On 9 November 1923, around 3,000 far-right insurgents began marching on Munich, Germany’s second-largest city in the south of the country.
Before the brown shirts had set off it was clear to the Nazi Party leader, the 34-year-old Corporal Adolf Hitler that his coup d’etat had already failed. Just prior to marching out Hitler had learned that the inter-war German Army, the Reichswehr, would firmly oppose his so-called Beer Hall Putsch. This had been ordered by the Reichswehr chief, General Hans von Seeckt, who remained loyal to the Weimar Republic for now.
In fact, at a conference at General Headquarters on 14 August 1918 Ludendorff requested a “more vigorous conscription of the young Jews, hitherto left pretty much alone.”
The cold-blooded dictator
With impending defeat obvious Hitler had not wanted this march on Munich to go ahead, but proposed that the rebels retire to Rosenheim, a town less than 40 miles southeast of Munich. Hitler suggested this retreat of their forces to his famous ally, the 57-year-old Erich Ludendorff, and former dictator of Germany during World War One. In reaction General Ludendorff looked coldly at Corporal Hitler and exclaimed, “We march!” When Hitler said rather nervously that they “would be fired on” by Reichswehr troops or police, Ludendorff barked again, “We march!”
They marched. Ludendorff, Hitler, and a few other Nazi party officials marched at the head of the units, as they set out shortly before mid-day, crossing the Isar bridge as they reached the Marienplatz. At the top of Residenzstrasse in central Munich, a cordon of armed police loyal to the government was awaiting the brown shirts. As they approached one Nazi Party member, Ulrich Graf, stepped forward and shouted to the police, “Don’t shoot, Ludendorff and Hitler are coming!” The police commander Freiherr von Godin, a conscientious officer who would later be persecuted by the Nazis, ignored Graf and ordered his policemen to fire at the rebels.
Hitler saved by a wrong angle fire
On hearing von Godin’s command to shoot, the police hesitated for they could clearly see the unarmed General Ludendorff at the forefront, goose-stepping in their direction. Just a few years previously, Ludendorff had issued orders to most of these police officers during the war, when they were then soldiers. Von Godin loudly repeated the order to fire, but as it was met once more with silence, the police commander grabbed a rifle from one of his men and fired it himself at the brown shirts. The other policemen followed suit. A prominent Nazi, Scheubner-Richter, marching with linked arms between Ludendorff and Hitler, immediately fell dead.
If the rifle had only been fired some inches to the other side, Hitler might well have met his end – and Europe would have been spared the brutal dictatorship to come, resulting in millions of dead. Some of the Nazis fired at the police in response, but the latter showed more resolve, inflicting 16 fatalities on the brown shirts as opposed to four police deaths. Panic set in as the fascists dropped to the ground and began fleeing in every direction, like earwigs disturbed from the nest.
A great leader standing alone and bizarre
Out of the few thousand rebels who marched on Munich, only two of them had held their nerve throughout. The American historian and war correspondent William L. Shirer noted that “Ludendorff did not fling himself to the ground. Standing erect and proud in the best soldierly tradition, with his adjutant Major Streck, at his side, he marched calmly on between the muzzles of the police rifles until he reached the Odeonsplatz. He must have seemed a lonely and bizarre figure. Not one Nazi followed him. Not even the supreme leader, Adolf Hitler”.
Having suffered a dislocated shoulder Hitler was instead “bundled into a little yellow Fiat on the Odeonsplatz and driven away to hiding”, according to the biographer of Ludendorff, Lieutenant-Colonel Donald J. Goodspeed, professor emeritus of history at Brock University, Ontario.
Lt. Col. Goodspeed acknowledged as Ludendorff approached the line of policemen and “brushed them contemptuously aside”, that also “he was, in fact, marching out of history. All the rest of his life was excruciating anti-climax. Perhaps after all, it would have been better if von Godin’s men had dared to shoot their wartime leader down.”
If the rifle had only been fired some inches to the other side, Hitler might well have met his end – and Europe would have been spared the brutal dictatorship to come, resulting in millions of dead.
The glory years
How quickly fortunes change. Less than six years before, as Germany’s military autocrat, Ludendorff ruled over much of Europe and had come tantalizingly close to winning the First World War. During the Germans’ major spring offensive, which was Ludendorff’s creation, by late March 1918 the German 18th Army had captured the town of Montdidier, less than 65 miles from Paris.
The German 18th Army had been meeting little opposition, and it looked likely that the French capital would soon fall. In addition, enormous German railway guns produced by the Krupp steel company, such as the 43 ton “Big Bertha”, were ominously lining up near Montdidier. German soldiers quickly loaded these siege howitzers with their 16.5-inch shells, which were then pointed southwards at Paris and fired. Horrified Parisiens could see the shells of Big Bertha soaring remorselessly through the air, and smashing into the buildings of the landmark city.
Lt. Col. Goodspeed wrote that “A chill of fear closed around the Allied world like a constricting hand, and those who knew the true situation looked gravely at each other, wondering in their hearts if this was indeed the end.”
Desperate attempt to save Paris
The experienced French commander Philippe Pétain, seldom the most high-spirited of men, gloomily informed his British counterpart, Douglas Haig, that he would have to relocate French Army reserves south-west, in a desperate attempt to save Paris. This was the equivalent of saying that France would have to abandon their British ally further north. On 24 March 1918, the Germans had already driven a deep wedge between the French and British forces south of the Somme – but, in the end, the Allied commanders need not have worried too much, for the German advance gradually petered out.
The German Army of 1918, though still formidable, was not quite as good as its 1914 or 1916 predecessors, failing to capitalise on the progress made while Allied resistance hardened. From April 1918, a quarter of a million American troops were landing on French soil each month, another factor in the turning of the tide.
Standing erect and proud in the best soldierly tradition, with his adjutant Major Streck, at his side, he marched calmly on between the muzzles of the police rifles until he reached the Odeonsplatz. He must have seemed a lonely and bizarre figure.
Credit must be given where credit is due
Yet credit must be given where credit is due. The fact that Germany, against daunting odds, had fallen just shy of victory in a conflict where they had faced the world’s strongest nations (Russia, Britain, France and finally America), was largely down to Ludendorff’s “outstanding military talent”, as outlined by Lt. Col. Goodspeed. He continued that, “The defensive and offensive doctrines developed under his direction displayed a tactical brilliance not shown elsewhere in the war, and seldom equaled in any war… Ludendorff’s administrative ability was even more pronounced, and he must be ranked as one of the very greatest military organisers of all time”.
Ludendorff’s name is today often classed in equal terms with his partner, Paul von Hindenburg, a tall, well-built man who possessed strong nerves and simple optimism. Yet Goodspeed discerned correctly that in comparison, “Ludendorff was a much stronger personality and much more intelligent.” For most of the war, Field Marshal Hindenburg played a somewhat passive role, leaving the key and complex details for Ludendorff to iron out, including political matters, which Hindenburg had little time for. By the autumn of 1916, with Ludendorff having amassed virtually all real power in Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II was merely a ceremonial figurehead. The Kaiser never did relish his meetings with the overbearing “Sergeant-Major”, as he dubbed Ludendorff.
The Ludendorff dictatorship can most plausibly be described as a milder version to that of Hitler’s. The younger fanatics who emerge are usually worse than their elders, and Hitler was undoubtedly more extreme than Ludendorff by a considerable margin. While the general pursued expansionist policies as Germany’s warlord, he refrained from initiating wanton acts of annihilation against the Russian-led armies, nor against Slavic civilians. Though Ludendorff could be heard on occasion making anti-Semitic comments during the war, there is no evidence to suggest that he considered executing genocidal crimes against Europe’s Jewish populations.
In fact, at a conference at General Headquarters on 14 August 1918 Ludendorff requested a “more vigorous conscription of the young Jews, hitherto left pretty much alone.” He further held out hope, unrealistically, that Poland would dispense with armed divisions to bolster Germany’s forces. These attitudes would have been unthinkable in Hitler’s Germany.
Shane Quinn has contributed on a regular basis to Global Research for almost two years and has had articles published with American news outlets People’s World and MintPress News, Morning Star in Britain, and Venezuela’s Orinoco Tribune. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.