5

To be more specific, I'm wondering if I can find any primary statements from the people who accompanied Hitler on the street where 16 National Socialists were gunned down by the police; this is the closest thing I can find in William L Shirer's authoritative book Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany:

The future Chancellor of the Third Reich was the first to scamper to safety. He had locked his left arm with the right arm of Scheubner-Richter (a curious but perhaps revealing gesture) as the column approached the police cordon, and when the latter fell he pulled Hitler down to the pavement with him. Perhaps Hitler thought he had been wounded; he suffered sharp pains which, it was found later, came from a dislocated shoulder. But the fact remains that according to the testimony of one of his own Nazi followers in the column, the physician Dr. Walther Schulz, which was supported by several other witnesses, Hitler ”was the first to get up and turn back,” leaving his dead and wounded comrades lying in the street. He was hustled into a waiting motorcar and spirited off to the country home of the Hanfstaengls at Uffing, where Putzi’s wife and sister nursed him and where, two days later, he was arrested.

However, I've also read about alleged accounts of those same "several other witnesses" who claimed that Hitler showed some courage during the incident, or even that he carried a young man on his shoulders while making his escape. Are there any available sources that can settle the story?

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    Everyone involved ended up in court, so there should be lots of public testimony available. – T.E.D. Aug 8 at 15:51
  • Curious to know what the backdrop of this question is: Is it school related? Curiosity related? If the latter, what got you interested in such low level detail. – Denis de Bernardy Aug 8 at 19:54
  • This looks as if you only want one type of eyewitnesses, fellow traveling putschists? Not inhabitants of the city, not from opposing forces? – LangLangC Aug 9 at 15:55
6

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:

  1. It is uncertain who fired first, but it was probably a putschist.
  2. 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.
  3. Hitler's life may well have been saved by his bodyguard who was hit many times but survived.
  4. Ludendorff marched on towards the police and was arrested.
  5. Hitler, along with many others, scrambled away from the police. He was almost certainly among the first to leave the scene.
  6. 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:

  1. One (apparent) witness said Ludendorff and Hitler had been killed by the police volley.
  2. 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 started

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 disorderly flight.

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 ten-year-old away…

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.

enter image description here

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.

Source: Gordon

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!’

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    German TV had a good documentary in 1986 and a few libraries have this archived. But I'm unable to locate it online. – LangLangC Aug 9 at 16:25
  • @LangLangC Interesting link. I googled the names but nothing turned up unfortunately... – Lars Bosteen Aug 11 at 12:10
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William L. Shirer should not be considerd a reliable historical source.

A Quote from the wiki pages about his first book Berlin Diary , on which his second book was based:

Shirer smuggled his diaries and notes out of Germany and used them for his Berlin Diary, a firsthand, day-by-day account of events in Nazi Germany during five years of peace and one year of war. It was published in 1941. Historians comparing the original manuscript diary with the published text discovered that Shirer made many changes. Like many others his early impressions of Hitler had been favourable, and revised later. Much of the text about the pre-1934 to 1938 period was first written long after the war began.
WRITINGS OF HISTORY: AUTHENTICITY AND SELF‐CENSORSHIP IN WILLIAM L. SHIRER'S BERLIN DIARY

Unfortunately the full article is behind a paywall, so the link will show only an abstract.

Terminology such as sausage-necked (and may others) are not the work of an historian, but a typical tool of propaganda used in war time to make an enemy look ugly.

Surely the Germans must be the ugliest-looking people in Europe, individually . Not a decent-looking woman in the whole Linden . Their awful clothes probably contribute to one's impression.
Page 303, March 24 1940

contradicts his entry from September 2 1934 (Page 15) :

I miss the old Berlin of the Republic, the care-free, emancipated, civilized air, the snubnosed young women with short-bobbed hair and the young men with either cropped or long hair-it made no difference-who sat up all night with you and discussed anything with intelligence and passion

Although I have no doubt that much is told that is true, but unfortunately, even knowledgeable people cannot determine where the truth ends and the lies starts.


Accounts of other people of the time should be considered one sided when they were quoted in a public mannor.

Any conflicting newspaper reports of the time were no doubt removed from existing archives.

It is believed that the first task after the occupation of Vienna in 1938 was the removal all records of he who shall not be named. That this process started in 1933 is likley.

Reliable sources, where removable, that contradicts the official version, would have been destroyed.

Most likley such sources can only be found in archives outside of Europe.

-7

Hitler marched in front row, straight for the guns

Political opponents of Adolf Hitler, both then and now, usually try to malign him in every possible way. However, duty of a historian is to tell the truth: No matter how much we disagree with his deeds and his worldview, Hitler was not a coward. His actions in both world wars, between the wars and finally manner of his death all confirm this.

What is known for the fact is that march in question happened on November 9th, 1923 with Beer Hall Putch already losing steam. Hitler and his accomplices (Erich Ludendorff above all others) decided to march with their followers to the center of Munich. Both Hitler and Ludendorff led from the front, i.e. they were in front row of National-Socialists and other participants in Putch attempt. Somewhere near Feldherrnhalle they were confronted by police and troops loyal to Bavarian government, all armed and ready to fire.

At that moment Hitler decided to press on, hoping that police and military would not open fire, seeing Ludendorff and many of their former comrades still wearing uniforms from WW1. They all locked hands, probably as psychological support and to show that they all march as one and have no intention to stop. Note that in those times it was not uncommon for police to shoot at protestors, since unlike today they didn't have non-lethal means to stop them (for example, see Riot Act in Britain). Therefore, both Hitler and others understood there was considerable danger for their lives, especially those in front rows.

What happened next is a debatable, but some things are certain. Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter was one of the leaders of the putch, he walked with his right arm locked with Hitler's left arm. Government forces opened fire, it is most likely they deliberately avoided shooting at Ludendorff, but targeted other leaders. Von Scheubner-Richter was killed instantly, he dragged Hitler down with him, Hermann Goering was also wounded but more importantly Heinrich Trambauer, bearer of swastika flag carried before the crowd, was wounded and flag fell. With their leadership ostensibly killed, and flag fallen, most of participants in the march panicked and started running away. Minority of those armed returned fire, but putch was over.

How did Hitler injure his arm is unclear, it is possible dying von Scheubner-Richter dragged him down, it is also possible he attempted to pull him out back to safety, or combination of both . He did fled with the rest of the crowd, but that was only after his gamble failed and whole thing fell apart.

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    However sprinkled with references, this does not answer the question. OP asked for primary sources. You merely give your opinion on the topic, without the slightest reference to justify it. What more, your political leanings are rather well established on SE and they should prompt anyone reading your answer to take what you write on this topic with a huge fistful of salt. – Denis de Bernardy Aug 8 at 19:43
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    I could accept this answer if it weren't for that first paragraph. Don't drag a discussion of Hitler's conduct "in both world wars, between the wars and finally manner of his death" into scope. The rest of the answer is a valid presentation of facts, although utterly missing the point of the question (which was about eyewitness accounts or other primary sources of the happenings, not a retelling of the established tale). – DevSolar Aug 9 at 6:22
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    Hitler was not a coward Maybe not initially in 1923, but murdering innocent jewish children just because, it's pretty as far as you can get for cowardice. It's true we tend to dismiss anything remotely positive about him, and there's a very good reason for it. – Bregalad Aug 9 at 6:40
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    If you ask me, his manner of death was the ultimate proof of his cowardice, not the other way round. He was too afraid to take responsibility for his sins, instead he took the quick way out. – Annatar Aug 9 at 8:01
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    Remaining true to your own ideas may be a quality, but it may also turn against you. Someone with courage shows ‘coeur’ (heart) for his ideals. By suicide he abandoned them. Because those ideals were bankrupt from the beginning. It takes courage to unite instead of divide. Dividing is easy. Play on fear. That is what he did and that is not courage. – Ajagar Aug 10 at 19:16

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