Military history

THE OPPORTUNITIES OF THE DEPRESSION

The depression which spread over the world like a great conflagration toward the end of 1929 gave Adolf Hitler his opportunity, and he made the most of it. Like most great revolutionaries he could thrive only in evil times, at first when the masses were unemployed, hungry and desperate, and later when they were intoxicated by war. Yet in one respect he was unique among history’s revolutionaries: He intended to make his revolution after achieving political power. There was to be no revolution to gain control of the State. That goal was to be reached by mandate of the voters or by the consent of the rulers of the nation—in short, by constitutional means. To get the votes Hitler had only to take advantage of the times, which once more, as the Thirties began, saw the German people plunged into despair; to obtain the support of those in power he had to convince them that only he could rescue Germany from its disastrous predicament. In the turbulent years from 1930 to 1933 the shrewd and daring Nazi leader set out with renewed energy to obtain these twin objectives. In retrospect it can be seen that events themselves and the weakness and confusion of the handful of men who were bound by their oath to loyally defend the democratic Republic which they governed played into Hitler’s hands. But this was by no means foreseeable at the beginning of 1930.

Gustav Stresemann died on October 3, 1929. He had exhausted himself by his strenuous labors, as Foreign Minister over the preceding six years, to restore defeated Germany to the ranks of the big powers and to guide the German people toward political and economic stability. His successes had been prodigious. He had brought Germany into the League of Nations, negotiated the Dawes Plan and the Young Plan which reduced reparations to a level which Germany could easily pay, and in 1925 had been one of the chief architects of the Pact of Locarno which brought Western Europe the first tranquillity its war-weary, strife-ridden people had known in a generation.

Three weeks after Stresemann’s death, on October 24, the stock market in Wall Street crashed. The results in Germany were soon felt—and disastrously. The cornerstone of German prosperity had been loans from abroad, principally from America, and world trade. When the flow of loans dried up and repayment on the old ones became due the German financial structure was unable to stand the strain. When world trade sagged following the general slump Germany was unable to export enough to pay for essential imports of the raw materials and food which she needed. Without exports, German industry could not keep its plants going, and its production fell by almost half from 1929 to 1932. Millions were thrown out of work. Thousands of small business enterprises went under. In May of 1931 Austria’s biggest bank, the Kreditanstalt, collapsed, and this was followed on July 13 by the failure of one of Germany’s principal banks, the Darmstaedter und Nationalbank, which forced the government in Berlin to close down all banks temporarily. Not even President Hoover’s initiative in establishing a moratorium on all war debts, including German reparations, which became effective on July 6, could stem the tide. The whole Western world was stricken by forces which its leaders did not understand and which they felt were beyond man’s control. How was it possible that suddenly there could be so much poverty, so much human suffering, in the midst of so much plenty?

Hitler had predicted the catastrophe, but no more than any other politician did he understand what had brought it about; perhaps he had less understanding than most, since he was both ignorant of and uninterested in economics. But he was not uninterested in or ignorant of the opportunities which the depression suddenly gave him. The misery of the German people, their lives still scarred by disastrous experience of the collapse of the mark less than ten years before, did not arouse his compassion. On the contrary, in the darkest days of that period, when the factories were silent, when the registered unemployed numbered over six million and bread lines stretched for blocks in every city in the land, he could write in the Nazi press: “Never in my life have I been so well disposed and inwardly contented as in these days. For hard reality has opened the eyes of millions of Germans to the unprecedented swindles, lies and betrayals of the Marxist deceivers of the people.”10 The suffering of his fellow Germans was not something to waste time sympathizing with, but rather to transform, cold-bloodedly and immediately, into political support for his own ambitions. This he proceeded to do in the late summer of 1930.

   Hermann Mueller, the last Social Democrat Chancellor of Germany and the head of the last government based on a coalition of the democratic parties which had sustained the Weimar Republic, had resigned in March 1930 because of a dispute among the parties over the unemployment insurance fund. He had been replaced by Heinrich Bruening, the parliamentary leader of the Catholic Center Party, who had won the Iron Cross as a captain of a machine gun company during the war and whose sober, conservative views in the Reichstag had attracted the favorable attention of the Army and in particular of a general by the name of Kurt von Schleicher, who was then quite unknown to the German public. Schleicher, a vain, able, ambitious “desk officer,” already acknowledged in military circles as a talented and unscrupulous intriguer, had suggested Bruening’s name to President von Hindenburg. The new Chancellor, though he may not have realized it fully, was the Army’s candidate. A man of sterling personal character, unselfish, modest, honest, dedicated, somewhat austere in nature, Bruening hoped to restore stable parliamentary government in Germany and rescue the country from the growing slump and political chaos. It was the tragedy of this well-meaning and democratically minded patriot that, in trying to do so, he unwittingly dug the grave for German democracy and thus, unintentionally, paved the way for the coming of Adolf Hitler.

Bruening was unable to induce a majority of the Reichstag to approve certain measures in his financial program. He thereupon asked Hindenburg to invoke Article 48 of the constitution and under its emergency powers approve his financial bill by presidential decree. The chamber responded by voting a demand for the withdrawal of the decree. Parliamentary government was breaking down at a moment when the economic crisis made strong government imperative. In an effort to find a way out of the impasse, Bruening requested the President in July 1930 to dissolve the Reichstag. New elections were called for September 14. How Bruening expected to get a stable parliamentary majority in a new election is a question that was never answered. But Hitler realized that his own opportunity had come sooner than he expected.

The hard-pressed people were demanding a way out of their sorry predicament. The millions of unemployed wanted jobs. The shopkeepers wanted help. Some four million youths who had come of voting age since the last election wanted some prospect of a future that would at least give them a living. To all the millions of discontented Hitler in a whirlwind campaign offered what seemed to them, in their misery, some measure of hope. He would make Germany strong again, refuse to pay reparations, repudiate the Versailles Treaty, stamp out corruption, bring the money barons to heel (especially if they were Jews) and see to it that every German had a job and bread. To hopeless, hungry men seeking not only relief but new faith and new gods, the appeal was not without effect.

Though his hopes were high, Hitler was surprised on the night of September 14, 1930, when the election returns came in. Two years before, his party had polled 810,000 votes and elected 12 members to the Reichstag. This time he had counted on quadrupling the Nazi vote and securing perhaps 50 seats in Parliament. But on this day the vote of the N.S.D.A.P. rose to 6,409,600, entitling the party to 107 seats in the Reichstag and propelling it from the ninth and smallest party in Parliament to the second largest.

At the other extreme, the Communists had also gained, from 3,265,000 votes in 1928 to 4,592,000, with their representation in the Reichstag increased from 54 to 77. The moderate middle-class parties, with the exception of the Catholic Center, lost over a million votes, as did the Social Democrats, despite the addition of four million new voters at the polls. The vote of the right-wing Nationalists of Hugenberg dropped from four to two million. It was clear that the Nazis had captured millions of adherents from the other middle-class parties. It was also clear that henceforth it would be more difficult than ever for Bruening—or for anyone else—to command a stable majority in the Reichstag. Without such a majority how could the Republic survive?

This was a question which on the morrow of the 1930 elections became of increased interest to two pillars of the nation whose leaders had never really accepted the Republic except as a passing misfortune in German history: the Army and the world of the big industrialists and financiers. Flushed by his success at the polls, Hitler now turned his attention toward winning over these two powerful groups. Long ago in Vienna, as we have seen, he had learned from the tactics of Mayor Karl Lueger the importance of bringing “powerful existing institutions” over to one’s side.

   A year before, on March 15, 1929, Hitler had made a speech in Munich in which he appealed to the Army to reconsider its enmity toward National Socialism and its support of the Republic.

The future does not lie with the parties of destruction, but rather with the parties who carry in themselves the strength of the people, who are prepared and who wish to bind themselves to this Army in-order to aid the Army someday in defending the interests of the people. In contrast we still see the officers of our Army belatedly tormenting themselves with the question as to how far one can go along with Social Democracy. But, my dear sirs, do you really believe that you have anything in common with an ideology which stipulates the dissolution of all that which is the basis of the existence of an army?

This was a skillful bid for the support of the officers of the Army which, as most of them believed and as Hitler now repeated for the hundredth time, had been stabbed in the back and betrayed by the very Republic which they were now supporting and which, moreover, had no love for the military caste and all that it stood for. And then in words which were prophetic of what he himself one day would do, he warned the officers of what would happen to them if the Marxists triumphed over the Nazis. Should that happen, he said,

You may write over the German Army: “The end of the German Army.” For then, gentlemen, you must definitely become political…. You may then become hangmen of the regime and political commissars, and if you do not behave your wife and child will be put behind locked doors. And if you still do not behave, you will be thrown out and perhaps stood up against a wall …11

Relatively few persons heard the speech, but in order to propagate it in Army circles the Voelkischer Beobachter published it verbatim in a special Army edition and it was discussed at length in the columns of a Nazi monthly magazine, Deutscher Wehrgeist, a periodical devoted to military affairs which had recently appeared.

In 1927 the Army had forbidden the recruitment of Nazis in the 100,000-man Reichswehr and even banned their employment as civilians in the arsenals and supply depots. But by the beginning of 1930 it became obvious that Nazi propaganda was making headway in the Army, especially among the younger officers, many of whom were attracted not only by Hitler’s fanatical nationalism but by the prospects he held out for an Army restored to its old glory and size in which there would be opportunities, now denied them in such a small military force, to advance to higher rank.

The Nazi infiltration into the armed services became serious enough to compel General Groener, now the Minister of Defense, to issue an order of the day on January 22, 1930, which recalled a similar warning to the Army by General von Seeckt on the eve of the Beer Hall Putsch seven years before. The Nazis, he declared, were greedy for power. “They therefore woo the Wehrmacht. In order to use it for the political aims of their party, they attempt to dazzle us [into believing] that the National Socialists alone represent the truly national power.” He requested the soldiers to refrain from politics and to “serve the state” aloof from all party strife.

That some of the young Reichswehr officers were not refraining from politics, or at least not from Nazi politics, came to light shortly afterward and aroused a furor in Germany, dissension in the highest echelons of the officer corps, and delight in the Nazi camp. In the spring of 1930 three young lieutenants, Ludin, Scheringer and Wendt, of the garrison at Ulm were arrested for spreading Nazi doctrines in the Army and for trying to induce their fellow officers to agree that in the case of an armed Nazi revolt they would not fire on the rebels. This last was high treason, but General Groener, not wishing to publicize the fact that treason existed in the Army, attempted to hush up the affair by arranging for the accused to be tried before a court-martial for a simple breach of discipline. The defiance of Lieutenant Scheringer, who smuggled out an inflammatory article for the Voelkischer Beobachter, made this impossible. A week after the Nazi successes in the September elections of 1930, the three subalterns were arraigned before the Supreme Court at Leipzig on charges of high treason. Among their defenders were two rising Nazi lawyers, Hans Frank and Dr. Carl Sack.*

But it was neither the lawyers nor the accused who occupied the limelight at the trial, but Adolf Hitler. He was called by Frank as a witness. His appearance represented a calculated risk. It would be embarrassing to disown the three lieutenants, whose activities were proof of the growth of Nazi sentiment in the Army, which he did not want to discourage. It was embarrassing that Nazi efforts to subvert the Army had been uncovered. And it was not helpful to his present tactics that the prosecution had charged the Nazi Party with being a revolutionary organization intent on overthrowing the government by force. To deny that last charge, Hitler arranged with Frank to testify for the defense. But in reality the Fuehrer had a much more important objective. That was, as leader of a movement which had just scored a stunning popular triumph at the polls, to assure the Army and especially its leading officers that National Socialism, far from posing a threat to the Reichswehr, as the case of the Nazi subalterns implied, was really its salvation and the salvation of Germany.

From this national forum which the witness box afforded, Hitler made good use of all his forensic talents and his subtle sense of political strategy, and if his masterly display was full of deceit, as it was, few in Germany, even among the generals, seemed to be aware of it. Blandly Hitler assured the court (and the Army officers) that neither the S.A. nor the party was fighting the Army. “I have always held the view,” he declared, “that any attempt to replace the Army was madness. None of us have any interest in replacing the Army … We will see to it, when we have come to power, that out of the present Reichswehr a great Army of the German people shall arise.”

And he reiterated to the court (and the generals) that the Nazi Party was seeking to capture power only by constitutional means and that the young officers were mistaken if they anticipated an armed revolt.

Our movement has no need of force. The time will come when the German nation will get to know of our ideas; then thirty-five million Germans will stand behind me … When we do possess constitutional rights, then we will form the State in the manner which we consider to be the right one.

THE PRESIDENT OF THE COURT: This, too, by constitutional means?

HITLER: Yes.

But Hitler, though he was addressing mainly the Army and the other conservative elements in Germany, had to consider the revolutionary fervor of his own party followers. He could not let them down, as he had the three accused. He therefore seized on the opportunity presented when the president of the court recalled a statement of his in 1923, a month before his unsuccessful putsch, that “heads will roll in the sand.” Did the Nazi leader repudiate that utterance today?

I can assure you [Hitler replied] that when the National Socialist movement is victorious in this struggle, then there will be a National Socialist Court of Justice too. Then the November 1918 revolution will be avenged and heads will roll!12

No one can say that Hitler did not give warning of what he would do if he came to power, but the audience in the courtroom apparently welcomed it, for they applauded the threat loudly and long, and though the presiding judge took exception to the interruption neither he nor the public prosecutor made objection to the remark. It made a sensational headline in newspapers throughout Germany and in many outside. Lost in the excitement of Hitler’s utterances was the actual case in hand. The three young officers, their zeal for National Socialism disavowed by the Supreme Leader of National Socialism himself, were found guilty of conspiracy to commit high treason and given the mild sentence of eighteen months of fortress detention—in republican Germany the severe sentences on this charge were reserved for those who supported the Republic. *

The month of September 1930 marked a turning point in the road that was leading the Germans inexorably toward the Third Reich. The surprising success of the Nazi Party in the national elections convinced not only millions of ordinary people but many leaders in business and in the Army that perhaps here was an upsurge that could not be stopped. They might not like the party’s demagoguery and its vulgarity, but on the other hand it was arousing the old feelings of German patriotism and nationalism which had been so muted during the first ten years of the Republic. It promised to lead the German people away from communism, socialism, trade-unionism and the futilities of democracy. Above all, it had caught fire throughout the Reich. It was a success.

Because of this and of Hitler’s public assurances to the Army at the Leipzig trial, some of the generals began to ponder whether National Socialism might not be just what was needed to unify the people, restore the old Germany, make the Army big and great once more and enable the nation to shake off the shackles of the humiliating Treaty of Versailles. They had been pleased with Hitler’s retort to the presiding judge of the Supreme Court, who had asked him what he meant when he kept talking about the “German National Revolution.”

“This means,” Hitler had said, “exclusively the rescue of the enslaved German nation we have today. Germany is bound hand and foot by the peace treaties … The National Socialists do not regard these treaties as law, but as something imposed upon Germany by constraint. We do not admit that future generations, who are completely innocent, should be burdened by them. If we protest against them with every means in our power, then we find ourselves on the path of revolution.”

That was the view of the officer corps too. Some of its leading members had bitterly criticized General Groener, the Minister of Defense, for allowing the three subalterns to be tried by the Supreme Court. General Hans von Seeckt, the recently deposed Commander in Chief and generally acknowledged as the postwar genius of the German Army, the worthy successor of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, complained to Groener that it had weakened the spirit of solidarity within the officer corps. Colonel Ludwig Beck, who was soon to become Chief of Staff and later an even more important figure in this history but who in 1930 was the commander of the 5th Artillery Regiment at Ulm from which the three lieutenants had come, not only protested vehemently to his superiors against their arrest but testified in their defense at Leipzig.

Now that the trial was over and Hitler had spoken, the generals felt better disposed toward a movement which they had previously regarded as a threat to the Army. General Alfred Jodl, Chief of Operations of the Armed Forces High Command during World War II, told the military tribunal at Nuremberg just what the Nazi leader’s statement at Leipzig had meant to the officer corps. Until that time, he said, the senior officers had believed Hitler was trying to undermine the Army; now they were reassured. General von Seeckt himself, after his election to the Reichstag in 1930, openly allied himself with Hitler for a while and in 1932 urged his sister to vote for Hitler—instead of for his old chief, Hindenburg—in the presidential elections.

The political blindness of the German Army officers, which was to prove so fatal to them in the end, had begun to grow and to show.

   The political ineptitude of the magnates of industry and finance was no less than that of the generals and led to the mistaken belief that if they coughed up large enough sums for Hitler he would be beholden to them and, if he ever came to power, do their bidding. That the Austrian upstart, as many of them had regarded him in the Twenties, might well take over the control of Germany began to dawn on the business leaders after the sensational Nazi gains in the September elections of 1930.

By 1931, Walther Funk testified at Nuremberg, “my industrial friends and I were convinced that the Nazi Party would come to power in the not too distant future.”

In the summer of that year Funk, a greasy, shifty-eyed, paunchy little man whose face always reminded this writer of a frog, gave up a lucrative job as editor of a leading German financial newspaper, the Berliner Boersenzeitung, joined the Nazi Party and became a contact man between the party and a number of important business leaders. He explained at Nuremberg that several of his industrialist friends, especially those prominent in the big Rhineland mining concerns, had urged him to join the Nazi movement “in order to persuade the party to follow the course of private enterprise.”

At that time the leadership of the party held completely contradictory and confused views on economic policy. I tried to accomplish my mission by personally impressing on the Fuehrer and the party that private initiative, self-reliance of the businessman, the creative powers of free enterprise, et cetera, be recognized as the basic economic policy of the party. The Fuehrer personally stressed time and again during talks with me and industrial leaders to whom I had introduced him, that he was an enemy of state economy and of so-called “planned economy” and that he considered free enterprise and competition as absolutely necessary in order to gain the highest possible production.13

Hitler, then, as his future Reichsbank president and Minister of Economics says, was beginning to see the men in Germany who had the money, and he was telling them more or less what they wanted to hear. The party needed large sums to finance election campaigns, pay the bill for its widespread and intensified propaganda, meet the payroll of hundreds of full-time officials and maintain the private armies of the S.A. and the S.S., which by the end of 1930 numbered more than 100,000 men—a larger force than the Reichswehr. The businessmen and the bankers were not the only financial sources—the, party raised sizable sums from dues, assessments, collections and the sale of party newspapers, books and periodicals—but they were the largest. And the more money they gave the Nazis, the less they would have for the other conservative parties which they had been supporting hitherto.

“In the summer of 1931,” Otto Dietrich, Hitler’s press chief first for the party and later for the Reich, relates, “the Fuehrer suddenly decided to concentrate systematically on cultivating the influential industrial magnates.”14

What magnates were they?

Their identity was a secret which was kept from all but the inner circle around the Leader. The party had to play both sides of the tracks. It had to allow Strasser, Goebbels and the crank Feder to beguile the masses with the cry that the National Socialists were truly “socialists” and against the money barons. On the other hand, money to keep the party going had to be wheedled out of those who had an ample supply of it. Throughout the latter half of 1931, says Dietrich, Hitler “traversed Germany from end to end, holding private interviews with prominent [business]personalities.” So hush-hush were some of these meetings that they had to be held “in some lonely forest glade. Privacy,” explains Dietrich, “was absolutely imperative; the press must have no chance of doing mischief. Success was the consequence.”

So was an almost comical zigzag in Nazi politics. Once in the fall of 1930 Strasser, Feder and Frick introduced a bill in the Reichstag on behalf of the Nazi Party calling for a ceiling of 4 per cent on all interest rates, the expropriation of the holdings of “the bank and stock exchange magnates” and of all “Eastern Jews” without compensation, and the nationalization of the big banks. Hitler was horrified; this was not only Bolshevism, it was financial suicide for the party. He peremptorily ordered the party to withdraw the measure. Thereupon the Communists reintroduced it, word for word. Hitler bade his party vote against it.

We know from the interrogations of Funk in the Nuremberg jail after the war who some, at least, of the “influential industrial magnates” whom Hitler sought out were. Emil Kirdorf, the union-hating coal baron who presided over a political slush fund known as the “Ruhr Treasury” which was raised by the West German mining interests, had been seduced by Hitler at the party congress in 1929. Fritz Thyssen, the head of the steel trust, who lived to regret his folly and to write about it in a book called I Paid Hitler, was an even earlier contributor. He had met the Nazi leader in Munich in 1923, been carried away by his eloquence and forthwith made, through Ludendorff, an initial gift of 100,000 gold marks ($25,000) to the then obscure Nazi Party. Joining Thyssen was Albert Voegler, also a power in the United Steel Works. In fact the coal and steel interests were the principal sources of the funds that came from the industrialists to help Hitler over his last hurdles to power in the period between 1930 and 1933.

But Funk named other industries and concerns whose directors did not want to be left out in the cold should Hitler make it in the end. The list is a long one, though far from complete, for Funk had a wretched memory by the time he arrived for trial at Nuremberg. It included Georg von Schnitzler, a leading director of I. G. Farben, the giant chemical cartel; August Rosterg and August Diehn of the potash industry (Funk speaks of this industry’s “positive attitude toward the Fuehrer”); Cuno of the Hamburg-Amerika line; the brown-coal industry of central Germany; the Conti rubber interests; Otto Wolf, the powerful Cologne industrialist; Baron Kurt von Schroeder, the Cologne banker, who was to play a pivotal role in the final maneuver which hoisted Hitler to power; several leading banks, among which were the Deutsche Bank, the Commerz und Privat Bank, the Dresdener Bank, the Deutsche Kredit Gesellschaft; and Germany’s largest insurance concern, the Allianz.

Wilhelm Keppler, one of Hitler’s economic advisers, brought in a number of South German industrialists and also formed a peculiar society of businessmen devoted to the S.S. chief, Himmler, called the Circle of Friends of the Economy (Freundeskreis der Wirtschaft), which later became known as the Circle of Friends of the Reichsfuehrer S.S., who was Himmler, and which raised millions of marks for this particular gangster to pursue his “researches” into Aryan origins. From the very beginning of his political career Hitler had been helped financially—and socially—by Hugo Bruckman, the wealthy Munich publisher, and by Carl Bechstein, the piano manufacturer, both of whose wives developed a touching fondness for the rising young Nazi leader. It was in the Bechstein mansion in Berlin that Hitler first met many of the business and Army leaders and it was there that some of the decisive secret meetings took place which led him finally to the chancellorship.

Not all German businessmen jumped on the Hitler bandwagon after the Nazi election showing in 1930. Funk mentions that the big electric corporations Siemens and A.E.G. stood aloof, as did the king of the munition makers, Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach. Fritz Thyssen in his confessions declares that Krupp was a “violent opponent” of Hitler and that as late as the day before Hindenburg appointed him Chancellor Krupp urgently warned the old Field Marshal against such a folly. However, Krupp soon saw the light and quickly became, in the words of the repentant Thyssen, “a super Nazi.”15

It is obvious, then, that in his final drive for power Hitler had considerable financial backing from a fairly large chunk of the German business world. How much the bankers and businessmen actually contributed to the Nazi Party in those last three years before January 1933 has never been established. Funk says it probably amounted to no more than “a couple of million marks.” Thyssen estimates it at two millions a year; he says he himself personally gave one million marks. But judged by the large sums which the party had at its disposal in those days, though Goebbels complained it was never enough, the total gifts from business were certainly larger than these estimates by many times. What good they eventually did these politically childish men of the business world will be seen later in this narrative. One of the most enthusiastic of them at this time—as he was one of the most bitterly disillusioned of them afterward—was Dr. Schacht, who resigned his presidency of the Reichsbank in 1930 because of his opposition to the Young Plan, met Goering in that year and Hitler in 1931 and for the next two years devoted all of his considerable abilities to bringing the Fuehrer closer to his banker and industrialist friends and ever closer to the great goal of the Chancellor’s seat. By 1932 this economic wizard, whose responsibility for the coming of the Third Reich and for its early successes proved to be so immeasurably great, was writing Hitler: “I have no doubt that the present development of things can only lead to your becoming Chancellor … Your movement is carried internally by so strong a truth and necessity that victory cannot elude you long … No matter where my work may take me in the near future, even if someday you should see me imprisoned in a fortress, you can always count on me as your loyal supporter.” One of the two letters from which these words are taken was signed: “With a vigorous ‘Heil.’”16

One “so strong a truth” of the Nazi movement, which Hitler had never made any secret of, was that if the party ever took over Germany it would stamp out a German’s personal freedom, including that of Dr. Schacht and his business friends. It would be some time before the genialReichsbank president, as he would again become under Hitler, and his associates in industry and finance would wake up to this. And since this history, like all history, is full of sublime irony, it would not be too long a time before Dr. Schacht proved himself to be a good prophet not only about Hitler’s chancellorship but about the Fuehrer’s seeing him imprisoned, if not in a fortress then in a concentration camp, which was worse, and not as Hitler’s “loyal supporter”—here he was wrong—but in an opposite capacity.

   Hitler had now, by the start of 1931, gathered around him in the party the little band of fanatical, ruthless men who would help him in his final drive to power and who, with one exception, would be at his side to help him sustain that power during the years of the Third Reich, though another of them, who was closest of all to him and perhaps the ablest and most brutish of the lot, would not survive, even with his life, the second year of Nazi government. There were five who stood above the other followers at this time. These were Gregor Strasser, Roehm, Goering, Goebbels and Frick.

Goering had returned to Germany at the end of 1927, following a general political amnesty which the. Communists had helped the parties of the Right put through the Reichstag. In Sweden, where he had spent most of his exile since the 1923 putsch, he had been cured of addiction to narcotics at the Langbro Asylum and when he was well had earned his living with a Swedish aircraft company. The dashing, handsome World War ace had now grown corpulent but had lost none of his energy or his zest for life. He settled down in a small but luxurious bachelor’s flat in the Badischestrasse in Berlin (his epileptic wife, whom he deeply loved, had contracted tuberculosis and remained, an invalid, in Sweden), earned his living as adviser to aircraft companies and the German airline, Lufthansa, and cultivated his social contacts. These contacts were considerable and ranged from the former Crown Prince and Prince Philip of Hesse, who had married Princess Mafalda, the daughter of the King of Italy, to Fritz Thyssen and other barons of the business world, as well as to a number of prominent officers of the Army.

These were the very connections which Hitler lacked but needed, and Goering soon became active in introducing the Nazi leader to his friends and in counteracting in upper-class circles the bad odor which some of the Brownshirt ruffians exuded. In 1928 Hitler chose Goering as one of the twelve Nazi deputies to represent the party in the Reichstag, of which he became President when the Nazis became the largest party in 1932. It was in the official residence of the Reichstag President that many of the meetings were held and intrigues hatched which led to the party’s ultimate triumph, and it was here—to jump ahead in time a little—that a plan was connived that helped Hitler to stay in power after he became Chancellor: to set the Reichstag on fire.

Emst Roehm had broken with Hitler in 1925 and not long afterward gone off to join the Bolivian Army as a lieutenant colonel. Toward the end of 1930 Hitler appealed to him to return and take over again the leadership of the S.A., which was getting out of hand. Its members, even its leaders, apparently believed in a coming Nazi revolution by violence, and with increasing frequency they were taking to the streets to molest and murder their political opponents. No election, national, provincial or municipal, took place without savage battles in the gutters.

Passing notice must here be taken of one of these encounters, for it provided National Socialism with its greatest martyr. One of the neighborhood leaders of the S.A. in Berlin was Horst Wessel, son of a Protestant chaplain, who had forsaken his family and his studies and gone to live in a slum with a former prostitute and devote his life to fighting for Nazism. Many anti-Nazis always held that the youth earned his living as a pimp, though this charge may have been exaggerated. Certainly he consorted with pimps and prostitutes. He was murdered by some Communists in February 1930 and would have passed into oblivion along with hundreds of other victims of both sides in the street wars had it not been for the fact that he left behind a song whose words and tune he had composed. This was the Horst Wessel song, which soon became the official song of the Nazi party and later the second official anthem—after “Deutschland ueber Alles”—of the Third Reich. Horst Wessel himself, thanks to Dr. Goebbels’ skillful propaganda, became one of the great hero legends of the movement, hailed as a pure idealist who had given his life for the cause.

At the time Roehm took over the S.A., Gregor Strasser was undoubtedly the Number Two man in the Nazi Party. A forceful speaker and a brilliant organizer, he was the head of the party’s most important office, the Political Organization, a post which gave him great influence among the provincial and local leaders whose labors he supervised. With his genial Bavarian nature, he was the most popular leader in the party next to Hitler, and, unlike the Fuehrer he enjoyed the personal trust and even liking of most of his political opponents. There were a good many at that time, within and without the party, who believed that Strasser might well supplant the moody, incalculable Austrian leader. This view was especially strong in the Reichswehr and in the President’s Palace.

Otto, Gregor Strasser’s brother, had fallen by the wayside. Unfortunately for him, he had taken seriously not only the word “socialist” but the word “workers” in the party’s official name of National Socialist German Workers’ Party. He had supported certain strikes of the socialist trade unions and demanded that the party come out for nationalization of industry. This of course was heresy to Hitler, who accused Otto Strasser of professing the cardinal sins of “democracy and liberalism.” On May 21 and 22, 1930, the Fuehrer had a showdown with his rebellious subordinate and demanded complete submission. When Otto refused, he was booted out of the party. He tried to form a truly national “socialist” movement, the Union of Revolutionary National Socialists, which became known only as the Black Front, but in the September elections it failed completely to win any sizable number of Nazi votes away from Hitler.

Goebbels, the fourth member of the Big Five around Hitler, had remained an enemy and rival of Gregor Strasser ever since their break in 1926. Two years after that he had succeeded Strasser as propaganda chief of the party when the latter was moved up to head the Political Organization. He had remained as Gauleiter of Berlin, and his achievements in reorganizing the party there as well as his talents for propaganda had favorably impressed the Fuehrer. His glib but biting tongue and his nimble mind had not endeared him to Hitler’s other chief lieutenants, who distrusted him. But the Nazi leader was quite content to see strife among his principal subordinates, if only because it was a safeguard against their conspiring together against his leadership. He never fully trusted Strasser, but in the loyalty of Goebbels he had complete confidence; moreover, the lame little fanatic was bubbling with ideas which were useful to him. Finally, Goebbels’ talents as a rowdy journalist—he now had a Berlin newspaper of his own, Der Angriff, to spout off in—and as a rabble-rousing orator were invaluable to the party.

Wilhelm Frick, the fifth and last member of the group, was the only colorless personality in it. He was a typical German civil servant. As a young police officer in Munich before 1923 he had served as one of Hitler’s spies at police headquarters, and the Fuehrer always felt grateful to him. Often he had taken on the thankless tasks. On Hitler’s instigation he had become the first Nazi to hold provincial office—in Thuringia—and later he became the leader of the Nazi Party in the Reichstag. He was doggedly loyal, efficient and, because of the façade of his retiring nature and suave manners, useful in contacts with wavering officials in the republican government.

Some of the lesser men in the party in the early Thirties would subsequently gain notoriety and frightening personal power in the Third Reich. Heinrich Himmler, the poultry farmer, who, with his pince-nez, might be mistaken for a mild, mediocre schoolmaster—he had a degree in agronomy from the Munich Technische Hochschule—was gradually building up Hitler’s praetorian guard, the black-coated S.S. But he worked under the shadow of Roehm, who was commander of both the S.A. and the S.S., and he was little known, even in party circles, outside his native Bavaria. There was Dr. Robert Ley, a chemist by profession and a habitual drunkard, who was the Gauleiter of Cologne, and Hans Frank, the bright young lawyer and leader of the party’s legal division. There was Walther Darré, born in 1895 in the Argentine, an able agronomist who was won over to National Socialism by Hess and whose book The Peasantry as the Life Source of the Nordic Race brought him to Hitler’s attention and to a job as head of the Agricultural Department of the party. Rudolf Hess himself, personally unambitious and doggedly loyal to the Leader, held only the title of private secretary to the Fuehrer. The second private secretary was one Martin Bormann, a molelike man who preferred to burrow in the dark recesses of party life to further his intrigues and who once had served a year in prison for complicity in a political murder. The Reich Youth Leader was Baldur von Schirach, a romantically minded young man and an energetic organizer, whose mother was an American and whose great-grandfather, a Union officer, had lost a leg at Bull Run; he told his American jailers at Nuremberg that he had become an anti-Semite at the age of seventeen after reading a book called Eternal Jew, by Henry Ford.

There was also Alfred Rosenberg, the ponderous, dim-witted Baltic pseudo philosopher who, as we have seen, was one of Hitler’s earliest mentors and who since the putsch of 1923 had poured out a stream of books and pamphlets of the most muddled content and style, culminating in a 700-page work entitled The Myth of the Twentieth Century. This was a ludicrous concoction of his half-baked ideas on Nordic supremity palmed off as the fruit of what passed for erudition in Nazi circles—a book which Hitler often said jokingly he had tried unsuccessfully to read and which prompted Schirach, who fancied himself as a writer, to remark once that Rosenberg was “a man who sold more copies of a book no one ever read than any other author,” for in the first ten years after its publication in 1930 it sold more than half a million copies. From the beginning to the end Hitler always had a warm spot in his heart for this dull, stupid, fumbling man, rewarding him with various party jobs such as editor of the Voelkischer Beobachter and other Nazi publications and naming him as one of the party’s deputies in the Reichstag in 1930, where he represented the movement in the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Such was the conglomeration of men around the leader of the National Socialists. In a normal society they surely would have stood out as a grotesque assortment of misfits. But in the last chaotic days of the Republic they began to appear to millions of befuddled Germans as saviors. And they had two advantages over their opponents: They were led by a man who knew exactly what he wanted and they were ruthless enough, and opportunist enough, to go to any lengths to help him get it.

As the year of 1931 ran its uneasy course, with five million wage earners out of work, the middle classes facing ruin, the farmers unable to meet their mortgage payments, the Parliament paralyzed, the government floundering, the eighty-four-year-old President fast sinking into the befuddlement of senility, a confidence mounted in the breasts of the Nazi chieftains that they would not have long to wait. As Gregor Strasser publicly boasted, “All that serves to precipitate the catastrophe … is good, very good for us and our German revolution.”

* Michael was finally published in 1929, after Goebbels had become nationally known as a Nazi leader. The Wanderer reached the stage after Goebbels became Propaganda Minister and the boss of the German theater. It had a short run.

* These early diaries, unearthed by Allied intelligence agents after the war, are a rich source of information for this period of Goebbels life.

* Later he bought it and, after becoming Chancellor, rebuilt it on a vast and lavish scale, changing the name from Haus Wachenfeld to Berghof.

* Painted after her death by Adolf Ziegler, Hitler’s favorite painter.

* The italics in this declaration are Hitler’s.

* Both of whom would end their lives on the gallows, Sack for his part in the conspiracy against Hitler on July 20, 1944, and Frank for what he did on behalf of Hitler in Poland.

* Lieutenant Scheringer, embittered by what he considered Hitler’s betrayal, renounced the Nazi Party while in prison and became a fanatical Communist. He was marked—as were so many who crossed Hitler—for liquidation in the June 30, 1934, purge, but somehow escaped and lived to see the end of Hitler. Lieutenant Ludin remained an enthusiastic Nazi, was elected to the Reichstag in 1932, became a high officer in the S.A. and the S.S., and served as German minister to the puppet state of Slovakia, where he was arrested at the time of the liberation and executed by the Czechoslovaks.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!