♦ The High Command 1933-39 ♦

The German Army in World War II


Senior officers, 1934. Left to right: Rundstedt, Fritsch, Blomberg. (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

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Since the seventeenth century a special bond had existed between the monarch and the officer corps of the Prussian and later the German Army. It was that Army, founded by the Great Elector, that bound the heterogeneous lands of the Hohenzollerns together, and in the fullness of time made Prussia possible. Frederick William I and Frederick the Great habitually wore the uniform, thus making it a mark of prestige and honor, reserved for the Prussian nobility—the Junker class. Those officers gave their oath to the King—after 1871 to the King-Emperor—personally. It was an ancient relationship, founded in the days of the pike and the matchlock musket, that still stood firm at the dawn of the twentieth century.

The Army’s corporate identity was embodied above all in the Great General Staff (Großgeneralstab) an institution that traced its origins to the Great Elector's reign and assumed its modern form between the Napoleonic wars and the unification of Germany in 1870-71. The Army’s central role in these patriotic epics increased its prestige still further, and the Great General Staff under Field Marshal Helmuth Graf von Moltke received much of the credit for the three victorious wars that set the seal on German unification. In the decades leading up to the First World War, the Great General Staff was Germany’s de facto supreme command and highest military planning entity, its authority underscored by the Chief of Staff’s right of immediate access to the Kaiser, the titular supreme commander.

Defeat in the First World War, did not, as might be supposed, fatally undermine the reputation of either the Army or its General Staff. The latter, indeed, was abolished by the terms of the 1919 Peace Treaty, but its spirit lived on in the 100,000-man Reichswehr, the vestigial army permitted to Germany by the victorious powers. And the reputation of the Army as a whole was shielded by the legend of the “stab in the back”: the claim that the soldiers at the front had been betrayed by the treasonous “November criminals” of 1918.

Hitler with SA leader Ernst Röhm. The Führer purged his old comrade at the Army's behest (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Hitler’s ascent to power in January 1933 was greeted by the Army's leaders with mixed emotions. On the other hand they heartily approved of his proclaimed foreign policy goals: rearmament and the restoration of Germany’s great power status. But they deeply disapproved of and viewed with alarm the Party’s brown-shirted Stormtroopers (Sturmabteilung or SA). Ernst Röhm, the SA‘s leader, aspired to make his organization the “people’s army” of National Socialist Germany, absorbing the Reichswehr in the process. To this the generals were adamantly opposed and the pressure they brought to bear was largely responsible for Hitler’s decision to purge the SA in 1934, killing off Röhm and his associates in “the Night of the Long Knives.” The alliance between the Nazi Party and the Army against the SA was formalized in the Deutschland Pact (June 1934), so called because it was agreed to by Hitler and the Minister of Defense, Colonel-General Werner von Blomberg on board the Navy's new armored cruiser. The SA purge was launched shortly thereafter. The fact that among its victims were General Kurt von Schleicher, who’d served briefly as chancellor before Hitler’s appointment, and his former aide, General Ferdinand von Bredow, was indeed disturbing to the Generalität. But the Army-Nazi alliance remained intact.

The elimination of the SA threat was followed by Hitler’s proclamation of German rearmament in March 1935—which included the reestablishment of the Great General Staff in the form of the Army High Command (Oberkommando des Heeres or OKH) Though he deeply distrusted the Army’s leaders, the Führer realized that he needed their professional expertise to rebuild German military power. For their part the generals were delighted, and they confidently expected to be recognized once more as first among equals in the German military establishment.

The reorganization following the rearmament proclamation established a Ministry of War and commanders-in-chief for the three branches of the armed forces (Wehrmacht): Army (Heer), Navy (Kriegsmarine) and the new Air Force (Luftwaffe). As head of state Hitler was supreme commander but the functional commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht was Blomberg, now a field marshal, as Reich Minister of War. But though he was a brother officer, Blomberg was viewed with suspicion by the Army’s leaders. They feared he would exploit his position to create an armed forces high command organization, usurping the Army’s traditional authority as embodied in the OKH. The Generalität also disliked  Blomberg's excessive deference to Hitler. On his own initiative the Minister of War purged Jews from the ranks of the armed forces, added Nazi symbols to military uniforms and flags, and altered the military oath of allegiance in such a way as to make it an oath of obedience to the Führer personally.

Field Marshal Werner von Blomberg (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

In 1934, General of Artillery Werner Freiherr von Fritsch had been appointed Chief of the Army Command, and he was promoted to colonel-general and made Commander-in-Chief of the Army when that office was established in 1935. Fritsch was a deep-dyed conservative with anti-Semitic views who thoroughly approved of Hitler’s general foreign policy. But he was also much admired in the officer corps for his professionalism and determination to uphold the Army’s status. Fritsch was seconded by the Chief of the General Staff, General Ludwig Beck. He too was generally supportive of Nazi goals but gradually became alarmed over what he regarded as Hitler’s high-risk foreign policy.

Another key figure was General of Infantry Gerd von Rundstedt, the senior officer of the Army by years of service, who in 1934 was commanding Reichswehr-Gruppenkommando 1 in Berlin, the higher military headquarters for eastern Germany. As the doyen of the officer corps Rundstedt wielded considerable influence. In 1934, when the anti-Nazi GeneraKurt Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord resigned as Chief of the Army Command, Hitler proposed to replace him with General Walther von Reichenau. But Reichenau's pronounced pro-Nazi views made him unacceptable to the officer corps and Rundstedt led a group of senior officers in opposition to his appointment. Hitler thereupon backed down, appointing Fritsch instead.

For strictly practical reasons, the senior leadership of the Army advocated a cautious approach to rearmament and foreign policy. To men like Fritsch, Beck and Rundstedt it was clear that many years must elapse before Germany would be ready for war. The rapid expansion of the Army—in the first instance from ten to thirty-six divisions—seemed to them over-hasty. The Generalität was also disquieted by Hitler’s increasingly bellicose behavior on the international stage, which they feared would precipitate Germany into a war for which country was in no way prepared. Their increasingly pointed objections to all this alienated Hitler—who soon hit upon a pretext for getting rid of them and all such skeptics in uniform.

Fritsch and Beck observing Army maneuvers, 1937 (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

In January 1938 the War Minister, Blomberg, who was a widower, married a much younger woman of humble background. This match initially met with Hitler’s approval as a counterblast against what he viewed as the aristocratic snobbery that permeated the higher ranks of the Army. The Führer even agreed to stand as witness to the marriage. But it was soon discovered that the bride had a long criminal record—had even posed for pornographic photos. Embarrassed and enraged, Hitler demanded and received the Field Marshal's resignation. Probably he was not sorry to do so: The Führer had neither forgotten nor forgiven the high-handed manner in which Blomberg had delivered the Army's ultimatum regarding the SA.

The Army leaders regarded Blomberg’s fall from power with equanimity. But the sequel dismayed them: Fritsch, the Army Commander-in-Chief, was slapped with an accusation of homosexual misconduct. In reality this charge was false, the result of an intrigue by Heinrich Himmler, the SS chief, and Hermann Göring, the commander of the Luftwaffe. The former wished to undermine the authority of the Army leadership so as to promote the interests of his own SS organization, while the latter wished to prevent Fritsch from replacing Blomberg, and thereby becoming his, Göring’s, superior.

Fritsch protested his innocence—even going so far as to challenge Himmler to a duel—but to no avail. He too was forced to resign, being replaced by Colonel-General Walther von Brauchitsch. The Army’s senior officers were appalled and demanded a military “court of honor” to investigate the case. This was granted and the court exonerated Fritsch in full of the charges against him. But Hitler refused to restore him to command of the Army, arguing that a replacement had already taken over. Fritsch was fobbed off with an appointment as honorary colonel-in-chief of his old regiment, and consigned to the retired list.

Hitler exploited the Blomberg-Fritsch Affair to cement his personal control over the armed forces. No replacement was named for the disgraced Minister of War. Instead the Führer took over personally, and the War Ministry became the High Command of the Armed Forces (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or OKW). Its chief was General Wilhelm Keitel, a man on whom Hitler could rely to do as he was told. Beck, the Army Chief of Staff, resigned shortly afterward, being replaced by General Franz Halder.

For the moment the OKH was able to preserve some degree of independence. But inevitably its new rival, the OKW, would aspire to a superior role, and as Hitler’s personal military headquarters and planning staff it posed a real threat to the Army's position. Moreover, the logic of the Nazi leadership principle (Führerprinzp) cut against all claims of institutional autonomy: the Führer alone could decide and decree. And this progressive centralization of power was to be accelerated by the pressures and crises of the war now impending. Month by month, year by year, the proud German Army would watch helplessly as its independence withered away.

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

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