Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Drawing Lessons from History—Kristallnacht and the Beer Hall Putsch

Not as ridiculous as they first looked, the insurrectionists who seized the Capitol had a plan and included and included military veterans, police, and well trained members of White Nationalist groups and militias.

The Left has always been far too quick and glib to compare movements, actions, and political figures to Nazis.  Many Jews have been sensitive to this, particularly when the comparisons invoke the Holocaust.  They believe it both trivializes real Nazis and insults the memory of the real victims the Terror.  The frequency with which the charges have been bandied about has reduced them to background noise for many—just more of the same from disgruntled liberals and leftists.  But it has also muffled the voices of informed Cassandras who have seen and warned about real dangers for quite a while. 

But the storming of the Capitol last Wednesday which has been widely recognized as an insurrection and attempted coup d’etat launched by a sitting President and his supporters against their own government has made the chilling parallels to Adolph Hitler and his Brown Shirt thugs unavoidable.  The parallels have been drawn this week by sober historians, surviving witness to the rise of Nazism in Germany, Holocaust survivors, and both official and non-governmental security analysts.

Arnold Schwarzenegger's remarkable video denouncing the coup attemp as become a viral sensation.

This week former movie muscle man and popular Republican Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke out in a dramatic seven minute video post which was widely circulated on media platform and on social media, As many have noted, Schwarzenegger is a man who knows something about Nazis.  He was born in Austria in 1947, the son of a policeman and Nazi Party member who may have been directly complicit in the arrests of Jews, leftists, and dissidents.  He described his father and others of his generation a “broken men” who were overcome by guilt for their “participation in the most evil regime in history.”  You can draw your own conclusion if most former Nazis were guilt ridden or just heartbroken over having lost.

The former governor particularly compared Stormtroopers to the Proud Boys and other White nationalist groups and militias.  He particularly compared the attack on the Capitol to Kristallnacht, the 1938 nationwide attack on Jews, their businesses, places of employment, homes, and synagogues.  The violent rampage of assaults, murders, abductions, arrests, and arson was carried out at the direction of Hitler himself in supposed reprisal for the assassination of a German diplomat by an exiled Polish Jew.  The attacks were conducted by the Sturmabteilung (SA)—the Party’s paramilitary Brown  Shirts, Hitler Youth, and members of the SS supposedly acting on their own with the cooperation and complicity of the official  Sicherheitspolizei (Security Police) and local police forces.

Ordinary Germans seem amused the the destruction of Jewish buisnesses on Kristallnacht.

Several things make Schwarzenegger’s comparison apt.  It was conducted with a barely concealed wink-and-nod approval of a national leader already in power—Hitler, elected as Chancellor in 1932 had elevated himself to der Führer and the undisputed national leader with limitless personal power.  It was a level of national power that Donald Trump as a defeated incumbent President could only dream of.  But both men set their respective attacks in motion to gain and solidify power.

Kristallnacht was useful to Hitler in many ways.  It brought the persecution of the Jews that he had outlined in Mein Kamp (My Struggle) from a simmering background to undeniable policy.  It strengthened the loyalty and support of his most radical followers and tested the resolve of less committed Nazis and members of the government opening the way to force them out or commit to the new reality.  The interests of powerful forces in society like the Capitalist and industrialist classes who believed that they could simply rent Hitler and use the Nazis as a bulwark against Communism were put on notice that there was no turning back and that the tool was now the master,  It was a test of whether the widely publicized atrocities would so offend the sensibility of ordinary Germans and the resolve of foreign powers including the British, French, Soviets, and Americans that they would take decisive action to stop it.  Both failed the test miserably.

Are comparisons of Hitler and Trump fair and accurate?  What can usefully be learned from the comparison.?

But the comparisons are not exact.  Hitler decisively won his gamble largely because he could command large, well organized, and intimidating forces.  Trump’s minions did not have unified leadership and included many deluded followers who may not have really understood what they were doing.  Although there was planning and cooperation between the leaders of some factions of the Trump movement and the presence of some trained current or former military and police who clearly understood their mission, Trumps coup attempt was in many ways a laughable failure.  Instead of consolidating power and over-turning a legitimate election, immediately so marginalized that he faces a second impeachment in his last days in office and will leave the White House in disgrace with the very real possibility that he will face Federal and state criminal charges.  As a would-be dictator Trump was no Hitler.

Perhaps a more apt comparison would be to Hitler’s first, failed bid for power—the Bavarian Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923.  Like the Capitol rampage it was a comic opera fiasco but had long term serious consequences.

Stormtroopers in a truck,  mostly Great War veterans in their old uniforms with Nazi armbands, during the Beer Hall Putsch.

Hitler’s gambit was the result of the weakness and unpopularity of the post-war Weimar Republic; bitterness over the surrender of German forces in 1918; a growing belief that the country had been “stabbed in the back” by civilian leadership, Socialists and Communists, and Jews; and the economic crisis created by the payment of heavy war reparations to the victorious Allies.  The post-war period had been marked by a failed Communist uprising and continuing street battles between leftists and nationalists with combatants on both sides drawing heavily on Army veterans. 

In the immediate aftermath of the War Hitler, an Austrian citizen still in the German Army, was recruited to spy on the German Workers Party (DAP), a short-lived nationalist party in Bavaria.  But the young veteran was attracted to their message and rose rapidly in their ranks becoming a member of its Executive Committee.  In 1920 he triumphed over other factions of the Party and renamed it the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP.)  He assumed formal leadership of the party in 1921 styled as der Führer.  As a charismatic leader and spellbinding orator he quickly became a force in Bavarian politics.

Like most western media Time Magazine could hardly believe that a little corporal who resembled Charlie Chaplain was the real leader of Munich insurrection.  Its post-putsch coverage featured the much more authoritative figure of General Erich von Ludendorff.

In September 1923 the NSDAP, becoming popularly known as Nazis and its para-military Sturmabteilung (SA) joined with the German National Socialist Party in Bavaria, and the militias of the Oberland League and the Bund Reichskriegsflagge.  With over 70,000 enrolled members and 15,000 in the SA the Nazis were the most powerful component of the Kampfbund (Battle-league).  Hitler was the political leader of the new movement but General Erich Ludendorff gave it the nominal leadership of a German nationalist from the old Imperial General Staff. 

Hitler was inspired by the seizure of power of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Turkey along with Benito Mussolini’s successful March on Rome.  He devised a plan to seize the Bavarian government in Munich as a base from which to launch a march on Berlin.

On September 23, 1923, following a period of turmoil and political violence, Bavarian Prime Minister Eugen von Knilling declared a state of emergency, and Gustav Ritter von Kahr was appointed Staatskomissar (state commissioner), with dictatorial powers to govern the state.

After a series of large rallies Hitler planned a march on the Bürgerbräukeller, a large public beer hall where Kahr was speaking with most of the members of his government in attendance. He did not even disclose the extent of his plans to many of his allies.  They believed that the march in force was simply meant to intimidate the government into turning over power.

Instead with more than 600 SA storm troopers Hitler surrounded the beer  hall, pushed his way in with many of his top followers at his side—Hermann Göring, Alfred Rosenberg, Rudolf Hess, Ernst Hanfstaengl, and others—and leapt to a chair firing a pistol into the air  yelling, “The national revolution has broken out! The hall is surrounded by six hundred men. Nobody is allowed to leave.” He declared the Bavarian government was deposed and the formation of a new government with Ludendorff.

Kahr and other leaders were taken from the main room at gunpoint.  Hitler tried to press them into accepting the coup and cabinet positions he selected for them   They either refused or demurred.

Hitler returned to the Hall to address the captive crowd.  “Outside are Kahr, Lossow and Seisser. They are struggling hard to reach a decision. May I say to them that you will stand behind them? [if they join the putsch]” The crowd in the hall backed Hitler with a roar of approval. He finished triumphantly:

You can see that what motivates us is neither self-conceit nor self-interest, but only a burning desire to join the battle in this grave eleventh hour for our German Fatherland ... One last thing I can tell you. Either the German revolution begins tonight or we will all be dead by dawn!

After Ludendorff finally reached the hall and put his stamp of approval on the action in a speech, the crowd was allowed to leave the building.  Hitler left the building and around 2:30 the next morning Ludendorff released Kahr and the others believing that he had secured their agreement to join the new government.

Shortly after fighting broke out on the streets as the local garrison of the Reichswehr—the Weimar armed forces—and  police clashing with militants trying to retrieve arms from secret caches and mobilize more Stormtroopers.  Chaos reigned as the putschists had no coherent plan.  Early in the morning Hitler ordered the arrest of the Munich city council as hostages.  An attempt to gain the endorsement of figure head Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria failed.

By mid-morning with no clear objective Ludendorff let a march from the hall with about 2000 SA troopers and members of Ernst Röhm’s Bund Reichskriegsflagge.  Eventually they converged on the Bavarian Defense Ministry. At the Odeonsplatz in front of the Feldherrnhalle, they met a force of 130 soldiers blocking the way.  The two groups exchanged fire, killing four state police officers and 16 Nazis.  Hitler received a minor wound but escaped as the marchers dispersed in a panic.  Two days later he and Ludendorff were arrested.

Defendants in the Beer Hall Putsch trial. From left to right: Pernet, Weber, Frick, Kriebel, Ludendorff, Hitler, Bruckner, Röhm, and Wagner. 

In 1924 Hitler and other leaders were placed on trial before a judge who was largely sympathetic to them.  Hitler used his trial to make speeches that were widely reported in the press defending himself and his movement as patriots.  He served only a little over eight months in prison of this sentence before his early release for good behavior.  He also avoided deportation to Austria.  Other leaders got off even lighter.  Ludendorff was acquitted. Both Röhm and Wilhelm Frick, were found guilty but were released.

The Beer Hall Putsch had been a total failure.  But it was just the beginning of a rise to power by the Nazis.  Hitler famously used his time in prison to write Mein Kamp in which he clearly laid out his beliefs and programs, including the eradication of the Jews from Germany.  The book became a best seller and a powerful propaganda tool.  It also, according to Trump’s first wife Ivana was nightstand reading for her husband.  The 16 killed at the Feldherrnhalle were celebrated as first “blood martyrs” of the Nazi Party and used to rally support even through World War II.  In January 1933 less than ten full years since the Beer Hall Putsch Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany.


The Nazis exploited their 16 "first blood martyrs" for years.  Might Ashli Babbitt, the woman shot to death by Capitol police serve the same function?

The point of this sad recitation is that we cannot be smug in assuming that the failure of seizure of the Capitol represents a defeat of Trump, Trumpism, or neo-Nazi White Nationalism.  Trump will remain a potent symbolic figure even if he personally never regains power.  Others may claim his mantleDon Jr, Ivanka, Jared Kushner or some ambitious loyalist perhaps drawn to the ranks of the Senators and Congressmen who supported overturning the election.  Those may be figureheads for shadowy figures.  Or perhaps a new and much more talented figure will emerge and be even more dangerous.

We must be vigilant for the long haul.  Nothing is close to over yet.

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