On this occasion at least, Shirer’s account is probably not far from the truth although the language is perhaps a little subjective. Unfortunately, detailed records of witnesses seem to be thin on the ground, in part because of the way the trial of the putschists was conducted.
What witness accounts there broadly agree: the differences are mostly in what the witnesses felt about Hitler's actions. In short:
- It is uncertain who fired first, but it was probably a putschist.
- When the shooting began, most of the putschists at the front dropped to the ground. Hitler may instead have been pulled to the ground by his dead neighbour.
- Hitler's life may well have been saved by his bodyguard who was hit many times but survived.
- Ludendorff marched on towards the police and was arrested.
- Hitler, along with many others, scrambled away from the police. He was almost certainly among the first to leave the scene.
- With his wrenched shoulder, Hitler was helped to his car which had been waiting nearby and was driven off.
There are some variations on the above, unsurprising in the chaotic circumstances, but two witness accounts can be discounted:
- One (apparent) witness said Ludendorff and Hitler had been killed by the police volley.
- Another witness said Hitler stopped to help a boy before being driven off.
Eyewitness accounts and interpretations
An obvious problem with witnesses, not least to politically charged events, is bias (see the painting below). The witness cited by Shirer, though, may as solid as one can hope for in this particular case. Walter Schultze’s career indicates he had solid Nazi ‘credentials’ yet his account does not show Hitler in a positive light. Harold J. Gordon, then Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts, in Hitler and the Beer Hall Putsch (1972), also cites Schultze's account but does not use the witnesses own words:
According to the chief surgeon of the SA, Dr. Walter Schultze, Hitler
was the first of the Putschists to get back on his feet. He then,
apparently wounded in the arm, started to make his way towards the
rear of the column. Schultze hurried on before him and brought forward
a yellow auto in which Hitler and Schultze fled the scene.
One interesting point here is that there was apparently a car at the ready (see also Shirer's account). Given that the march had been decided upon at very short notice at the urging of the putsch's figurehead Erich Ludendorff, Hitler may well have anticipated that things would not turn out well and had decided to be prepared for an unfavourable outcome.
The account of Kurt Ludecke in his I Knew Hitler: The Story Of A Nazi Who Escaped The Blood Purge (1937) adds a few details but to what extent (if at all) it is an eyewitness account is unclear. More likely, Ludecke gathered the information from those who had been there.
A volley rent the air, killing fourteen men in the Nazi ranks.
Ludendorff, erect and unhurt, marched straight ahead and was arrested.
Hitler, who had been at Ludendorff's side, walking arm-in-arm with
Scheubner-Richter, was dragged to the ground with a dislocated
shoulder when the Doctor crumpled under the hail of lead. Hitler's
body-guard threw himself en his master, covering him with his body and
instinctively thinking, as he later told me: 'Ulrich Graf, jetzt hat's
dich doch erwischt!' He received eleven bullets .... At sound of the
firing, the crowds in the rear wavered and halted. Then panic seized
the street. In a desperate scramble for safety, every one fled. The
revolution was finished ... Hitler had been helped to his car and had
escaped into the mountains.
Ludecke's reliability is questionable. Nonetheless, although he is sharply critical of Hitler and blames him for the failure of the putsch, he makes no critical comments on Hitler leaving the scene of the march after the shooting.
Gordon also cites unnamed Putschists, some of whom compared Hitler’s conduct unfavourably with Ludendorff whose
"courage" has often been praised as a contrast to the "cowardice" of
Hitler and the others, who hit the ground as soon as the firing
but Gordon observes:
In actual fact, Ludendorff showed merely foolhardiness, pride, or
confidence in his destiny.
In a footnote, Gordon adds:
Almost from the beginning the Putschists claimed that Hitler had been
pulled down by Scheubner-Richter when the latter was slain. This may
well be true, but I suspect that Hitler would have dropped anyway.
Such reflexes become automatic in a front soldier. However, some
Putschists claimed, on other grounds, that Hitler lost his nerve
during the clash.
Ian Kershaw, in Hitler 1889-1936:Hubris (2000) cites Lt. Col (later General) Theodor Endres:
Endres, critical in every other respect of Hitler’s action in the
putsch, was certain that he had thrown himself to the ground at the
outbreak of gunfire, and thought this action ‘absolutely right’
David King, in The Trial of Adolf Hitler: The Beer Hall Putsch and the Rise of Nazi Germany, also cites Schultze and then adds the comments of another witness who later opposed Hitler.
Several of his men had been killed and wounded, and Hitler had run
away, as one former Freikorps man and later prominent anti-Nazi,
Friedrich Wilhelm Heinz, put it. “Adolf the Swell-Head took off…and
left his men in the lurch…Did you expect that he’d do anything else?”
Several sources state that, although Ludendorff continued his political association with Hitler after the putsch, the old general - who had continued marching towards the police when the shooting started - described Hitler as a coward (see, for example, here and here). Ludendorff, though, kept his thoughts to himself for the most part.
Ernst Hanfstaengl, who was a close friend of Hitler but who later fled Germany, wrote about the putsch in his 1957 Hitler: The Missing Years. He was not a witness to the immediate events but arrived in the area shortly after where he spoke someone he knew who was fleeing the scene of the shooting:
I was past the Pinakothek museum - nearly there - when a great mass of
people came flooding up from the Odeonsplatz. I saw one face I knew, a
sort of first-aid man in one of the S.A. brigades, being helped along
in a state of collapse....he said..."The Reichswehr opened fire with
machine guns at the Feldherrnhalle It was pure suicide. They're all
killed. Ludendorff's dead, Hitler's dead, Goering's dead...
Completely untrue, but worth citing as an indication of the chaos and panic at the time, and the consequent unreliability of some witnesses. Hanfstaengl goes on to give an account which, like Ludecke, mentions Hitler being dragged to the ground by his mortally-wounded neighbour, but adds a little extra detail:
The police had fired mostly into the ground and the ricocheting
bullets and splinters from the granite setts had caused many nasty
wounds. The leaders and most of the wounded were dragged away by the
S.A. men without further interference from the police.
Although this is not an eyewitness account, it was Hanfstaengl's family who were sheltering Hitler at the time of his arrest so he would have heard detailed accounts from several of those present, including Walther Schulze.
On the police side, Polizeioberleutnant Michael Freiherr von Godin's account makes no specific mention of Hitler's actions once the shooting started:
We were showered by the Hitler troops with heavy fire from the
Preysing Palace and from the Rottenhöfer Café. The Demelmeyer unit
from Middle 5 took up the fire fight against these opponents... After a
timespan of thirty seconds at most, the Hitlerites turned to
Source: Martyn Housden, 'Hitler: Study of a Revolutionary?' (Routledge Sources in History, 2000)
The Putsch and the Trial in Nazi Propaganda
King also deals with the Nazi accounts (i.e. falsifications):
A story was later circulated to cover for Hitler’s lack of valor. He
was said to have spotted a young boy bleeding on a street corner and
left the scene to save him.
This account comes from a putschist, Fritz Gotz, who did not witness the shooting but who says he saw Hitler getting into his car. Gotz wrote this in a letter dated 26th November 1923 (pdf); strangely, this letter somehow ended up in the pages of a radical paper called Vorwärts about six weeks later (it contained much else of then far greater import than the boy story).
The 'bleeding boy' story was then further embellished:
In later Nazi accounts, he was even said to have carried the
By 1940, the myth-making had reached new heights in a painting by H. Schmitt. This artist was at the Putsch (pdf), lending a false credibility to this extreme example of artistic license. A classic example of a biased eyewitness.
What didn't happen: Hitler standing defiantly alongside Ludendorff amidst their fallen comrades. Image source: Painting Spotlight: the Munich Putsch.
The trial which followed turned into a significant propaganda coup for Hitler. There do not seem to be any notable eyewitness accounts stemming from the trial. The reasons for this seem to be that witnesses, especially prosecution ones, were either given little opportunity to speak or were not called at all. Also, the focus of trial was far more on the events at the Beer Hall on November 8th than the march on November 9th.
The trial itself, which lasted from 26 February to 1 April, soon
became a National Socialist propaganda display as Hitler took control
of the proceedings again and again, dominating the judges and the
courtroom with his oratory…. The presiding judge was absolutely
determined not to find Ludendorff guilty….
The lay judges on the court… were clearly partisans of the
Putschists…. The most vigorous and capable of the prosecutors, Dr.
Hans Ehard, was kept under wraps by his seniors to such an extent that
he could not seriously influence the conduct of the trial.
The results of this weakness in the prosecution and the bias of the
judges appeared in other, more serious forms than the loose rein on
the defendants. The most significant of all the fruits of this
situation was the selection of witnesses. A number of men who had
played key roles in the Putsch and could have added greatly to the
clarification of many issues were simply ignored.
Ian Kershaw, in Hitler 1889-1936:Hubris (2000), notes that Hitler was allowed to wear a suit together with his Iron Cross, First Class. In addition to having virtually a free-run at witnesses, he was allowed to get away with a four-hour speech at one point.
One journalist attending the trial described it as a ‘political
carnival’....He heard one of the judges, after Hitler’s first speech,
remark: ‘What a tremendous chap, this Hitler!’