Oh, you know, one became such a blackguard. — Wilhelm Keitel
True heroism, contrary to military heroism, is always bound up with insults and contempt. — Theodor Fontane
On 30th January 1933 General von X, then still at the beginning of his career, placed himself alongside Lieutenant Count von Stauffenberg at the head of an enthusiastic crowd in the streets of Bamberg celebrating Hitler's appointment as Reich Chancellor. A few weeks later, at the ceremonial opening of the first Reichstag of the Third Reich at Potsdam, he willingly allowed himself to be overwhelmed by the make-believe reconciliation of the old Germany with the new. He had a hand in the elimination of Rohm and in the mid-1930s he devoted himself to the establishment of new divisions bearing the stamp of his energy and his precise expertise, until the events of 1938 sobered his illusory self-confidence. He conspired and, like Brauchitsch and others, accepted personal favours. He combined the enthusiastic blindness of Blomberg with Beck's morality, the narrow-minded expertise of Manstein with Keitel's undignified compliancy. He was, as was said of Major General Oster, 'a man after God's heart', and yet 'the Devil's General'. (1) The countless historical judgements passed against him, the 'Prussian-German officer', miss the reality of the relationship between Hitler and his generals since they miss the element of contradiction; for the German officer did not exist while Hitler was working for power or after it, any more than the officer corps existed as a homogeneous entity. General Ludwig Beck represented no one as a human or moral type. The same is true of his antitheses: Keitel, Burgdorf or Jodl. The devastating effect of the explosive charges which Hitler set off deep in the social bloc of the officer caste allows only one summary assertion: they were all vanquished men. For in their differing or actually opposed attitudes we can read the defeat of a social group that had always watched jealously over both its inner and its outer solidarity.
The cleft began to show before 1933, while the National Socialist movement was fighting for power; to begin with, it separated the generations. After the resignation of Seeckt, the Commander in Chief of the Reichswehr, who had used his authority to stop the developing schisms within the officer corps immediately after the war and had forced the Reichswehr into a state of solidarity by a rigorously one-sided policy, fissures began to show again towards the end of the 1920s. This was surprisingly and dramatically shown in the treason trial of the three young Nazi officers of the Ulm Reichswehr, when at times violently divergent attitudes appeared within the officer corps. Particularly among the young officers, a considerable minority clearly opted for the 'activist' NSDAP, not only for reasons of national temperament and because of the inactivity and weakness of the Republican authorities, but also from professional resentment at seeing themselves condemned to a 'career in the second rank' by the restriction to a hundred-thousand-man army. (2) The older generation, on the other hand, greeted the rising Hitler party with either reserve or with open rejection.
Only a few, of course, opposed it out of genuine Republican convictions; for the most part opposition sprang from intellectual and sentimental attachment to the imperial era as well as from disapproval of bad manners and a political rowdyism far removed from behaviour becoming to an officer and a gentleman. This rift between the generations, however, was for a short time bridged by a common antipathy towards the Weimar Republic. Right up to the last moment the Reichswehr served it with every sign of unwilling, forced loyalty, and Seeckt himself consistently worked against all attempts at reconciliation. His cold, impersonal attitude towards the political authorities, his ostentatious refusal to join in the annual celebration of the Constitution, his success—at least as far as the Reichswehr was concerned - in setting a dispute over flags in favour of the old black, white and red colours, as well as his stubborn refusal to accept the establishment of a Republican order of merit, all resulted from a fundamental and obstinate repudiation of a state with such revolutionary, socialist and pacifist features, whose existence was seen and tolerated only as provisional, as a 'bad patch'. (3)
Seeckt's efforts to keep the Reichswehr ideologically apart from all outside influences went hand in hand, at least before Hindenburg's presidency, with efforts to transfer the officer corps' traditional attachment to the monarch to the military leadership itself, since the abstract concept of the state was incapable of satisfying the persistent desire for personal loyalty, or at all events to prevent this loyalty from operating for the benefit of the democratic regime. Above this was elevated the idea of the 'unpolitical soldier', which was put forward as the principle of standing above the parties, but in reality was simply a tactical maxim designed to extend the army's autonomy and resist all demands for involvement in the defence of the Republic. The Reichswehr's responsibility for the events leading up to 30th January 1933 does not lie in active support for the NSDAP, or in more or less overt acts of intervention in favour of Hitler, as certain prejudiced interpretations would have it, but in the stubborn and incorrigible attachment to the idea of a separate 'state within the state'. (4) This attitude led to an unfortunate corresponding indifference to the officer corps on the Republican side, so that in the end both proved incapable of bridging the old, tragic cleft between civil and military.
Furthermore, during the last days of January 1933 the Reichswehr, at least at the top, was a picture of confusion and division, as can be seen in what happened at the time of Blomberg's appointment as Minister for the Reichswehr. There were isolated feelings of resignation or revolt, voiced most strongly by the then Chief of the General Staff, General von Hammerstein, who informed the Reich President of the Army Command's doubts about appointing Hitler to ministerial office. But such feelings were outweighed by the readiness to see the change of Chancellor as the decision of Hindenburg, who alone represented the state which the Reichswehr served, beyond all parliamentary or cabinet changes, those of 30th January 1933 included. It was precisely this passive attitude that led Hitler in September 1933 to make the famous remark that has repeatedly been quoted as proof off the generals' guilt:
'If the Reichswehr had not stood at our side during the days of the revolution, then we should not be standing here today.' (5)
But, regarded in historical context, this utterance can be seen to have been intended to bring about that very action for which it pretended to be thankful. It was part of that policy of friendly gestures and marks of favour which Hitler followed during his first few months of power, when his position was still shaky, in order to win over the manifestly sceptical generals. It was in line with the flood of lip service to nationalism, tradition, the Prussian spirit, Western values, or the spirit of the front-line soldier, ostentatious displays of respect for the person of the Reich President, and stress upon decency, morality, order, Christianity, and all those concepts which went with a conservative idea of the state. As part of the same propagandist effort Hitler had delivered a speech to the top ranks of the Army on 3 February 1933 which, according to Blomberg, he described as
'one of his most difficult speeches, because all the time it was as though he were speaking to a wall'. (6)
The way in which, although he did not actually remove them at once, he nevertheless radically undermined the suspicions of the military leaders, which were in any case half-hearted, proved him once more a master of psychological calculation. He not only promised them the rearming of the Wehrmacht, the 'steeling of youth and the strengthening of the will to defence by all possible means', and powerful key positions in the state as against the rival claims of Rohm and the SA, but in addition presented his own counter-demands in such a way that they 'merely seemed to fulfil the wishes of the Reichswehr'. (7) The speech culminated in the declaration that the Wehrmacht was to remain 'unpolitical and above the parties', 'the struggle inside the country [was] not its affair, but the affair of the Nazi organisations'. Hitler seemed to be offering concessions and a return to the familiar practice of Seeckt with all the advantages of relief from decision-making and the secretly hoped-for possibility of taking over the role of supreme arbiter at the right moment; in fact, he extracted from the unsuspecting officers a free hand for terrorism.
The decisive factor was that Hitler found in the Reichswehr Minister, Blomberg, and his closest adviser, Colonel von Reichenau, who was appointed head of the ministerial department on 21st February, two partners who followed his course almost unconditionally. In spite of roughly similar points of departure, these two were nevertheless totally different from each other. The freedom from the trammels of tradition, the flexibility and open-mindedness which they had in common arose in Blomberg's case from rootlessness and a lack of mental balance; he was a man of temperament, moods and impulses. Reichenau, on the other hand, was a calculating cynic who had discarded all moral criteria as potential hindrances to his power. Blomberg was a weak, easily influenced personality who had little to oppose to Hitler's forceful persuasiveness; he vacillated and abandoned himself in turn to democratic convictions, the cult of anthroposophy, Prussian socialism, then (after a trip to Russia) 'almost to Communism', and finally succumbed increasingly to authoritarian ideas, before falling victim to Hitler with all the excessive emotionalism of his enthusiastic but fundamentally insubstantial nature. He wrote in his memoirs that in 1933 things had fallen into his lap overnight which since 1919 he had ceased to expect: faith, respect for a man, and total support for an idea. He had subscribed to National Socialism because he found that in the core of this movement everything was right. (8)
Even during the time they spent together in East Prussia, Blomberg was reinforced in such beliefs, indeed probably led to them, by Reichenau, then his chief of staff. As head, too, of the ministerial department, Reichenau did not allow his ambitions to be confused by emotionalism but brought to them cold, purposeful, Machiavellian instincts. Although he had made contact with Hitler at a comparatively early stage and had exchanged letters with him, National Socialism was not to him, any more than anything else, a matter of inner conviction, but the ideology of a political mass movement whose revolutionary elan he planned to harness, and at the right moment tame, to further both his career and the interests of the Army. As sober as he was intelligent, delighting in taking decisions, magnanimous and yet not without a touch of frivolity, Reichenau embodied almost perfectly the type of the modern, technically trained and socially unprejudiced officer, who had resolutely thrown overboard the feudal blinkers of his class and extended his freedom from prejudice to moral principles as well. In February 1933 Reichenau, who by virtue of his personality was soon to become a crucial figure in the Reichswehr's policy-making at that period, told a council of commanding officers, according to the notes of one of those present:
We must recognize that we are in the midst of a revolution. What is rotten in the state must fall and it can only be brought down by terror. The party will proceed ruthlessly against Marxism. The Army's task is to order arms. No succour if any of the persecuted seek refuge with the troops. (9)
This dishonourable injunction which aroused 'great dismay' but significantly only one voice of protest, governed the actions of the Reichswehr leaders during the coming months. They stood aside with ordered arms while the Constitution was eroded piecemeal, the Länder overcome, the parties and political organizations suppressed, minorities persecuted, opponents of the regime arrested, maltreated or murdered, and justice and the law eliminated. They did so not under the pressure of external circumstances, nor from duty to their oath of obedience, which did not disintegrate until later, nor, finally, in obedience to traditional ways of thinking, which Reichenau's above quoted speech violently contradicted. Their attitude was a deliberate political decision. And the Army leaders did not stir when Hitler sent out his murder squads on a three-day massacre in the Rohm affair. If public order, as Blomberg later claimed, was really threatened by rebels and conspirators, it would have been the Reichswehr leaders' duty to intervene; if this was not the case, then they should have put a stop to what was happening. But far from recognizing any such duty, they actually lent the SS their weapons, and for the right to call themselves the nation's only arms-bearers they finally tolerated the crimes committed against them and held fast to the restricted political aims they had set themselves. This demonstrated above even the most elementary ties of comradeship that they were perfectly ready to 'barter the honour of the Army for the illusion of power'. (10) Non-intervention finally became a synonym for the renunciation of integrity and all moral claims, and with his unfailing nose for power relationships Hitler immediately discerned the underlying confession of weakness. When, immediately after Hindenburg's death at the beginning of August 1933, Blomberg and Reichenau rather over-hurriedly compelled the Army to take an oath of unconditional obedience to the 'Fuhrer of the German Reich and nation, Adolf Hitler, the Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht', this was not so much, as has frequently been suggested, the beginning of a disastrous entanglement, but more accurately its first conclusive climax.
From this point on, however, the policy of the Reichswehr leadership no longer reflected the prevailing mood in the officer corps. But all of them, whether they shortsightedly regarded the June murders as a victory for the Reichswehr, prematurely saw them as the final conclusion of the revolutionary phase, as a dubious encroachment, or with indignation and disgust as naked murder, were agreed in the view expressed by a head of department in the Army High Command: 'A soldier has to do his duty, but not to bother about other people's affairs.' (11) It was the old formula, not erroneous in itself but, as always, erroneously applied, of the 'unpolitical soldier' that was now employed more intensively than ever before as an ideological mask for a fundamental fear of decision-making. With the difference, of course, that under the Weimar Republic this attitude had led the Army to withdraw its loyalty from the state, whereas now, under the growing power of Hitler, it was to the victims of the state that aid was refused. In other words, where before the Army had refused to say yes, now it refused to say no. This was the main factor in the attitude of the higher ranks of the officer corps, especially after the introduction of universal military service in March 1935. In so far as the higher-ranking officers took cognizance of political events at all, they welcomed the regime's rigorous and energetic enforcement of order, its resolute nationalism so different from the readiness to yield and renounce which had characterised the Weimar period—its policy of rearmament and the enhanced status of the officer that went with it. Just as the officer corps had never learnt to think beyond its own aims, so now, restricting itself to the directly military tasks confronting it, it turned a blind eye to the disquieting occurrences outside, dismissing them as inevitable in a revolutionary fresh start. Where tendencies to opposition emerged at all, they occurred once again among the older generation; but here too they were more tactical than fundamental. The majority were grateful to Hitler for saving the soldier by entrusting him once more with the 'purely objective tasks of the service', as General von Choltitz wrote in retrospect (12). A phrase widely current at the time described the Army as the 'aristocratic form of emigration'; many of the bourgeois class, resigned to the situation, sought refuge in military service from the repugnant reality of political activity, in order to satisfy their desire for individual achievement in tasks that were supposedly beyond moral evaluation.
Their motives were, however, not always unambiguous. It is difficult to distinguish, in this apparently homogeneous retreat to the objective demands of military life, the respective parts played by mute protest, escapism, pure careerism or a blind professionalism that saw moral objections as mere emotional weakness of character and unhesitatingly placed its expertise at the service of any partnership whatever. We need hardly refer to Hitler's resolution to tolerate politically half-hearted specialists within the Wehrmacht only for so long as he was dependent upon them for constructing an effective instrument for the attainment of his imperialist aims. As early as 1934 he told an interviewer that in his opinion there was 'absolutely no room for the unpolitical man'. Later, in the concluding phase of the process of ideological indoctrination of the Wehrmacht, which was now soon to be embarked upon with great vigour, be declared when dismissing Field Marshal von Brauchitsch:
'It is the task of the Supreme Commander of the Army to educate the Army in a National Socialist sense. I know no Army general capable of doing this. Therefore I have decided to assume supreme command of the Army myself.' (13)
In fact the withdrawal of power from the generals was merely the end of a process. This had begun with, among other preconditions, the formula of the 'Unpolitical soldier', reflected in countless utterances that have come down to us, as when the Chief of the Army High Command, General von Fritsch, remarked in a letter in May 1937, with an undertone of short-sighted self-satisfaction:
'I have made it a guiding principle to confine myself to the military domain and to keep aloof from all political activity. I lack all talent for it.' (14)
Similarly Brauchitsch dismissed politics out of hand as a realm that was beyond his horizon, while Ernst Udet and others smiled at it as 'a comic din in the background', (15) though this din forced its way to their door and even across the threshold in the form of injustice, terror and murder.
If Blomberg and Reichenau had at first supported Hitler's totalitarian efforts because they calculated that the rearmament that was promised and begun, together with the increase in the number of troops, would inevitably augment the weight and influence of the military authorities, they were soon disillusioned. It was not that Blomberg, for all his ingratiating attitude, voluntarily abandoned his position; rather the overhasty and almost unplanned rearmament had a disintegrating effect on the solidarity of the officer corps, since the existing strength was simply not in a position to impose its stamp upon the mass of young officers commissioned within a short space of time. Freiherr von Fritsch complained that Hitler was
'forcing everything, overdoing everything, rushing everything far too much and destroying every healthy development'.
it remains an open question whether this side effect of the insistence on hurried re-armament was not intentional, but there can be no doubt that it suited Hitler's purpose, although he had ordered the chief of the Army Command, when he took office on 1st February 1934, to
'create an army of the greatest possible strength and internal compactness and homogeneity at the best imaginable level of training'. (16)
In any case, what was supposed to be an instrument of the High Command became increasingly an effective weapon for Hitler against all internal political ambitions of the military leaders. Knowledge of this made it easier for him to take the unparalleled step with which, in spring 1938, he humiliated the Wehrmacht and put paid to the last remaining illusions of a military claim to leadership or self-assertion.
As it happened, it was Blomberg who gave Hitler the opportunity after exasperating him by a reluctance to follow up his hazardous foreign policy measures and by allowing within the military leadership a spirit in which aversion to warlike entanglements was combined with ideological indolence. From Hitler's point of view an officer corps that approved rearmament but not war, the 'order' created by National Socialism but not its ideology, was bound to appear inconsistent. When the Chief of the Army High Command stated in a memorandum,
'Quite apart from the fact that the basis of our present-day Army is and must be National Socialist, an incursion of party-political influences into the Army cannot be tolerated,' (17)
Hitler was not alone in trying in vain to resolve the contradiction. The repeated warnings and fundamental objections advanced by Blomberg and those around him, expressed in their most definite form in a famous discussion on 5th November 1937, convinced Hitler that the top military leadership was not made of the stuff which he required for his extensive plans for conquest. Therefore, when it became known at the end of January 1938 that Blomberg's recent remarriage was a misalliance of a character to concern the vice squad and necessitate the minister's dismissal, he seized the opportunity to get rid of Blomberg's natural successor, Freiherr von Fritsch, at the same time. In a scene that might have come out of a melodrama the unsuspecting Commander in Chief of the Army was accused in the Reich Chancellery of homosexual offences, an accusation which, although it soon proved absolutely unfounded, provided the excuse for the extensive reshuffle on 4th February that went far beyond the military sphere and forced the last remaining representatives of conservatism from their positions of influence. Hitler himself took over and surrounded himself in the newly formed Wehrmacht Supreme Command with yes-men who, in exact reversal of Marwitsch's phrase, 'chose favour, where disobedience did not bring honour'. Fritsch was succeeded by General von Brauchitsch, whose qualifications for the post were a weak character and the declaration that he was 'ready for anything' that was asked of him. In particular he gave an assurance that
'he would bring the Wehrmacht closer to National Socialism. (18)
At one blow, with not one hint of resistance, Hitler had eliminated the last power centre of any significance and, along with the whole civilian power, now held the military in his hand. Contemptuously he commented that he now knew all generals were cowards. (19) His contempt was reinforced by the unhesitating readiness of numerous generals to move into the positions that had become free, even before Fritsch's rehabilitation. This process also demonstrated that the inner unity of the officer corps was finally broken and that the solidarity of the caste, which had already failed to vindicate itself in the case of the murder of Schleicher and Bredow, no longer existed. General von Fritsch wrote despondently:
No nation ever allowed the commander in chief of its army to be subjected to such disgraceful treatment. I hereby place this on record, so that later historians may know how the Commander in Chief of the Army was treated in 1938. Such treatment is not only undignified for me, it at the same time dishonours the whole Army. (20)
Characteristically, the former Commander-in-Chief of the Army had historians in mind, not history itself. Both now and six months later he refused his support to a group of officers who, as they saw the way things were going, sought to make conspiratorial contact with him, with the fatalistic remark:
'This man is Germany's destiny, and this destiny will run its course to the end.' (21)
Nevertheless the crisis of spring 1938 became the starting-point for attempts, at the cost of personal sacrifice, to win back the honour of the Army, whose loss the General had only been able to lament!. Elements of Hitler's belligerent policy, which till then had been thoughtlessly disregarded or simply over-looked, crystallized more and more into concrete fears. It may be taken as certain that the majority of the top-ranking officers were entirely critical of his hazardous plans for the future and by no means approved of a course that was leading towards war, though naturally not so much out of moral considerations as on the basis of a sober evaluation of the relative strength of the armed forces concerned. But a complicated system of assurances and self-deceptions again and again dissipated their objections and they got around their 'worried presentiment of his liability to disaster' (22) with the aid of various arguments, whether, like Blomberg, they refused for a long time to take Hitler's plans 'seriously', whether they trusted to the damping effect of the facts of power politics, which would soon enough show the limits of these extravagant fantasies of domination, or finally whether, especially after the astonishing triumphs of bloodless expansion, they put their faith in the 'Fuhrer's genius'. (23) Only a minority refused to accept such dishonest excuses and took seriously both Hitler's person and his plans, as well as the challenge to a personal decision contained in them. As early as January 1937 Ludwig Beck, the Chief of the General Staff, wrote to his superior, General von Fritsch:
The Wehrmacht enjoys among our military-minded nation almost unlimited trust. The responsibility for what is to come rests almost exclusively with the Army. There is no avoiding this fact. (24)
From his position Beck did indeed do everything to thwart or at least delay Hitler's plans, without achieving anything to begin with but his own dismissal. 'What is the dog making of our beautiful Germany!' he exclaimed at the time (25) and only slowly, with endless pangs of conscience, did he come to approve a project for a coup d'etat again and again discussed and planned within a restricted circle. His despair, which was partly the helplessness of the individual in the face of a totalitarian regime, but clearly also the inner helplessness of a man caught up in the characteristic ideas of his caste, is a clear demonstration of the problems that faced almost all the officer conspirators. Respect for the now purely formal authority of the oath of obedience remained insurmountable. The realization that Hitler had long since forfeited any claim on that oath and that an assassination had become a necessity could never break down that last emotional barrier; what he was planning appeared to him as mutiny and revolution, words which, as he himself said in a discussion with Halder, 'do not exist in the dictionary of a German soldier'. In this sense, right up to the end, he saw the day he took an oath to Hitler as the 'blackest day' of his life. (26)
The dichotomy revealed the limitations of rigid military thinking and feeling. Objective achievement and integration in an effective organisation were all: the subjective was something to be regarded with distrust. But behind this there had to be a social order that was accepted as binding. The ethos was viable only so long as the order itself was not called in question; in revolutionary times it broke down, even if its aim was to produce not the 'mechanical' but the disciplined character, which in its best representatives it did indeed achieve. But accustomed as they were to suppress their individuality and to deny all contradictions, all feelings, especially those of revolt against an established order, as capricous arrogance, since there was 'no room for sentiment here', the officers' doubts of the dictator's right to rule constantly reverted to doubt of their right to doubt. This dilemma devoid as it was here of any evasive secondary aims, commands our respect; here an educational principle came up against limits beyond which it had no answer to the problems confronting it. But we must also ask whether it was not this scrupulous attitude, hampered by constant inner worries and conflicts on the part of the officers of the opposition, from Hammerstein to Canaris, from 0lbricht, Tresckow, Stieff and Schlabrendorff to Stauffenberg, that was responsible for the failure of the military resistance. Certainly there was too the discouraging compliance of Great Britain, followed by a technical failure, then again Hitler's ever renewed and astounding successes, and finally, again and again, a fatal mischance. But in the last resort it must also have been that lack of resolution in setting about a task which ran counter to everything all of them had been brought up to believe in, that turned all these obsessional, split-natured, endlessly arguing conspirators, inextricably entangled in their reasons and counter-reasons, into modern Hamlets.
Meanwhile their efforts also came to grief on the weakness and moral immobility of a large proportion of the generals and leading officers, who had to be won over to ever renewed conspiracies, only in the end to vacillate once more and burden every one of the actions, from summer 1938 to July 1944, with an element of uncertainty; this in the end the conspirators disregarded, less because of real prospects of success than because it was felt that even an unsuccessful assassination attempt would help to restore lost honour. 'We are purifying ourselves,' General Stieff replied in answer to a sceptical question about the probable outcome of one attempt. (27) Here the conception of being subject to a special imperative of duty, based upon traditional notions of the elite status of the officer, was still at work. Under the challenge of totalitarian government, however, the conviction of their special value felt by the military was shown to have been perverted into an empty claim to social privilege. There was nothing left but outward show; the conviction had merely the forms and formulas of that type of Prussian officer to whom it appealed and with whom it has often been confused. The extent of this degeneration becomes horrifyingly clear from the fact that, looking back after the disaster, one of the members of the officer caste, Keitel, showed himself incapable of recognizing the conflict in which the conspirators of 20th July 1944 found themselves, and saw there nothing but injured pride, frustrated ambition and office-seeking! (28) When former Field Marshal von Rundstedt was asked in Nuremberg whether he had never thought of getting rid of Hitler, he replied firmly and unhesitatingly that he was a soldier, not a traitor. (29) Here, as in many post-war references to the military resistance that are marked by the same confusion of ideas, we can see the consequences of the idea that a soldier can betray his country, his people, his honour and his responsibility for the lives of his subordinates, but not a man to whom he has sworn an oath, even if on his side this man has broken his word a thousand times over.
It is not difficult, then, to discern behind this defence, which employed pseudo-morality to stylize into an attitude of selfless devotion to duty what was really only lack of moral fibre, the distinctive mark of a weak opportunism which characterised the overwhelming majority of the top-ranking German officers of the period and found typical expression in Friedrich Fromm and Gunther von Kluge. The vacillation of these two men arose out of a split that could not be healed by ordinary military standards and modes of thought, but only by a degree of individual 'civilian' courage which they did not possess. In the conflict of values, after long-drawn-out wavering between promises to the conspirators abruptly alternating with professions of loyalty to the 'Fuhrer', at the moment when they found themselves confronted with an irrevocable decision, the lives of both came to an equally revealing and memorable end. While Fromm had his partners in the plot of 20th July 1944 shot in the War Ministry yard after a hurried trial to avoid possible implication and save his own life, though he was later arrested and executed himself, Field Marshal von Kluge, relieved of his post and ordered back to Berlin, committed suicide in the train between Paris and Metz, leaving a letter of farewell once more proclaiming his personal admiration for Hitler. (30) Many came to grief through the same inadequacy of character, if not in equally dramatic circumstances, and instead of performing a historically effective or at least memorable act, resignedly sought death. Kietel later asked regretfully why, on 20th July 1944, during the attempt on Hitler's life, fate had denied him a 'decent, honourable hero's death', thereby clearly showing how far disintegration had gone, when the only answer to the need to reach an unambiguous decision of conscience was a longing for fortuitous death. (31)
This almost universal weakness of character led in the course of the war to a loss of influence on the part of the military leaders in the sphere of the state as well as in that of their own operations. By bowing, often against their better judgement, to Hitler's orders as dictated by the whim of the moment, they themselves fostered the process of loss of power which began with the planning of the French campaign before Dunkirk, reached its climax with the dismissal of Brauchitsch and the battle of Stalingrad, and concluded after 20th July 1944 with the appointment of Himmler as Commander in Chief of the Replacement Army. It was this same feeble readiness to collaborate, even at the price of self-compromise, that finally entangled a considerable number of them in the regime's injustices and its extermination programme. We may be sure that the so-called jurisdiction order, the 'Night and Fog Decree' or the 'Commando Group Order' once again aroused 'intense dismay' among the high-ranking officers; but as before there was with a few exceptions a complete absence of any attempt at protest or counter-activity. Instead we see isolated efforts to preserve a merely formal integrity, as when Manstein's Chief of Staff requested Einsatzgruppenleiter Otto Ohlendorf to carry out the extermination measures away from Army head-quarters, whereas Manstein himself, as well as Kuchler, Hoth and Reichenau, even almost over-fulfilled such decrees when they issued orders in near-identical terms to the units under their command stating that
'the soldier in the Eastern zone is not merely a fighter according to the rules of the art of war, but also the carrier of an inexorable racial idea, who must have complete understanding for the need for harsh but just punishment of Jewish sub-humanity'. (32)
When Manstein later pleaded at Nuremberg that he could, not remember any such order, this at best revealed the corrupting effects of continual collaboration in the unjust system; for nothing but an attitude of blind fundamental cooperation can explain how such a radical communique totally contrary to every soldierly tradition could have 'completely vanished from memory'.
Finally the appeal to the concept of obedience, which played such a great part in the attempts at self-justilication made by all the generals, served merely to cloak their overriding weakness of personality. Obedience is basic to any military organization, but like every moral obligation it has its limits in supra-legal standards that must remain its ultimate sanction. To set up dependence on orders as an absolute which degrades responsibility and conscience to the same levels as orders 'inseparable from commands' is indefensible either morally or legally, and if the Prussian tradition repudiated disobedience, it nevertheless left room for the refusal of obedience. There is support for this all the way from the general who snapped at one of his officers who had carried out an order without thinking:
'Sir, the King of Prussia made you a staff officer so that you should know when you ought not to obey!'
to Generals von der Marwitz, Seydlitz or Yorck. (33) The Second World War offers comparable examples: Rommel's decision to withdraw his troops before El Alamein, although under express orders to pursue a strategy of death or victory, is by no means without parallel. But contrary examples preponderate by far. From Stalingrad to the senseless acts of self-destruction during the concluding phase of the war, the majority displayed an irresoluteness, a cowardice, a moral apathy incapable of individual initiative; bowing utterly to Hitler's orders, they finally marched at his side unmoved, despondent and helpless towards a defeat which they themselves had long prepared.
Yet even this requires some qualification. For some, particularly among commanders at the front, there were special circumstances that made the decision between obedience and refusal of obedience very much more difficult. Among these commanders the type of the 'unpolitical soldier' was particularly heavily represented, the officer who had been confirmed in his self-satisfied professionalism by the run of brilliant victories at the beginning of the war. Only the vicissitudes of the war made clear to him the incompetence and illegality of the regime, to which till then he had given a totally unideological loyalty inspired by its success. After the onset of the defensive phase, their basic readiness to resist was balked by various considerations. Some felt they were not entitled to revolt and thus shake the confidence of the troops entrusted to them; others felt it their duty first to bring the war to an end before taking the internal political action which they recognized as necessary; yet others feared the collapse of the front, with inevitable chaos, and tried to weigh up the sacrifices demanded by various possible decisions; and along with other similar arguments all were inhibited by the Allied demand for 'unconditional surrender'. However much blinkered professionalism or intellectual inconsistency may have played a part, many of those concerned were clearly agonisingly aware of this conflict, and certainly as the war went on the scope for decision was greatly reduced. It is possible that there was no other way out of this dilemma than that chosen by the mass of high-ranking officers at the front when they elected to fight on; for at this stage what was at stake was mitigation of the consequences. The causes lay much further back.
Anyone who looks back can name the decisive landmarks in the progress—not 30th January 1933, or an even earlier date, however much in this phase certain psychological stages on the road were prepared and occupied; not the frivolous arrogance with which the officer corps welcomed the regime's restoration of order and nationalist self-confidence, knuckled under to the mental act of violence of Potsdam, or deluded itself so long about its position of leadership; nor the mutual attraction of the 'Prussian military spirit' and the National Socialist hatred of the intellect. All these elements, so far as they play any part at all, are of only secondary importance. The significant signs were rather the gradual, unprotesting readiness to toe the line laid down by Reichenau's order-arms decree; ambiguous political neutralism and especially the order of 30th June 1930: 'Give arms to the SS if they want them'; the murders so openly celebrated as a victory by the military leaders that Blomberg had to remind them it was not fitting to rejoice over 'those killed in battle', as he put it. (34) These acts of opportunism practised at first hesitantly and with a bad conscience, but then ever more uninhibitedly, decisively established the path and position of the military power-holders in the Third Reich. It sounds like an echo of Reichenau's own words in spring 1933 when we read Halder's note in his war diary of a remark by Canaris about the behaviour of the military leaders in the East:
'Officers too slack; no humane action on behalf of the unjustly persecuted.' (35)
It was not only slackness, however, but a tactical principle that had long since become habit. The selfish calculation that more and more determined the actions of the top-level military leadership had merely served to gain short-lived initial successes or simply the illusions of victories, which were soon revealed as defeats. Les institutions périssent par leurs victoires. What happened on 20th July 1944 was not least the attempt of a minority to break out of the vicious circle by a courageous deed and turn away in an act of visible and decisive revolt from the errors and confusions of the past years in order to retrieve at least a part of the integrity that had been sacrificed to short-sighted goals.
Hitler's growing contempt for the military leadership had a complex foundation. But there is much to indicate that an important element in it was his recognition of the weakness shown in his generals' continual vacillations between fronts, at its most obvious in their attitude towards the war and National Socialism. Rarely has a military leadership been accused of aggressive desires with more inaccurate, fundamentally prejudiced arguments than the German General Staff of those years. From Fritsch and Blomberg down to Generals Wilhelm Adam and Georg Thomas they repeatedly expressed expert warnings and doubts, and tried to circumvent Hitler's intoxicated plans by their own pessimistic evaluations of the situation, and again and again they were proved wrong. The frequent changes in the leadership are a clear reflection of this resistance. Hitler himself remarked during the war:
Before I became Reich Chancellor I thought the General Staff was like a mastiff that has to be kept on a tight leash because otherwise it threatens to attack everyone else. After I had become Reich Chancellor I was forced to observe that there is nothing the General Staff less resembles than a mastiff. This General Staff always prevented me from doing what I considered necessary. The General Staff opposed rearmament, the occupation of the Rhineland, the invasion of Austria, the occupation of Czechoslovakia, and finally even the war against Poland. The General Staff advised me not to make war on Russia. It is I who always have first to urge on this mastiff. (36)
The top generals as a whole showed the same resistance towards National Socialism. In the then current division of the Army leadership into three categories, purely military experts, the officers of the resistance, and the so-called 'party soldiers', the last group was the smallest. The diary of one of these 'party soldiers', General Jodl, repeatedly laments that the General Staff refused to believe in the genius of the Fuhrer, and describes it as
'deeply sad' that at the Party Congress at Nuremberg in 1938, for example, 'the Fuhrer has the whole nation behind him, but not the leading generals of the Army'. (37)
This attitude, a mixture of arrogance, scepticism and indifference, intensified the resentment which Hitler already felt to the point of open hatred of the whole body of generals, a hatred from which it seems even his closest colleagues in the Fuher's headquarters were not spared. In any case Goebbels noted at the height of the war:
He [Hitler] passes on the whole body of the generals an annihilating judgement which is admittedly often prejudiced or unjust, but by and large no doubt accurate. He has also explained to me why he no longer eats his lunch at the big table in the Fuhrer's head-quarters. He can no longer bear the sight of the generals. All generals lie, he says, all generals are against National Socialism, all generals are reactionaries. They are disloyal, they don't stand by him, to a large extent they don't understand him at all. However, he feels that a general can no longer offend him. He feels alien to this class of person and will in future remain more than ever remote from them. (38)
In conclusion one cannot help measuring the results of this investigation of the behaviour and role of the officer corps in the Third Reich against the halo that surrounded the German military leadership at the time, in particular the General Staff. Its fame was legendary; but the secret of its soul, Hitler was to discover, was a humiliation; an opportunism that thought itself crafty, totally devoid of convictions, almost exclusively concerned with self-interest, 'ready for anything'. The German General Staff obviously shared Blomberg's conviction that the honour of a Prussian officer consisted in being correct and that it became the honour of a German officer to be cunning. (39) Such attitudes, and those others that have already been quoted, disclosed the final stage of a long process of degeneration against which appeals to oaths of obedience and the obligation of loyalty, as well as to the Prussian military tradition, possessed no more power. It is true that the failure of a nation cannot be blamed exclusively upon the military forces, and that 'a few Army generals, no matter how many tanks they have at their disposal', neither have a mission that goes beyond the limits of those in whom resides the political will, nor by themselves the means of making good such a failure. (40) But the special moral and national authority which the officer corps in Germany had for generations claimed as its own at least justifies expectations of a greater degree of initiative than the overwhelming majority displayed. Among the positive effects of those years we can include the dismissal of this claim to special authority. The somewhat reluctant respect felt today for the military resistance shows just how little it was able to assert this claim. Incidentally, it was not solely the National Socialist party officer who damaged the reputation and prestige of the Army. It was no less the obsequiousness of so many, the total lack of moral courage in so many, that dulled the lustre of undoubtedly real soldierly and professional virtues and did more to dishonour the image of the officer corps than all the reproaches of its bitterest opponents.
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