A Pygmy Speaks

Wherever Martha and her father now went they heard rumors and speculation that the collapse of Hitler’s regime might be imminent. With each hot June day the rumors gained detail. In bars and cafés, patrons engaged in the decidedly dangerous pastime of composing and comparing lists of who would comprise the new government. The names of two former chancellors came up often: General Kurt von Schleicher and Heinrich Brüning. One rumor held that Hitler would remain chancellor but be kept under control by a new, stronger cabinet, with Schleicher as vice-chancellor, Brüning as foreign minister, and Captain Röhm as defense minister. On June 16, 1934, a month shy of the one-year anniversary of his arrival in Berlin, Dodd wrote to Secretary of State Hull, “Everywhere I go men talk of resistance, of possible putsches in big cities.”

And then something occurred that until that spring would have seemed impossible given the potent barriers to dissent established under Hitler’s rule.

On Sunday, June 17, Vice-Chancellor Papen was scheduled to deliver a speech in Marburg at the city’s namesake university, a brief rail journey southwest of Berlin. He did not see the text until he was aboard his train, this owing to a quiet conspiracy between his speechwriter, Edgar Jung, and his secretary, Fritz Gunther von Tschirschky und Boegendorff. Jung was a leading conservative who had become so deeply opposed to the Nazi Party that he briefly considered assassinating Hitler. Until now he had kept his anti-Nazi views out of Papen’s speeches, but he sensed that the growing conflict within the government offered a unique opportunity. If Papen himself spoke out against the regime, Jung reasoned, his remarks might at last prompt President Hindenburg and the army to eject the Nazis from power and quash the Storm Troopers, in the interest of restoring order to the nation. Jung had gone over the speech carefully with Tschirschky, but both men had deliberately kept it from Papen until the last moment so that he would have no choice but to deliver it. “The speech took months of preparation,” Tschirschky later said. “It was necessary to find the proper occasion for its delivery, and then everything had to be prepared with the greatest possible care.”

Now, in the train, as Papen read the text for the first time, Tschirschky saw a look of fear cross his face. It is a measure of the altered mood in Germany—the widespread perception that dramatic change might be imminent—that Papen, an unheroic personality, felt he could go ahead and deliver it and still survive. Not that he had much choice. “We more or less forced him to make that speech,” Tschirschky said. Copies already had been distributed to foreign correspondents. Even if Papen balked at the last minute, the speech would continue to circulate. Clearly hints of its content already had leaked out, for when Papen arrived at the hall the place hummed with anticipation. His anxiety surely spiked when he saw that a number of seats were occupied by men wearing brown shirts and swastika armbands.

Papen walked to the podium.

“I am told,” he began, “that my share in events in Prussia, and in the formation of the present Government”—an allusion to his role in engineering Hitler’s appointment as chancellor—“has had such an important effect on developments in Germany that I am under an obligation to view them more critically than most people.”

The remarks that followed would have earned any man of lesser stature a trip to the gallows. “The Government,” Papen said, “is well aware of the selfishness, the lack of principle, the insincerity, the unchivalrous behavior, the arrogance which is on the increase under the guise of the German revolution.” If the government hoped to establish “an intimate and friendly relationship with the people,” he warned, “then their intelligence must not be underestimated, their trust must be reciprocated and there must be no continual attempt to browbeat them.”

The German people, he said, would follow Hitler with absolute loyalty “provided they are allowed to have a share in the making and carrying out of decisions, provided every word of criticism is not immediately interpreted as malicious, and provided that despairing patriots are not branded as traitors.”

The time had come, he proclaimed, “to silence doctrinaire fanatics.”

The audience reacted as if its members had been waiting a very long time to hear such remarks. As Papen concluded his speech, the crowd leapt to its feet. “The thunder of applause,” Papen noted, drowned out “the furious protests” of the uniformed Nazis in the crowd. Historian John Wheeler-Bennett, at the time a Berlin resident, wrote, “It is difficult to describe the joy with which it was received in Germany. It was as if a load had suddenly been lifted from the German soul. The sense of relief could almost be felt in the air. Papen had put into words what thousands upon thousands of his countrymen had locked up in their hearts for fear of the awful penalties of speech.”

THAT SAME DAY, Hitler was scheduled to speak elsewhere in Germany on the subject of a visit he had just made to Italy to meet with Mussolini. Hitler turned the opportunity into an attack on Papen and his conservative allies, without mentioning Papen directly. “All these little dwarfs who think they have something to say against our idea will be swept away by its collective strength,” Hitler shouted. He railed against “this ridiculous little worm,” this “pygmy who imagines he can stop, with a few phrases, the gigantic renewal of a people’s life.”

He issued a warning to the Papen camp: “If they should at any time attempt, even in a small way, to move from their criticism to a new act of perjury, they can be sure that what confronts them today is not the cowardly and corrupt bourgeoisie of 1918 but the fist of the entire people. It is the fist of the nation that is clenched and will smash down anyone who dares to undertake even the slightest attempt at sabotage.”

Goebbels acted immediately to suppress Papen’s speech. He banned its broadcast and ordered the destruction of the gramophone records onto which it had been cast. He banned newspapers from publishing its text or reporting on its contents, though at least one newspaper, the Frankfurter Zeitung, did manage to publish extracts. So intent was Goebbels on stopping dissemination of the speech that copies of the paper “were snatched from the hands of the guests of restaurants and coffee houses,” Dodd reported.

Papen’s allies used the presses of Papen’s own newspaper, Germania, to produce copies of the speech for quiet distribution to diplomats, foreign correspondents, and others. The speech caused a stir throughout the world. The New York Times requested that Dodd’s embassy provide the full text by telegraph. Newspapers in London and Paris made the speech a sensation.

The event intensified the sense of disquiet suffusing Berlin. “There was something in the sultry air,” wrote Hans Gisevius, the Gestapo memoirist, “and a flood of probable and wildly fantastic rumors spilled out over the intimidated populace. Insane tales were fondly believed. Everyone whispered and peddled fresh rumors.” Men on both sides of the political chasm “became extremely concerned with the question of whether assassins had been hired to murder them and who these killers might be.”

Someone threw a hand-grenade fuse from the roof of a building onto Unter den Linden. It exploded, but the only harm was to the psyches of various government and SA leaders who happened to be in the vicinity. Karl Ernst, the young and ruthless leader of the Berlin division of the SA, had passed by five minutes before the explosion and claimed he was its target and that Himmler was behind it.

In this cauldron of tension and fear, the idea of Himmler wishing to kill Ernst was utterly plausible. Even after a police investigation identified the would-be assassin as a disgruntled part-time worker, an aura of fear and doubt remained, like smoke drifting from a gun barrel. Wrote Gisevius, “There was so much whispering, so much winking and nodding of heads, that traces of suspicion remained.”

The nation seemed poised at the climax of some cinematic thriller. “Tension was at the highest pitch,” Gisevius wrote. “The tormenting uncertainty was harder to bear than the excessive heat and humidity. No one knew what was going to happen next and everyone felt that something fearful was in the air.” Victor Klemperer, the Jewish philologist, sensed it as well. “Everywhere uncertainty, ferment, secrets,” he wrote in his diary in mid-June. “We live from day to day.”

FOR DODD, PAPEN’S MARBURG SPEECH seemed a marker of what he had long believed—that Hitler’s regime was too brutal and irrational to last. Hitler’s own vice-chancellor had spoken out against the regime and survived. Was this indeed the spark that would bring Hitler’s government to an end? And if so, how strange that it should be struck by so uncourageous a soul as Papen.

“There is now great excitement all over Germany,” Dodd wrote in his diary on Wednesday, June 20. “All old and intellectual Germans are highly pleased.” Suddenly fragments of other news began to make more sense, including a heightened fury in the speeches of Hitler and his deputies. “All guards of the leaders are said to be showing signs of revolt,” Dodd wrote. “At the same time, aircraft practice and military drills and maneuvers are reported to be increasingly common sights by those who drive about the country.”

That same Wednesday, Papen went to Hitler to complain about the suppression of his speech. “I spoke at Marburg as an emissary of the president,” he told Hitler. “Goebbels’s intervention will force me to resign. I shall inform Hindenburg immediately.”

To Hitler this was a serious threat. He recognized that President Hindenburg possessed the constitutional authority to unseat him and commanded the loyalty of the regular army, and that both these factors made Hindenburg the one truly potent force in Germany over which he had no control. Hitler understood as well that Hindenburg and Papen—the president’s “Fränzchen”—maintained a close personal relationship and knew that Hindenburg had telegraphed Papen to congratulate him on his speech.

Papen now told Hitler he would go to Hindenburg’s estate, Neudeck, and ask Hindenburg to authorize full publication of the speech.

Hitler tried to mollify him. He promised to remove the propaganda minister’s ban on publication and told Papen he would go with him to Neudeck, so that they could meet with Hindenburg together. In a moment of surprising naïveté, Papen agreed.

THAT NIGHT, SOLSTICE REVELERS ignited bonfires throughout Germany. North of Berlin the funeral train carrying the body of Göring’s wife, Carin, came to a stop at a station near Carinhall. Formations of Nazi soldiers and officials crowded the plaza in front of the station as a band played Beethoven’s “Funeral March.” First, eight policemen carried the coffin, then with great ceremony it was passed to another group of eight men, and so on, until at last it was placed aboard a carriage pulled by six horses for the final journey to Göring’s lakeside mausoleum. Hitler joined the procession. Soldiers carried torches. At the tomb there were great bowls filled with flame. In an eerie, carefully orchestrated touch, the mournful cry of hunters’ horns rose from the forest beyond the fire glow.

Himmler arrived. He was clearly agitated. He took Hitler and Göring aside and gave them unsettling news—untrue, as Himmler surely was aware, but useful as one more prod to get Hitler to act against Röhm. Himmler raged that someone had just tried to kill him. A bullet had pierced his windshield. He blamed Röhm and the SA. There was no time to waste, he said: the Storm Troopers clearly were on the verge of rebellion.

The hole in his windshield, however, had not been made by a bullet. Hans Gisevius got a look at the final police report. The damage was more consistent with what would have been caused by a stone kicked up from a passing car. “It was with cold calculation that [Himmler], therefore, blamed the attempted assassination on the SA,” Gisevius wrote.

The next day, June 21, 1934, Hitler flew to Hindenburg’s estate—without Papen, as certainly had been his intent all along. At Neudeck, however, he first encountered Defense Minister Blomberg. The general, in uniform, met him on the steps to Hindenburg’s castle. Blomberg was stern and direct. He told Hitler that Hindenburg was concerned about the rising tension within Germany. If Hitler could not get things under control, Blomberg said, Hindenburg would declare martial law and place the government in the army’s hands.

When Hitler met with Hindenburg himself, he received the same message. His visit to Neudeck lasted all of thirty minutes. He flew back to Berlin.

THROUGHOUT THE WEEK DODD heard talk of Vice-Chancellor Papen and his speech and of the simple miracle of his survival. Correspondents and diplomats made note of Papen’s activities—what luncheons he attended, who spoke with him, who shunned him, where his car was parked, whether he still took his morning walk through the Tiergarten—looking for signs of what might lie ahead for him and for Germany. On Thursday, June 21, Dodd and Papen both attended a speech by Reichsbank president Hjalmar Schacht. Afterward, Dodd noticed, Papen seemed to get even more attention than the speaker. Goebbels was present as well. Dodd noted that Papen went to his table, shook hands with him, and joined him for a cup of tea. Dodd was amazed, for this was the same Goebbels “who after the Marburg speech would have ordered his prompt execution if Hitler and von Hindenburg had not intervened.”

The atmosphere in Berlin remained charged, Dodd noted in his diary on Saturday, June 23. “The week closes quietly but with great uneasiness.”

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