Pulling off a successful coup d’état in a dictatorship is a risky affair. It invariably involves the military, and failure usually results in long prison terms or executions. But coup attempts in democratic countries, while much less common, are less perilous. They rarely involve the military, and it’s complicated to punish coup plotters who have a following and can represent themselves as protesters rather than traitors. That is why an important point of comparison for America’s January 6 insurrection is the attempted coup led by Adolf Hitler in 1923, the so-called Beer Hall Putsch, and how it affected his march toward absolute power.
Conventional wisdom has it that the blossoming democratic German government of the early 1920s botched its efforts to rein in Hitler after his failed coup, and thereby helped propel him to greater popularity. In this view, the Biden administration understands the tragic German history, and is now avoiding legal action against Trump, letting the US House of Representatives investigate the coup plot and limit its punishment to some kind of public shaming.
Yet if you review the events following the failed Beer Hall Putsch, it becomes clear that German institutions successfully sidelined Hitler for nearly 10 years, and might have kept him out of the mainstream longer except for a worldwide economic depression that amplified popular disaffection. Moreover, Trump has raced ahead of Hitler’s timetable for recovering from an attempted coup, bringing the United States much closer to a fascist takeover than most Americans likely realize.
While Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch and Trump’s January 6 coup attempt bore a striking resemblance in terms of the size of the insurrections and the resulting violence, the most notable similarity is the nature of the lies that led to the buildup of political tensions: Hitler’s lies about Germany’s defeat in World War I and Trump’s lies about voter fraud driving his loss in the 2020 election. Both were big lies that undermined faith in government institutions and gained credibility from frequent repetition.
In their immediate post-coup lives, Hitler had a much more difficult time than Trump, thanks to less forgiving rulers. Germany’s post–World War I democratic government aggressively prosecuted Hitler and nine of his associates for treason within months of the 1923 coup attempt. He was sent to prison the next year, serving nine months before getting himself paroled. A key condition of Hitler’s parole was that he refrain from speaking in public for two years. The classic 1960 history, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William Shirer, explains Hitler’s challenge this way: “A silenced Hitler was a defeated Hitler, as ineffective as a handcuffed pugilist in a ring.”
Hitler, according to Shirer, remained single-minded in his determination to revive the Nazi Party, via a two-part strategy: “to attack and undermine the government” and to operate as “a state within a state.” But as diligently as the Nazis worked to attract new members and intimidate opponents via their paramilitary SS storm troopers, Hitler remained a convicted traitor under the government’s thumb as a parolee. A few times when Hitler ignored the order against public speaking, police intervened and Hitler backed down, fearful of being thrown back in jail or exiled to his native Austria.
In the modern retelling, Hitler emerged from his high-profile trial and the imprisonment, where he wrote his political treatise Mein Kampf, “more popular than ever,” according to History.com. But German elections in the 1920s tell a much different story. In a May 1924 Reichstag election, the Nazis received 1.6 million votes, or 5.7 percent of the total. In another election seven months later, the Nazi total had declined to 907,000, or 3 percent of the total. By the 1928 general election, five years after the Beer Hall Putsch, Nazis received just 2.8 percent of the vote.