“All along the Ring, they were picking up all Jewish men. We had been spared. And all were told: ‘Tomorrow you’ll all be hanging, the entire Jewish community,’” recalled Jewish physician and mother Rahel Straus. “The street was in a complete uproar. Streicher, the wild antisemitic elementary school teacher from Nuremberg, was standing on Sendlinger-tor-platz and holding a vile inflammatory speech against the Jews. One was just walking by: ‘Strike him down,’ Streicher screamed.”
Such pogrom-like scenes in Munich might bring to mind the violent night of November 9, 1938, often referred to as Kristallnacht. But the date was November 8, 1923, fifteen years and one day earlier, although some of the instigators were the same: Hitler, Streicher, and a few other activists of the relatively new Nazi movement. There were many more reports like this. The attorney Philipp Löwenfeld escaped that night’s terror by the skin of his teeth, when an acquaintance rang him up at his office half an hour before midnight to tell him that he was in personal danger and should go into hiding. There were “already Jewish hostages [who had been] arrested in large numbers,” he later remembered. The Jewish hostages were threatened with being shot until the Bavarian state police finally came by to free them. Some of them had received a bloody beating.
Members of the right-wing organizations scoured Munich’s directory of addresses for Jewish-sounding names or looked for them next to doorbells. (Occasionally, this method led them to inadvertently arrest some prominent non-Jewish citizens.) The rabbi of the Jewish community, Leo Baerwald, was hauled out of his home at night, taken to a field outside the city, tied to a tree, and threatened with being shot.
November 8, 1923, exactly one-hundred years ago, was the night of Hitler’s failed beer hall putsch. As Bavaria’s political leader Gustav von Kahr delivered a speech in one of Munich’s big beer halls, the Bürgerbräukeller, Hitler, together with his comrades, stormed in, silenced the crowd with a pistol shot to the ceiling, and seized control. During a roughly fifteen-minute discussion held in an adjoining room under circumstances never fully clarified, Hitler secured assurances from Kahr and his closest comrades that they would support a new Reich government led by Hitler. In exchange they were promised influential positions. A few hours later, Kahr and his associates retracted their assurances and got to work suppressing the putsch. The march undertaken by about two-thousand putschists the following morning was forcibly stopped in Munich’s city center. Fifteen of Hitler’s supporters, one civilian bystander and four policemen lost their lives. Hitler himself fled to the lakeside villa of the businessman Ernst Hanfstaengl, a former Harvard student, where he was arrested for treason two days later.
We all know how the story continued. Hitler was publicly tried in a manner that greatly enhanced his celebrity in Germany and got away with a mild sentence, during which he composed Mein Kamf. By the end of 1924 he was already a free man, and by January 1933 he was chancellor of Germany. Less known is what preceded this first pogrom in Munich and how American diplomats were involved.
Gustav von Kahr, whose term as minister president of Bavaria in 1920 had already been characterized by anti-Jewish actions, had been brought back into power as a strongman in September 1923, a few months before the attempted putsch. In his very first speech he made clear that he wanted to rely “only on men of the German tribe,” which was a barely hidden affront to the Jewish community. In response, a local Jewish paper claimed: “It is the first time in the history of the German Reich that a responsible statesman in an official announcement makes a distinction between citizens of different kinds…we raise the strongest objection against this attempt, a violation of the German constitution’s basic rights, to place us Jews outside the state, to make us citizens with lesser rights.”
On October 17, Kahr had homes of East European Jews living in Munich raided. His government issued orders for the expulsion of around 60 of them. It was only the intervention of foreign diplomats that halted the expulsion. An article put out by the Daily News Bulletin of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on October 26, 1923 claimed: “Bavarian Jewry is in the throes of an unspeakable panic… The Hitler spirit controls not only the Government but also all public opinion.”
It was American Jews who had brought the anti-Jewish climate in Munich to the attention of the State Department. Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the American Jewish Congress, sent an inquiry to Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes who in turn wrote to the German ambassador and who consulted with the Consul General in Munich. The acting consul in Munich was the diplomat Robert Murphy, who had arrived at the age of 27 when the consulate general was reopened after the war.
Murphy was at the start of a long diplomatic career that would later take him to many other posts, including one as ambassador to Japan; he would continue to act as a foreign policy adviser well into the Carter administration. Looking back on the events in 1923 in his memoirs, he complained about Washington’s lack of interest in the reports he sent the State Department, forecasting the storm looming over the skies of Munich: “While we were sending in our reports so earnestly, we never knew whether or not anybody in Washington read them. They were accepted in total silence…No comment came from Washington when I sent an eyewitness report of the Hitler group’s attempt to overthrow the government of Bavaria in 1923.”
When one reads Murphy’s report on the antisemitic incidents from that time, however, it is hard to avoid the impression that he was trying to ease his own conscience. Murphy confirmed the danger to Bavaria’s Jews, but held the Jews themselves partly responsible for the anti-Jewish mood, as he identified them with the socialists and communists of the Bavarian revolution of 1918 and the short-lived council republics of 1919: “The existing antisemitic feeling in Bavaria is principally the result of excesses indulged in by certain of the revolutionaries.” Rabbi Wise was not satisfied with Murphy’s reply and wrote to Secretary Hughes: “Such information as came to me does not tally with that which has been brought to you.” In the end, what prevented the Bavarian government from expelling East European Jews was not so much the efforts of the U.S. government but the intervention by Austrian and Polish diplomats, who threatened that if their citizens were expelled, they in turn would send home Bavarian citizens from their countries.
The Americans soon forgot the turmoil in the streets of Munich in the fall of 1923. The Jews of Munich did not.
In Jewish tradition, fast days are often called to commemorate and give thanks for redemption from some great danger on the anniversary of that day. The violence accompanying Hitler’s attempted putsch of November 1923 had such an impact that the city’s Orthodox rabbi, Heinrich Ehrentreu, decreed that the first day of the month of Kislev would be a day of fasting and prayer “to commemorate the prevention of a pogrom against Bavaria’s Jews.” For the next ten years, this day was to be highlighted in religious services by the recitation of psalms of thanks. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency commented: “Devout Jews are inclined to regard the failure of the putsch as nothing short of a divine miracle.”
We do not know if Munich’s Orthodox Jews really did celebrate their local festival up until the last one scheduled for 1933—the very year Hitler came to power.
Michael Brenner is Distinguished Professor of History at American University in Washington, DC, and chair of Jewish History and Culture at the University of Munich. His latest book is In Hitler’s Munich: Jews, the Revolution and the Rise of Nazism.
Featured image: the putsch in Munich in 1923. Photo credit: Unknown via Wikimedia (CC-BY-SA 3.0).