Pre-Nazi Germany Tells us the Fight to Save American Democracy is Just BeginningRoundup
tags: Nazism, authoritarianism
Michael Brenner is professor of History at American University in Washington, DC, and at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany. His forthcoming book, In Hitler’s Munich: Jews, Antisemites, and the Rise of Nazism will be published by Princeton University Press.
A mob of several thousand outraged people rampaged through the streets of the city after a long rambling speech by their leader inciting them to do so. Some used violence. Windows were broken, shots were heard, there was bloodshed. The leader of the pack demanded the political swamp be drained. After a tumultuous few hours, order was restored and elected officials emerged from their hiding places.
No, this is not Washington, D.C., Jan. 6, 2021. This was Munich, Nov. 8, 1923. The instigators did not come to Munich to support a president who was voted out of office. They did not gather in front of the nation’s seat of power, but rather started their rally in a beer cellar where a young Adolf Hitler seized control after silencing the politicians and the crowd assembled there with a pistol shot to the ceiling. Obviously, the circumstances surrounding the storming of the U.S. Capitol are very different from those of the Munich Beer Hall Putsch. But Germany during the 1920s offers crucial lessons for us today about how democracies become imperiled.
Germany’s democracy was young, but the majority of the population stood behind it in the early 1920s. Yet, humiliated by defeat in World War I and plagued by an unprecedented economic crisis, a growing minority resorted to lies and conspiracy theories, such as the stab-in-the-back myth, which blamed scapegoats like Jews and socialists rather than the military for losing the war.
It was these lies that resonated with Hitler and his followers. They hoped to establish authoritarian rule first in Munich and then in Berlin to restore Germany‘s military strength. But first came the fight against the enemies within. During the night of unrest, the resurrectionists took numerous Social Democrats as hostages, destroyed the offices of the Social Democratic newspaper and broke into many houses of Munich’s Jews. This night represented the first confrontation with the life-threatening horror of Nazi terror — to the day 15 years before the November pogrom known as Kristallnacht.
In the end, the Beer Hall Coup failed. The governor of Bavaria and his closest aides, threatened by the guns of the insurrectionists, initially gave assurances that they’d be hands off. But when morning broke they retracted those statements and after some hesitation got to work suppressing the putsch. Even as 2,000 Hitler supporters began to march to one of the city’s main squares, authorities forcibly stopped them in the center of the city. Fifteen of Hitler’s supporters, one civilian bystander and four policemen lost their lives.
Hitler himself was injured and fled to outside of Munich, where he was arrested two days later. He and some of his associates were put on trial and sentenced to five years of confinement for treason. But Hitler’s claims that he was a strongman who would clean up the political mess and march to Berlin to make Germany great again won him many sympathies among the deprived masses, conservative politicians, business elites and even within the judicial system. He received a mild sentence, was freed after a few months and relaunched his political career. Ten years later he was Germany’s strongman.
What at first blush looked like a failed coup proved successful in the long run because of a justice system that was blind in its right eye and conservative political leaders who fueled the myths that Hitler had tapped into, planted the seeds of political polarization and discredited the legitimacy of elected officials. These leaders were also convinced that they could use Hitler and his mass movement as a vehicle to stay in power, even though they despised him and looked down on him as an upstart. His vice-chancellor, Franz von Papen of the Catholic Center Party, famously claimed he and his moderate cabinet members would keep Hitler and his Nazi troops in check. Von Papen lost this game and so did all the other enablers who made Hitler’s rise possible. But they didn’t decisively move to squelch his movement during the 1920s when they had the opportunity.
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