As the January 6 hearings are about to resume, it is unlikely that our basic understanding of what happened between the 2020 presidential election and the attack on the Capitol will significantly change. That is a testament to the crucial work the Committee has already done and to which we owe much of our detailed knowledge of the weeks long, multi-level coup attempt and the evolving strategies of those involved in this deliberate campaign to nullify the election results, prevent the transfer of power and end constitutional government in America.
And yet, the Committee’ job is far from done. It still has an important role to play in determining the meaning and role of January 6 in US history. Was the attack on the US Capitol a failed, desperate, last-ditch effort by delusional extremists? Or will it be remembered as a milestone in America’s accelerating descent into authoritarianism – an assault on the system that didn’t succeed initially but played a key role in democracy’s demise? The answer to these questions is not decided by facts and past events. In a very real sense, January 6 isn’t over yet, and the success or failure of the Trumpian coup attempt will be decided by what happens next.
If that sounds counter-intuitive, it is helpful to examine how the meaning of another infamous historical event to which January 6 has often been compared – the Beer Hall Putsch, Adolf Hitler’s failed coup attempt in November 1923 – changed significantly over time.
Hitler and his Nazi Party wanted to emulate the “March on Rome,” which had resulted in Benito Mussolini rising to power and installing a fascist regime in Italy in October 1922. The plan was to unite far-right factions and the military in Munich and then march on Berlin and establish a new government under national-socialist lead. Hitler and his allies were certain that the Weimar Republic, which had been founded just five years earlier in the wake of the German Empire’s crushing defeat in World War I, was ripe for the taking. This remarkable democratic experiment had indeed been under pressure from the start, never more so than in 1923, when a French and Belgian military occupation of the Ruhr area, Germany’s industrial center, hyper-inflation, economic collapse, and a steep rise in unemployment all contributed to a deep political crisis.
The Beer Hall Putsch, however, was unable to capitalize on this situation – it was a rather dilettantish affair. The Bavarian Right did not unite behind the attempted coup, the military did not join, and the march of about 2,000 supporters on the Feldherrenhalle in Munich’s city center on November 9 ended quickly when police forces opened fire, leaving four police officers and 16 putschists dead.
In the context of the current political situation in the US, what happened after the Beer Hall Putsch seems to serve as an important warning. Hitler was arrested and charged with high treason. But because the judges were rather sympathetic to his political project and inclined to lend credence to his version of the events, in which he presented himself as a true patriot who tried to save the nation, he got off easy: he was sentenced to just five years in prison and was granted significant comforts and privileges.