A few days before Christmas in 1937, Adolf Hitler attended the funeral
of General Erich Ludendorff, the famed World War I military leader and
one-time Nazi supporter. At the memorial service Hitler chose not to speak,
not wanting to utter any words of praise for a man who had come to despise
Ludendorff had participated in the failed Beer Hall Putsch fourteen
years earlier and never forgave Hitler for scooting away amid the gunfire
that erupted. When President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Hitler as Chancellor
of Germany in 1933, Ludendorff sent Hindenburg a telegram saying he had
just "handed over our sacred German Fatherland to one of the greatest
demagogues of all time. I prophesy to you this evil man will plunge our
Reich into the abyss and will inflict immeasurable woe on our nation..."
Ludendorff, along with Germany's other senior generals were men of the
old school, born into aristocratic Prussian families with long military
traditions, knowing even in childhood they would one day command battalions
of soldiers just as their fathers and grandfathers had.
Among this closed society, Adolf Hitler would always be an outsider,
the man referred to by Hindenburg as the "Austrian corporal."
Although the Führer might be admired by millions, he would never be
fully accepted by the upper echelons of his own General Staff. Hitler,
of course, knew where he stood with them and he tolerated their quiet disdain
as long as they remained useful to him.
However, by the beginning of 1938, it seemed the old-school generals
lacked the nerve to go along with the Führer's ambitious plans to
grab more living space for the German people. During the risky march into
the Rhineland a few years earlier they had repeatedly urged Hitler to withdraw
his troops out of fear the French might attack. Both during and after the
Hossbach conference, in which Hitler first revealed his war plans, they
expressed great fear that the quest for Lebensraum would plunge Germany
into a new European war with catastrophic consequences.
But Hitler didn't care about consequences. He was only interested in
results. And any attempts to get him to change his mind were a complete
waste of time. The generals didn't realize they were dealing with a man
who never changed his mind once he made a firm decision and would do anything
to achieve a desired goal.
For Hitler, the moment had arrived to clean house, to replace the crusty
old generals with younger men eager to serve their Führer and follow
orders, regardless of the consequences. The two highest ranking officers
in Germany at this time were holdovers from the days of President Hindenburg;
Field Marshal Werner von Blomberg, the Commander-in-Chief of the German
Armed Forces, and General Werner von Fritsch, the Commander-in-Chief of
the Army. These stiff-lipped men with their rigid codes of honor were about
to be toppled by that most vile of all things from their point of view,
personal scandals involving sex.
|Better days for Field Marshal Blomberg (2nd from right) - a parade in March 1937 honoring his 40th year of service in the Army, attended by Göring, Raeder, and Fritsch. Below: Portraits of the two men whose long military careers were abruptly ended by Nazi intrigue. Blomberg (left) and Fritsch.
Blomberg was the first to fall. He was a lonely widower in his sixties
whose first wife had died in 1932. He fell in love with and subsequently
proposed to his secretary, a Fräulein
half his age named Erna Gruhn. However, since she was from a lowly working
class background, Blomberg worried over how such a marriage would be received
among his peers. He decided to ask Hermann Göring
for his opinion and was duly relieved when Göring
said there would be no problem. After all, Göring
told him, he had married a divorced actress himself.
And so the wedding took place on January 12, 1938. It was a private
ceremony held in the War Ministry building witnessed by both Göring
and Hitler. The happy newlyweds then departed for a honeymoon in Italy.
But while they were away, all kinds of nasty rumors began to surface about
the bride's past. In Berlin, a police file was soon discovered bearing
her name and was brought to the attention of Berlin's police chief, Graf
Helldorf, a former Army officer himself, decided to bring it to General
Wilhelm Keitel. However, Keitel promptly informed him that he had no desire
to get involved in such matters and suggested that he bring the file to
Göring instead, which Helldorf did.
Göring read the file and was absolutely delighted
to learn that the new wife of the Commander-in-Chief of the German Armed Forces
had a police record as a prostitute and had also posed for porno photos, which
were included in the file. Göring knew this
would mean the end of Blomberg's career, with the possibility that he might
succeed him. Thus he brought the file to Hitler on January 25th and stood back
as the Führer exploded with rage at having
been a witness at the marriage of an ex-prostitute.
Now it was time to confront Blomberg, who had just returned to Berlin.
Göring rushed off to see him at his office.
Blomberg, up to this point, had absolutely no idea as to what was happening.
Upon hearing the shocking news, Blomberg immediately offered to get a divorce
to save his career. Göring told him a
divorce would never do since he had shamed the entire officer class.
Later that day, Hitler summoned Blomberg to the Reich Chancellery and promptly
sacked him, after promising that he would restore him to duty when the controversy
faded. Blomberg went back to Italy and resumed an extended honeymoon with
his now-scandalized bride, then retired to a village in Bavaria. He was never
recalled to service by Hitler. And despite all that happened, he stayed loyal
to his wife till the end.
The Blomberg scandal was mild compared to the next one, a frame-up by
Himmler and Heydrich that toppled General Werner von Fritsch, Commander-in-Chief of the Army. Fritsch was known to have a contemptuous attitude
toward Himmler and his black-coated SS. Himmler thus looked for any opportunity
to humble this proud member of the officer corps. Himmler was aided in
his treachery by Göring who hoped to
benefit from Fritsch's downfall.
On the same day that Blomberg had been ruined, Göring
had given Hitler a Gestapo file provided by Himmler and Heydrich. The file
told a sordid tale of General Fritsch, a life-long bachelor, engaging in
homosexual conduct in a back alley in 1935. Supposedly, an ex-convict,
who specialized in spying on illicit sex acts and blackmailing the participants,
had witnessed Fritsch during a tryst at a Berlin train station. According
to the file, he blackmailed Fritsch for years afterward.
When the file was shown to Hitler, his military adjutant, Colonel Friedrich
Hossbach, happened to be present. Out of Army loyalty, he rushed off to
tell General Fritsch, despite being warned by Hitler not to discuss the
matter with anyone. Fritsch, upon being hearing the allegations, flatly
The next morning, Hossbach courageously told Hitler about his discussion
with Fritsch and repeated the general's strong denial. Hossbach also urged
Hitler to give Fritsch a private hearing with a chance to clear his name.
Surprisingly, Hitler agreed, and Fritsch was summoned to the Chancellery.
Fritsch arrived at the meeting that evening to find Himmler and Göring
already there waiting for him. Hitler then recited the sex-blackmail allegations
and gave Fritsch an opportunity to respond. Fritsch once again denied everything.
But now, Himmler confronted Fritsch with a surprise witness, the blackmailer
himself, a disreputable character named Hans Schmidt who proceeded to contradict
Fritsch, claiming that he recognized Fritsch as the officer he had seen
in the back alley at the train station. Schmidt also claimed he had successfully
blackmailed Fritsch since that night.
General Fritsch was so overcome by this bizarre turn of events that
he was unable to utter a single word, which Hitler took as a sign of guilt.
Hitler then asked him to resign on the spot. But Fritsch, after regaining
his composure and his pride, refused outright. Instead he demanded a trial
by a military court of honor. Hitler responded to this by placing him on
A preliminary Army court of inquiry quickly uncovered the true story
behind the frame-up. Schmidt, the blackmailer, had indeed caught an Army
officer having sex at the train station, but the officer had been named
Frisch, not Fritsch, and was a now-retired cavalry man. The blackmailer
had been pressured under threat of death by Heydrich's agents to frame
Meanwhile, rumors surfaced in Berlin that Army leaders, outraged at
the shabby treatment of their top commanders, were contemplating a move
against the entire Nazi hierarchy, possibly on January 30th, the fifth anniversary
of Hitler's coming to power, when the Reichstag would assemble to hear
The Nazis abruptly canceled the Reichstag meeting, giving credibility
to the rumors. At Gestapo headquarters there were concerns the Army might
even attack the place in an attempt break the power of Himmler and Heydrich.
But in reality, the Army leaders had no plans to do anything on January
30th, partly out of fear of the consequences and also out of dogged devotion
to their oath of loyalty. Hitler responded to their hesitation by seizing
the opportunity to exercise his power. On February 4, 1938, he convened
a meeting of his Cabinet and had them promulgate a decree stating: "From
now on I take over personally the command of the whole armed forces."
| Portrait of General Wilhelm Keitel who became Chief of the new OKW. He demonstrated unquestioning loyalty to Hitler for the duration - even if it involved the killing of innocent civilians.
abolished the entire War Ministry, replacing it with the new High Command
of the Armed Forces (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or OKW) headed by himself
with complete control of the Army, Navy and Air Force. The nominal post
of OKW chief of staff was assigned to General Keitel. To replace Fritsch
as Army commander, Hitler chose General Walther von Brauchitsch.
Göring, who had hoped to command the
armed forces himself, was placated with a promotion to Reich Marshal, becoming
the highest ranking officer in the Reich.
To the German people, Hitler announced that Blomberg and Fritsch had
both resigned "for reasons of health." Along with their dismissals,
Hitler sacked sixteen senior generals including von Rundstedt, von Kluge
and von Kleist. Forty-four others were reassigned. Many of them would be
brought back in the years ahead in what ultimately became a revolving door
policy, with generals hired and fired at will by the Führer, whenever
they displeased him.
The German armed forces were now in the hands of an amateur, a self-taught
strategist whose actual battlefield experience involved serving as a dispatch
runner during World War I. Although he had received the Iron Cross 1st
Class for bravery, Hitler failed to receive a promotion because he appeared
to lack leadership potential. Military officers, with their innate understanding
of men's character, didn't trust the Austrian corporal enough to make him
a sergeant. Now, so many years later, they still didn't trust him, but
they didn't have the nerve to oppose him.
Hitler likewise never trusted his generals, preferring to rely on his
own gut instincts while surrounding himself with weak-willed yes-men such
as Keitel. Hitler's hands-on style of military leadership would consist
of two main habits; first, he took forever to make up his mind, constantly
delaying big decisions while he waffled, even when the time element was
critical; secondly, once he made up his mind, the decision became the unshakable
will of the Führer, no matter how disastrous it proved to be, a fatal
stubbornness that would send hundreds of thousands of German soldiers to
their early graves.
Now, in the spring of 1938, most of the old conservative appointees
from the Hindenburg era were unceremoniously dumped by Hitler. Along with
the Army house cleaning, Foreign Minister Constantin von Neurath was replaced
by Joachim Ribbentrop. Hjalmar Schacht was replaced as Minister of Economics
by Walther Funk. Some diplomatic house cleaning also took place. The ambassadors
in Rome, Tokyo, along with Franz von Papen in Vienna, were all relieved.
In his diary, Ulrich von Hassell, who had been ousted as ambassador
to Rome, penned his recollection of comments spoken to him by the now-exonerated
Fritsch. "This man, Hitler, is Germany's destiny for good and for
evil. If he now goes over the abyss, which Fritsch believes he will, he
will drag us all down with him. There is nothing we can do."
The future lay wide open for Hitler. The German nation and the entire
armed forces were his to command. The time for Lebensraum had come. The
initial target would be Austria, the first step down the path that would
lead to a new world war.