The mob of maybe two thousand rioters, egged-on by the inflammatory rhetoric of their political leaders marched down the boulevards toward the government buildings with banners flying. They were going to take their country back from the leftist politicians who had betrayed it, and many were armed. The rioters met a police barrier before they reached their goal. The police opened fire.
Thus ended the Beer Hall Putsch in the streets of Munich in a hail of bullets on 9 November 1923.
It is almost a century later, and the events of last Wednesday, when a Magaist rabble stormed through lines of security at the Capitol to prevent senators and congressmen from certifying Joe Biden’s election victory, brought its memory to mind.
The Putsch had been a darkly comic affair. A ragtag mob of some 2,000 angry right-wing extremists from a half-dozen groups like the Bund Oberland, the Reichskriegsflagge, the Kampfbund, and Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers Party – including virtually the whole complement of a hundred or so brown-shirted “stormtroopers” – really thought that they could “take their country back.” The would-be putschists’ revolution had been a farce; it crumpled almost immediately, leaving 16 dead, when it met a force of 130 Bavarian police officers at the Odeonsplatz. The mob scattered, its leaders – Hitler, former Field Marshal Eric von Ludendorff, Ernst Röhm – went into hiding. But they were arrested within days, and charged with high treason.
Still, the memory of the months of anarchy that had accompanied the birth of the German Republic only five years before, when blood flowed in the streets of Berlin as Communists made revolution and right-wing Freikorps made mass murder, was still fresh. As laughable as the beer-swilling Munich rioters might have been in their army surplus uniforms and gaudy banners, the members of Chancellor Gustav Stresemann’s centrist-liberal coalition government breathed a sigh of relief. They had dodged a bullet.
At least that is how it looked at the time. The attempted coup had collapsed in chaos, and the authorities banned the Nazi Party and its stormtroopers. But the putsch’s main message – that Germans had to take their country back from a corrupt government, resonated widely with ordinary people under increasing economic pressure who desperately wanted to make Germany great again after the catastrophic defeat of the Great War. Tried by a sympathetic court, Ludendorff was acquitted, and Röhm received a suspended sentence. The court convicted Hitler and his lieutenant Rudolph Hess and sentenced them to five years in comfortable accommodations in Landsberg Prison. Hitler was released nine months later, a national celebrity, after dictating his political testament Mein Kampf to Hess.
Out of prison just before Christmas in 1924, Hitler soon had the ban on the Nazi Party repealed and began mold it into a formidable, and organized political force, leveraging his newfound fame.
The Nazi movement grew as the German economy stagnated and then sputtered. The party offered no actual policies or solutions to the crisis, other that stoking fears of international conspiracies and promoting myths of a Wagnerian golden age, when Germany was united, racially pure, and great. Hitler offered revenge against the enemies of the German Völk and simple power.
The historian Detlev Peukert has noted that the German Republic suffered from a constant, and ultimately fatal, “crisis of legitimacy.” Proclaimed simultaneously on 9 November 1918 by a faction of Social Democrats at the Reichstag in Berlin and a few blocks away at the old palace of the Prussian monarchy by the communist Spartakusbund, the new republic began in confusion and descended into chaos.
To a good number of Germans – many of whom regarded the Communists and Social Democrats with equal suspicion – the republic resembled nothing so much as a sad joke. After less than 50 years, the great German Reich had collapsed, the Kaiser was in exile, and the new constitution, improvised at a conference in the provincial town of Weimar in the summer of 1919, was a compromise that satisfied no one. To be sure, most Germans just made the best of it and got on with their lives, but a minority of angry citizens, enraged at what they believed to be the humiliation of the Reich at the hands of foreigners and conspirators were drawn to the Nazi promise of a renewed German national community unfettered by the constraints of the corrupt and decadent Weimar Republic.
A tiny, somewhat ridiculous fringe movement in 1923 easily dispatched by a few dozen local police, the Nazis grew steadily, and then exponentially. They began winning representation in the Reichstag in 1930, eclipsing the ruling Social Democrats at the polls two years later, and finally being invited to lead the government coalition in 1933.
There were no more free elections after that. Nazi ideology regarded democracy as an inconvenient exigency to be abandoned as soon as possible and the institutions of the state and government as farcical obstacles to be overcome and swept aside. The Nazi movement, from its devoted members singing the “Horst Wessel Lied” all the way to the Fuhrer believed in power itself.
Power was exercised in the street, in brawls with political opponents, intimidation of immigrants and suspect racial others, violence, and assassination. And the agents of this power were the Brownshirts who had numbered maybe a hundred in 1923, but whose ranks swelled to 400,000 ny 1930, and to 4 million by the time Hitler assumed absolute power in 1933. Throughout that decade of growth the comical, aborted coup in Munich had remained the model, the proof-of-concept, and the propaganda for the Nazi revolution. The Enabling Act, the Nuremburg Laws, Dachau, and the horrors of Auschwitz began in the Beer Hall Putsch.
It is a tricky thing to try to draw exact parallels in history; details and circumstances are always different. Yet, as Mark Twain is reputed to have said, even if history does not repeat, “it often rhymes,” and it is not difficult to hear the tonalities of 1923 resonating in the attack on the Capitol last Wednesday.
As shocking as the images of 6 January might have been to many Americans, they are evidence of a mass movement motivated by the same kinds of grievances, inchoate rage, and racial resentment that fueled the totalitarian movements of a century ago. In their eyes the state, and the institutions on which it stands, is illegitimate because it does not simply bend to their will. That, in a nutshell, is the whole point of the Magaist effort to overturn the democratically-expressed will of the American people: democracy, itself is illegitimate, as is any governent mandate based upon it.
Senator Ted Cruz darkly warned, in hs speech before the joint session of Congress last Wednesday, that the years-long campaign of propaganda and lies mounted by President Trumo and his supporters had made that a fait-accompli. Even if the allegations of voter fraud are, as they have been demonstrated to be, a fantasy, he said, they have undermined “the legitimacy of any administrations that will come in the future.” Speaking as the principal advocate of that fantasy, it was a stark admission that deligitimizing government was the plan all along.
Yet, it is not only the mass of chanting demonstrators who gathered to intimidate elected officials, nor the president who incited them to insurrection, nor even their would-be leaders, Cruz and Josh Hawley, jockeying for control of the Magaist movement who rhymed most chillingly. It was the thugs and brawlers, the militant foot soldiers, the MAGA-hatted brownshirts who stormed the seat of government that should frighten us the most.
They might have failed in their immediate goal on 6 January, but they did something unprecedented in American history and, until this week, unimaginable – and they know it. The violent seizure of power now has precedent, and on extremist social media sites, Magaist militants are imagining what comes next. They proclaimed themselves “revolutionaries” last week, and their attack has already become the model, the proof-of-concept, and the propaganda for their revolution.
We did not “dodge a bullet” last week, any more than Germany did when the Beer Hall Putsch collapsed. On 6 January 2021, America was hit, wounded and, as Germany learned almost a century ago, the bullet is moving slowly, but inexorably toward its heart. We might not have a decade to excise it.