Friday, January 15, 2021

The Beer Hall Putsch and January 6

There are numerous recent press comparisons of Hitler’s 1923 Beer Hall Putsch to the events of January 6, 2021. Although there are similarities, differences, and things to be determined. I think the differences are the more significant.


In both cases a political leader gave a passionate address to his followers that resulted in insurrection. An observer commented that Hitler had turned the Munich crowd inside out, “as one turns a glove inside out, with a few sentences.  It had almost something of hocus-pocus, or magic about it.” Trump, too, used rhetoric to move his audience to march. Without explicitly ordering the audience to break into the Capitol, he gave them all the encouragement they needed. In neither case would the insurrection have occurred without the leader’s rhetoric. In both cases, the insurrectionists clearly broke the law.

Neither crowd knew what it was doing.  Those marching with Hitler had little idea where they were going or what they were trying to accomplish. Although there is evidence that some insurrectionists in 2021 were planning violent action within the Capitol, most were more interested in taking selfies than in taking over the government.  Most did not expect the break into the Capitol, and indeed the crowd that gathered at Trump’s urging was significantly larger than the group that entered the Capitol. I haven’t seen figures, but will be surprised if more than 5% of those gathered at Trump’s rally entered the Capitol building.


An immediate difference is that Hitler led the march through Munich and was physically wounded. Trump implied to his followers that he would be marching with them, but instead returned to the White House and watched events on television. Whatever else one can say about Hitler, he had physical courage (and World War I medals to demonstrate it). Trump’s physical courage is open to doubt. For example, if Trump really did not want violence, he could have gone to the Capitol with his followers and told them to go home before they became violent  (as he did after the fact on Twitter much too late to do any good).  I think that the crowd would have obeyed him, but we will never know.

Hitler took explicit responsibility for the Putsch. As he said at his trial: “The judges of this state may go right ahead and convict us for our actions at that time, but History, acting as the goddess of a higher truth and a higher justice, will one day smilingly tear up this verdict, acquitting us of all guilt and blame.” Trump, on the other hand, denied that he had told his followers to break into the Capitol, and some on the far right claim it was a “false flag” operation by groups like Antifa.  

The Beer Hall Putsch came at the beginning of Hitler’s political career (he was 34), while it is to be hoped that January 6 sealed the end of Trump’s (he is 74). Before the Putsch Hitler was not widely known outside Bavaria. Afterwards he was a national figure. Trump was already president (if a defeated one), and his encouragement of insurrection for most Americans was despicable rather than inspiring, even if a significant minority welcomed it. In short, the Putsch built Hitler’s reputation; January 6 for most Americans harmed Trump’s.

Hitler also found the Putsch valuable propaganda. It demonstrated the “revolutionary” nature of the Nazi movement.  Having demonstrated that in 1923, Hitler thereafter claimed to follow a legal path to power, and indeed he did take power in 1933 in a way consistent with the Weimar constitution. At this point, it looks as if the far right is viewing January 6 as the first step in violent insurrection rather than as a one-time event that demonstrated its revolutionary credentials. 

To be Determined

Hitler was tried and convicted for his role in the Putsch.  The court that convicted him said that Hitler “thinks and feels like a German” and gave him a light sentence of eight months, which he served under comfortable conditions. We do not yet know what penalties, if any, Trump will face.  Hitler used the time to write Mein Kampf. I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump finds another ghostwriter to develop a book as well. If so, they will be different sorts of books. Mein Kampf lays out in turgid prose Hitler’s ideology. Trump’s book, should he produce one, will be a litany of claimed, if dubious, accomplishments, calumny, and fantasy.

Sixteen Nazis died on November 9; they became  “blood martyrs” of the movement.  After 1933, their remains were dug up and interred in two “honor temples” in the center of Munich. Each year pompous ceremonies were held throughout the Reich.  My German Propaganda Archive has considerable material on those pseudo-religious ceremonies. See, for example, advice for propagandists for November 9, 1942. Ashli Babbitt, the insurrectionist killed inside the Capitol, was immediately presented as a martyr by a variety of right-wing sources, but one may doubt that there will be a monument in her honor erected in Washington. Still, movements of all kinds have always welcomed martyrs.  Tertullian said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Babbitt will have a place in the mythology of the far right. We will hear more of her.

The Putsch created relics, the most famous of which was the Blutfahne (blood banner), the “holiest” item in the Nazi reliquary. It was supposedly stained with the blood of those who died in 1923. In Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, Hitler holds that flag with one hand while allowing its mythic power to flow through him as he consecrates new party standards.  Whether January 6 will leave sacred relics behind is yet to be determined.  Although things stolen by the insurrectionists may come to have a place of honor in right wing mythology, Nancy Pelosi’s missing laptop probably will not grace Trump’s future quarters.


As I said in my initial post, I am wary of comparisons of Trump to Hitler, since I find Tump dreadful, but not on the same scale of evil as Hitler.  Nonetheless, it is interesting to compare the use of propaganda by both.

In this case, all things considered, I think the differences between the Putsch and January 6 are greater than the similarities. However, the uncertainties of the moment render my conclusion tentative. Time will tell, as it always does.

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