1923: The Crisis of German Democracy in the Year of Hitler's Putsch

Image of 1923: The Crisis of German Democracy in the Year of Hitler's Putsch
Release Date: 
August 29, 2023
Basic Books
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“Jones’ tale of the Beer Hall Putsch is only the culmination of his thoughtful analysis of German politics in the crucial year of 1923.”

Ten years before Adolf Hitler gained power in Germany by legal means, he attempted to forcibly seize power in what became known as the Beer Hall Putsch on November 8, 1923. As author Mark William Jones explains, the Nazis’ plan was initially to seize power in Munich, control Bavaria, then march on Berlin. Hitler needed the support of the military and the police—in 1923 he did not get it. In 1933, he did.

But Jones’ tale of the Beer Hall Putsch is only the culmination of his thoughtful analysis of German politics in the crucial year of 1923. It was the year that the democracy of the Weimar Republic was put to the test—not just by Hitler and the Nazis, but also by other far-right groups and communists. As Jones points out, however, the crisis of the post-World War I German republic was produced by many factors, including the terms of the Versailles Treaty, the economic turmoil in Germany caused by runaway inflation, and the Franco-Belgian military occupation of the Ruhr.

The Ruhr occupation and the violence inflicted by occupying forces against Germans—violence that included the rape and sexual assault of German women and girls—helped to fuel the anti-republican forces in Germany that sought to avenge Germany’s defeat in the First World War. Germany’s leaders at the time responded with a policy of “passive resistance”—strikes, protests, anti-French publications—that was supported by most Germans. Hitler and far-right groups, however, blamed the government and “the Jews” for Germany’s plight.

The growing political divide in 1923 Germany coalesced around two German “martyrs”—pro-republican Walter Rathenau, Germany’s foreign minister who was assassinated in June 1922 by a former naval officer; and Albert Leo Schlageter, an ultra-nationalist leader of the active resistance to French occupiers, who was executed by the French for his role in train bombings in Essen and Duisburg. Jones characterizes Schlageter’s execution as “a tremendous blunder for the French and a huge political problem for German supporters of Weimar democracy.” Schlageter’s “martyr cult” was promoted and exploited by the Nazis.

Hitler’s plan to seize power drew inspiration from Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin’s success in Russia in October-November 1917 and Benito Mussolini’s march on Rome in 1922. It was in late 1922, Jones notes, that “Hitler’s political star first began to rise” among disgruntled Germans, which included a “collection of antisemites, agitators, propagandists, ultra-nationalists, monarchists, anti-Socialists and oddballs.” Hitler’s early speeches were filled with violent rhetoric aimed at communists and Jews—especially Jews. “Antisemitism thrived,” writes Jones, in words and actions that foreshadowed the Holocaust.

Jones credits Weimar statesmen such as Gustav Stresemann and Friedrich Ebert for successfully defending democracy against Hitler and other domestic enemies, but he criticizes their unwillingness to destroy Hitler and Nazism when they had their chance to do so in the wake of the Beer Hall Putsch. Hitler and some of the other Nazi conspirators received relatively lenient punishments for their attempt to overthrow the government. “The failure to insist on the punishment of the putschists according to the laws created for the protection of the republic,” Jones concludes, “was a terrible error.”

Jones is not content, however, to describe the crisis of German democracy in 1923. He insists that “the politics of the beer halls are still with us” among “conventions and rallies of populist politicians and . . . digital beer halls”—a not so subtle reference to Donald Trump, European nationalist leaders, and their supporters. This anti-historical reference and politically strained analogy mars an otherwise informative book.