Last night, I found myself obsessively reading about Hitler’s beer hall putsch. So many journalists are calling Trump’s coup attempt stuff like “the beer belly putsch” etc., that I figure the back-story is probably more interesting.
Sure enough, it is. German (in particular, Bavarian) politics in the Weimar republic were complicated enough that I don’t think I can backfill enough to fully understand what was going on, short of getting a doctorate in the history of that time (which would entail a huge amount of self-study, anyway!) and I’m looking at it with a particular, highly slanted, view. I am also, as historians do, looking at the events through lens of my particular time, i.e.: last Wednesday’s storming of the capitol in Washington DC by armed insurrectionists who wanted to variously undo the 2020 election, maybe kill Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi, and definitely to flex their white supremacy.
I’m also moved to observe that it’s hard to make sense of the beer hall putsch just from the Wikipedia page about it and it makes me wonder how future historians will tackle the events of 2020, assuming there are future historians. What we see, right now, embroiled in it, is a swirling mix of agendas, misinformation, disinformation, and partial information. My dad (the real historian in the family) says that the history of a time cannot be written until all the bodies are buried, and I think I now understand what he means. We’ll probably not get to the facts about the degree to which the capitol police, FBI, DHS, and pentagon were complicit in the coup until revealing that information no longer has the power to affect anything. Right now, there are arrests being made for serious crimes, and the process of digging through the leadership’s computers and communications could take months. Building a big picture may take years. Understanding it all in the context of the collapse of the US republic into the First American Empire may take 150 years or so.How to describe the beer hall putsch? Simply: the Bavarians, at the time, were accustomed to dining and drinking beer in large halls, which also doubled as meeting venues where political speeches and caucuses were sometimes held. Adolph Hitler had become part of a nationalist political fringe that was spawning multiple movements in various directions, and attracted/attached to a mixed bag of radicals, anti-semites, and conspiracy theorists. They’re not usually called “conspiracy theorists”, that’s my designation, but they believed that the German loss in WWI was a result of being “stabbed in the back” by traitors and irresolute politicians who somehow managed to lose the war from behind the lines. History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes; Hitler decided that he had enough people around him who were prepared and resolved for violence, so he showed up with several hundred armed followers (most of whom stayed outside) on Nov 6, 1923 and surrounded the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich, where Gustav Von Kahr and several other Bavarian politicians were giving a speech. Hitler and about 14 of his men marched in and announced that a “national revolution” was taking place, then the politicians and onlookers were herded into a cluster under guns. Ultra-conservative hero of WW1, Erich Ludendorff, who approximately supported Hitler’s cause (but did not necessarily feel Hitler was the man of the hour) was called in, and he talked the Bavarian leaders into joining Hitler for a march on Berlin. This strategy was basically lifted from Mussolini’s October 1922 march on Rome, in which Italian fascists were able to produce a snowballing mass insurrection and take over Rome with about 25,000 blackshirts. In spite of the prime minister, Antonio Salandra’s wishes to declare Rome under siege and resist, king Victor Emmanuel III knuckled under and put Mussolini in charge. [wik] Hitler’s plan was, basically, to do the same thing: take over Munich, then march on Berlin, where he hoped to be able to exploit existing political divisions to seize power.
Divided political bases, mobs of armed fascists, and a militarized appeal to the losing side to stand up and take over. Fascist coalitions that were loosely-bound collections of disparate views, temporarily aligning to throw over the government. Sound familiar? There are some differences, which are crucial, that I will get to. Both Germany/Bavaria and to a greater degree Italy were hotbeds of political unrest, with various political factions struggling for power but unable to unify into a strong coalition until the fascists came marching through with a simple message of making
Italy Germany America great again. I also have to note that none of the fascists, Hitler, Mussolini, or Trump appeared to have an actual political plan – they just claimed that everything was broken and they were going to fix it. As we can see, none of those characters was a leader of vision; their strategy was to grab for power then stumble around wildly trying to wield it effectively. Ludendorff seems to have seen through Hitler pretty early on, but he died immediately after the beer hall putsch and his opinion suddenly no longer mattered. [I got that wrong. See comments.]
Hitler got distracted by other business and considered the putsch a success, then took some down-time to deal with party organizational issues, while the whole situation cooled down. That was when Ludendorff, who had experience with military politics – his initial claim to fame was pretty much single-handedly organizing the German victory at Liège [wik] through audacity – realized correctly that revolution is a momentum game, and organized a march on downtown Munich with 2,000-3,000 supporters. Meanwhile, the Munich state police had been called out and formed a cordon in the town square and, when the marchers showed up, they blasted them flat. Hitler was arrested and spent some time in prison,
blogging for Alex Jones’ Infowars site writing Mein Kampf.
That was the beer hall putsch, in brief form. It failed because Hitler did not yet understand momentum. He was no Marc Antony, Bonaparte, Mussolini, or Ludendorff at that stage of his career. All of those men showed resolve and were fearless when their time came, and all of those men could whip a crowd to a frenzy with glittery bullshit. To be fair, Marc Antony had Shakespeare doing his speech-writing, and Shakespeare wrote him a doozy.
Descriptions of the event convey the feeling I am describing – that history hinges on a moment, and some rhetoric. Karl Alexander von Müller was there: [famous trials]
Eventually, steel helmets came into sight. From this moment on, the view from my seat was rather obscured. People stood on chairs so that I didn’t see Hitler until he had come fairly near along the main gangway; just before he turned to the platform, I saw him emerge between two armed soldiers in steel helmets who carried pistols next to their heads, pointing at the ceiling. They turned towards the platform, Hitler climbed on to a chair on my left. The hall was still restless, and then Hitler made a sign to the man on his right, who fired a shot at the ceiling. Thereupon Hitler called out (I cannot recollect the exact order of his words): “The national revolution has broken out. The hall is surrounded.” Maybe he mentioned the exact number, I am not sure. He asked the gentlemen Kahr, Lossow, Seisser to come out and guaranteed their personal freedom. The gentlemen did not move. The General State Commissioner [Kahr] had stepped back and stood opposite Hitler, looking at him calmly. Then Hitler went towards the platform. What happened I could not see exactly; I heard him talk to the gentlemen and I heard the words: Everything would be over in ten minutes if the gentlemen would go out with him. To my surprise the three gentlemen went out with him immediately…
The general mood – I can of course only judge from my surroundings, but I think that this represented the general feeling in the hall – was still against the whole business. One heard: “Theatrical!” “South America!” “Mexico!” That was the prevailing mood. The change came only during Hitler’s second speech when he entered about ten minutes later, went to the platform and made a short speech. It was a rhetorical masterpiece. In fact, in a few sentences it totally transformed the mood of the audience. I have rarely experienced anything like it. When he stepped on to the platform the disturbance was so great that he could not be heard, and he fired a shot. I can still see the gesture. He got the Browning out of his back pocket and I think it was on this occasion that the remark about the machine gun was made. When things did not become quiet, he shouted angrily at the audience: “If you are not quiet, I shall have a machine gun put up on the gallery.” In fact he had come in to say that his prediction of everything being over in ten minutes had not come true. But he said it in such a way that he finally went out with the permission of the audience to say to Kahr that the whole assembly would be behind him if he were to join. It was a complete reversal.
I have often wondered at this sort of thing. In fact, [stderr] in my notes on hypnosis (which I need to finish, I know, I know…) one of the topics I want to address is public speaking as an exercise in manipulation through peer pressure and performance. Evangelical frauds [see: marjoe] learn tricks of rhythm and tone of voice that, I believe, somehow trigger authoritarians to believe the speaker.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to make the mistake of claiming that Trump is a master rhetorician, but have you noticed how – since he announced his run for office in 2016 – he has adopted the same sort of sing-song cadence as a revival preacher? I don’t think that’s an accident, I think that’s a signal triggering members of his flock who have been pre-conditioned to believe things that they are told in a certain way. I don’t think Hitler was a great rhetorician either, nor was Mussolini – but their delivery had the confident sound that seems to sway crowds. In fact, Hitler was mocked (by some Germans, mostly aristocrats, early on) for having an Austrian hick accent. (And Hollywood insiders thought Marlon Brando was going to make a hash of Marc Antony’s speech, too)
Here’s another view of the beer hall putsch, from the police report: [famous trials]
After the three gentlemen had entered the room, Adolf Hitler called out: “No one leaves the room alive without my permission.” At the door a member of the bodyguard walked up and down continually, holding a pistol. Then Hitler turned to Excellency von Kahr with the statement: “The Reich Government has been formed, the Bavarian Government has been overthrown. Bavaria is the springboard for the Reich Government. There must be a Reich governor in Bavaria. Pöhner [the Police chief of Munich and sympathetic to the Nazis] is to become Minister-President with dictatorial powers. You will be Reich Governor. Reich Government- Hitler; national army – Ludendorff; Lossow – army minister; Seisser- police minister.
“I know this step is a difficult one for you, gentlemen, but the step must be taken, it must be made easier for the other gentlemen to make the leap. Everybody must take up the post which he is allotted. If he does not, then he has no right to exist. You must fight with me, achieve victory with me, or die with me. If things go wrong, I have four bullets in my pistol, three for my colleagues if they desert me, the last bullet for myself.” While saying this, he put the pistol which he had been holding all the time to his head.
Hitler appears to have brought Chekhov’s Gun [wik] to the putsch with him. He later substituted a Walther PPk for the Browning he had in the beer hall.
The Police report on the march and shootings: [famous trials]
The column of National Socialists about 2,000 strong, nearly all armed, moved on through the Zweibrückenstraße, across the Marienplatz towards the Theatinerstraße. Here it split up, the majority going down the Perusastraße to the Residenz, the rest going on along the Theatinerstraße.
The police stationed in the Residenz tried to cordon it off as well as the Theatinerstraße by the Preysingstraße. Numerous civilians hurried on ahead of the actual column in Residenzstraße and pushed aside the police barricade. The ceaseless shouts of “Stop! Don’t go on!” by the state police were not obeyed. Since there was the danger of a break-through here, a police section, originally in the Theatinerstraße, hurried round the Feldherrenhalle [War Memorial] to give support. They were received with fixed bayonets, guns with the safety catches off, and raised pistols. Several police officers were spat upon, and pistols with the safety catches off were stuck in their chests. The police used rubber truncheons and rifle butts and tried to push back the crowd with rifles held horizontally. Their barricade had already been broken several times. Suddenly, a National Socialist fired a pistol at a police officer from close quarters. The shot went past his head and killed Sergeant Hollweg standing behind him. Even before it was possible to give an order, the comrades of the sergeant who had been shot opened fire as the Hitler lot did, and a short gun battle ensued during which the police were also shot at from the Preysingpalais and from the house which contains the Cafe Rottenhofer. After no more than thirty seconds the Hitler lot fled, some back to the Maximilienstraße, some to the Odeonsplatz. General Ludendorff apparently went on towards the Odeonsplatz. There he was seen in the company of a Hitler officer by a police officer barring the Briennerstraße, who went up to General Ludendorff and said to him: ‘Excellency, I must take you into custody.’ General Ludendorff replied: ‘You have your orders. I’ll come with you.’
Resolve. Momentum. Once the crowd is whipped up into the mood for violence, there is still a pivotal moment when both sides glare at eachother, trying to see who will strike the first blow. Kurosawa captures this perfectly in Yojimbo, as the warring factions, katanas drawn, egg eachother on, step by step, summoning the will to act.
Sorry if my brief digression into Kurosawa filmography seems jarring, but I need a moment to catch my breath by thinking of something that’s not an endless shit-show. By the way, you may gasp in awe at Kurosawa’s compositional skills, it’s appropriate.
Trump, when he launched his coup attempt, whipped his fans up with a bunch of violent, meandering imagery. They were already ready to do something; they had traveled long distances to Washington to do something. They were wound up and ready to go, they just wanted someone to pull the metaphorical trigger. Now, as things are unpacked more and more, we understand better how far the capitol police had been hamstrung, [wapo] and that there were agents in place in the capitol building, tweeting out who was where. [daily kos] Trump’s coup was simultaneously more planned than Hitler’s beer hall putsch, and less well executed.
A historian’s job is to point out crucial moments when the balance of events tipped one way or another, so this is my offering: if Trump had a golf cart, the US government would have fallen last week. I say “golf cart” because Trump’s too out of shape and lazy to walk the whole distance to the capitol, but what he did was whip his crowd up, then … he left. Trump said: [abcnews]
And after this, we’re going to walk down and I’ll be there with you.
But, he wasn’t. He got his lazy ass into the presidential limo and went to watch the event he had arranged on television, where he was nice and safe. If he had finished his speech and gotten in a golf cart with his secret service detail jogging alongside, and driven up to the capitol, he’d have rolled right over the place and that would be that. Approximately half of congress was all ready to salute the new Führer but it turned out that he just wasn’t the man of the hour.
When Hitler was arrested, they gave him 5 years in prison to solidify his base and establish a plausible-sounding ideology. If they had hanged him, the face of the world would be profoundly different, in ways we cannot predict. What is going to happen to Trump and his co-conspirators? Will the democrats give him a chance? A Machiavellian politician would arrange an “accident” for him. A powerful politician of great resolve, like Sulla, would have his head mounted somewhere for all to see. Will Trump get (another) book deal? Will his co-conspirators slink back into the woods and plot, or will they be weeded out?
I don’t know, but I think if Trump was a bit more of the man he wants to imagine he is, he’d have succeeded.
In other contexts, I have been less than worried about Trump’s followers than I should have been, because I did not see them as at the point where they are ready for mass violence. Also, they are not unified – they’re a mix of anarcho-libertarians, conspiracy theorists, and white supremacist fascists; they’re all over the map. In the event that their coup succeeded it almost certainly would have fallen apart due to internal divisions implicit in the scatter-shot mix of ideologies that compose them. In the case of Hitler’s Germany, those internal divisions were wiped out in a series of purges that aligned the revolutionaries in a single direction (mostly). The same thing occurs often in revolutions: you don’t wind up with a communist ideal state, you get Stalin or Mao or Pol Pot.
One thing that is clear from the coup attempt is that Trump and his people have been a lot busier than they appeared to be. They weren’t just randomly shuffling people and funding around, they were deliberately adjusting power balances in their favor. And part of that included unifying the support of, and completing the corruption of the republican party.
There may be other coup attempts from the Trumpies in the future. If they are not met with crushing force, they’ll succeed next time.
The republicans will have learned only one thing from this: they have to organize better. Next time they try, they will definitely succeed. Carthago delenda est.