In any political system the role of the armed forces is vital for political stability. A regime, which fails to maintain the support of the military, will lack credibility in both domestic and foreign policies. Indeed, whenever there is news of a political coup, it is usually the stance adopted by the military that proves to be the decisive factor in the survival or overthrow of the government.
In Germany the military tradition went back a long way into the nation’s past. Above all, it was the reputation established by Prussian militarism, which was so often evoked comment. For example by the late eighteenth century, the French statesman Mirabeau ‘Prussia is not a country with an army: it is an army with a country’. It was the power of the Prussian military machine, which enabled Bismark to forge German unification out of the wars with Denmark (1864), Austria (1866) and France (1870-1). Thereafter, the Army was always to be found at the centre of German political life. The military elite enjoyed great social status in the intrigue of 1932 – 3 and in the manoeuvrings, which culminated in the Night of the Long Knives. Hence two questions will be the main theme throughout this essay: how did the army fit into the power structure of the Third Reich? The second question is how did Nazism, with its revolutionary and totalitarian claims cope with such a powerful and traditional vested (lawful) interest?
The Army uphold the Nazi regime between two major periods, 1934 to 1937 and 1938 to 1944. Within this section it will talk about the first turning point and why the Army did support the Nazis. In 1933 because it (the Army) was left alone as there was a healthy respect for them as reflected in the introduction. As a result, in August 1933 Hitler had the army support meaning there was no problem in taking over the presidency and chancery. The first turning point was in 1934. This was because the Army was protected (i.e. the Night of the Long Knives happened) and became the accomplice of the regime. The reason the Night of the Long Knives happened is because General Walther von Brauchitisch issued an ultimatum in April 1934 that the Army would only support the Nazi regime if the SA (which consisted mainly of the working class) were purged. This was because the Army felt threatened by the SA. Therefore, it was not surprising, then, that the Night of the Long Knives (June 1934) happened.
As a result of the Night of the Long Knives, it seemed as if the Army was in a position of considerable strength. This is because unlike other institutions, it had not been ‘co-ordinated’ and its leaders were confident that they had gained a certain majority as Hitler had agreed to the destruction of his own SA.
Ironically, it was even believed by many Army officers that the extremist element within Nazism had been removed and that they could now make the Nazi State work according to their interests and wishes. This was shown on the 1st July 1934 when Field Marshal von Blomberg, the Defence Minister, gave a vote of thanks on behalf of the party. However, with hindsight, it is clear that although the Army had succeeded in preserving its influence in the short term, this had by a compromise that was to be fatal in the long term. This is most clearly shown by the new oath of loyalty demanded by Hitler and all soldiers. For a German solider, bound by discipline and obedience, such oath marked a commitment that made any future resistance an act of the most serious treachery. This was because this oath was to Hitler personally. However, there was still a degree of independence.
In 1936, the four-year plan was created. This was to get Germany ready for war and that meant that on top of the list was rearm the army, experienced generals were often promoted in March 1935 conscription was introduced. This was to appease the army. As a result the years between 1934 and 1937 was know as the cordial relationship. This was because there was a mutual need as both the Army and Hitler needed each other in order to survive. However this partnership stared to wear after 1937.
The second turning point happened in 1938, in the Blomberg-Fritsch Affair. This started as a result of the Hossbach Conference in 1937, the record know as the Hossbach Memorandum, Hitler put forward his foreign policy aims. High on the list was the recovery of German lands and peoples lost at Versailles and Lebensraum (living space) in the East. Most generals supported such a policy, even at the risk of war with Russia. Some generals including Blomberg, Ludwig Beck and Werner von Fritsch raised doubts about Germany’s ability to fight any war. This was because it did not yet have the resources to do so. Also some of the generals felt uneasy because ideological it was bad and will start a war. Therefore, some generals contacted the British, about Germany’s ability to fight in any war. An example includes the Czech crisis of September 1938, which Beck (who was a General) believed might trigger a war in Britain and France. Hesitancy and divisions amongst the conspirators weakened the plan. Ina any case it was foiled when Britain and France gave in to Hitler’s claims in Munich.
Hitler reacted angrily to what he saw as criticism. He moved quickly to remove those he believed to be his critics of office by disgracing them. In February 1938, the Mister of Defence and supreme commander of the Wehrmacht, Field Marshal von Blomberg, was forced to resign when the Berlin police files revealed that his wife might have worked as a prostitute in the past. On Blomberg’s dismissal, Hitler appointed himself supreme commander of the armed forces. Another opponent of Hitler’s at Hossbach, General von Fritsch, was forced to resign at the same time over accusations that he had been involved in homosexual acts. Although the evidence was weak, especially in Fritsch’s case, Hitler had managed to remove potential crisis from the Army’s High Command. Hitler appointed the ever loyal General Ketial as Chief of High Command (the OKW – Personal Command Unit) and General von Brauchitsch Commander in Chief of the Army. Both had limited powers. To complete the purge, 16 generals were retired and 44 transferred. As a result, Hitler now only gave positions to people who were totally loyal.
As a result of the Blomberg-Fritsch Affair the army was now weaker as it has weaker as the Army’s ability to shape political developments was drastically reduced. Whereas in the early years of the Nazi regime Hitler had correctly recognised the need to work with the army leadership, by early 1938 he was strong enough to mould it more closely to his requirements. However, this is not to say the Army had no power, they were merely tamed (especially political) but the army was still able to threaten Hitler’s position.
During the years of 1942 to 1944 there were serious attempts to kill Hitler because of the Blomberg-Fritsch Affair. Another reason was because between 1939 to mid 1942 the war was successful, however when the war began to turn so did a few the Generals, for example, Rommel. Examples include the Operation Flash. This was after 1940 when more generals joined resistance. This happened in March 1943, when two officers attempted to assassinate Hitler by placing a timed bomb on his plane. The bomb was disguised as a bottle of brandy smuggled to have onto Hitler’s plan, which was travelling between Smolensk and East Prussia. The attempt failed when the detonator failed to go off. Luckily for the conspirators, the bomb was not discovered.
Another example was the July Plot of 1944 (the von Staffenberg Plot). This was probably the most serious attempt to assassinate Hitler. The aim of the plot was to replace Hitler with a provisional government led by General Beck. On 20th July 1944, a bomb left by Clas von Staffenberg (he was a solider of distinction and disgusted with Hitler and the Nazi regime. He was shot down on the same day as the assassination attempt) exploded at Hitler’s headquarters at Rastrnburg. Unfortunately for the conspirators, the briefcase carrying the bomb had been moved from its position where it might have well killed Hitler. As a result Hitler suffered only suffered minor injuries. Some 200 conspirators were ruthlessly tracked down, arrested and executed. Many were hung with piano wire at Plotzennee Prison in Berlin. While others were killed many others, such as General Rommel committed suicide.
This highlighted how poorly opposition was organised. There were five main reasons why opposition in the army failed. These were; the disappearance of early tensions between the army and the regime, military success and support of the regime, failure of plots between 1942 and 1944, support for the regime amongst generals and ideological support for the regime.
As a result, this effected the whole Army. This was because they were put under the direction of Himmler and the Waffen SS. Also the whole Army had to do the Nazi salute, as it was compulsory. This showed how the power of the Army declined quickly.
To conclude the Army really upheld the Nazi regime between 1934 to 1937. This is because the Army was independent of the Third Reich. However, after the Blomberg-Fritsch Affair Hitler slowly took over the army and his political opposition in the Army. Even thought Hitler never got rid of the Army, he controlled the majority of it.