♦ The Fatal Embrace ♦

The German Army and the National Socialist State 1933-45

Part One

Special Studies Series


 Marriage of convenience: Hitler and Army generals during prewar military maneuvers (Bundesarchiv)


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It may well be asked why the German generals, many of them of aristocratic background with centuries-long family traditions of military service to the state, bowed to the authority of Adolf Hitler—a coarse, low-born Austrian who’d served as a common soldier in the Great War. Certainly there were many among them who looked down on the Führer and his movement with scorn and distaste. But however much they disapproved of him personally, the generals found much to approve in his political program, particularly where rearmament and foreign policy were concerned. By and large the Generalität was prepared to put up with National Socialism as long as it seemed to serve what they viewed as the national interest.

It need hardly be said that for most senior Army officers, that viewpoint was deeply conservative. They had served the German Republic grudgingly, “to prevent the worst from happening,” and they looked forward to a day when something akin to the defunct imperial regime might be restored. Thus when old President von Hindenburg died on 2 August 1934 and the offices of president and chancellor were fused in Hitler's person as Führer and Reich Chancellor, very little trouble was made over the oath that the armed forces were subsequently required to take:

I swear to God this sacred oath, that to the Leader of the German Reich and people, Adolf Hitler, supreme commander of the armed forces, I shall render unconditional obedience, and that as a brave soldier I shall at all times be prepared to give my life for this oath.

2 August 1934: German soldiers take the oath of loyalty to Hitler (Bundesarchiv)

Contrary to what many people assumed at the time, this oath was not imposed on the military by Hitler. The initiative came from the Minister of Defense, Colonel-General Werner von Blomberg, who hoped by this means to draw the Führer away from the Nazi Party and closer to the armed forces—the Army in particular. But it turned out to have precisely the opposite effect and, indeed, paved the way for the Army’s ultimate loss of independence. Toward the end of World War II, when it was clear to the generals that Hitler was leading Germany to defeat and destruction, it was the oath to the Führer that stayed their hand. Many were aware of the conspiracy that culminated in the 20 July 1944 attempt on Hitler’s life, but with very few exceptions no senior general would commit himself to an active role against the regime.

Most German officers were no doubt sincere in their belief that the oath taken in 1934 bound them in obedience to the Führer. It was not, after all, an unprecedented requirement. For nearly three centuries Prussian and German soldiers had taken an oath to the Electoral Prince, then to the King, and finally to the Kaiser. The feeling that a sworn bond between the monarch and his soldiers was right and proper had deep roots in German military tradition. And without question, from 1934 on Hitler was a monarch in all but name. The Führer, however, was no Prusso-German ruler in the mold of Frederick the Great or even Kaiser Wilhelm II. But the majority of officers were intellectually and spiritually incapable of seeing past superficial appearances. By and large, they believed themselves honor bound to obey the supreme commander’s orders.

Moreover, as Germany rearmed and the Army expanded, the character of the officer corps underwent a profound change. Aristocratic Prussians remained prominent in the senior leadership and on the General Staff, but lower down men of quite different background began to receive commissions. Many of these younger men—more and more with each passing year—were ardent Nazis. And this suited Hitler’s book, for he hated and distrusted the haughty generals of noble blood who, he believed, merely tolerated him and his regime. This general change in outlook was reinforced by professional considerations. Rearmament multiplied the career opportunities of all professional soldiers, and there were few indeed who were willing to jeopardize their chances of promotion by adopting a critical attitude toward the Nazi regime.

That the Army’s professed concepts of honor and duty were fundamentally incompatible with National Socialism was first revealed to the officer corps in the “The Night of the Long Knives” (June 1934) Hitler’s liquidation of the troublesome leadership of the Sturmabteilung (SA). Ernst Röhm, the SA Chief of Staff, aspired to transform his brown-shirted stormtroopers into a new people's army, absorbing the regular German Army in the process. To this the generals were adamantly opposed and they pressed Hitler to rein in his turbulent subordinate. When he did so, employing terror and violence, using the occasion to eliminate not only Röhm and the rest of the SA leadership but other regime opponents, the Army stood by in readiness to intervene against the stormtroopers if they tried a coup. And the fact that two of the Nazis’ victims were brother officers—General Kurt von Schleicher, who’d served briefly as chancellor before Hitler’s appointment, and his former aide, General Ferdinand von Bredow—did not seriously affect their alliance of convenience with Hitler.

General Kurt von Schleicher (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Only a month elapsed between the murder of Schleicher and Bredow, and the oath of allegiance to the Führer. The officer corps was sufficiently disturbed by what had happened to put pressure on Hitler to rehabilitate the dead men and restore their honor, and this he did, no doubt calculating that dead men’s honor posed no threat to National Socialism. And there the matter rested, the Army turning its attention to the much more congenial task of rearmament.

Though few realized it at the time, the Night of the Long Knives and the oath pledging loyalty to Hitler sowed the seeds of corruption and subjugation. The lesson was driven home in the Blomberg-Fritsch Affair (early 1938) which Hitler exploited to purge the Army’s upper ranks of skeptics and solidify his own control of the armed forces. Once again the Generalität grumbled and protested but took no effective action.

Thus when the war began the stage had already been set for a radical revision of the Army’s relationship to the regime. In various ways the senior generals had been compromised—some by ambition, some by a perversion of patriotism, some by a narrow-minded conception of duty, some by money. Perhaps most notoriously, Colonel-General Walther von Brauchitsch, Fritsch's replacement as Commander-in-Chief of the Army, was indebted to Hitler for considerable financial assistance in connection with his divorce and remarriage. And when the early course of the war made plain Hitler’s malign intentions, the German generals found themselves poorly placed to protest or oppose the murderous policies of their supreme commander.

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Copyright © 2020 by Thomas M. Gregg. All Rights Reserved

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