No, this is not Washington, DC, January 6, 2021. This was Munich, November 8, 1923. The instigators did not come to Munich to support a president who was voted out of office. They did not gather in front of the country’s headquarters, but rather began their rally in a beer cellar, where a young Adolf Hitler took control after silencing politicians and the crowd gathered there with a gun fired to the ceiling. Obviously, the circumstances surrounding the storming of the Capitol in the United States are very different from those of the Munich Putsch Beer Hall. But Germany in the 1
Germany’s democracy was young, but the majority of the population stood behind it in the early 1920s. Yet, humiliated by defeat in World War I and tormented by an unprecedented economic crisis, a growing minority resorted to lies and conspiracy theories, such as the myth of stabbing, which blames scapegoats such as Jews and socialists rather than the military for losing the war.
It was these lies that resonated with Hitler and his followers. They hoped to establish authoritarian rule first in Munich and then in Berlin to restore German military forces. But first came the fight against the enemies inside. On the night of the riots, the Resurrection took numerous Social Democrats hostage, destroyed the offices of the Social Democratic newspaper, and stormed many Jewish houses in Munich. Tonight was the first confrontation with the life-threatening horror of Nazi terror – until the day 15 years before the November pogrom, known as Crystalnacht.
In the end, the coup in the beer hall failed. The governor of Bavaria and his closest aides, threatened by the rebels’ weapons, initially gave assurances that they would be overthrown. But when morning came, they withdrew their statements and, after some hesitation, set about suppressing the coup. Even when 2,000 Hitler supporters began marching to one of the city’s main squares, authorities forced them to stop in the city center. Fifteen of Hitler’s supporters, one civilian bystander and four policemen lost their lives.
Hitler himself was wounded and fled outside Munich, where he was arrested two days later. He and some of his associates were tried and sentenced to five years in prison for treason. But Hitler’s claims that he was a strong man who would clear up the political mess and go to Berlin to make Germany great again won him much sympathy among the deprived masses, conservative politicians, business elites and even the judiciary. He received a light sentence, was released a few months later and resumed his political career. Ten years later, he was a strong man in Germany.
What seemed at first glance a failed coup proved successful in the long run because of a justice system that was blind to the right eye and conservative political leaders who nurtured the myths in which Hitler took advantage, sowed the seeds of political polarization and discredited legitimacy of elected officials. These leaders were also convinced that they could use Hitler and his mass movement as a means to stay in power, even though they despised him and looked down on him. His deputy chancellor, Franz von Papen of the Catholic Central Party, said he and his moderate cabinet members would keep Hitler and his Nazi troops under control. Von Papen lost this game, as did all the other activists who made Hitler’s rise possible. But they did not resolutely suppress his movement in the 1920s, when they had the opportunity.
This story highlights how the real risk to American democracy came in hours after order was restored in the U.S. Capitol when seven U.S. senators and 138 members of the House of Representatives voted to support an objection to Pennsylvania’s electoral votes, giving credence to the lies that fueled the anger of the crowd. Vice President Pence and cabinet members then remain on standby without referring to the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from power. In doing so, they allow the president – who initially doubled the election lies in subsequent videos and tweets – to do further harm to the nation, including his ability to pardon more of his supporters and spread more lies. Even many of those Republican-elected officials who distanced themselves in the last days of this presidency or expressed disgust at the president’s actions struggled to keep him in office for just four more weeks.
He often, perhaps too often, refers to the historical example of Germany. But it has rarely been as close to our reality as it is today. In the 1920s, Germany was at a political crossroads. It could have remained a living democracy, but for many reasons it became a dictatorship. The United States, with its long-standing democratic tradition, stands on a much firmer footing, but as of January 6, we can no longer ignore the abyss that has opened up before us. As in Germany, the responsibility for the situation lies with those who either passively stood aside or those who actively supported the rise of a political monster.
The lessons of history are clear: those who accelerated and attempted an uprising – including President Trump – must face quick and severe consequences for their actions. In addition, those who want to ally with Trump, thinking that they can restrain him, must see the mistakes in their path. Allowing the spread of lies and conspiracy theories, as well as the growth of unfit individuals, poses an existential risk to democracy. On Wednesday, the Americans avoided the worst potential consequences. However, as the German example warns us, overthrowing the uprising does not yet mean victory in the struggle for democracy. This struggle will continue until our politicians learn the key lessons of the past.