure) on confiscation of weapons and dismantling of civilian defence units.7 The resulting fury towards Berlin prompted further radicalization. And out of the dissolved Einwohnerwehr arose a bewildering array of new or already existing but now strengthened ‘patriotic associations’ competing with each other in their activism and radicalism. The largest – and intended to be the successor to the Einwohnerwehr, though in reality a coalition of numerous fractions which would eventually split – was the Bund Bayern und Reich, a ‘white-blue’ Bavarian loyalist organization, combining strong monarchist and Christian traditionalist strains with vehement anti-Marxism and antisemitism, operating under the slogan ‘First the Homeland, then the World!’8 It was run by the Regensburg public health inspector Dr Otto Pittinger, formerly prominent in the district leadership of the civil defence units in the Upper Palatinate province of Bavaria. Since Pittinger had difficulty in exercising authority over his organization, smaller but more radical associations moved in to fill the vacuum and expand their influence. Among them were the Bund Oberland, which had emerged from Epp’s Freikorps Oberland, had been involved in the ending of the ‘Councils Republic’, and had further cut its teeth in the campaign against the Poles in Upper Silesia in 1921; the Reichsflagge, previously with a following mainly confined to Franconia but now, under the direction of Ernst Röhm (head of the Munich branch), expanding into southern Bavaria; the Vaterländische Vereine Münchens (VVM, Patriotic Associations of Munich), the successor to the Einwohnerwehr in the Bavarian capital; and a variety of organizations and sub-organizations, most prominent of them the Wiking-Bund, headed by Captain Ehrhardt.9 It was Ehrhardt, alongside Ernst Röhm, who was to play a leading role in establishing the NSDAP’s own paramilitary organization, which was to emerge from 1921 onwards into a significant feature of the Nazi Movement and an important factor in paramilitary politics in Bavaria.10

The beginnings of the SA, as we have noted, reach back to the start of 1920, when the DAP set out to stage bigger meetings in the Munich beerhalls and, as was the practice in other parties, needed a squad of bouncers – a ‘hall protection’ (Saalschutz) to deal with any disturbances.11 This was turned in November 1920 into the party’s ‘Gym and Sport Section’ (Turn-und Sportabteilung). Following Hitler’s ‘seizure of power’ within the party in July 1921, it was reshaped and given a pivotal role, responsible according to the new party statutes for the ‘bodily training of the male youth in the movement’.12 Hitler regarded its quasi-military structure as valuable in establishing his claim to leadership throughout the movement. However, the S A (Sturmabteilung, ‘Storm Section’) – as it became known from October 1921 onwards13 – was not, as has been claimed, ‘his personal creation’, solely a product of his will, or designed as an instrument of his personal power.14 The key figures in transforming the party’s hall protection squad into a paramilitary organization were Ernst Röhm and, initially, Captain Ehrhardt.

Röhm was, more even than Hitler, typical of the ‘front generation’. As a junior officer, he shared the dangers, anxieties, and privations of the troops in the trenches – shared, too, the prejudice and mounting anger levelled at those in staff headquarters behind the lines, at the military bureaucracy, at ‘incapable’ politicians, and at those seen as shirkers, idlers and profiteers at home. Against these highly negative images, he heroicized the ‘front community’, the solidarity of the men in the trenches, leadership resting on deeds rather than status, and the blind obedience that this demanded. What he wanted was a new ‘warrior’ élite whose actions and achievements had proved their right to rule. Though a monarchist, there was for Röhm to be no return to pre-war bourgeois society. His ideal was the community of fighting men. As for so many who joined the Freikorps and their successor paramilitary organizations, this ideal combined male fantasy with the cult of violence.15 Like so many, Röhm had gone to war in 1914 in wild enthusiasm, suffered serious facial injury within weeks when shell fragments tore away part of his nose, permanently disfiguring him, had returned to lead his company, but had been forced out of service at the front after being again badly injured at Verdun. His subsequent duties in the Bavarian War Ministry, and as the supply officer of a division, sharpened his political antennae and gave him experience in organizational matters. The trauma of defeat and revolution drove him into counter-revolutionary activity – including service in the Freikorps Epp during its participation in the crushing of the Räterepublik. After brief membership of the DNVP, he joined the tiny DAP soon after Hitler, in autumn 1919, and, as he himself claimed, was probably responsible for others from the Reichswehr entering the party.16 Röhm’s interest continued, however, to be dictated by military and paramilitary, rather than party, politics. He showed no exclusive interest in the NSDAP before the SA became a significant element in paramilitary politics.

But Röhm’s value to the party in engineering its paramilitary connections is hard to overrate. His access both to leading figures on the paramilitary scene and, especially, to weaponry was crucial. His position in control of weapon supplies for the Brigade Epp (the successor to the Freikorps unit, now integrated into the Reichswehr) gave him responsibility for providing the Einwohnerwehr with weapons. The semi-secrecy involved in concealing the extent of weaponry from Allied control – not difficult since there was no occupying army to carry out inspections – also gave Röhm a great deal of scope to build up a large stockpile of mainly small arms in 1920–21. After the dissolution of the Einwohnerwehr, and the official confiscation of weaponry, various paramilitary organizations entrusted him with their weapon supplies. Presiding over such an arsenal, deciding when and if weapons should be handed out, the ‘machine-gun king’ (Maschinengewehrkönig), as he became known, was thus in a pivotal position with regard to the demands of all paramilitary organizations. And, through the protection he gained from Epp, Kahr, and the Munich political police, he enjoyed influence beyond his rank on the politics of the nationalist Right.17

It was in all probability Röhm who arranged the agreement reached between Hitler and Ehrhardt in August 1921 which brought former members of Ehrhardt’s naval brigade, seasoned campaigners in paramilitary activity, most of them just returned from the action in Upper Silesia, into the party’s ‘Sport Section’. This was placed under the leadership of the Ehrhardt veteran Leutnant Klintzsch (later suspected of having a hand in 1922 in the murder of Walter Rathenau – the Reich Foreign Minister, of Jewish background and, as main author of the ‘fulfilment policy’ towards the Versailles Treaty, a detested figure on the extreme Right),18 who was given the task of building up a fighting unit and provided by Ehrhardt with the funding to do this. During the first months, this was mainly a matter of sport (especially boxing), marching, exercises, and occasional sharpshooter practice. The members – there were around 300 by November 1921, all under the age of twenty-four and mainly from Munich’s lower-middle class – combined this paramilitary training with political activism. They took the ‘friend–foe’ mentality of the front into what they saw as practically a civil war at home, preparing for violent combat with the political enemy, evoking the spirit of aggressive camaraderie and blind commitment to the leader.19 From the beginning, the dual role of paramilitary organization (initially linked to Ehrhardt) and party shock troops under Hitler’s leadership contained the seeds of the tension that was to accompany the SA down to 1934.20 The interest of Röhm and Ehrhardt lay on the paramilitary side.21 Hitler tried to integrate the SA fully into the party, though organizationally it retained considerable independence before 1924.22The build-up of the S A was steady, not spectacular, before the second half of 1922. It was after that date, in conditions of rapidly mounting crisis in Bavaria and in the Reich, that the SA’s numbers swelled, making it a force to be reckoned with on the nationalist Right.23


Hitler, meanwhile, now undisputed leader of his party, carried on his ceaseless agitation much as before, able to exploit the continued tension between Bavaria and the Reich. The murder of Reich Finance Minister Matthias Erzberger on 26 August 1921 – an indication of the near-anarchism that still prevailed in Germany – and Kahr’s refusal to accept the validity for Bavaria of the state of emergency declared by Reich President Friedrich Ebert, kept things on the boil.24 Material discontent played its own part. Prices were already rising sharply as the currency depreciated. Foodstuffs were almost eight times more expensive in 1921 as they had been at the end of the war. By the next year they would be over 130 times dearer. And that was before the currency lost all its value in the hyperinflation of 1923.25

Hitler’s provocation of his political enemies and of the authorities to gain publicity was stepped up. In mid-September he led the planned violent disruption by his followers of a meeting in the Löwenbräukeller, to be addressed by one of his arch-enemies at the time, the separatist leader of the Bayernbund, Otto Ballerstedt. Hitler’s arrival in the packed hall was the signal for his supporters, many of them young thugs from the ‘Sport Section’ who had taken up seats around the platform early in the evening, to storm the podium, screaming ‘Hitler’ continually in chorus, and prevent Ballerstedt from speaking. Someone had the idea of switching off the lights to prevent a brawl. But this only made the disturbance worse. When the lights went on again, Ballerstedt and another member of his party were physically attacked and injured before the police could arrive.26 Even then, it seems, the police had to ask Hitler’s help in calling his men to order. He was by this time happy enough to do so. The aim had been met. ‘Ballerstedt won’t speak any more today,’ he declared.27

The matter did not, however, end there. Ballerstedt pressed charges against Hitler, who was sentenced in January 1922 to three months’ imprisonment for breach of the peace – two months suspended against future good behaviour (though conveniently forgotten about when the good behaviour did not materialize). Even his powerful friends could not prevent him serving the other month of his sentence. Between 24 June and 27 July 1922 he took up residence in Stadelheim prison in Munich.28

Apart from this short interlude, Hitler did not let up with his agitation. Brushes with the police were commonplace. The police noted some thirty bans on publications, placards, and other Nazi publicity in 1921.29 Even while awaiting trial in the Ballerstedt case, Hitler was warned by the police – in connection with Nazi disruption of an SPD meeting on 16 October and subsequent disturbances – that he could expect his expulsion from Bavaria if things carried on in the same way.30 It was not to be the last time that expulsion was posed as a vain threat. Hitler simply commented that he could not be held responsible for the disturbances and promised to do what he could to prevent any in future.31 Within little over a week, on 4 November 1921, he was the centre of further riotous scenes, this time at a meeting he himself was addressing in the Hofbräuhaus. As a full-scale brawl broke out, Hitler continued speaking amid a hail of beermugs that his opponents – socialists, but perhaps also including some veteran beerhall brawlers, spoiling for a fight – had been quietly storing beneath their tables as ammunition. He later idealized the scene in Mein Kampf as the ‘baptism of fire’ of his SA men, greatly outnumbered but triumphant over their socialist enemies.32 For Hitler, these violent clashes with his opponents were the lifeblood of his movement. They were above all good for publicity.

Hitler was still dissatisfied with the coverage – even of a negative kind – he received in the press.33 Nevertheless, the actions of the NSDAP and its leader ensured that they remained in the public eye. Nor could the party any longer be ignored in the Bavarian Landtag. Following Kahr’s resignation as Minister President in September 1921 – the consequence of his intransigence in the conflict with the Reich – the unpopularity and weaker stance towards Berlin of his successor, Hugo Graf Lerchenfeld-Koefering, an arch-conservative, from a non-party Catholic, aristocratic, and diplomatic background, provided an easy target for undiminished Nazi agitation throughout the first half of 1922.34 This was no time for young Germans to spend studying philosophy and sitting behind a desk full of books, proclaimed Dietrich Eckart: it was a question now of ‘into the stormtroops who must rescue Germany’. Open attacks on opponents became the order of the day. Rubber truncheons and knuckle-dusters were the main weapons, but pistols and even, on occasion, home-made bombs and grenades were also used in the campaign of violence.35 Hitler kept up unabated his torrent of abuse directed at both the Reich and Bavarian governments. Reich President Ebert was booed, whistled at, insulted, and spat upon by Nazi demonstrators when he visited Munich in summer 1922.36 Hitler poured scorn on Minister President von Lerchenfeld – a man with the brain of a sheep, he ranted, totally out of touch with reality and the will of the people, who clamoured for genuine, born leaders.37 While his leading supporters hinted darkly at dire consequences if the Bavarian government expelled him from Germany, Hitler made propaganda capital out of the threat of expulsion by pointing to his war record, when he had fought as a German for his country while others had done no more than stay at home and preach politics.38

On 16 August 1922, Hitler spoke alongside other leaders of the nationalist associations at a huge protest rally of the Vereinigte Vaterländische Verbände Bayerns (United Patriotic Associations of Bavaria) on the Königsplatz in Munich. The rally, held under the slogan ‘For Germany – Against Berlin’, directed at ‘the approaching Jewish Bolshevism under the protection of the Republic’,39 was the first time that the SA had appeared in public as a paramilitary formation under its own banners. Its numbers – no more than 800 or so men about this time – were, however, dwarfed by the 30,000 armed men of Pittinger’s Bund Bayern und Reich, and by the large, well-armed formations of Bund Oberland and the Reichsflagge.40 Talk of a putsch against Lerchenfeld in favour of the restoration of Kahr was in the air. There were rumours that this would take place at a further mass protest rally against Lerchenfeld, planned for 25 August. Indeed there was a plot, involving Pittinger and Röhm, which became known to the police, but a ban on the rally and the prevention of the armed bands of the nationalist associations from other parts of Bavaria travelling to Munich left only a few thousand National Socialists assembled on the Karolinenplatz. Eventually, around 5,000 made their way to a meeting in the Kindlkeller, one of the big Munich beerhalls where Hitler occasionally held speeches. Feelings were running high. There were rumours that a putsch was about to happen. But nothing materialized. A thousand Communists assembled outside, and violence threatened. The police acted against the Communists, but did no more against the Nazis than appeal to Hitler to calm things down. Hitler told his men that it was the duty of every single one of them ‘to become an agitator in order to bring the mass of the people on to the street’ against the government.41 But at the request of the police he called them to order. They obeyed, quietly dispersing.42 Hitler was said to be furious at the way the day had fizzled out into such an anticlimax. Next time he would act – alone if necessary, he stated.43 The danger of a Hitler Putsch was not lost on the authorities. The Württemberg emissary in Munich reported to Stuttgart, following discussions in the Bavarian foreign ministry on 31 August: ‘The National Socialists especially were gaining enormous support and were capable of anything… The leader Hitler must be quite a fascinating personality. So it’s not impossible that they will try a putsch here before long, using the mounting inflation as an excuse.’44

Hitler’s most notable propaganda success in 1922 was his party’s participation in the so-called ‘German Day’ (Deutscher Tag) in Coburg on 14–15 October. Coburg, on the Thuringian border in the north of Upper Franconia and part of Bavaria for only two years, was virgin territory for the Nazis. Hitler had been invited to take part in the German Day with a small delegation by the organizational committee of the Schutz- und Trutzbund. He saw it as an opportunity not to be missed. He scraped together what funds the NSDAP had to hire a special train – in itself a novel propaganda stunt – to take 800 stormtroopers to Coburg. In Hitler’s compartment were the hard-core of his entourage – Amann, Esser, Eckart, Christian Weber, Graf and Rosenberg. On arrival on the Saturday afternoon, the Nazis were greeted at the station with shouts of ‘Heil’ by a sizeable gathering of nationalists and with a torrent of abuse from 200–300 socialist workers and trade unionists who had assembled at the same spot. The SA men were instructed by Hitler to ignore explicit police orders, banning a formation march with unfurled banners and musical accompaniment, and marched with hoisted swastika flags through the town. Workers lining the streets insulted them and spat at them. Nazis in turn leapt out of the ranks beating their tormentors with sticks and rubber truncheons. A furious battle with the socialists ensued. After ten minutes of mayhem, in which they had police support, the stormtroopers triumphantly claimed the streets of Coburg as theirs. The local authorities blamed the workers of Coburg for provoking the violence, but, with some contradiction, acknowledged that the other nationalists would have caused no problems and ‘that the German Day would have passed by completely peacefully if the Hitler people(Hitlerleute) had not come to Coburg’.45 For Hitler, the propaganda victory was what counted. The German Day in Coburg went down in the party’s annals. The NSDAP had made its mark in northern Bavaria.

It was Hitler’s second major success in Franconia within a few days. On 8 October, Julius Streicher, head of the sizeable Nuremberg branch of the Deutsche Werkgemeinschaft, had written to Hitler offering to take his sizeable following, together with his newspaper the Deutscher Volkswille,into the NSDAP.46 In the wake of the Coburg triumph, the transfer took place on 20 October. Streicher, a short, squat, shaven-headed bully, born in 1885 in the Augsburg area, for a time a primary schoolteacher as his father had been, and, like Hitler, a war veteran decorated with the Iron Cross, First Class, was utterly possessed by demonic images of Jews. Shortly after the war he had been one of the founding members of the Deutschsozialistische Partei (German-Socialist Party), as antisemitic as the NSDAP and, as we noted in the previous chapter, with a similar programme. His newspaper Der Stürmer, established in 1923 and becoming notorious for its obscene caricatures of evil-looking Jews seducing pure German maidens and ritual-murder allegations, would – despite Hitler’s personal approving comments, and view that ‘the Jew’ was far worse than Streicher’s ‘idealized’ picture – for a while be banned even in the Third Reich.47 Streicher was eventually tried at Nuremberg, and hanged. Now, back in 1922, in a step of vital importance for the development of the NSDAP in Franconia, in the northern regions of Bavaria, he subordinated himself personally to Hitler.48 The arch-rival DSP was now fatally weakened in Franconia. The Nazi Party practically doubled its membership. From around 2,000 members about the beginning of 1921 and 6,000 a year later, the party was overnight some 20,000 strong.49 More than that: the Franconian countryside – piously Protestant, fervently nationalist, and stridently antisemitic – was to provide the NSDAP with a stronghold far greater than was offered by its home city of Munich in the Catholic south of Bavaria, and a symbolic capital in Nuremberg – later designated the ‘city of the Reich Party Rallies’. It was little wonder that Hitler was keen to express his gratitude to Streicher publicly in Mein Kampf.50

Even so, it was striking that, away from his Munich citadel, Hitler’s power was still limited. He showed himself quite incapable of exercising his authority on the internecine strife that dominated the Nuremberg branch of the NSDAP over the coming year. Neither arbitrary decree from Munich nor even Hitler’s personal intervention could impose a solution on the bitter power-struggle erupting in the early months of 1923 between Streicher and his rival in Nuremberg, Walther Kellerbauer, nine years older, a former naval officer, good publicist and speaker, editor of a party newspaper, the Deutscher Volkswille (German Will of the People), and with his own pretensions to running the branch. After months of bitter wrangling, Streicher proved victorious. This was despite Kellerbauer, someone Hitler was not keen to alienate, for a time being able to call upon the party leader’s support.51 Hitler was the undisputed propaganda champion of the party. But away from his Munich base, his writ still did not always run.

This was in itself ample reason for the interest which his Munich following began to show in building up the leadership cult around Hitler. A significant boost to the aura of a man of destiny attaching itself to Hitler came from outside Germany. On 28 October 1922, Mussolini’s Blackshirts had marched on Rome and seized power. At least that was the myth that was propagated. In reality, around 20,000 badly-armed, ill-equipped and hungry Fascists, approaching Rome from four directions, had halted around twenty miles from the city, some of them leaving for home in streaming rain. There was, in fact, no ‘March on Rome’, which the Italian army could in any case easily have crushed if necessary. On 29 October, King Victor Emmanuel III simply invited Mussolini to form a government. When the Fascist Leader arrived in Rome the following day he was wearing a black shirt, black trousers, and a bowler hat.52

Mussolini’s so-called ‘March on Rome’ on 28 October 1922 – fictitious though it was in the Fascist legend of a heroic ‘seizure of power’ – nevertheless deeply stirred the Nazi Party. It suggested the model of a dynamic and heroic nationalist leader marching to the salvation of his strife-torn country. The Duce provided an image to be copied. Less than a week after the coup détat in Italy, on 3 November 1922, Hermann Esser proclaimed to a packed Festsaal in the Hofbräuhaus: ‘Germany’s Mussolini is called Adolf Hitler.’53 It marked the symbolic moment when Hitler’s followers invented the Führer cult.


Notions of ‘heroic’ leadership had been part of the political culture of the nationalist Right in the years before the First World War. The Bismarck cult, exaggerated hopes invested in the Kaiser and then dashed, grandiose images of Imperial grandeur and military glory contrasting starkly with counter-images of weak and puny party-politicians squabbling in the Reichstag, helped, as we have seen, to advance the idea of national salvation. A rebirth of the nation was promised through the subordination to a ‘great leader’ who would invoke the values of a ‘heroic’ (and mythical) past. The nationalist associations, most prominently the Pan-German League, popularized and disseminated such notions. The Protestant ‘educated’ middle classes were affected more than most by them. Germanic myths and romantic imagery in the bourgeois youth movement provided a base for their cultivation among the younger generation. Even so, such ideas hardly occupied a central position in German political culture before 1914.

However, war and revolution gave new substance to images of ‘heroic’ leadership. The subsequent idealization of the ‘community of fate’ in the trenches, and the ‘great deeds’ and heroism of ‘true’ leadership in the struggle for national survival – undermined, according to the legend, from within – provided a mass of new potential adherents on the counter-revolutionary Right to the idea of a coming ‘great leader’. Images of leadership varied. Ernst Röhm, whose background we have briefly glimpsed, stands proxy for thousands in his idolization of the leadership of the military ‘man of action’. For the neo-conservative Right, the shock of the Revolution and the dominance of the detested Social Democrats, contempt for the ‘party system’ and parliamentary government, and Germany’s international humiliation and weakness meant an evocation of Bismarck in the yearning for a great ‘statesman’. Literary figures were among the most expressive advocates of ‘heroic’ leadership. The author Ernst Jünger saw ‘the great politician of the future’ as a ‘modern man of power’ in the ‘machine era’ – ‘a man of outstanding intelligence’, perhaps emerging from a party, but standing ‘above parties and divisions’, whose natural instinct and will would select the right path and overcome all obstacles.54 The Bonn writer Ernst Bertram linked his vision of a coming Leader, in a poem composed in 1922, with notions of ‘renewal’ arising from the banks of the Rhine and staving off the threat from Asia.55 Within the Protestant Church, there were those who looked to the coming Leader to bring about spiritual renewal and moral revival. The fall of the monarchy and collapse of ‘God-given’ authority, the secularization of society, and the perceived ‘crisis of faith’ in German Protestantism all contributed to a readiness to look to a new form of leadership which could reinvoke ‘true’ Christian values. The shadings of the various leadership images came together in the tract of the nationalist publicist Wilhelm Stapel, a former liberal turnedvölkisch enthusiast, member of the Hamburg group of neo-conservatives associated with the ideas of Moeller van den Bruck, who depicted the ‘true statesman’ as ‘at one and the same time ruler, warrior, and priest’.56 It amounted to a secularized belief in salvation, wrapped up in pseudo-religious language.

Whatever the particular emphasis, the conservative and völkisch Right juxtaposed the negative view of a ‘leaderless democracy’ with a concept of a true leader as a man of destiny, born not elected to leadership, not bound by conventional rules and laws, ‘hard, straightforward, and ruthless’, but embodying the will of God in his actions. ‘God give us leaders and help us to true following,’ ran one text.57 Devotion, loyalty, obedience, and duty were the corresponding values demanded of the followers.

The spread of fascist and militaristic ideas in post-war Europe meant that ‘heroic leadership’ images were ‘in the air’ and by no means confined to Germany. The emergence of the Duce cult in Italy provides an obvious parallel. But the German images naturally had their own flavour, drawing on the particular elements of the political culture of the nationalist Right. And the crisis-ridden nature of the Weimar state, detested by so many powerful groups in society and unable to win the popularity and support of the masses, guaranteed that such ideas, which in a more stable environment might have been regarded with derision and confined to the lunatic fringe of politics, were never short of a hearing. Ideas put into circulation by neo-conservative publicists, writers, and intellectuals were, in more vulgarized form, taken up in paramilitary formations and in the varied groupings of the bourgeois youth movement. The model of Mussolini’s triumph in Italy now offered the opening for such ideas to be incorporated into the vision of national revival preached by the National Socialists.

The Führer cult was not yet the pivot of the party’s ideology and organization. But the beginnings of a conscious public profiling of Hitler’s leadership qualities by his entourage, with strong hints in his own speeches, dates back to the period following Mussolini’s ‘March on Rome’.58 Hitler was beginning to attract fawning excesses of adulation – even stretching to grotesque comparisons with Napoleon – from admirers on the nationalist Right. The ground for the later rapid spread of the Führer cult was already well fertilized.59

There had been no trace of a leadership cult in the first years of the Nazi Party. The word ‘leader’ (‘Führer) had no special meaning attached to it. Every political party or organization had a leader – or more than one. The NSDAP was no different. Drexler was referred to as the party’s ‘Führer’, as was Hitler; or sometimes both in practically the same breath.60 Once Hitler had taken over the party leadership in July 1921, the term ‘our leader’ (‘unser Führer) became gradually more common.61 But its meaning was still interchangeable with the purely functional ‘chairman of the NSDAP’. There was nothing ‘heroic’ about it. Nor had Hitler endeavoured to build up a personality cult around himself. But Mussolini’s .triumph evidently made a deep impression on him. It gave him a role-model. Referring to Mussolini, less than a month after the ‘March on Rome’, Hitler reportedly stated: ‘So will it be with us. We only have to have the courage to act. Without struggle, no victory!’62 However, the reshaping of his self-image also reflected how his supporters were beginning to see their leader. His followers portrayed him, in fact, as Germany’s ‘heroic’ leader before he came to see himself in that light. Not that he did anything to discourage the new way he was being portrayed from autumn 1922 onwards. It was in December 1922 that the Völkischer Beobachter for the first time appeared to claim that Hitler was a special kind of leader – indeed the Leader for whom Germany was waiting. Followers of Hitler leaving a parade in Munich were said ‘to have found something which millions are yearning for, a leader’.63 By Hitler’s thirty-fourth birthday, on 20 April 1923, when the new head of the S A, Hermann Göring – thirty years old, Bavarian born but from the time of his military training in Berlin a self-styled Prussian, handsome (at this time), wildly egocentric, well connected and power-hungry, bringing the glamour of the World-War-decorated flying ace as well as important links to the aristocracy to the Nazi Movement – labelled him the ‘beloved leader of the German freedom-movement’, the personality cult was unmistakable.64 Political opponents scorned it.65 That it was not without its mark on Hitler himself is plain. Eckart told Hanfstaengl, while on holiday with Hitler near Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps bordering on Austria in May 1923, that Hitler had ‘megalomania halfway between a Messiah complex and Neroism’, after he had allegedly compared the way he would deal with Berlin with Christ throwing money-changers out of the temple.66 Similar signs can be read into the letter no less a figure than Gottfried Feder addressed to his party leader on 10 August 1923, strongly criticizing his lifestyle, his ‘anarchy in the allocation of time’, and not least the way Hitler was now placing himself above the party. ‘We gladly yield first place to you. But we have no understanding for tyrannical tendencies,’ Feder witheringly concluded.67

During 1923 there are indications in Hitler’s speeches that his self-perception was changing. He was now much more preoccupied than he had been in earlier years with leadership, and the qualities needed in the coming Leader of Germany. At no time before his imprisonment in Landsberg did he unambiguously claim those qualities for himself. But a number of passages in his speeches hint that the edges of what distinguished the ‘drummer’ from the ‘Leader’ might be starting to blur.

In November 1922, Hitler spoke of obedience to the leader as the first duty. According to the police report of his speech in Munich’s Bürgerbräukeller, however, he went on to speak in the plural of ‘leaders’ who were elected and could, if found wanting, be rejected.68 A few days later, he emphasized that only the leader was answerable to the masses, that commissions and committees were a hindrance to a movement.69 Such comments were no different from views expressed by Hitler at the time that he took over the party leadership. But before 1923 he had rarely spoken of a dictatorship in Germany, and then in somewhat veiled terms which did not necessarily imply the rule of a single individual.70 By 1923, in the wake of Mussolini’s success, with mounting crisis in the Reich, and with adulation being heaped on him by his own supporters, Hitler looked increasingly to ‘a strong man who would rescue Germany’.71 He continued to speak in the plural, however, of the need for leaders – of a non-parliamentary kind – who would rule if necessary against the will of the majority in the interests of the nation.72‘The people don’t want ministers any longer, but leaders,’ he proclaimed.73 On 4 May 1923, in a speech castigating the parliamentary system as the ‘downfall and end of the German nation’,74Hitler gave the clearest hint to date of how he saw his own role. With reference to Frederick the Great and Bismarck, ‘giants’ whose deeds contrasted with those of the Reichstag, ‘Germany’s grave-digger’, he declared: ‘What can save Germany is the dictatorship of the national will and national determination. The question arises: is the suitable personality to hand? Our task is not to look for such a person. He is a gift from heaven, or is not there. Our task is to create the sword that this person will need when he is there. Our task is to give the dictator, when he comes, a people ready for him!’75

By July he was saying that only the value of personality, not majority decisions of parliament, could save Germany: ‘as Leader of the National Socialist Party I see my task in accepting the responsibility’.76 His call for a dictatorship met with great applause.77 As his remarks show, he saw himself still as the ‘drummer’.78 But there was an element of ambiguity. In an interview with the British Daily Mail on 2 October 1923, Hitler was reported as saying: ‘If a German Mussolini is given to Germany… people would fall down on their knees and worship him more than Mussolini has ever been worshipped.’79 If he was seeing himself – as his followers were seeing him – as the ‘German Mussolini’, then he was apparently beginning to associate the greatness of national leadership with his own person.80 In Nuremberg, asking whether Kahr deserved support, he denied the Bavarian ruler any claim to true leadership. He located ‘greatness’ solely in heroic qualities of the individual, and found these in ‘three of our greatest Germans’: Martin Luther, Frederick the Great and Richard Wagner. All three were ‘pioneers’ (Wegbereiter) in the national cause and thereby ‘heroes of their people’. Kahr was ‘decent’, and a capable administrator. But these were things to be taken for granted.81 Kahr thought only in Bavarian defensive terms, and was incapable of leading from Munich the struggle for national liberation.82 ‘A freedom-fighter must have the right instinct, he must have will and nothing more than will.’83 The juxtaposition of heroic leadership, its denial to Kahr, and the qualities required of the ‘freedom-fighter’ again suggest that Hitler was beginning to stake a claim for himself to the position of supreme (and heroic) national leader. The ambiguity remained. He saw his own aim as that of the ‘pioneer’, the one ‘paving the way for the great German freedom-movement’.84 On the one hand, this still suggested the ‘drummer’.85 On the other, he had already just linked the path-breaking pioneer with the great national heroes of the past. At any rate, he felt by this time, so he said, ‘the call to Germany’s salvation within him’, and others detected ‘outright Napeoleonic and messianic allures’ in what he said.86

The lack of clarity in Hitler’s comments about the future leadership was, in part, presumably tactical. There was nothing to be gained by alienating possible support through a premature conflict about who would later be supreme leader. As Hitler had stated in October, the leadership question could be left unanswered until ‘the weapon is created which the leader must possess’. Only then would the time be ripe to ‘pray to our Lord God that he give us the right leader’.87 But it was predominantly a reflection of Hitler’s concept of politics as essentially agitation, propaganda, and ‘struggle’.88 Organizational forms remained of little concern to him as long as his own freedom of action was not constrained by them. The crucial issue was the leadership of the ‘political struggle’. But it is hard to imagine that Hitler’s self-confidence in this field and his ingrained refusal to compromise would not subsequently have meant his demand for total, unconstrained leadership of the ‘national movement’. At any rate, Hitler’s comments on leadership in the crisis-ridden year of 1923 seem to indicate that his self-image was in a process of change. He still saw himself as the ‘drummer’, the highest calling there was in his eyes. But it would not take much, following his triumph in the trial after the failed putsch, to convert that self-image into the presumption that he was the ‘heroic leader’ himself.


That was all in the future. Around the beginning of 1923, few, if any, outside the ranks of his most fervent devotees thought seriously of Hitler as Germany’s coming ‘great leader’. But his rise to star status on Munich’s political scene – alongside the Hofbräuhaus, the city’s only notable curiosity, as one newspaper put it89 – meant that individuals from quite outside his normal social circles began to take a keen interest in him.

Two were converts to the party who were able to open up useful new contacts for Hitler. Kurt Lüdecke, a well-connected former gambler, playboy, and commercial adventurer, a widely-travelled ‘man of the world’, was ‘looking for a leader and a cause’ when he first heard Hitler speak at the rally of the ‘Patriotic Associations’ in Munich in August 1922.90 Lüdecke was enthralled. ‘My critical faculty was swept away,’ he later wrote. ‘He was holding the masses, and me with them, under a hypnotic spell by the sheer force of his conviction… His appeal to German manhood was like a call to arms, the gospel he preached a sacred truth. He seemed another Luther… I experienced an exaltation that could be likened only to religious conversion… I had found myself, my leader, and my cause.’91 According to his own account, Lüdecke used his connections to promote Hitler’s standing with General Ludendorff, a war-hero since repulsing the Russian advance into East Prussia in 1914, in effect Germany’s dictator during the last two war years, and now the outstanding figure on the radical Right, whose name alone was sufficient to open further doors to Hitler. He also sang Hitler’s praises to the former Munich chief of police, already an important Nazi sympathizer and protector, Ernst Pöhner.92 Abroad Lüdecke was able to establish contacts just before the ‘March on Rome’ with Mussolini (who at that time had never heard of Hitler), and in 1923 with Gömbös and other leading figures in Hungary.93 His foreign bank accounts, and sizeable donations he was able to acquire abroad, proved valuable to the party during the hyperinflation of 1923.94 He also fitted out and accommodated at his own cost an entire stormtrooper company. Even so, many of Lüdecke’s well-placed contacts were impatient at his constant proselytizing for the NSDAP, and quietly dropped him. And within the party, he was unable to overcome dislike and distrust. He was even denounced to the police by Max Amann as a French spy and jailed under false pretences for two months.95 By the end of 1923, Lüdecke had used up almost his entire income on behalf of the party.96

An even more useful convert was Ernst ‘Putzi’ Hanfstaengl, a six-foot-four-inch-tall, cultured part-American – his mother, a Sedgwick-Heine, was a descendant of a colonel who had fought in the Civil War – from an upper-middle-class art-dealer family, Harvard graduate, partner in an art-print publishing firm, and extremely well-connected in Munich salon society. Like Lüdecke, his first experience of Hitler was hearing him speak.97Hanfstaengl was greatly impressed by Hitler’s power to sway the masses. ‘Far beyond his electrifying rhetoric,’ he later wrote, ‘this man seemed to possess the uncanny gift of coupling the gnostic yearning of the era for a strong leader-figure with his own missionary claim and to suggest in this merging that every conceivable hope and expectation was capable of fulfilment – an astonishing spectacle of suggestive influence of the mass psyche.’98 Hanfstaengl was plainly fascinated by the subaltern, petty-bourgeois Hitler in his shabby blue suit, looking part-way between an NCO and a clerk, with awkward mannerisms, but possessing such power as a speaker when addressing a mass audience.99 Hanfstaengl remained in part contemptuous of Hitler – not least of his half-baked cliché-ridden judgements on art and culture (where Hanfstaengl was truly at home and Hitler merely an opinionated know-all).100 On Hitler’s first visit to the Hanfstaengl home, ‘his awkward use of knife and fork betrayed his background,’ wrote (somewhat snobbishly) his host.101 At the same time, Putzi was plainly captivated by this ‘virtuoso on the keyboard of the mass psyche’.102 He was appalled at catching Hitler sugaring a vintage wine he had offered him. But, added Hanfstaengl, ‘he could have peppered it, for each naïve act increased my belief in his homespun sincerity’.103

Soon, Hitler was a regular guest at Hanfstaengl’s home, where he regularly gorged himself on cream-cakes, paying court to Hanfstaengl’s attractive wife, Helene, in his quaint Viennese style.104 She took Hitler’s attentions in her stride. ‘Believe me, he’s an absolute neuter, not a man,’ she told her husband.105 Putzi himself believed, for what it was worth, that Hitler was sexually impotent, gaining substitute gratification from his intercourse with the ‘feminine’ masses.106 Hitler was taken by Putzi’s skills as a pianist, especially his ability to play Wagner. He would accompany Putzi by whistling the tune, marching up and down swinging his arms like the conductor of an orchestra, relaxing visibly in the process.107 He plainly liked Hanfstaengl – his wife even more so. But the criterion, as always, was usefulness. And above all Hanfstaengl was useful. He became a type of ‘social secretary’,108 providing openings to circles far different from the petty-bourgeois roughnecks in Hitler’s entourage who gathered each Monday in the Café Neumaier.109

Hanfstaengl introduced Hitler to Frau Elsa Bruckmann, the wife of the publisher Hugo Bruckmann, a Pan-German sympathizer and antisemite who had published the works of Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Hitler’s ingratiating manners and social naïvety brought out the mother instinct in her.110 Whether it was the wish to afford him some protection against his enemies that persuaded her to make him a present of one of the dog-whips he invariably carried around is not clear. (Oddly, his other dog-whip – the first he possessed – had been given to him by a rival patroness, Frau Helene Bechstein, while a third heavy whip, made from hippopotamus hide, which he later carried, was given to him by Frau Büchner, the landlady of the Platterhof, the hotel where he stayed on the Obersalzberg.111) Everyone who was someone in Munich would be invited at some stage to the soirées of Frau Bruckmann, by birth a Rumanian princess, so that Hitler was brought into contact here with industrialists, members of the army and aristocracy, and academics.112 In his gangster hat and trenchcoat over his dinner jacket, touting a pistol and carrying as usual his dog-whip, he cut a bizarre figure in the salons of Munich’s upper-crust. But his very eccentricity of dress and exaggerated mannerisms – the affected excessive politeness of one aware of his social inferiority – saw him lionized by condescending hosts and fellow-guests. His social awkwardness and uncertainty, often covered by either silence or tendency to monologues, but at the same time the consciousness of his public success that one could read in his face, made him an oddity, affording him curiosity value among the patronizing cultured and well-to-do pillars of the establishment.113 ‘Weak but wanting to be hard, half-educated wishing to be an all-rounder (universell),a Bohemian who had to be a soldier if he wanted to impress true soldiers. A man mistrustful towards himself and what he was capable of (seine Möglichkeiten), and so full of inferiority-complex towards all who were anything or were on the way to outflank him… He was never a gentleman, even later in evening dress,’ was how one contemporary, the Freikorps leader Gerhard Roßbach, described Hitler around this time.114

Hitler was also a guest from time to time of the publisher Lehmann, for long a party sympathizer. And the wife of piano manufacturer Bechstein – to whom he had been introduced by Eckart – was another to ‘mother’ Hitler, as well as lending the party her jewellery as surety against 60,000Swiss Francs which Hitler was able to borrow from a Berlin coffee merchant in September 1923. The Bechsteins, who usually wintered in Bavaria, used to invite Hitler to their suite in the ‘Bayerischer Hof’, or to their country residence near Berchtesgaden. Through the Bechsteins, Hitler was introduced to the Wagner circle at Bayreuth.115 He was transfixed at the first visit, in October 1923, to the shrine of his ultimate hero at Haus Wahnfried, where he tiptoed around the former possessions of Richard Wagner in the music-room and library ‘as though he were viewing relics in a cathedral’. The Wagners had mixed views of their unusual guest, who had turned up looking ‘rather common’ in his traditional Bavarian outfit of lederhosen, thick woollen socks, red and blue checked shirt and ill-fitting short blue jacket. Winifred, the English-born wife of Wagner’s son Siegfried, thought he was ‘destined to be the saviour of Germany’. Siegfried himself saw Hitler as ‘a fraud and an upstart’.116

The rapid growth in the party during the latter part of 1922 and especially in 1923 that had made it a political force in Munich, its closer connections with the ‘patriotic associations’, and the wider social contacts which now arose meant that funding flowed more readily to the NSDAP than had been the case in its first years. Now, as would be the case later, the party’s finances relied heavily upon members’ subscriptions together with entrance-fees and collections at meetings.117 The more came to meetings, the more were recruited as members, the more income came to the party, to permit yet more meetings to be held. Propaganda financed propaganda.118

But even now, the party’s heavy outgoings were difficult to meet, and funding was not easy to drum up in conditions of rip-roaring inflation. A fund-raising trip that Hitler made to Berlin in April 1922 proved disappointing in its yield.119 Party finances were still in many respects a hand-to-mouth operation.120 Hitler was constantly seeking to tap party friends and supporters for donations. But any payment in Marks, however large, was immediately devalued through the galloping currency depreciation.121 There was a premium, therefore, on donations made in hard foreign currency. Lüdecke and Hanfstaengl, as already noted, were useful in this regard. Hanfstaengl also financed with an interest-free loan of 1,000 dollars – a fortune in inflation-ridden Germany – the purchase of two rotary presses that enabled the Völkischer Beobachter to appear in larger, American-style format.122 Rumours, some far wide of the mark, about the party’s finances were repeatedly aired by opponents in the press. Even so, official inquiries in 1923 revealed considerable sums raised from an increasing array of benefactors.

One important go-between was Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter, born in Riga, linguistically able, with diplomatic service in Turkey during the war, and later imprisoned for a time by Communists on his return to the Baltic. After the war he had participated in the Kapp Putsch, then, like so many counter-revolutionaries, made his way to Munich, where he joined the NSDAP in autumn 1920.123 A significant, if shadowy, figure in the early Nazi Party, he used his excellent connections with Russian emigrés, such as Princess Alexandra, wife of the Russian heir to the throne Prince Kyrill, to acquire funds directed at Ludendorff and, through him, deflected in part to the NSDAP. Other members of the aristocracy, including Frau Gertrud von Seidlitz, who used monies from foreign stocks and shares, also contributed to Nazi funds.124 Hitler was almost certainly a co-beneficiary (though probably in a minor way) of the generous gift of 100,000 Gold Marks made by Fritz Thyssen, heir to the family’s Ruhr steelworks, to Ludendorff, but Germany’s leading industrialists, apart from Ernst von Borsig, head of the Berlin locomotive and machine-building firm, showed little direct interest in the Nazis at this time.125 Police inquiries which remained inconclusive suggested that Borsig and car-manufacturers Daimler were among other firms contributing to the party.126 Some Bavarian industrialists and businessmen, too, were persuaded by Hitler to make donations to the movement.127

Valuable funds were also obtained abroad. Anti-Marxism and the hopes in a strong Germany as a bulwark against Bolshevism often provided motive enough for such donations. The Völkischer Beobachter’s new offices were financed with Czech Kronen.128 An important link with Swiss funds was Dr Emil Gansser, a Berlin chemist and long-standing Nazi supporter, who engineered a gift of 33,000 Swiss Francs from right-wing Swiss benefactors.129 Further Swiss donations followed a visit from Hitler himself to Zürich in the summer of 1923.130 And from right-wing circles in the arch-enemy France, 90,000 Gold Marks were passed to Captain Karl Mayr, Hitler’s first patron, and from him to the ‘patriotic associations’. It can be presumed that the NSDAP was among the beneficiaries. In addition to monetary donations, Röhm saw to it that the SA, along with other paramilitary organizations, was well provided with equipment and weapons from his secret arsenal.131 Whatever the financial support, without Röhm’s supplies an armed putsch would scarcely have been possible.

In November 1922, rumours were already circulating that Hitler was planning a putsch.132 By January 1923, in the explosive climate following the French march into the Ruhr, the rumours in Munich of a Hitler putsch were even stronger.133 The crisis, without which Hitler would have been nothing, was deepening by the day. In its wake, the Nazi movement was expanding rapidly. Some 35,000 were to join between February and November 1923, giving a strength of around 55,000 on the eve of the putsch. Recruits came from all sections of society. Around a third were workers, a tenth or more came from the upper-middle and professional classes, but more than half belonged to the crafts, commercial, white-collar, and farming lower-middle class.134 Most had joined the party out of protest, anger, and bitterness as the economic and political crisis mounted. The same was true of the thousands flocking into the SA. Hitler had won their support by promising them action. The sacrifices of the war would be avenged. The revolution would be overturned.135 He could not hold them at fever-pitch indefinitely without unleashing such action. The tendency to ‘go for broke’ was not simply a character-trait of Hitler; it was built into the nature of his leadership, his political aims, and the party he led. But Hitler was not in control of events as they unfolded in 1923. Nor was he, before 8 November, the leading player in the drama. Without the readiness of powerful figures and organizations to contemplate a putsch against Berlin, Hitler would have had no stage on which to act so disastrously. His own role, his actions – and reactions – have to be seen in that light.


Hitler’s incessant barrage of anti-government propaganda was nearly undermined by an event that invoked national unity in January 1923: the French occupation of the Ruhr. On this occasion at least, the Reich government seemed to be acting firmly – and acting with mass popular support.

The request by the government of Reich Chancellor Wilhelm Cuno for a moratorium for two years on reparations payments in money had been turned down by the allied heads of government meeting in Paris at the end of December. Germany had fallen behind in its reparations payments in wood – it owed 200,000 metres of telegraph poles and had delivered only 65,000 metres – and coal deliveries to the tune of 24 million Gold Marks. Compared with payments made of 1,480 million Gold Marks it was a trivial amount. But 135,000 metres of missing telegraph poles sufficed for French and Belgian troops on 11 January to march into the Ruhr district to ensure coal deliveries. Germany was gripped by an elemental wave of national fury that crossed all social and political divides. A ‘national unity front’ stretching from Social Democrats to German Nationals was founded.136 The unity – invoking the ‘Burgfrieden’ (civil truce) of 1914, when in the wake of war fever class conflict and internal disputes had temporarily given way to a sense of national accord – had little chance of lasting. But it was an immediate expression of the depth of feeling in the country. On 13 January the Reich government declared a campaign of ‘passive resistance’ against the Ruhr occupation. 14 January was to be a day of mourning throughout Germany. The gunning-down by French soldiers – possibly provoked by German nationalists – of workers in the Krupp factory at Essen on 31 March, leaving thirteen dead and forty-one wounded, was the worst of numerous confrontations that wildly inflamed an already overheated situation.137 The policy of ‘passive resistance’ was, therefore, certain of widespread public support. For radical nationalists, it did not, however, go nearly far enough. Disbanded Freikorps groups were reinstated again, with the clandestine help of the Reichswehr. Acts of sabotage were carried out in the occupied zone, again supported by the army.138 The extent and vehemence of the opposition to the Ruhr occupation posed, nevertheless, a problem for the National Socialists. The popular protest threatened to take the wind out of their sails. Attacks on a Berlin government engaged in protest at the Ruhr occupation were not guaranteed to have mass appeal.139 Undeterred, Hitler saw advantage to be gained from the French occupation.140 As usual, he went on a propaganda offensive.

On the very day of the French march into the Ruhr he spoke in a packed Circus Krone. ‘Down with the November Criminals’ was the title of his speech. It was not the first time he had used the term ‘November Criminals’ to describe the Social Democrat revolutionaries of 1918. But from now on, the slogan was seldom far from his lips.141 It showed the line he would take towards the Ruhr occupation. The real enemy was within. ‘The German rebirth is externally only possible when the criminals are faced with their responsibility and delivered to their just fate,’ he declared.142Marxism, democracy, parliamentarism, internationalism, and, of course, behind it all the power of the Jews, were held by Hitler to blame for the national defencelessness that allowed the French to treat Germany like a colony.143 Hitler poured scorn on the newly proclaimed ‘national unity’. He announced that any party members involved in active resistance to the occupation would be expelled.144 His own supporters were temporarily taken aback. But the tactic worked.

The propaganda offensive was stepped up with preparations for the NSDAP’s first ‘Reich Party Rally’, scheduled to take place in Munich on 27–9 January. It brought confrontation with the Bavarian government, so frightened about rumours of a putsch that on 26 January it declared a state of emergency in Munich, but so weak that it lacked the power to carry through its intended ban on the rally.145 Hitler was beside himself with rage when told the rally was prohibited. For him, as usual, there could be no retreat. He promised to go ahead despite the ban, and threatened disturbances of the peace and possibly bloodshed. He was prepared, he declared, somewhat melodramatically, to stand in the front row when the shots were fired.146 It needed Röhm to calm him down and put forward a more constructive approach. The Reichswehr once more came to Hitler’s aid. Röhm persuaded Epp to prevail upon the commander of the 7th Reichswehr Division, stationed in Bavaria, General Otto Hermann von Lossow, to come down on Hitler’s side. Röhm was ordered to bring Hitler to an audience with Lossow. Hitler guaranteed the peaceful conduct of the rally, and promised on his ‘word of honour’ that no putsch would be attempted. Hitler and Röhm then hastened to Kahr, at the time Government President of Upper Bavaria, who also offered his support, as did the Police President Eduard Nortz. Hitler was given permission to go ahead with the twelve mass meetings – all of which he addressed on the same evening – that had been arranged as well as the theatrical display of the dedication of SA standards on the Marsfeld, a big parade-ground close to the centre of Munich, on 28 January in front of 6,000 uniformed stormtroopers.147 Had the party had fewer friends in high places, and had the government held firm, it would, as Ernst Röhm recognized, have been a heavy blow to Hitler’s prestige.148 As it was, thanks to the Bavarian authorities, he could celebrate another propaganda triumph.

At the meetings during the rally, Hitler could once more appear self-confident, certain of success, to the masses of his supporters. The whole rally had been devised in the form of a ritual homage-paying to the ‘leader of the German freedom-movement’.149 The leadership cult, consciously devised to sustain maximum cohesion within the party, was taking off. According to a newspaper report, Hitler was greeted ‘like a saviour’ when he entered the Festsaal of the Hofbräuhaus during one of his twelve speeches in the evening of 27 January.150 In-the feverish atmosphere in the Löwenbräukeller the same evening, he was given a similar hero’s welcome as he entered the hall, deliberately late, shielded by his bodyguard, arm outstretched in the salute – probably borrowed from the Italian Fascists (and by them from Imperial Rome) – which would become standard in the Movement by 1926.151 It was an unrecognizable Hitler, noted Karl Alexander von Müller, to the diffident individual he had encountered in private gatherings.152

Hitler’s near-exclusive concentration on propaganda was not Röhm’s approach, while the latter’s emphasis on the paramilitary posed a latent threat to Hitler’s authority.153 At the beginning of February, directly after breaking with Pittinger, Röhm founded a ‘Working Community of the Patriotic Fighting Associations’ (Arbeitsgemeinschaft der Vaterländischen Kampfverbände) comprising, alongside the SA, the Bund Oberland, Reichsflagge, Wikingbund, and Kampfverband Niederbayern.154 The direct military control was in the hands of retired Oberstleutnant Hermann Kriebel, previously a chief of staff in the Bavarian Einwohnerwehr and Organisation Escherich (or Orgesch).155 The formations were trained by the Bavarian Reichswehr – not for incorporation in any defence against further inroads by the French and Belgians (the threat of which was by this time plainly receding), but evidently for the eventuality of conflict with Berlin.156 Once subsumed in this umbrella organization, the SA was far from the biggest paramilitary grouping and there was little to distinguish it from the other bodies.157 In a purely military organization, it had only a subordinate role.158 The conversion of the S A to a paramilitary organization now not directly or solely under his own control was not to Hitler’s liking. But there was nothing he could do about it.159 However, Hitler was pushed by Röhm into the foreground of the political leadership of the ‘Working Community’. He it was who was asked by Röhm to define the political aims of the ‘Working Community’.160 He was now moving in high circles indeed. In early 1923 he was brought into contact by Röhm with no less than the Chief of the Army Command (Chef der Heeresleitung)of the Reichswehr, General Hans von Seeckt (who remained, however, distinctly unimpressed by the Munich demagogue, and unprepared to commit himself to the demands for radical action in the Ruhr conflict for which Hitler was pressing).161 Röhm also insisted to the new Bavarian Commander, Lossow, that Hitler’s movement, with its aim of winning over the workers to the national cause, offered the best potential for building a ‘patriotic fighting front’ to upturn the November Revolution.162

Connected with all the strands of nationalist paramilitary politics, if openly directing none, was the figure of General Ludendorff, regarded generally as the symbolic leader of the radical nationalist Right. The former war-hero had returned to Germany from his Swedish exile in February 1919, taking up residence in Munich. His radical völkisch nationalism, detestation of the new Republic, and prominent advocacy of the ‘stab-in-the-back’ legend, had already taken him effortlessly into the slipstream of the Pan-Germans, brought him fringe participation in the Kapp Putsch, and now led to his close involvement with the counter-revolutionary extreme Right, for whom his reputation and standing were a notable asset. The hotbed of Munich’s völkisch and paramilitary politics provided the setting within which, remarkably, the famous Quartermaster-General, virtual dictator of Germany and chief driving-force of the war effort between 1916 and 1918, could come into close contact and direct collaboration with the former army corporal, Adolf Hitler. Even more remarkable was the rapidity with which, in the new world of rabble-rousing politics to which General Ludendorff was ill-attuned, the ex-corporal would come to eclipse the one-time military commander as the leading spokesman of the radical Right.

Hitler had been first brought to Ludendorff’s attention by Rudolf Heß in May 1921, since when the general’s name had opened up a number of doors for him.163 At a meeting in Berlin on 26 February Ludendorff now brought the leaders of the north German paramilitary organizations together with Hitler and Röhm’s spokesman for his ‘Working Community’, Captain Heiß, leader of the Reichsflagge. Ludendorff, thinking a strike against the French imminent, demanded support for Seeckt and the Cuno government. Despite his public stance, Hitler did not demur. Only one group, the Jungdeutscher Orden, rejected the suggestion to place the paramilitary organizations at the behest of the Reichswehr for training.164 Hitler came away nevertheless sorely disappointed from his four-hour meeting with a non-committal Seeckt in March, and at an audience with the Bavarian head of the Reichswehr, Lossow, angrily rejected the conclusion drawn by the latter that Bavaria should then go its own way and consider separation from the Reich.165Nevertheless, the military training of the S A by the Reichswehr which Hitler had agreed with Lossow in January proceeded. The SA, along with other paramilitary bands, handed its weapons over to the army in preparation for mobilization against the French.166

The paramilitary politics of spring 1923, in the wake of the French occupation of the Ruhr, were confused and riddled with conflict and intrigue. But, largely through Röhm’s manoeuvrings, Hitler, the beerhall agitator, had been brought into the arena of top-level discussions with the highest military as well as paramilitary leadership, not just in Bavaria, but in the Reich. He was now a player for big stakes. But he could not control the moves of other, more powerful, players with their own agendas. His constant agitation could mobilize support for a time. But it could not be held at fever-pitch indefinitely. It demanded action. Hitler’s impatience, his ‘all-or-nothing’ stance, was not simply a matter of temperament. He described the military training of the S A in spring 1923 as possessing solely the ‘motive of absolute attack’ against the French. ‘This was one of the factors that finally forced a decision. For it was not possible to keep on restraining people whose heads were exclusively filled in the barracks night after night, morning after morning, with the idea of war. They asked, “When’s it going to happen, when are we finally going to fight and chuck that lot(die Bande) out?” The people could not be held back week in and week out, and that was one of the reasons for what we later brought about(unseres späteren Auswirkens) and at the same time one of the reasons why this necessarily had at some time to make itself felt (sich auswirken mußten):’167

The direct result was the next major confrontation with the Bavarian government on May Day 1923 – and this time a serious loss of face for Hitler. The trade union programme for a parade of the socialists through the streets of Munich on 1 May, which had been approved by the police, was seen by the nationalist Right as an outright provocation. In Munich, May Day was not only for the Left the symbolic day of socialism. It was for the Right the commemoration of the ‘liberation’ of the city from the detested Räterepublik (Councils Republic), the short-lived Soviet-style takeover in Munich in April 1919. Serious trouble could, therefore, be expected if Left and Right clashed. And such a clash seemed very likely. The climate was already tense. There had been a serious shooting incident in one district of Munich between Communists and National Socialists on 26 April, leaving four wounded.168 In addition, the Social Democrats had again tried to have the stormtroops banned, though their proposal, put to the Bavarian Landtag on 24–5 April, had been duly defeated. But above all, the radical Right were spoiling for a fight. As Georg Escherich, the former Einwohnerwehr leader, noted, ‘The right Radicals in Munich are looking eagerly for every opportunity for “deeds”.’169

Activists, as Hitler later acknowledged, could not be kept in a state of tension indefinitely without some release. He proposed a national demonstration on May Day, and an armed attack on the ‘Reds’.170 Increasingly alarmed by the prospect of serious disturbances, the Munich police revoked its permission for the Left’s street-parade, and now confined permission only to the holding of a limited demonstration on the spacious Theresien-wiese near the city centre. Rumours of a putsch from the Left, almost certainly set into circulation by the Right, served as a pretext for a ‘defence’ by the paramilitary bodies.171 They demanded ‘their’ weapons back from safe keeping under the control of the Reichswehr. But on the afternoon of 30 April, at a meeting with paramilitary leaders, Lossow, concerned about the danger of a putsch from the Right, refused to hand over the armaments. Hitler, in a blind rage, accused Lossow of breach of trust.172 But there was nothing to be done. Hitler had been overconfident. And this time, for once, the state authorities had remained firm. All that could be salvaged was a gathering the following morning of around 2,000 men from the paramilitary formations – about 1,300 from the National Socialists – on the Oberwiesen-feld in the barracks area north of the city, well away from the May Day demonstration and firmly ringed by a cordon of police. Tame exercises carried out with arms distributed from Röhm’s arsenal were no substitute for the planned assault on the Left. After standing around for much of the time since dawn holding their rifles and facing the police, the men handed back their arms around two o’clock and dispersed. Many had left already. There were one or two skirmishes reported in the city. In the most serious, a group of workers on their way home from the left-wing demonstration were set upon and beaten up by SA men leaving the Oberwiesenfeld. The police did not intervene.173 Compared with the bloodshed that might have taken place, it was of minor significance. The May Day rally on the Theresien-wiese, with its 25,000 participants, had ended without incident around midday.

Most of those taking part had already left to attend the May Day celebrations in the Hirschgarten, a large beer-garden two or three miles to the west of the city centre, that afternoon. Attended by an estimated 30,000 socialists, these passed without incident.174Hitler made virtue out of necessity at a packed meeting that evening in the Circus Krone. He announced to huge applause that the day had been a special one in bringing about an alliance of National Socialists with Bund Oberland, Bund Blücher, Reichsflagge, and Wikingbund. Otherwise he had to resort to his usual attacks on Jews, socialists and the International, appealing, according to a police report, to the basest instincts of the masses in such an antisemitic tirade – denouncing the Jews as ‘racial tuberculosis’ – that it prompted a ‘pogrom mood’.175 That was Hitler’s way of rebounding from a setback. It fooled few people outside Nazi fanatics. Most recognized the events of May Day to have been a severe embarrassment for Hitler and his followers. The Württemberg ambassador reported the frequently expressed view that Hitler’s star was now on the wane.176

The Bavarian Minister President, Eugen von Knilling, had commented in April that ‘the enemy stands Left, but the danger [stands] on the Right’.177 The remark typified the hopeless attempt by the ΒVP-led government to steer a middling course in the crisis. Its weak and vacillating stance was, as Knilling’s comment suggests, based upon the need to head off the menace of a right-wing putsch, but at the same time on a rooted fear of the Left – even of the moderate Majority Social Democrats. The May Day affair ought to have shown the government that firm and resolute action could defeat Hitler. But by this time, the Bavarian government had long since ruled out any potential for working together with the democratic forces on the Left. It was permanently at loggerheads with the Reich government. And it had no effective control over its own army leaders, who were playing their own game. It was little wonder in this context that it was buffeted in all directions. Incapable of tackling the problem of the radical Right because both will and power were ultimately lacking to do so, it allowed the Hitler movement the space to recover from the temporary setback of 1 May.178

But above all, the lesson of 1 May was that Hitler was powerless without the support of the Reichswehr. In January, when the Party Rally had been initially banned, then allowed to go ahead, Lossow’s permission had given Hitler the chance to escape the blow to his prestige. Now, on 1 May, Lossow’s refusal had prevented Hitler’s planned propaganda triumph. Deprived of his lifeblood – regular outlets for his propaganda – the main base of Hitler’s effectiveness would have been undermined. But the Bavarian Reichswehr was to remain largely an independent variable in the equation of Bavarian politics in the latter part of 1923. And the part accommodating, part vacillating attitude of the Bavarian authorities to the radical Right, driven by fierce anti-socialism linked to its antagonism towards Berlin, ensured that the momentum of Hitler’s movement was not seriously checked by the May Day events.179 Hitler could, in fact, have been taken out of circulation altogether for up to two years, had charges of breach of the peace, arising from the May Day incidents, been pressed. But the Bavarian Justice Minister Franz Gürtner saw to it that the inquiries never came to formal charges – after Hitler had threatened to reveal details of Reichswehr complicity in the training and arming of the paramilitaries in preparation for a war against France – and the matter was quietly dropped.180

For his part, Hitler continued unabated his relentless agitation against the ‘November criminals’ during the summer of 1923. The fierce animosity towards Berlin, now as before providing a bond between the otherwise competing sections of the Right, ensured that his message of hatred and revenge towards internal as well as external enemies would not be short of an audience.181 He alone remained able to fill the cavernous Circus Krone. Between May and the beginning of August he addressed five overfilled meetings there, and also spoke at another ten party meetings elsewhere in Bavaria.182 Relations with the Bavarian authorities, for all their tolerance towards the NSDAP, remained tense. Unlike the leaders of some of the paramilitary organizations, Hitler refused to let the SA serve as auxiliary police. That would have been to compromise his freedom of action towards the Bavarian state.183 At the Deutsches Turnfest (Rally of German Gymnastic Organizations) in Munich on 14 July, it came to violent clashes between the SA and the police as the Nazi formations, leaving the meeting at the Circus Krone, disobeyed police orders prohibiting the display of party banners.184 Such confrontations – and rumours started by Nazi leaders themselves of alleged assassination threats against Hitler185 – certainly served their purpose of keeping the NSDAP and its leader in the public eye. But Hitler was aware that agitation without action could not be sustained indefinitely. Outside observers were of the same opinion. ‘A party so attuned to activism to which so many adventurers belong, must lose appeal if it does not come to action within a certain time,’ reported the Württemberg ambassador in Munich on 30 August 1923.186 But Hitler could not act alone. He needed most of all the support of the Reichswehr. But he also needed the cooperation of the other paramilitary organizations. And in the realm of paramilitary politics, he was not a free agent. Certainly, new members continued to pour into the S A during the summer.187But after the embarrassment of 1 May, Hitler was for some time less prominent, even retreating at the end of May for a while to stay with Dietrich Eckart in a small hotel at Berchtesgaden.188 Among the members of the various branches of the ‘patriotic associations’, Ludendorff, not Hitler, was regarded as the symbol of the ‘national struggle’. Hitler was in this forum only one of a number of spokesmen. In the case of disagreement, he too had to bow to Ludendorff’s superiority.189

The former World War hero took centre stage at the Deutscher Tag (German Day) in Nuremberg on 1–2 September 1923, a massive rally – the police reckoned 100,000 were present – of nationalist paramilitary forces and veterans’ associations scheduled to coincide with the anniversary of the German victory over France at the battle of Sedan in 1870.190 Along with the Reichsflagge, the National Socialists were particularly well represented.191 The enormous propaganda spectacular enabled Hitler, the most effective of the speakers, to repair the damage his reputation had suffered in May. At the two-hour march-past of the formations, he stood together with General Ludendorff, Prinz Ludwig Ferdinand of Bavaria, and the military head of the ‘patriotic associations’, Oberstleutnant Kriebel, on the podium.192

What came out of the rally was the uniting of the NSDAP, the Bund Oberland, and the Reichsflagge in the newly formed Deutscher Kampfbund (German Combat League). While Kriebel took over the military leadership, Hitler’s man Scheubner-Richter was made business manager.193 Three weeks later, thanks to Röhm’s machinations, Hitler was given, with the agreement of the heads of the other paramilitary organizations, the ‘political leadership’ of the Kampfbund.194

What this meant in practice was not altogether clear. Hitler was no dictator in the umbrella organization. And so far as there were specific notions about a future dictator in the ‘coming Germany’, that position was envisaged as Ludendorff’s.195 For Hitler, ‘political leadership’ seems to have indicated the subordination of paramilitary politics to the building of a revolutionary mass movement through nationalist propaganda and agitation. But for the leaders of the formations, the ‘primacy of the soldier’ – the professionals like Röhm and Kriebel – was what still counted. Hitler was seen as a type of ‘political instructor’.196 He could whip up the feelings of the masses like no one else. But beyond that he had no clear idea of the mechanics of attaining power. Cooler heads were needed for that. As an ‘Action Programme’ of the Kampfbund drawn up by Scheubner-Richter on 24 September made plain, the ‘national revolution’ in Bavaria had to follow, not precede, the winning over of the army and police, the forces that sustained the power of the state. Scheubner-Richter concluded that it was necessary to take over the police in a formally legal fashion by placing Kampfbund leaders in charge of the Bavarian Ministry of the Interior and the Munich police.197 Hitler, like his partners in the Kampfbund, knew that an attempt at a putsch in the teeth of opposition from the forces of the military and police in Bavaria stood little chance of success.198 But for the time being his approach, as ever, was to go on a frontal propaganda offensive against the Bavarian government. His position within the Kampfbund now ensured that the pressure to act – even without a clear strategy for the practical steps needed to gain control of the state – would not relent.


Crisis was Hitler’s oxygen. He needed it to survive. And the deteriorating conditions in Germany (with their distinctive flavour in Bavaria) as summer turned to autumn, and the currency collapsed totally under the impact of the ‘passive resistance’ policy, guaranteed an increasing appeal for Hitler’s brand of agitation. By the time he took over the political leadership of the Kampfbund, Germany’s searing crisis was heading for its denouement.

By 13 August, when the leader of the DVP Gustav Stresemann – former ardent monarchist and wartime annexationist turned pragmatic Republican – replaced Cuno as Reich Chancellor, taking over the Foreign Ministry at the same time – it was obvious that passive resistance by the shaky Republic had to be ended. It was an inevitable capitulation to the French. The country was bankrupt, its currency ruined. Inflation had gone into a dizzy tailspin. Where there had been 4.20 Marks to the dollar on the eve of the First World War, there were 17,972 Marks in January 1923, 4,620,455 Marks in August, 98,860,000 Marks in September, 25,260,280,000 in October, and a barely credible 4,200,000 million Marks by 15 November. By mid-September, a kilo of butter was costing 168 million Marks. For Nazi Party members, buying the Völkischer Beobachter on the day of the putsch cost 5,000 million Marks.199

Speculators and profiteers thrived. But the material consequences of the hyper-inflation for ordinary people were devastating, the psychological effects incalculable. Savings of a lifetime were wiped out within hours. Insurance policies were not worth the paper they were written on. Those with pensions and fixed incomes saw their only source of support dissolve into worthlessness. Workers were initially less badly hit. Employers, eager to prevent social unrest, agreed with trade unions to index wages to living costs. Even so, it was little wonder that the massive discontent brought sharp political radicalization on the Left as well as on the Right. Communist-inspired strikes rocked the country in the summer. The entry of the Social Democrats into the Stresemann ‘grand coalition’ had a temporary calming effect on the working class, which remained despite the radicalization for the most part loyal to the SPD. But for nationalists, not least in Bavaria, this was seen as another provocation. On the Left, overestimating their strength and potential, the Communists planned revolutionary uprisings in Thuringia and Saxony after they had quite legally entered the governments of these states. In Hamburg, where the local party was thirsting for action and keen to become the centre of the German revolution, a short-lived rising – manifesting itself mainly in attacks on police stations – did actually take place between 23 and 26 October. It ended bloodily: twenty-four Communists and seventeen policemen were left its victims.200 In central Germany, the Reich government moved swiftly. By the end of October, any danger of Communist insurgency had been suppressed by the Reichswehr, sent in by the Reich government with an alacrity not shown against the extreme Right.201 The Thuringian government yielded; the Communist ministers withdrew from government. In Saxony, where the state government refused to disband the paramilitary units that had been set up, a show of force was needed. Twenty-three persons were left dead and thirty-one injured in one Saxon town when troops opened fire on demonstrators. There was shooting in a number of other towns. The elected government was deposed, allegedly at gunpoint.202 The proclaimed threat from the Left had fizzled out at the first show of government force. The failure of the KPD’s planned ‘German October’ did not, however, prevent the extreme Right, especially in Bavaria, continuing to use the ‘red threat’ in Middle Germany as a pretext for schemes to march on Berlin.

Bavaria’s immediate response to the ending of passive resistance on 26 September was to proclaim a state of emergency and make Gustav Ritter von Kahr General State Commissar with near-dictatorial powers. Knilling hoped to take the wind out of Hitler’s sails by putting the so-called Bavarian strong man Kahr in charge.203 The reaction of the NSDAP indicated that the party felt Kahr’s appointment to have been in reality a blow to its hopes of seizing power.204 The Reich responded with the declaration of a general state of emergency and the granting of emergency powers to the Reichswehr. One of Kahr’s first acts was to ban – amid renewed putsch rumours – the fourteen meetings which the NSDAP had planned for the evening of 27 September. Hitler was in a frenzy of rage.205 He felt bypassed by the manoeuvre to bring in Kahr, and certain that the head of the Bavarian state was not the man to lead a national revolution. Alongside attacks on the Reich government for betraying the national resistance – a contrary, though more popular, line to that he had taken earlier in the year towards the policy of passive resistance – Hitler now turned his fire on Kahr.206

The weeks following Kahr’s appointment were filled with plot, intrigue, and tension which mounted to fever-pitch. The mood of the people, according to police reports, was one of expectancy. Conditions were appalling in Bavaria, as in the rest of the country. ‘Unemployment and hunger stand like threatening ghosts at many doors,’ ran a report from Swabia in the second half of August.207 A report from Franconia indicated the level of distress there: black bread cost 1,000 million Marks a pound; unemployment was rapidly rising; industry had no orders; large numbers of people were unable to feed themselves; the government could not even pay its own employees.208 It was reported from Upper Bavaria that the mood was comparable with that of November 1918 and April 1919.209 Growing hatred of foreigners, profiteers and those in government was noted in the same region.210 The Munich police registered a worsening mood by September, looking for an outlet in some sort of action. Political meetings were, however, not well attended because of the high entry charges and the price of beer. Only the Nazis could continue to fill the beerhalls.211 As rumours of a forthcoming putsch continued to circulate, there was a feeling that something would have to happen soon.212

Hitler was under pressure to act. The leader of the Munich SA regiment, Wilhelm Brückner, told him: ‘The day is coming when I can no longer hold my people. If nothing happens now the men will sneak away.’213 Scheubner-Richter said much the same: ‘In order to keep the men together, one must finally undertake something. Otherwise the people will become Left radicals.’214 Hitler himself used almost the identical argument with head of the Landespolizei Colonel Hans Ritter von Seißer at the beginning of November: ‘Economic pressures drive our people so that we must either act or our followers will swing to the Communists.’215 He argued in similar fashion retrospectively, days after the putsch’s failure, during his first interrogation in Landsberg: ‘The Kampfbund people had pressed. They could not have been held back any longer. They had been given prospect of action for so long, and been trained for so long, that finally they had wanted to see something really tangible… There was also no more money. People had become discontented. There would have been the danger of the Kampfbund falling apart.’216 Hitler’s instincts were in any case to force the issue as soon as possible. The favourable circumstances of the comprehensive state crisis could not last indefinitely. He was determined not to be outflanked by Kahr. And his own prestige would wane if nothing was attempted and enthusiasm dissipated, or if the movement were faced down again as it had been on 1 May.

However, the cards were not in his hands. Kahr and the two other members of the triumvirate which was effectively ruling Bavaria (State Police chief Seißer and Reichswehr commander Lossow) had their own agenda, which differed in significant detail from that of the Kampfbund leadership. In extensive negotiations with north German contacts throughout October, the triumvirate was looking to install a nationalist dictatorship in Berlin based on a directorate, with or without Kahr as a member but certainly without the inclusion of Ludendorff or Hitler, and resting on the support of the Reichswehr. The Kampfbund leadership, on the other hand, wanted a directorate in Munich, centring on Ludendorff and Hitler, certainly without Kahr, which would take Berlin by force. And while Lossow took it for granted that any move against the Berlin government would be carried out by the military, the Kampfbund presumed that it would be a paramilitary operation with Reichswehr backing. If need be, declared the Kampfbund military leader, Oberstleutnant Kriebel, the Kampfbund would even resist any attempts by the Bavarian government to use armed force against the ‘patriotic associations’. Hitler did his best to win over Lossow and Seißer, subjecting the latter on 24 October to a four-hour lecture on his aims. Neither was persuaded to throw in his lot with the Kampfbund, though the position of Lossow – with chief responsibility for order in Bavaria – was ambiguous and wavering.217

At a meeting he called of paramilitary leaders on 24 October, Lossow spoke – presumably with Mussolini’s ‘March on Rome’ in mind – in favour of a march on Berlin and the proclamation of a national dictatorship.218 But actually, both he and Seißer temporized – offering token and conditional support to the Kampfbund, though in reality reserving their position.219 By the end of October, the stand-off between the triumvirate and the Kampfbund was much as it had been at the beginning of the month.220 But the atmosphere was even more fevered. The Bavarian authorities regarded the dangers of a putsch by Hitler as particularly great, and feared that disillusioned supporters of Kahr would swing over to him, that he would take over the government in Munich, and would immediately set out on his march on Berlin.221 The authorities were not over-reacting. There were indications that the Kampfbund intended to act on 4 November, the day when Munich’s war memorial would be dedicated before civic and military dignitaries.222However, if such plans were seriously envisaged, they were rapidly called off.223

At the beginning of November, Seißer was sent to Berlin to conduct negotiations on behalf of the triumvirate with a number of important contacts, most vitally with Seeckt. The Reichswehr chief made plain at the meeting on 3 November that he would not move against the legal government in Berlin.224 With that, any plans of the triumvirate were effectively scuppered. At a crucial meeting in Munich three days later with the heads of the ‘patriotic associations’, including Kriebel of the Kampfbund, Kahr warned the ‘patriotic associations’ – by which he meant the Kampfbund – against independent action. Any attempt to impose a national government in Berlin had to be unified and follow prepared plans. Lossow stated he would go along with a rightist dictatorship if the chances of success were 51 per cent, but would have no truck with an ill-devised putsch. Seißer also underlined his support for Kahr and his readiness to put down a putsch by force.225 It was plain that the triumvirate was not prepared to act against Berlin.

Lossow later claimed he told Hitler to wait two to three weeks until the other defence district commanders could be won over. Then the coup would be undertaken.226 But Hitler was now faced with the thread slipping through his fingers. He was not prepared to wait any longer and risk losing the initiative. On the evening of 6 November, in direct response to the meeting addressed by Kahr (which he had not attended), Hitler met Kriebel (military head of the Kampfbund) and Dr Friedrich Weber (head of Bund Oberland), to discuss an attempt to persuade Kahr to reverse the opposition to the Kampfbund which he had shown since the beginning of November. Weber was commissioned to ask Ludendorff to arrange a meeting between Hitler and Kahr. But on 7 November, Kahr refused to meet Hitler either the following day, or after the meeting on 8 November in the Bürgerbräukeller which the General State Commissar would address.227 It was plain, now as before, that a putsch would only be successful with the support of police and army. But whatever the outcome of the intended deliberations with Kahr, Hitler was determined to delay no longer.

At another meeting on the evening of 6 November with Scheubner-Richter, Theodor von der Pfordten (a member of the supreme court in Bavaria and shadowy figure in pre-putsch Nazi circles), and probably other advisers (though this is not certain), he decided to act – in the hope more than the certainty of forcing the triumvirate to support the coup.228 The decision to strike was confirmed the next day, 7 November, at a meeting of Kampfbund leaders. Ludendorff later denied being present at the meeting, but apart from the Kampfbund leadership attending the meeting – Hitler, Weber, Kriebel, Scheubner-Richter and Göring – he was the only person fully initiated into what was to happen.229 The number of people in the know was to be kept, at Hitler’s insistence, to an absolute minimum. Plans were laid down for the action. Priority was given to the seizure of communications and takeover of police stations and town halls in the major cities of Bavaria. Communist, socialist, and trade union leaders were to be arrested.230 Kriebel argued for the night of 10–11 November. Members of the government would be arrested in their beds, and the triumvirate forced to take up the offices foreseen for them in the national government.231 The others rejected the suggestion because, it seems, of the difficulty of ensuring the arrest of all members of the government. Instead, after a good deal of discussion, Hitler’s alternative plan was adopted. It was decided that the strike would be carried out on the following day, 8 November, when all the prominent figures in Munich would be assembled in the Bürgerbräukeller to hear an address from Kahr on the fifth anniversary of the November Revolution, fiercely denouncing Marxism. The meeting, arranged at short notice, was seen by the Kampfbund leadership as a threat, all the more so in the light of Kahr’s refusal to meet Hitler before it took place. At the very least the meeting was seen as an attempt to strengthen Kahr’s position and weaken the power of the Kampfbund. Whether they believed that Kahr intended to seal the breach with the nationalists by proclaiming the restoration of the Bavarian monarchy is uncertain. They were probably more concerned about the possibility of Kahr instigating the ‘action’ against Berlin without the Kampfbund’s involvement – all the more since Hitler was aware of Lossow’s comment on 24 October, that the ‘march on Berlin’ to erect a national dictatorship would take place at the latest within fourteen days.232 At any rate, Hitler felt his hand forced by Kahr’s meeting. If the Kampfbund were to lead the ‘national revolution’, there was nothing for it but to act on its own initiative immediately.233 Much later, Hitler stated: ‘Our opponents intended to proclaim a Bavarian revolution around the 12th of November… I took the decision to strike four days earlier.’234

Late on the evening of 7 November, Hitler discussed the plans with his SA leaders, telling his bodyguard, Ulrich Graf, as he left the meeting, ‘tomorrow at 8 o’clock it’s happening’.235 He returned to his apartment in Thierschstraße around 1a.m. Some eleven hours later, wearing his long trenchcoat and carrying his dog-whip, he was in excited mood in Rosenberg’s office, looking for Göring. Hanfstaengl was there with Rosenberg, discussing the next edition of the Völkischer Beobachter. Hitler told them ‘the moment for action has arrived’, swore them to secrecy, and ordered them to be at his side that evening in the Bürgerbräukeller. They were to bring pistols.236 Heß had been told earlier that morning what was planned. Pöhner, too, had been put in the picture.237 Other Hitler intimates such as Hoffmann were left in the dark.238 Drexler, the NSDAP’s founder and honorary chairman, was actually on his way to Freising in the early evening of 8 November (where he thought he was appearing on the same speakers’ platform as Hitler), when he bumped into Amann and Esser and was told that he did not need bother going to Freising; the meeting had been cancelled.239

Kahr had been reading out his prepared speech to the 3,000 or so packed into the Bürgerbräukeller for around half an hour when, around 8.30p.m., there was a disturbance at the entrance. Kahr broke off his speech. A body of men in steel helmets appeared. Hitler’s stormtroopers had arrived. A heavy machine-gun was pushed into the hall.240 People were standing on their seats trying to see what was happening as Hitler advanced through the hall, accompanied by two armed bodyguards, their pistols pointing at the ceiling. Hitler stood on a chair but, unable to make himself heard in the tumult, took out his Browning pistol and fired a shot through the ceiling.241 He then announced that the national revolution had broken out, and that the hall was surrounded by 600 armed men. If there was trouble, he said, he would bring a machine-gun into the gallery.242 The Bavarian government was deposed; a provisional Reich government would be formed. It was by this time around 8.45p.m. Hitler requested – though it was really an order – Kahr, Lossow, and Seißer to accompany him into the adjoining room. He guaranteed their safety. After some hesitation, they complied.243 There was bedlam in the hall, but eventually Göring managed to make himself heard. He said the action was directed neither at Kahr nor at the army and police. People should stay calm and remain in their places. ‘You’ve got your beer,’ he added.244 This quietened things somewhat, but most were still critical of what they were comparing with the theatricals that might happen in Latin American countries.

In the adjoining room, Hitler announced, waving his pistol about, that no one would leave without his permission. He declared the formation of a new Reich government, headed by himself. Ludendorff was to be in charge of the national army, Lossow would be Reichswehr Minister, Seißer Police Minister, Kahr himself would be head of the Bavarian state (Landesverweser), and Pöhner Minister President with dictatorial powers in Bavaria. He apologized for having to force the pace, but it had to be done: he had had to enable the triumvirate to act. If things went wrong, he had four bullets in his pistol – three for his collaborators, the last for himself.245

Hitler returned to the hall after about ten minutes amid renewed tumult. He repeated Göring’s assurances that the action was not directed at the police and Reichswehr, but ‘solely at the Berlin Jew government and the November criminals of 1918’. He put forward his proposals for the new governments in Berlin and Munich, now mentioning Ludendorff as ‘leader, and chief with dictatorial power, of the German national army’.246 He told the crowded hall that matters were taking longer than he had earlier predicted. ‘Outside are Kahr, Lossow, and Seißer,’ he declared. ‘They are struggling hard to reach a decision. May I say to them that you will stand behind them?’ As the crowd bellowed back its approval, Hitler, with his pronounced sense of the theatrical, announced in emotional terms: ‘I can say this to you: Either the German revolution begins tonight or we will all be dead by dawn!’247 By the time he had finished his short address – a ‘rhetorical masterpiece’ in the opinion of Karl Alexander von Müller, an eye-witness – the mood in the hall had swung completely in his favour.248

About an hour had passed since Hitler’s initial entry into the hall before he and Ludendorff (who had meanwhile arrived, dressed in full uniform of the Imperial Army), together with the Bavarian ruling triumvirate, returned to the podium. Kahr, calm, face like a mask, spoke first, announcing to tumultuous applause that he had agreed to serve Bavaria as regent for the monarchy.249 Hitler, with a euphoric expression resembling childlike delight, declared that he would direct the policy of the new Reich government, and warmly clasped Kahr’s hand. Ludendorff, deadly earnest, spoke next, mentioning his surprise at the whole business. Lossow, wearing a somewhat impenetrable expression, and Seißer, the most agitated of the group, were pressed by Hitler into speaking. Pöhner finally promised cooperation with Kahr. Hitler shook hands once more with the whole ensemble.250 He was the undoubted star of the show. It appeared to be his night.

From this point, however, things went badly wrong. The hurried improvisation of the planning, the hectic rush to prepare at only a day’s notice, that had followed Hitler’s impatient insistence that the putsch should be advanced to the evening of the Bürgerbräukeller meeting, now took its toll, determining the shambolic course of the night’s events. Before the hall was cleared, those members of the government present in the Bürgerbräukeller tamely surrendered to arrest when Heß read out a list of names given to him by Hitler. News of a successful coup was relayed to the meeting at the Löwenbräukeller on the other side of the city centre, where Kampfbund troops were being addressed by Esser and Röhm. There was delirium in the hall. But outside, things were running less smoothly. Röhm did manage to take over the Reichswehr headquarters, though amazingly failed to take over the telephone switchboard, allowing Lossow to order the transport to Munich of loyalist troops in nearby towns and cities. Frick and Pöhner were also initially successful in taking control at police headquarters. Elsewhere, the situation was deteriorating rapidly. In a night of chaos, the putschists failed dismally, largely owing to their own disorganization, to take control of barracks and government buildings.251 The early and partial successes were for the most part rapidly overturned. Neither the army nor the state police joined forces with the putschists.

Back at the Bürgerbräukeller, Hitler, too, was making his first mistake of the evening. Hearing reports of difficulties the putschists were encountering at the Engineers’ Barracks, he decided to go there himself in what proved a vain attempt to intervene. Ludendorff was left in charge at the Bürgerbräukeller and, believing the word of officers and gentlemen, promptly let Kahr, Lossow, and Seißer depart. They were then free to renege on the promises extracted from them under duress by Hitler.252

A visitor to Munich staying in a city centre hotel that night recalled disturbances into the small hours as bands of young men in high spirits marched through the streets, convinced that the Bavarian revolution had been successful.253 Placards were put up proclaiming Hitler as Reich Chancellor – the first time this designation had been attached to him.254 Surprisingly, and a reflection of the haphazard and chaotic organization of the putsch, Hitler delayed putting out this proclamation of the ‘national dictatorship’ until 9 November.255 Some time before midnight, he placed Julius Streicher, the Jew-baiting head of the NSDAP in Franconia, in charge of the party’s organization and propaganda – presumably because he was expecting his hands to be more than full if developments went according to plan.256 The reality was that by midnight, even if the putschist leaders had not by then fully realized it themselves, the ill-fated attempt to take control of the state had failed.

By late evening, Kahr, Lossow and Seißer were in positions to ensure the state authorities that they repudiated the putsch. All German radio stations were informed of this by Lossow at 2.55a.m.257 By the early hours, it was becoming clear to the putschists themselves that the triumvirate and – far more importantly – the Reichswehr and state police opposed the coup.258 At 5a.m. Hitler was still giving assurances that he was determined to fight and die for the cause – a sign that by this time at the latest he, too, had lost confidence in the success of the putsch.259 Shortly before, on the way back to the Bürgerbräukeller from the Wehrkreiskommando, he had in fact already told Ulrich Graf that ‘it’s looking very serious for us’.260 From what he later said, it was on returning to find that Ludendorff had let Kahr, Lossow, and Seißer go that he had immediately had the feeling that the cause was lost.261 The mood in the beerhall itself was dispirited. The pall of stale tobacco smoke hung over the hundreds who listlessly lounged around the tables or stretched out wearily on chairs they had dragged together.262 The mountains of bread rolls and gallons of beer which contributed in good measure to the bill of 11,347,000 Marks eventually sent to the Nazi Party for the evening’s entertainment had by now largely been consumed.263 And still there were no orders. No one knew what was happening.

The putschist leaders were themselves by this time unclear what to do next. They sat around arguing, while the government forces regrouped. There was no fall-back position. Hitler was as clueless as the others. He was far from in control of the situation. Clutching wildly at straws, he even contemplated driving to Berchtesgaden to win over Prinz Rupprecht, known to be hostile to the putschists.264 Kriebel argued for armed resistance, organized from Rosenheim. Ludendorff said he was not prepared to see the affair end in the slush of a country road. Hitler, too, favoured armed resistance, but had few practical suggestions to offer, and was cut short in mid-peroration by Ludendorff. For hours, the putschist troops in the city received no orders from their leaders.265 As the bitterly cold morning dawned, depressed troops began to drift off from the Bürgerbräukeller.266Around 8a.m. Hitler sent some of his SA men to seize bundles of 50-billion Mark notes direct from the printing press to keep his troops paid.267 It was more or less the only practical action taken as the putsch started rapidly to crumble.

Only during the course of the morning did Hitler and Ludendorff come up with the idea of a demonstration march through the city. Ludendorff appararently made the initial suggestion.268 The aim was predictably confused and unclear. ‘In Munich, Nuremberg, Bayreuth, an immeasurable jubilation, an enormous enthusiasm would have broken out in the German Reich,’ Hitler later remarked. ‘And when the first division of the German national army had left the last square metre of Bavarian soil and stepped for the first time on to Thuringian land, we would have experienced the jubilation of the people there. People would have had to recognize that the German misery has an end, that redemption could only come about through a rising.’269 It amounted to a vague hope that the march would stir popular enthusiasm for the putsch, and that the army, faced with the fervour of the mobilized masses and the prospect of firing on the war-hero Ludendorff, would change its mind.270 The gathering acclaim of the masses and the support of the army would then pave the way for a triumphant march on Berlin.271 Such was the wild illusion – gesture politics born out of pessimism, depression, and despair. Reality did not take long to assert itself.

Around noon, the column of around 2,000 men – many of them, including Hitler, armed – set out from the Bürgerbräukeller. Pistols at the ready, they confronted a small police cordon on the Ludwigsbrücke and under threat swept it aside, headed through Isartor and up the Tal to Marienplatz, in the centre of the city, and decided then to march to the War Ministry. They gained encouragement from throngs of shouting and waving supporters on the pavements. Some thought they were witnessing the arrival of the new government.272 The putschists could not help but note, however, that many of the posters proclaiming the national revolution had already been ripped down or papered over with new directions from the ruling triumvirate. Earlier in the morning some bystanders had already started to make fun of the putsch. ‘Has your mummy given you permission to play with such dangerous things here on the street?’ one worker had asked, as Hans Frank’s unit had taken up position with machine-guns not far from the Bürgerbräukeller.273 The participants on the march knew the cause was lost. One of them remarked that it was like a funeral procession.274

At the top of the Residenzstraße, as it approaches Odeonsplatz, the marchers, accompanied by the occasional ‘Heil’ from the crowd and trying to keep up their spirits by singing the ‘Sturm-Lied’ (Storming Song) composed by Dietrich Eckart, encountered the second, and larger, police cordon. ‘Here they come. Heil Hitler!’ a bystander cried out.275 Then shots rang out. Who fired the first shot was never fully clarified, but the evidence points to it being one of the putschists.276 A furious gun-battle lasting almost half a minute followed. When the firing ceased, fourteen putschists and four policemen lay dead.277

The dead included one of the putsch architects, Erwin von Scheubner-Richter, who had been in the front line of the putsch leaders, linking arms with Hitler, just behind the standard-bearers. Had the bullet which killed Scheubner-Richter been a foot to the right, history would have taken a different course. As it was, Hitler either took instant evasive action, or was wrenched to the ground by Scheubner-Richter.278 In any event, he dislocated his left shoulder.279 Göring was among those injured, shot in the leg. He and a number of other leading putschists were able to escape over the Austrian border.280 Some, including Streicher, Frick, Pöhner, Amann and Röhm, were immediately arrested. Ludendorff, who had emerged from the shoot-out totally unscathed, gave himself up and was released on his officer’s word.281

Hitler himself was attended to by Dr Walter Schultze, chief of the Munich SA medical corps, pushed into his car, stationed nearby, and driven at speed from the scene of the action. He ended up at Hanfstaengl’s home in Uffing, near the Staffelsee, south of Munich, where the police, on the evening of 11 November, found and arrested him.282 While at Hanfstaengl’s – Putzi himself had taken flight to Austria – he composed the first of his ‘political testaments’, placing the party chairmanship in Rosenberg’s hands, with Amann as his deputy.283 Hitler, according to Hanfstaengl’s later account, based on his wife’s testimony, was desolate on arrival in Uffing.284 But later stories that he had to be restrained from suicide have no firm backing.285 He was depressed but calm, dressed in a white nightgown, his injured left arm in a sling, when the police arrived to escort him to prison in the old fortress at Landsberg am Lech, a picturesque little town some forty miles west of Munich. Thirty-nine guards were on hand to greet him in his new place of residence. Graf Arco, the killer of Kurt Eisner, the Bavarian premier murdered in February 1919, was evicted from his spacious Cell no.7 to make room for the new, high-ranking prisoner.286

In Munich and other parts of Bavaria, the putsch fizzled out as rapidly as it had started. With the sympathies of a good part of the population in Munich behind the putschists, there were initial demonstrations there and elsewhere against the ‘treachery’ of Kahr.287But the adventure was over. Hitler was finished. At least, he should have been. The American consular representative in Munich, Robert Murphy, presumed Hitler would serve his sentence then be deported from Germany.288 The author Stefan Zweig later remarked: ‘In this year 1923, the swastikas and stormtroops disappeared, and the name of Adolf Hitler fell back almost into oblivion. Nobody thought of him any longer as a possible in terms of power.’289


Like the high-point of a dangerous fever, the crisis had passed, then rapidly subsided. The following months brought currency stabilization with the introduction of the Rentenmark, regulation of the reparations issue through the Dawes Plan (named after the American banker Charles G. Dawes, head of the committee which established in 1924 a provisional framework for the phased repayment of reparations, commencing at a low level and linked to foreign loans for Germany), and the beginning of the political stabilization that marked the end of the post-war turbulence and was to last until the new economic shock-waves of the late 1920s. With Hitler in jail, the NSDAP banned, and the völkisch movement split into its component factions, the threat from the extreme Right lost its immediate potency.

Sympathies with the radical Right by no means disappeared. With 33 per cent of the votes in Munich, the Völkischer Block (the largest grouping in the now fractured völkisch movement) was the strongest party in the city at the Landtag elections on 6 April 1924, gaining more votes than both the Socialists and Communists put together.290 At the Reichstag election on 4 May, the result was little different. The Völkischer Block won 28.5 per cent of the vote in Munich, 17 per cent overall in the electoral region of Upper Bavaria and Swabia, and 20.8 per cent in Franconia.291 But the bubble had burst. As Germany recovered and the Right remained in disarray, voters deserted the völkisch movement. By the second Reichstag elections of 1924, a fortnight before Hitler’s release from Landsberg, the vote for the Völkischer Block had dwindled to residual limits of 7.5 per cent in Franconia, 4.8 per cent in Upper Bavaria/Swabia, and 3.0 per cent in Lower Bavaria (compared with 10.2 per cent there seven months earlier).292

Bavaria, for all its continuing ingrained oddities, was no longer the boiling cauldron of radical Right insurgency it had been between 1920 and 1923. The paramilitary organizations had had their teeth drawn in the confrontation with the legal forces of the state. Without the support of the army, they were shown to be little more than a paper tiger. In the aftermath of the putsch, the Kampfbund organizations were dissolved, and the ‘patriotic associations’ in general had their weaponry confiscated, a ban imposed on their military exercises, and their activities greatly curtailed.293 The triumvirate installed by the Bavarian government as a force on the Right to contain the wilder and even more extreme nationalist paramilitaries lost power and credibility through the putsch. Kahr, Lossow, and Seißer were all ousted by early 1924.294 With the General State Commissariat terminated, conventional cabinet government under a new Minister President, Dr Heinrich Held – the leading figure in the Catholic establishment party in Bavaria, the ΒVP – and with it a degree of calm, returned to Bavarian politics.

Even now, however, the forces which had given Hitler his entrée into politics and enabled him to develop into a key factor on the Bavarian Right contrived to save him when his ‘career’ ought to have been over. The ‘Hitler-Putsch’ was, as we have seen, by no means merely Hitler’s putsch. Hitler had provided the frenetic pressure for action without delay – a reflection of his ‘all-or-nothing’ temperament, but also of the need to prevent the dynamism of his movement ebbing away. The half-baked planning, dilettante improvisation, lack of care for detail all bore the imprint of Hitler’s characteristic impulse to act without clear thought for the consequences, and without a fall-back position. But Hitler’s influence on the undertaking of the putsch would not have been possible had the idea of a strike against Berlin not been kept alive within the Bavarian government and army leadership as well as among the different and competing factions of the paramilitary formations for months before the actual events of November 1923. Without the dogmatic anti-Berlin stance of the ruling groups in Bavaria, where shrill anti-democratic, anti-socialist, and anti-Prussian feeling combined to bracket together otherwise antagonistic forces to the general aim of counterrevolution, Hitler’s all-or-nothing gamble in the Bürgerbräukeller could never have occurred. The Bavarian Reichswehr had colluded massively in the training and preparation of the forces which had tried to take over the state. And important personages had been implicated in the putsch attempt. Whatever their subsequent defence of their actions, the hands of Kahr, Lossow, and Seißer were dirty, while the war-hero General Ludendorff had been the spiritual figurehead of the entire enterprise. There was every reason, therefore, in the trial of the putsch leaders held in Munich between 26 February and 27 March 1924 – the sentences were read out four days later, on 1 April – to let the spotlight fall completely on Hitler.295 He was only too glad to play the role assigned to him.

Hitler’s first reaction to his indictment had been very different to his later triumphalist performance in the Munich court. He had initially refused to say anything, and announced that he was going on hunger-strike. At this time, he plainly saw everything as lost. According to the prison psychologist – though speaking many years after the event – Hitler stated: ‘I’ve had enough. I’m finished. If I had a revolver, I would take it.’296 Drexler later claimed that he himself had dissuaded Hitler from his intention to commit suicide.297

By the time the trial opened, Hitler’s stance had changed diametrically. He was allowed to turn the court-room into a stage for his own propaganda, accepting full responsibility for what had happened, not merely justifying but glorifying his role in attempting to overthrow the Weimar state. This was in no small measure owing to his threats to expose the complicity in treasonable activity of Kahr, Lossow, and Seißer – and in particular the role of the Bavarian Reichswehr.

The way Hitler would exploit his trial could scarcely have come as a surprise to the Bavarian authorities. It was signalled as early as two days after his arrest, during his interrogation by Hans Ehard, a brilliant state attorney who, after 1945, became Minister President of Bavaria. At first, Hitler had refused all comment on the putsch attempt. Ehard had said that his silence might prolong his internment and that of his fellow-prisoners. Hitler had replied that there was more at stake for him than for the others. ‘It was a matter for him of justifying before history his action and his mission(sein Tun und seine Sendung); what the court’s position would be was a matter of indifference to him. He denied the court any right to pass judgement on him.’ He then issued a veiled threat. He would save his best trump cards to play in the court-room. And he would call numerous witnesses, summoning them only during the trial to prevent prior notification.

Ehard rapidly gave up the idea of taking an official statement. The typewriter that had been brought in was taken away. In five hours of patient questioning and listening to lengthy political speeches in reply, the subtle lawyer gradually prompted Hitler to open up to a degree, even if remaining cautious and reserved. When he spoke, Hitler added – acknowledging his major strength – he would find the right words, whereas he could not do so by writing it down. His responses to Ehard gave plain clues to the way he would behave before the court.

He denied that he had committed high treason, since ‘the crime of November 1918’ had not been expunged and the constitution based on this ‘crime’ could have no validity. But if the constitution were taken to have legal force, then acts such as the deposition of the Bavarian government of Hoffmann in 1920 or the creation in 1923 of the General State Commissariat of Kahr with near dictatorial powers ought also to be considered high treason. Ultimately, however, there was a natural right of a people, higher than the formal right of a constitution, to self-defence against the wishes of an incapable parliament.

Hitler now turned to the role played by Kahr, Lossow and Seißer in the putsch, and hinted strongly at damaging revelations. The triumvirate had, he claimed, willingly cooperated in ‘his’ high treason. He would prove that they had not been feigning consent in the Bürgerbräukeller, but had had the full intention of implementing the agreement reached, and had only broken the agreement through persuasion and, in part, compulsion once they had left the beerhall. He had foreseen the possibility of this, which is why he had given the order that they should not be permitted to leave. Ludendorff’s trust in an officer’s word, during his own temporary absence from the Bürgerbräukeller, had then seen them released – something he himself would never have allowed. This had dismayed him on his return to the beerhall, and he had in that moment had the feeling that the cause was lost. But the triumvirate had not only gone along with his action on the evening of 8 November. What they had agreed with him that evening had been prepared together with him for months. They had discussed at length the ‘march to Berlin’, down to points of fine detail. There was full agreement. They and he had wanted and worked for identical aims. ‘Hitler offers the prospect,’ noted Ehard, ‘of opening up the entire question of the “secret mobilization”’ – the support and training of the paramilitary forces by the Bavarian Reichswehr in preparation for the planned coup détat. 298

This was a telling point. The ruling forces in Bavaria did what they could to limit potential damage. The first priority was to make sure that the trial was held under Bavarian jurisdiction. In strict legality, the trial ought not to have taken place in Munich at all, but at the Reich Court in Leipzig. Hitler even initially favoured this, since he thought the Bavarian court would be biased in favour of the triumvirate. ‘In Leipzig,’ he told Ehard, ‘various gentlemen would enter the court-room perhaps still as witnesses, but would certainly leave it as prisoners. In Munich that will naturally not happen.’299 However, the Reich government gave way to pressure from the Bavarian government. The trial was set for the People’s Court in Munich.300 And Hitler’s early apprehension turned out to be entirely misconceived.

Kahr had hoped to avoid any trial, or at least have no more than a perfunctory one where the indicted would plead guilty but claim mitigating grounds of patriotism. Since some at least of the putschists would not agree, this course of action had to be dropped. But it seems highly probable that the accused were offered leniency for such a proposal even to have been considered.301 Hitler had, at any rate, become confident about the outcome. He still held a trump card in his hand. When Hanfstaengl visited him in his cell in the courthouse, during the trial, he showed no fear of the verdict. ‘What can they do to me?’ he asked. ‘I only need to come out with a bit more, especially about Lossow, and there’s the big scandal. Those in the know are well aware of that.’302 This, and the attitude of the presiding judge and his fellow judges, explains Hitler’s self-confident appearance at the trial.

Among those indicted alongside Hitler were Ludendorff, Pöhner, Frick, Weber (of Bund Oberland), Röhm and Kriebel. But the indictment itself was emphatic that ‘Hitler was the soul of the entire enterprise’.303 Judge Neithardt, the president of the court, had reputedly stated before the trial that Ludendorff – ‘still the only plus’ that Germany possessed – would be acquitted. The judge replaced a damaging record of Ludendoff’s first interrogation by one which indicated his ignorance about the putsch preparations.304Hitler, meanwhile, was given the freedom of the court-room. One journalist attending the trial described it as a ‘political carnival’. He compared the deference shown to the defendants with the brusque way those arraigned for their actions in the Räterepublik had been handled. He heard one of the judges, after Hitler’s first speech, remark: ‘What a tremendous chap, this Hitler!’ Hitler was allowed to appear in his suit, not prison garb, sporting his Iron Cross, First Class. Ludendorff, not held in prison, arrived in a luxury limousine.305 Dr Weber, though under arrest, was allowed to take a Sunday afternoon walk round Munich. The extraordinary bias of the presiding judge was later most severely criticized both in Berlin and by the Bavarian government, irritated at the way attacks on the Reichswehr and state police had been allowed without contradiction. Judge Neithardt was informed in no uncertain terms during the trial of the ‘embarrassing impression’ left by allowing Hitler to speak for four hours. His only response was that it was impossible to interrupt his torrent of words. Hitler was also allowed the freedom to interrogate witnesses – above all Kahr, Lossow, and Seißer – at length, frequently deviating into politically loaded statements.306

When the verdicts were read out, on 1 April 1924, Ludendorff was duly acquitted – which he took as an insult. Hitler, along with Weber, Kriebel and Pöhner, was sentenced to a mere five years’ imprisonment for high treason (less the four months and two weeks he had already been in custody), and a fine of 200 Gold Marks (or a further twenty days’ imprisonment). The others indicted received even milder sentences.307 The lay judges, as Hitler later hinted, had only been prepared to accept a verdict of ‘guilty’ on condition that he received the mildest sentence, with the prospect of early release.308 The court explained why it rejected the deportation of Hitler under the terms of the ‘Protection of the Republic Act’: ‘Hitler is a German-Austrian. He considers himself to be a German. In the opinion of the court, the meaning and intention of the terms of section 9, para II of the Law for the Protection of the Republic cannot apply to a man who thinks and feels as German as Hitler, who voluntarily served for four and a half years in the German army at war, who attained high military honours through outstanding bravery in the face of the enemy, was wounded, suffered other damage to his health, and was released from the military into the control of the District Command Munich I.’309

Even on the conservative Right in Bavaria, the conduct of the trial and sentences prompted amazement and disgust.310 In legal terms, the sentence was nothing short of scandalous. No mention was made in the verdict of the four policemen shot by the putschists; the robbery of 14,605 billion paper Marks (the equivalent of around 28,000 Gold Marks) was entirely played down; the destruction of the offices of the SPD newspaper Münchener Post and the taking of a number of Social Democratic city councillors as hostages were not blamed on Hitler; and no word was made of the text of a new constitution, found in the pocket of the dead putschist von der Pfordten.311 Nor did the judge’s reasons for the sentence make any reference to the fact that Hitler was still technically within the probationary period for good behaviour imposed on him in the sentence for breach of the peace in January 1922. Legally, he was not eligible for any further probation.312

The judge in that first Hitler trial was the same person as the judge presiding over his trial for high treason in 1924: the nationalist sympathizer Georg Neithardt.313

Hitler returned to Landsberg to begin his light sentence in conditions more akin to those of a hotel than a penitentiary. The windows of his large, comfortably furnished room on the first floor afforded an expansive view over the attractive countryside. Dressed in lederhosen, he could relax with a newspaper in an easy wickerchair, his back to a laurel wreath provided by admirers, or sit at a large desk sifting through the mounds of correspondence he received. He was treated with great respect by his jailers, some of whom secretly greeted him with ‘Heil Hitler’, and accorded every possible privilege. Gifts, flowers, letters of support, encomiums of praise, all poured in. He received more visitors than he could cope with – over 500 of them before he eventually felt compelled to restrict access. Around forty fellow-prisoners, some of them volunteer internees, able to enjoy almost all the comforts of normal daily life, fawned on him.314 He read of the demonstration on 23 April, to celebrate his thirty-fifth birthday three days earlier, of 3,000 National Socialists, former front soldiers, and supporters of the völkisch movement in the Bürgerbräukeller ‘in honour of the man who had lit the present flame of liberation and völkisch consciousness in the German people’.315 Under the impact of the star-status that the trial had brought him, and the Führer cult that his supporters had begun to form around him, he began to reflect on his political ideas, his ‘mission’, his ‘restart’ in politics once his short sentence was over, and pondered the lessons to be learnt from the putsch.

The débâcle at the Bürgerbräukeller and its denouement next day at the Feldherrnhalle taught Hitler once and for all that an attempt to seize power in the face of opposition from the armed forces was doomed. He felt justified in his belief that propaganda and mass mobilization, not paramilitary putschism, would open the path to the ‘national revolution’. Consequently, he distanced himself from Röhm’s attempts to revitalize in new guise the Kampfbund and to build a type of people’s militia.316 Ultimately, the different approaches, as well as power-ambitions, of Hitler and Röhm would lead to the murderous split in 1934. It would be going too far, however, to presume that Hitler had renounced the idea of a takeover of the state by force in favour of the ‘legal path’. Certainly, he subsequently had to profess a commitment to legality in order to involve himself in politics again. And later, electoral success appeared in any case to offer the best strategy to win power. But the putschist approach was never given up. It continued, as the lingering problems with the SA would indicate, to coexist alongside the proclaimed ‘legal’ way. But, Hitler was adamant, on any future occasion it could only be with, not against, the Reichswehr.

Hitler’s experience was to lead to the last, and not least, of the lessons he would draw from his ‘apprenticeship years’: that to be the ‘drummer’ was not enough; and that to be more than that meant he needed not only complete mastery in his own movement but, above all, greater freedom from external dependencies, from competing groupings on the Right, from paramilitary organizations he could not fully control, from the bourgeois politicians and army figures who had smoothed his political rise, used him, then dropped him when it suited them.317

The ambivalence about his intended role after the ‘national revolution’ was still present in his comments during his trial. He insisted that he saw Ludendorff as the ‘military leader of the coming Germany’ and ‘leader of the coming great showdown’. But he claimed that he himself was ‘the political leader of this young Germany’. The precise division of labour had, he said, not been determined.318 In his closing address to the court, Hitler returned to the leadership question – though still in somewhat vague and indeterminate fashion. He referred to Lossow’s remarks to the court that during discussions in spring 1923 he had thought Hitler had merely wanted ‘as propagandist and awakener (Weckrufer) to arouse the people’. ‘How petty do small men think,’ went on Hitler. He did not see the attainment of a ministerial post as worthy of a great man. What he wanted, he said, was to be the destroyer of Marxism. That was his task. ‘Not from modesty did I want at that time to be the drummer. That is the highest there is (das Höchste). The rest is unimportant (eine Kleinigkeit)’319 When it came to it, he had demanded two things: that he should be given the leadership of the political struggle; and that the organizational leadership should go to ‘the hero… who in the eyes of the entire young Germany is called to it’. Hitler hinted – though did not state explicitly – that this was to have been Ludendorff.320 On the other hand, in his address to Kampfbund leaders a fortnight before the putsch, he had seemed to envisage Ludendorff as no more than the reorganizer of the future national army.321 Then again, the proclamation put up during the putsch itself over Hitler’s name as Reich Chancellor appeared to indicate that the headship of government was the position he foresaw for himself, sharing dictatorial power with Ludendorff as head of state (Reichsverweser, or regent).322

Whatever the ambivalence, real or simply tactical, still present in Hitler’s remarks at the trial, it soon gave way to clarity about his self-image. For in Landsberg the realization dawned on Hitler: he was not the ‘drummer’ after all; he was the predestined Leader himself.

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