Pulling off a successful coup d’état in a dictatorship is a risky affair. It invariably involves the military, and failure usually results in long prison terms or executions. But coup attempts in democratic countries, while much less common, are less perilous. They rarely involve the military, and it’s complicated to punish coup plotters who have a following and can represent themselves as protesters rather than traitors. That is why an important point of comparison for America’s January 6 insurrection is the attempted coup led by Adolf Hitler in 1923, the so-called Beer Hall Putsch, and how it affected his march toward absolute power.
Conventional wisdom has it that the blossoming democratic German government of the early 1920s botched its efforts to rein in Hitler after his failed coup, and thereby helped propel him to greater popularity. In this view, the Biden administration understands the tragic German history, and is now avoiding legal action against Trump, letting the US House of Representatives investigate the coup plot and limit its punishment to some kind of public shaming.
Yet if you review the events following the failed Beer Hall Putsch, it becomes clear that German institutions successfully sidelined Hitler for nearly 10 years, and might have kept him out of the mainstream longer except for a worldwide economic depression that amplified popular disaffection. Moreover, Trump has raced ahead of Hitler’s timetable for recovering from an attempted coup, bringing the United States much closer to a fascist takeover than most Americans likely realize.
While Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch and Trump’s January 6 coup attempt bore a striking resemblance in terms of the size of the insurrections and the resulting violence, the most notable similarity is the nature of the lies that led to the buildup of political tensions: Hitler’s lies about Germany’s defeat in World War I and Trump’s lies about voter fraud driving his loss in the 2020 election. Both were big lies that undermined faith in government institutions and gained credibility from frequent repetition.
In their immediate post-coup lives, Hitler had a much more difficult time than Trump, thanks to less forgiving rulers. Germany’s post–World War I democratic government aggressively prosecuted Hitler and nine of his associates for treason within months of the 1923 coup attempt. He was sent to prison the next year, serving nine months before getting himself paroled. A key condition of Hitler’s parole was that he refrain from speaking in public for two years. The classic 1960 history, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William Shirer, explains Hitler’s challenge this way: “A silenced Hitler was a defeated Hitler, as ineffective as a handcuffed pugilist in a ring.”
Hitler, according to Shirer, remained single-minded in his determination to revive the Nazi Party, via a two-part strategy: “to attack and undermine the government” and to operate as “a state within a state.” But as diligently as the Nazis worked to attract new members and intimidate opponents via their paramilitary SS storm troopers, Hitler remained a convicted traitor under the government’s thumb as a parolee. A few times when Hitler ignored the order against public speaking, police intervened and Hitler backed down, fearful of being thrown back in jail or exiled to his native Austria.
In the modern retelling, Hitler emerged from his high-profile trial and the imprisonment, where he wrote his political treatise Mein Kampf, “more popular than ever,” according to History.com. But German elections in the 1920s tell a much different story. In a May 1924 Reichstag election, the Nazis received 1.6 million votes, or 5.7 percent of the total. In another election seven months later, the Nazi total had declined to 907,000, or 3 percent of the total. By the 1928 general election, five years after the Beer Hall Putsch, Nazis received just 2.8 percent of the vote.
The jailing and subsequent silencing of Hitler clearly took a toll on Nazi popularity for much of the 1920s. It took a global depression beginning in 1929 to shift the German political landscape. In 1930, seven years out from the Beer Hall Putsch, the Nazis tallied 6.4 million votes, or 18 percent of the total, “propelling [the Nazis] from the ninth and smallest party in Parliament to the second largest,” Shirer wrote. In subsequent elections in 1932, the Nazis and Hitler would accumulate up to 37 percent of the vote total.
A year out from the January 6 insurrection, Trump has yet to pay a serious political or personal price for leading the first known coup attempt in nearly 250 years of American history. Whereas Hitler at this point was in prison, with his Nazi Party in shambles, Trump is roaming the country giving speeches and raising vast amounts of money; his Republican Party is well positioned to gain a majority in Congress next year.
But what if Trump were prosecuted for charges related to fomenting an insurrection and convicted? The investigation by the House of Representatives into the insurrection could well provide substantial evidence linking Trump to the carrying out of the January 6 events. Being convicted of treason or similar charges could result in a sentence well beyond the five years Hitler received, with much less likelihood of early parole. At age 75, that could be the end of his political aspirations.
Until and unless that happens, Trump seems on a smooth path to reclaim the presidency, and mold it to his autocratic preferences. Unlike Hitler, who launched the Nazi Party himself and nursed it back to health on several occasions between 1923 and 1933, Trump inherited a 150-plus-year-old major political party that still holds the legitimacy conferred to it by the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan.
Trump also appears to have maintained a sizable political following. In the first major election since the coup attempt, the Trump-endorsed candidate for governor of Virginia handily beat the candidate endorsed by President Joe Biden—this only a year after Biden beat Trump in Virginia by 10 percentage points in the 2020 presidential election.
Finally, Trump and the Republicans appear to be ahead of Hitler and the Nazis on intimidating opponents and sabotaging democratic institutions. While the Nazis mostly focused on breaking up meetings of communists and launching youth radicalization programs like Hitler Youth, Trump and the Republicans have taken intimidation to new levels. One tactic has been for sympathizers to harass local election officials, to force independent members to resign and replace them with loyalists, as part of a larger effort to undermine election results. Another has been for far-right and Trump-affiliated groups to disrupt local school committee meetings to oppose mask mandates and undermine public education.
At some Republican events, the pressure for violence is nearly palpable. In Idaho, a supporter asked Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk this question: “When do we get to use the guns?… That’s not a joke…. I mean, literally, where’s the line? How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?”
We don’t know exactly how Trump will fare in another run for president, but the actual vote may matter little. In the recent book Hitler’s First Hundred Days, historian Peter Fritzsche writes that the power brokers who handed over dictatorial power to Hitler in January 1933, absent majority support, were focused on ending the ever-worsening polarization, inconclusive elections, and political gridlock, “because the divisions in the country had created political paralysis.… Better ‘an end with horror’ than ‘horror without end,’ asserted one Nazi leader.”
Shirer quotes a speech from November 9, 1936, celebrating the 13th anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch, in which Hitler reflected on his elevation to chancellor: “In 1933 it was no longer a question of overthrowing a state by an act of violence; meanwhile the new State had been built up, and all that there remained to do was to destroy the last remnants of the old State—and that took but a few hours.”
As Republicans undermine America’s election system, it’s not difficult—absent a successful legal prosecution—to imagine Trump reflecting in a few years about just how easy his takeover of the United States turned out to be.