The Accession of Hitler
The National Socialist (Nazi) Party celebrated January 30, 1933, each year as the day of “the seizure of power.” This expression is misleading because it was intended to indicate a revolution which, in fact, did not take place. Adolf Hitler did not “seize” power on this day; the Chancellorship was legally handed over to him by the Chief of State of the German Republic. The reins of government were given to Hitler, the leader of the strongest Reichstag political party, in accordance with democratic principles by Reich President von Hindenburg, the great military leader of World War I who was looked up to with deep faith and veneration particularly by all soldiers young and old. He did so in a serious crisis of state and only after long hesitation. The program which the new Reich Chancellor announced—restoration of a strong and sovereign German Reich and economic recovery from a depression with 7,000,000 unemployed—was in accord with the inmost conviction of every member of the Wehrmacht. The young people particularly were impressed by the rising nationalism which was evident in all things and which skillful propaganda rendered plausible to many Germans of all classes.
Under these circumstances there wasn’t the slightest reason for the Officer Corps of the Wehrmacht to view the new state leadership with antipathy or even with mistrust. Quite the contrary. The officers viewed with genuine satisfaction Hitler’s new program of freeing the Wehrmacht from the fetters of the Treaty of Versailles and of making it once again a power corresponding to the greatness of the Reich. The fulfillment of such a program would add a new importance to their chosen careers. Even though some of the older officers may have taken exception to the unruly spirit which governed the Nazi movement and to the brutal methods which it brought to bear in the struggle for power against the other parties, such apprehension was of minor importance to the great mass of the Officer Corps for part of the traditional training of the German officer was not to concern himself with politics. The Wehrmacht had retained the same unpolitical character during the period of the Weimar Republic (that is, since 1919) which it had had during the Kaiser’s Reich. The creator of the Reichswehr, General von Seeckt, one of the strongest personalities of his time, had laid particular stress on this point and had deemed it his primary task to again make the Wehrmacht what it had been in the Kaiser’s Reich: the strongest support of the government in power.
Even though Hitler was determined from the beginning to establish a dictatorial regime in the Reich, nevertheless, after he had been legally appointed to conduct the affairs of state, he was most careful to maintain a democratic facade during his subsequent rise. In the Reichstag elections of March, 1933, the National Socialist Party polled only 43.9% of the votes; quite in contrast with the “99.44%” approbations given in subsequent years. The Berlin Reichstag building having been destroyed by fire, Hitler selected the Garrison Church in near-by Potsdam as the site for convening the new Reichstag in March, 1933. The impressive ceremony was to symbolize to the world that he intended to build his regime on the heritage of the old Prussian tradition, as it had been particularly represented in the person of the greatest of the Hohenzollerns, Frederick the Great (1712-86). The pews were filled with marshals, generals, and admirals of the old and the new Wehrmacht, led by the renowned, 83 year-old army commander of World War I, Field Marshal von Mackensen (1849-1945). The chair of the former Kaiser was left vacant; in full uniform directly behind it sat the former Crown Prince of the Kaiser’s Reich.
Two days after the convening of the new Reichstag, it passed Hitler’s Enabling Law with the necessary two-thirds majority required for a change in the constitution, 441 to 94 votes. The most important paragraph of the law gave the government the power for four years to pass laws without the concurrence of the Reichstag and to put them into force forthwith.
Thus, without violating the constitution, the road to dictatorship was opened. The aged Reich President von Hindenburg was still living to guard the established order; Hitler had given him the assurance that he would “not use the power conferred on him by the Enabling Act without first consulting” the President. But the former was over eighty years old; how would things be when he was no longer amongst the living? Probably, very few gave this much thought in those days of budding nationalism. The Officer Corps happily applied itself to its particular function in building up a new and vigorous state. If the Wehrmacht of the Weimar Republic was the “strongest support of the government in power,” in accordance with tradition but without much interest, then it now applied itself to the task wholeheartedly under the state leadership of Hitler! This attitude suffered no change when von Hindenburg died and the Reich Government passed a law on August 2, 1934, which was approved on August 19 with an overwhelming majority (88%) in a national election, combining in Hitler the offices of Reich President and Reich Chancellor; Hitler was now Der Fuehrer.
And yet scarcely twelve years were to elapse before a German colonel, who belonged to the elite of the Officer Corps, was to place a bomb intended to kill the German Chief of State. It is a hard and thorny path which we must pursue in order to understand this interesting development.
Hitler’s Training Years
A few weeks before the passing of von Hindenburg, Germany underwent a severe convulsion, the finer details of which are still shrouded in mystery. Soon after the Nazis had come into power serious cleavages developed within the party. Leftist groups became restless at Hitler's failure to move more rapidly along socialistic paths. Prominent among these groups was Ernst Roehm, long-time associate of Hitler and leader of the Nazi’s private army, the SA (Sturmabteilungen—Storm Troopers). Opposed to these groups was a Rightist combination which was generally content with Hitler’s action to dale. Late in June there were alleged indications that the SA (two and a half million strong) was preparing to seize control of the government. In the “Blood Purge” Roehm and a host of the SA’s top leaders were eliminated, and the SA was brought to heel. The bloody deeds had been achieved with the assistance of the SS (Schutzstaffeln—Special Guard), Hitler’s elite body guard some 250,000 strong.
These events the Wehrmacht viewed with satisfaction, for the SA had come to be regarded as an upstart rival. But the strong emergence of the SS caused some apprehension among the Officer Corps. With the passing of von Hindenburg, however, a new era opened. (Editor’s note.)
It is easy to understand that the Party as the sole political power in the state should endeavor to bring the Wehrmacht, in particular the Army as the strongest of the three armed services, under its sway. It is just as easy to understand that the Army in order to maintain its integrity resisted demands which threatened to undermine the spirit and traditional character of the Wehrmacht, even though it willingly adopted certain necessary innovations resulting from the new order of the state. Hitler stood between Party and Wehrmacht; his heart was with the Party, but his reason, at least during the years of his development, was on the side of the Wehrmacht. Often enough during this period he protected the Wehrmacht from the machinations of the Party and the SS. When in the fall of 1934 the SS launched a bitter attack on the Wehrmacht in what appeared to be preparatory to another putsch, Hitler addressed the leaders of the Party and many of the higher officers in the Berlin Opera House and made a unique avowal of his faith in the Army and its high command; thereupon the SS lowered its sights. However, it was inevitable that discord would develop from Hitler’s relations to the Army. The latter was constantly defending itself against encroachments with which Hitler continued more or less in sympathy.
There were, however, no serious differences between the Officer Corps and Hitler during the years 1933 to 1937, especially since Hitler’s foreign political successes strongly inspired the Officer Corps to have confidence in his leadership. The announcement of the sovereign right to arm (March 16, 1935), which set aside a degrading part of the Treaty of Versailles, was welcomed by the German Officer Corps; the reoccupation of the Rhineland (early March, 1936) was indeed considered extremely daring but absolutely necessary as a strategic defensive measure. In between these events was the conclusion of the Anglo- German Naval Treaty (June 18, 1935) which replaced the dictatorial terms of Versailles with a voluntary agreement.
On November 5, 1937, Hitler called the Reich War Minister (von Blomberg) the three Commanders in Chief of the Wehrmacht, and the Reich Foreign Minister (von Neurath) to a conference which proved to be highly significant and ominous in its effects. Hitler revealed for the first time his foreign political objectives which could not be attained by peaceable means. Hossbach, Hitler’s Wehrmacht Adjutant for years, later testified that Hitler had not up to this time harbored warlike intentions. In the subsequent discussion which was at times quite animated, von Blomberg and the Commander-in-Chief Army, General Baron von Fritsch, as well as the Foreign Minister, von Neurath, strongly opposed any and all war plans. Three months later, none of the three above-named men remained in office.
Soon after this conference wherein they had displayed their “unsuitability” for future projects, von Blomberg and von Fritsch were dropped from their top positions, both on farcical or trumped-up charges. Von Neurath was also dismissed.
Oddly enough, von Blomberg himself suggested to Hitler that he (the Fuehrer) himself assume the position as Commander in Chief of the Wehrmacht. That Hitler did, and the implications of the move were scarcely recognized at the time.
The separation of von Blomberg may not have been easy for Hitler, since he knew him to be a faithful follower. It was quite different in the case of von Fritsch. Even though Hitler had to respect this highly competent general, who up to this time had appeared indispensable to him as the creator of the new army, nevertheless, there was no sympathy whatsoever between him and this upright aristocrat who was wont to express his opinion emphatically and with unerring objectiveness. At the time it was not quite clear whether Hitler did the pushing or was being pushed. However, later on Hitler frankly informed the generals of the Army that he had to let von Fritsch go because he could not work with a Commander in Chief Army who opposed his political plans. It is quite possible, too, that the general represented a certain danger to the budding dictator by reason of his superior attributes as a soldier and as the “strong man” who possessed in rare degree the trust and confidence of the Officer Corps.
The Commanders in Chief of the three services accepted the new order of things rather easily. In the pertinent records of the Army and Navy High Commands of that time, there is even evident a certain satisfaction that an armed forces commander in the chain of command to the Fuehrer (that is, the Reich War Minister) had been dropped. The Commanders in Chief rightly deduced therefrom that this would strengthen their own influence with the Fuehrer; during the tenure of the former Commander in Chief of the Wehrmacht, this influence had not always been as large and as appropriate as they had desired. On the other hand, however, the position of Hitler, who now combined in his person the offices of “Supreme Commander” and “Commander in Chief of the Wehrmacht” had been strengthened relative to them, and—what was more serious—Hitler now considered his training years as completed and that he had learned enough of military affairs to be able to reject inconvenient advice.
Hitler appointed General Wilhelm Keitel as “Chief of the Wehrmacht high Command” to assist him in exercising his office as Commander in Chief of the Wehrmacht. A strong and superior person in this position might have accomplished much in filling the vacuum resulting from the removal of the Reich War Minister and Commander in Chief Wehrmacht in representing the internal interests of the services as well as advising Hitler on politico-military and operational matters, but, unfortunately, General Keitel possessed neither the qualities of character nor the ability of a military leader to make what circumstances indicated was possible of his position. No doubt, this was most welcome to Hitler who did not need a staunch, energetic military leader to accomplish his aims relative to the Wehrmacht, but rather a diligent worker and a faithful aide. He could not have made a better choice for this purpose.
The shameful treatment of von Fritsch by Hitler had deep influence in his relationship to the leading circles of the Army. The most competent of these men, in particular, rightly felt that their honor had been sullied, and it resulted in the first serious crisis of confidence within the Wehrmacht High Command. During the von Fritsch crisis, the suggestion of rebellion against the Chief of State was broached confidentially for the first time. Von Fritsch rejected the suggestion because he did not want to unleash a civil war and to make his personal fate the occasion for the shedding of blood. The removal of Fritsch may have been Hitler’s test of what the Wehrmacht High Command would swallow. After the latter had bowed to his will, there was no further reason for him to alter his chosen course.
The Struggle to Keep the Peace
With the reorganization of the top command of the Wehrmacht early in 1938, General von Brauchitsch succeeded von Fritsch as Commander in Chief of the German army. Immediately below von Brauchitsch was Chief of the General Staff of the German Army Ludwig von Beck. Beck and his associates did not oppose the union of Germany and Austria (Anschluss) of March, 1938, but when the Sudeten crisis threatened to lead to war in July, 1938, Beck urged von Brauchitsch to take summary action by seizing Hitler to prevent Germany’s perpetrating a war which would, Beck realized, threaten the Reich’s existence. Von Brauchitsch showed full understanding for Beck’s attitude but did not feel that the time was ripe for such a move; he believed that it was still possible, and the better way, to attain this end through his personal influence on Hitler. When Beck realized that he would not carry his point, he requested and was granted his relief as Chief of the General Staff in the late summer of 1938; it led to his release from active duty in the Army.
The former Chief of Supply in the General Staff, General Franz Halder, succeeded Beck as Chief of the General Staff late in August, 1938. Halder had been closely associated with Beck’s recommendation to have Hitler “restrained,” and after the war he revealed to this writer that at the very moment late in September, 1938, when Halder was about to give the necessary order to have Hitler “restrained,” news arrived that Britain’s Chamberlain would fly to Munich to negotiate. The order for the contemplated move was withheld.
The enormity of this planned action must be appreciated; it is something that has never happened before in the history of the German Wehrmacht. It probably represents the extreme limit to which a responsible armed forces high command can go, within the bounds of moral conduct, in the struggle to preserve the peace!
The attempt to stop Hitler by forcible means on his road to war was not repeated in the year 1939 when war actually ensued, for the conditions for such a move had become essentially more unfavorable than in the year before. The Czech crisis had not led to a new world war as the General Staff had feared. Hitler had estimated the situation correctly; thanks to the mediation of the Western Powers he had attained his greatest foreign political success with peaceable and legal means and had strengthened his position tremendously, even with the Wehrmacht. Even the aggression against Prague in March, 1939, had been accepted by the world without involvement in war. On August 22, ten days before the attack on Poland, Hitler addressed the higher officers of the Wehrmacht at Obersalzburg concerning the impending Polish war and the possibilities of localizing it. The author personally knows certain of the attending officers who had gone into the conference room with the firm conviction that the intervention of the Western Powers was unavoidable this time: influenced by the address of the Fuehrer. these same officers stated after leaving the conference: “No doubt, the Fuehrer will be right again; England and France will stay out of the war.”
Looking back, it can be said that the year 1939 was the decisive year for the fate of Germany and the world. If it was necessary to remove Hitler and his regime, it had to be done before the war. During the war, when the entire German nation was fighting for its existence against a world of enemies, it was too late.
When General Halder contemplated the coup d’état just before Munich, he was entirely right from a psychological point of view. If he could show the Wehrmacht and the people that the nation could maintain the peace only by the elimination of the Hitler regime, then he could be sure that his conduct would be understood and approved. This would also have been the justification to take action in the late summer of 1939 when there was no second Munich in prospect. The desire to avert war prevailed in the leading circles of the Wehrmacht (not least of all in the Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe, Goering) but the iron determination and unbending force were lacking to transform the will into the deed, cost what it might. Officers of superior caliber were the need of the hour to establish a united front of the generals. The necessary spiritual bond had to be forged by men who were imbued with their great responsibility and whose personalities radiated and inspired implicit confidence in all their associates. One does no injustice to the high professional attainments and moral character, which marked the vast majority of the leading men in the Wehrmacht, when one notes that personalities of this caliber were lacking in that critical period for Germany.
When World War II had broken out, the Wehrmacht had other tasks to concern itself with than the overthrow of the Chief of State. Moreover, everything appeared to be going very well indeed; it was the period of the brilliant blitz campaigns, and an unbridled propaganda strengthened the belief in an early victorious peace. Only a few, particularly those in now-deposed General Beck’s circle, were not deceived by this; they did not believe in final victory, and they sensed the danger that the Wehrmacht was becoming the unwitting tool of a leadership which they considered criminal by reason of the ways and means employed by the Nazi regime in using its power within the state. These few continued to work steadfastly for the overthrow of the dictator despite the threat of the enemy without.
The Officer Corps During the War
Fundamentally, a revolt of the Wehrmacht against the Chief of State in time of peace can be justified in certain very grave cases. In some other countries, a military putsch is not very unusual and often ends happily. Franco-Spain came about in this wise. In war the armed forces of every state on earth have only one task: to gain victory! Everything that detracts therefrom is immoral and reprehensible. The soldier, who occupies himself with other things, sins against the one obligation which he has assumed relative to his people. Officers, who spend their time pursuing revolutionary plans within the country while their nation is fighting for its life, will never be able to fulfill their duty against the foe without. Mutiny and sabotage are contrary to the military code of all nations. Obedience is, and always will be, the foundation for the wartime effectiveness of any armed forces. It channels the courage and esprit de corps of the troops into the proper course.
A “political officer,” who pursues his own policy during war on his own hook and who arrogates to himself state powers, was something foreign to the German Wehrmacht. It knew only the officer “true to the traditional concept” who, unconcerned with the conflicts of foreign and domestic policy, was prepared to lay down his life in defense of his country. The International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg condemned this type of soldier. Yet it is to be assumed that the armed forces of any nation would likewise be condemned by this verdict of the high Nuremberg court. Whosoever espouses this concept pronounced in Nuremberg and takes it as a precept sounds the death knell of the armed forces; every state which tolerates it undermines the foundation on which it rests.
To be sure, every officer is duty-bound in war and in peace to stand up for his opinion and concept, within the scope of his position, relative to his superior. This duty is just as much a law of his honor as is courage in the face of the enemy. The higher he advances up the ladder, the more compelling does this obligation become. If he cannot carry his point and he believes that he cannot take the responsibility relative to his superior for that which will ensue, then it is his duty to himself and to his people to ask for his relief, if necessary invoking the pretext of failing health. If the officer has advanced to such high position where conduct of war and policy merge, then this obligation extends beyond his own service and into all phases of the life of the state, in particular into political affairs. General Beck found himself in this situation in 1938 and acted accordingly. It must be conceded that in World War II the high commanders of the Wehrmacht did not always use the full weight of their positions in their relations to Hitler, which the military and political responsibility coupled with them demanded.
In practice, cases may arise where necessity compels one to deviate from fundamental principles. When, for instance, the leadership in war is so miserable that it is certainly leading the state and the people to ruin through its own fault, while it can be expected of another and better leadership that it can save the nation from this fate, then the salvation of the country is above all principles. Hitler himself said in Mein Kampf: “If a nation is being led to its downfall through the devices of the government in power, then rebellion is not only the right but also the duty of every citizen of such a country.” Nevertheless, it was extremely difficult, especially for the soldier, to deviate from his principles for two important reasons.
First and foremost, there was the “military oath” which the soldier had sworn, calling on God as his witness, to his Fuehrer and Supreme Commander. Only one who has been a military man can appreciate the gravity of the obligation which the soldier takes on his conscience when he renders this oath. The latter is not a fine symbol designed for quiet and peaceful times; its practical effect is not realized until conflicts ensue. Then it becomes a holy obligation to keep faith to the last breath to whom he swore allegiance. When Field Marshal von Rundstedt was asked in Nuremberg in 1946 why he had not risen up against Hitler and had brought the war to an end, he replied: “It would not have changed matters for the German people. But my name would have gone down as the greatest traitor in history.” When our former enemies now voice the opinion that the German officer should have broken his oath because the National Socialist regime, to which he had sworn allegiance, had shown all signs of being criminal in nature, the motive of this attitude is largely influenced by the fact that it would have been easier to conquer the German people if the officer had broken his oath. It has ever been thus—policy exploits every betrayal, but the traitor is despised.
There was something else, too, which perhaps weighed even heavier in the balance. Just because he held in his hand the weapons which would decide whether it was victory or defeat for his people, it was so extremely difficult for the officer to be clear in his mind whether he could answer before God, his conscience, and his people in using the weapons entrusted to him against his own Chief of State instead of against the foreign foe. The particular tragedy, which made this conflict of conscience a well-nigh insolvable problem, was that whosoever worked for the overthrow of the regime at any cost, must also in the last analysis be prepared to work for the defeat of his people. Thus high treason—which might be morally justified—becomes at the same time betrayal of his country and in its most infamous form. One of the most fanatic champions of the German resistance movement, Brigadier General von Tresckow, expressed himself with brutal clarity, even before the German offensive in the West in the spring of 1940: “An action of the Army against Hitler is possible only if the German offensive in the West fails; it is impossible to move a victorious German Army to take action against Hitler.” For his own part he did not hesitate to draw the frightful conclusion therefrom: “Thus we were determined to bring to bear any means to thwart victory!” The same mental attitude caused Tresckow’s fellow conspirator, the former Colonel Oster, to reveal to the Norwegians the impending action against Norway and to the Dutch the planned invasion of Holland, fully aware that if his plan succeeded tens of thousands of German soldiers would have to pay with their blood for this traitorous forfeiting of surprise. In full consciousness, they worked for the military defeat of the German people in order to bring about the fall of the hated dictator. It must have been a symptom of the malady, brought on by the frightful collapse in 1945, when quite a few Germans in the early period after the war extolled such conduct as exemplary.
Tresckow and Oster walked alone. Other officers, who similarly considered the fall of the dictator as necessary, could not go along with them on this course because they were conscious of their responsibility toward the soldiers entrusted to their commands and toward their people. It was their desire to avert defeat by the timely elimination of Hitler, or, if it were too late to do that, then by means of the former to pave the way to a tolerable peace in order to save the nation from further useless bloodshed. This end would even justify betrayal of the country as a redeeming act—if it could not be done otherwise.
When matters had progressed so far that the fall of the regime was the last hope in order to save the ship of state from foundering, it hinged very largely on the attitude of the enemy, whether the officer would wish to take upon himself this very difficult act in hopes that it would bring relief to his people. Only this hope could give him the moral strength to act and to justify such conduct in his own conscience.
If Germany’s opponents had said: “We have no hatred for the German people, but your government is immoral and a crime against humanity. As long as it exists, there can be no peace and quiet on earth. We are fighting you for that reason and will continue to fight on until it has been exterminated. Drive it out, reaffirm your adherence to peaceful and democratic principles which are precious to us, and we will welcome you again as an equal member of our great family of nations.” Then the moral basis would have been given not only for the act itself but also for the reconstitution of the state which must follow. However, even then, caution and certain assurances were indicated. The German people had not forgotten that they had been promised the famous Fourteen Points of President Wilson in the armistice negotiations in 1918 but that this promise had not been kept. Consequently, it was of greatest importance that, when the act occurred, Germany should hold possession of foreign territories, which would serve as security that these assurances would be realized.
But what did the enemy proclaim? “Unconditional surrender”—not of Adolf Hitler, but of the German people. It had been decided at the Casablanca conference in January, 1943, at a time when the German east front still stood unbroken deep in the heart of Russia, when German troops still held firm to African soil, when Italy still was faithful to the Axis, and when there could be no serious thought of an Allied invasion of French soil.
We know today that there was doubt in the Allied camp even at that time as to the propriety of unconditional surrender, and that now, only a few years after the war, it is seriously questioned by Germany’s former enemies. At the time when it was announced, its effect was like a trumpet call for the men around Hitler and for the propaganda machine of Dr. Goebbels. The opponents could have given them no better slogan to arouse the utmost power of resistance of the German people, to bring back all the lukewarm and undecided peace seekers to the fold of the Fuehrer whom Providence seemed to have called to thwart the enemies scornfully bent on annihilation. It was in the truest sense of the word a catastrophe, or as the Englishman Jan Colvin expressed it, “A death knell to their hopes” for those constantly growing circles of the German people who had been working for years to bring about the fall of the regime. These Germans were by no means confined to those who were of the opinion that Hitler’s military leadership would necessarily bring with it military defeat, but it also included those who condemned most severely the criminal structure of this regime as a disgrace to the German name and its standing in the world. They had hoped for understanding and, at least, moral support of the world.
The officers of the German Wehrmacht who belonged to the resistance movement or who sympathized with it were particularly affected. What was the good of a revolt against Hitler, if it could not prevent the destruction of Germany? In any case, its moral foundation was withdrawn by the demand for unconditional surrender as long as there remained the slightest prospect that a better outcome of the war could be achieved by fighting on under Hitler’s leadership. Supposing that the resistance forces had succeeded in the deposition of Hitler, one still had to reckon that parts of the Wehrmacht would not follow the new movement, that civil war would break out, and that the enemy would then easily finish what was left of a nation torn asunder by civil war. Might it not have engendered the watchword amongst a despairing people and caused the growth of a new, dangerous legend: We would have succeeded under Hitler despite all, but the generals betrayed us? This danger was all the greater because the German Wehrmacht had become more nazified in the last war years than before the outbreak of war by reason of the influx of recruits who came largely from the ranks of the Hitler Youth. This applied also to the Army, particularly the junior officers. If the confidence of the Wehrmacht in Hitler’s leadership seemed to wane from time to time, propaganda did its part to revive anew the belief in the necessity to confidently and unconditionally follow the man who had become Germany’s fate. “Unconditional surrender,” of course, furnished the basis for this propaganda. It is astonishing to read in the reports of the United States Division of Psychological Warfare concerning the questioning of the German prisoners of war as late as the first part of January, 1945, after the failure of the Ardennes offensive, that of 524 of those questioned 62% proclaimed their confidence in Hitler and 44% still believed in final German victory.
The exhaustive research studies of the German resistance movement by the University of Chicago Professor Hans Rothfels clearly reveal that the Bxitish and American statesmen were informed in several different ways, before the war and during the same, concerning the organization, aims and scope of this movement, but all endeavors on the part of the Germans to interest the Allied Governments in the same failed. It was indeed a fundamental principle of Allied policy and propaganda to minimize, or even to decline to consider, anything connected with the German resistance movement. According to Rothfels, the former “insisted upon the identification of Nazis with Germans and upon the thesis that, in particular German military leaders (militarists), who undoubtedly formed a sector of the opposition, were just as bad as Hitler’s outfit!” It was no wonder that one drove the non- Nazis into the arms of the Nazis when one made a Nazi regime synonymous with the German people.
Hitler and the Generals
Mistrust was one of the most outstanding characteristics of Hitler. His aide, Hossbach, who was with him practically every day during the years 1934 to 1938, said of him: “He was faithful to only a few, in the long run only to those who recognized his infallibility, praised him and devoted themselves to him unconditionally.” Shortly before the von Fritsch crisis, Hossbach observed on Hitler’s part a marked sharpening of mistrust toward the Wehrmacht, in particular the Army, without any apparent reason therefor. The cause may have been that Hitler, who had previously not pursued his totalitarian demands beyond the bounds of the military domain, had now decided to include the Wehrmacht in the program of political coordination, and in consequence reckoned with strong resistance, particularly from the leaders of the Army. No doubt, this was also one of the motivating reasons for the fall of von Fritsch, the “strong man” at the head of the Army. In addition, he had always run up against the resistance of the generals in his foreign political ventures, rearmament, and the reoccupation of the Rhineland. In the program of rearmament, the generals had laid greater stress on quality of the troops than on numbers, but this was much too slow for Hitler. In the occupation of the Rhineland, the Commander in Chief Army voiced his concern of an armed conflict so emphatically that the number of troops pushed forward to the left bank of the Rhine was limited to only three battalions. When Hitler tarried in the house of the Nazi Gauleiter in Frankfurt after the action had been accomplished, he said to his entourage: “If I had listened to my generals, I would not be where I am today!” When the danger of war increased in later years and the resistance of the generals to his war plans became stronger and stronger, he cried out indignantly: “What kind of generals are they anyway, that the Chief of State may perhaps have to drive them to war! If things were as they should be, I should be hard-pressed to prevail against the urging of the generals for war!”
These tensions increased during the war. Prior to the offensive in the West, the friction with Hitler was so severe, particularly as regards the intended violation of neutrality of Holland and Belgium, that the former made unusually sharp attacks on the generals in an address on November 23, 1939, referring to them as a “superfluous upper-crust” which had not come to the mark even in 1914. He also reproached the generals for their “obsolete concepts of chivalrous conduct of war.” Thereupon, von Brauchitsch requested his relief, but it was turned down.
The General Staff was a particularly sore point for Hitler. Its orthodox and methodical mode of working, its adherence to the traditional principles of command, and its rather frequent lack of receptivity for the advancements in the modern technique of war were hateful to the master of intuition who also had a measure of ingenuity. He tolerated the General Staff because it was indispensable to him to support the function of command; but he endeavored to restrict its influence on command to a minimum. Britisher Alan Bullock is surely right when he says in his excellent biography of Hitler: “A combination of Hitler’s often brilliant intuition with the orthodox and methodical planning of the General Staff could have been highly effective. But this was ruled out by Hitler’s distrust of the generals.”
It is understandable, in view of the constant tensions, that official discussions between Hitler and the generals were extremely difficult. There was no lack of generals who came to Hitler with the intention of manfully representing their concepts, and some did so, but many of them succumbed to the peculiar hypnotic effect emanating from this man, or to the suggestive power of his objections, so that in the end they often agreed to the opposite of what they had originally intended to accomplish.
When Hitler had garnered his laurels of victory in Poland, Norway, and France during the first year of the war, when he had developed an overweening opinion of self and propaganda had marked him as “The greatest Feldherr [field general] of all times,” it was, of course, doubly hard for the generals to put across their own concepts when these deviated from Hitler’s. How was it possible to remonstrate with a victorious dictator who had thus far gone from success to success in the foreign, political, and military fields frequently in disregard to advice given him, and who apparently had a “sixth sense” to do at a given moment that which should be done? Thus, orderly calculation was stifled even in the General Staff when Hitler made the most fateful of his decisions, the attack on Soviet Russia. In the diary of General Halder—the same general who had planned to arrest Hitler in the fall of 1938 when war appeared to be impending as a result of the Czech crisis—we find this entry on July 3, 1941, after the first great victories in Russia: “It is probably not going too far when I maintain that the campaign against Russia has been won in fourteen days!”
Later on, after the severe reverses in Russia, when the nimbus of “the greatest Feldherr of all times” had passed off in thin air, the former tensions between Hitler and the generals, which had been repressed during the period of the victorious campaigns, were revived stronger than before. Hitler now became more stubborn than ever, more inaccessible to reasonable counsel; his mistrust grew. He believed that there was reason to suppose that the generals did not carry out his orders as he had directed. The result was that Hitler believed that he must give all orders himself and personally supervise* down to the smallest tactical details of troop command. The pertinent instructions, which flowed from his desk far removed from the scene of action, were in the main superseded by events when they reached the troops. The more difficult the situation became, the greater grew the despair of the generals under this sort of leadership, and the greater became their conviction that it must be eliminated to avert a catastrophe. It might be—this was the minimum requirement—by the elimination of Hitler from military command, or, as the military situation became ever more hopeless, by the political liquidation of the war as the only way out, through the forcible removal of the Chief of State.
When the situation had become aggravated, Field Marshal Rommel, who had formerly stood very close to Hitler and had once been highly favored by him, also joined the ranks of the resistance fighters and at once took a leading and directing role. In the summer of 1944 he was in contact with a great number of generals of the Western Front whose purpose was to pave the way for peace by the elimination of Hitler. Rommel would have nothing to do with the assassination plans against Hitler; he did not wish to kill him but rather to arrest him and to have him tried by a German court. This was a basic mistake. Only the death of the Fuehrer could preserve the Wehrmacht and therewith the entire nation from most severe repercussions, because the German soldier would be released from his oath only when Hitler was no longer alive.
With the failure of the plot to kill Hitler on July 20, 1944, there collapsed the conspiracy to eliminate the Fuehrer and thereby save something of Germany. All leaders of the Wehrmacht were under suspicion. Halder was arrested. Beck was shot that very day. Rommel was implicated and was forced to commit suicide.
In the foregoing it has been emphasized how difficult it was for the generals to prevail over Hitler, but there were a few outstanding personalities who were successful in converting Hitler to their concepts by reason of their firm attitude and unerring objectivity. It worked to best advantage to have a private discussion with Hitler when he was more approachable than in a larger circle. Such interviews would often result in violent scenes, when Hitler would foam with rage and appear to be on the point of making a physical attack. However, when the spokesman did not allow himself to be bluffed thereby, the Dictator was also able to bow to a stronger will. Such a spokesman was Admiral Doenitz.
Here are a few figures which show how many German generals were “expended” in the fight against the military leadership of Adolf Hitler, in addition to those sacrifices made in connection with the 20th of July 1944. Of 92 German generals who had active major commands or were in key positions in the Wehrmacht High Command between the years 1933 and 1945, 35 were relieved of their offices or dismissed in disgrace by reason of disagreement or dispute with Hitler, eight more were disciplined with dishonorable discharge; that is almost 50%. Of seventeen field marshals, ten were relieved; only one retained his command to the end of the war. Of 36 four-star generals, 26 were relieved and only three survived the war in their positions. These figures speak volumes and offer food for thought to all those who are inclined to deplore the “weak attitude” of the German general officers toward the dictator. When a post-war historian deduces from these figures that they “illustrate the docility with which the generals submitted to treatment such as no previous German ruler had ever dared to inflict on the Army,” it shows that he has no understanding of the inner discipline which binds the structure of a Wehrmacht. In conclusion, the author is reminded of the words of the British Field Marshal Montgomery in his address in Portsmouth, England, on July 2, 1946: “As the servant of the nation the Army is above politics, and so it must remain. Its devotion is given to the State, and it does not behoove the soldier to change his devotion on account of his political views . . . ,” and: “The essence of democracy is freedom, the essence of the Army is discipline . . . !”
After many years of active duty, Vice Admiral Kurt Assmann was appointed Head of the Historical Section of the German Naval High Command in 1933. In addition to editing the official history of German Naval Warfare in World War I, he was lecturer on naval strategy at the German Naval Academy. His official duty gave him access to the official documents, and he had close personal contact with the Germans in high command, especially Grand Admiral Raeder.
Captain Krause, as Assistant U. S. Naval Attache at Berlin, became acquainted with Vice Admiral Assmann in 1938. He served in the North African, Italian, and Pacific campaigns during World War II.
Other Proceedings articles by Admiral Assmann and Captain Krause were: “Stalin and Hitler,” part one, June, part two, July, 1949; “Operation Sea Lion,” January, 1950; “Invasion of Norway,” April, 1952.
 Wehrmacht as translated means “defense force”; the term is used to refer collectively to Germany’s armed forces.
 The Reichswehr was the German army established after Versailles. Von Seeckt, who had served as Chief of Stall of Turkey’s field army, 1917-18, headed the Reichswehr from 1920 until he retired in 1926. From 1932 to 1935 he was military adviser to Chiang Kaishek. He died in 1936.
 See “The German Occupation of the Rhineland,” page 1205, November, 1955 Proceedings.
 Field Marshal von Blomberg (1878-1946) served as Reich War Minister and Commander in Chief of the Wehrmacht from January, 1933, until his dismissal in February, 1938. He died in 1946.
General von Fritsch (1880-1939) was Commander in Chief of the Army, 1933-1938. He died while leading a reconnoitering party before Warsaw, September, 1939.
The experienced and skillful von Neurath (1873-) served as Minister of Foreign Affairs, 1932-1938. At the Nuremberg trial in 1946 he was sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment but was released in 1955 because of ill health. Von Ribbentrop (1893-1946), the Cologne wine merchant and negotiator of the Anglo-German Naval Treaty and basic Axis agreements, became Foreign Minister, 1938-1945. He was hanged as a war criminal, 1946.
 Keitel (1882-1946) served (with one short exception) in that capacity until the end of the war. He was hanged as a war criminal in 1946.
 Von Brauchitsch (1881-1948) served in that position until he was relieved by Hitler in 1941.
 Halder (1884—) was Chief of the General Staff until 1942. In July, 1944, he was arrested under suspicion of having been a part of the plot against Hitler.
 One of the most impressive lessons of the trials before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg was an explosion of the myth, founded on false information and consciously fed by misleading propaganda that the German General Staff and the general officers had been eager for war.
 Rothfels, The German Opposition to Hitler, Regnery, 1948.
 Bullock, Hitler, A Study in Tyranny. Odham Press Ltd., London, 1952, page 611.
 For a detailed study of Rommel see Desmond Young’s Rommel (1950).