Military history

THE DEATH OF HINDENBURG

All through the summer the seemingly indestructible Hindenburg had been sinking and on August 2, at nine in the morning, he died in his eighty-seventh year. At noon, three hours later, it was announced that according to a law enacted by the cabinet on the preceding day the offices of Chancellor and President had been combined and that Adolf Hitler had taken over the powers of the head of state and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. The title of President was abolished; Hitler would be known as Fuehrer and Reich Chancellor. His dictatorship had become complete. To leave no loopholes Hitler exacted from all officers and men of the armed forces an oath of allegiance—not to Germany, not to the constitution, which he had violated by not calling for the election of Hindenburg’s successor, but to himself. It read:

I swear by God this sacred oath, that I will render unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler, the Fuehrer of the German Reich and people, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and will be ready as a brave soldier to risk my life at any time for this oath.

From August 1934 on, the generals, who up to that time could have overthrown the Nazi regime with ease had they so desired, thus tied themselves to the person of Adolf Hitler, recognizing him as the highest legitimate authority in the land and binding themselves to him by an oath of fealty which they felt honor-bound to obey in all circumstances no matter how degrading to them and the Fatherland. It was an oath which was to trouble the conscience of quite a few high officers when their acknowledged leader set off on a path which they felt could only lead to the nation’s destruction and which they opposed. It was also a pledge which enabled an even greater number of officers to excuse themselves from any personal responsibility for the unspeakable crimes which they carried out on the orders of a Supreme Commander whose true nature they had seen for themselves in the butchery of June 30. One of the appalling aberrations of the German officer corps from this point on rose out of this conflict of “honor”—a word which, as this author can testify by personal experience, was often on their lips and of which they had such a curious concept. Later and often, by honoring their oath they dishonored themselves as human beings and trod in the mud the moral code of their corps.

When Hindenburg died, Dr. Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, officially announced that no last will and testament of the Field Marshal had been found and that it must be presumed there was none. But on August 15, four days before the plebiscite in which the German people were asked to approve Hitler’s taking over the President’s office, Hindenburg’s political testament turned up, delivered to Hitler by none other than Papen. Its words of praise for Hitler provided strong ammunition to Goebbels in the final days of the plebiscite campaign, and it was reinforced on the eve of the voting by a broadcast of Colonel Oskar von Hindenburg:

My father had himself seen in Adolf Hitler his own direct successor as head of the German State, and I am acting according to my father’s intention when I call on all German men and women to vote for the handing over of my father’s office to the Fuehrer and Reich Chancellor.*

   Almost certainly this was not true. For Hindenburg, on the best evidence available, had recommended as his last wish a restoration of the monarchy after his death. This part of the testament Adolf Hitler suppressed.

Some, if not all, of the mystery which cloaked the truth about the aged President’s testament was cleared up after the war by Papen’s interrogation at Nuremberg and later in his memoirs. And while Papen is not an unimpeachable witness and may not have told all he knew, his testimony cannot be ignored. He himself wrote the initial draft of Hindenburg’s last will, and, according to him, at the Field Marshal’s request.

My draft [he says in his memoirs] recommended that after his death a constitutional monarchy should be adopted, and I made a point of the inadvisability of combining the offices of President and Chancellor. In order to avoid giving any offense to Hitler, there were also certain approving references to some of the positive accomplishments of the Nazi regime.

Papen delivered his draft to Hindenburg in April 1934, he says.

A few days later he asked me to call on him again, and told me that he had decided not to approve the document in the form I had suggested. He felt … that the nation as a whole should make up its mind as to the form of State it desired. He therefore intended to regard the account of his service as a testament, and his recommendations concerning the return of the monarchy would be expressed, as his last wish, in a private letter to Hitler. This meant, of course, that the whole point of my original suggestion had been lost, as the recommendation concerning the monarchy was no longer addressed to the nation; a fact of which Hitler later took full advantage.

No German was as well placed as Papen to observe how Hitler took the advantage.

When I returned to Berlin after Hindenburg’s funeral at Tannenberg, Hitler rang me up. He asked me if a political testament by Hindenburg existed, and if I knew where it was. I said that I would ask Oskar von Hindenburg. “I should be obliged,” said Hitler, “if you would ensure that this document comes into my possession as soon as possible.” I therefore told Kageneck, my private secretary, to go to Neudeck and ask Hindenburg’s son if the testament still existed, and whether I could have it to pass it on to Hitler. As I had not seen Hindenburg after he left Berlin at the end of May, I had no idea whether he had destroyed the testament or not.

Oskar, who had not been able to find the important document immediately after his father’s death, suddenly found it. That this could not have been a very difficult feat was attested to by Count von der Schulenburg, Hindenburg’s adjutant, in his testimony at Papen’s denazification trial. He revealed that the President on May 11 signed two documents, his testament and his last wishes. The first was addressed to “the German People” and the second to the “Reich Chancellor.” When Hindenburg left Berlin on his last journey to Neudeck Schulenburg took the papers with him. Papen says he did not know this at the time. But in due course his secretary returned from Neudeck bringing two sealed envelopes turned over to him by Oskar von Hindenburg.

On August 15 Papen delivered them to Hitler at Berchtesgaden.

Hitler read both documents with great care and discussed the contents with us. It was obvious that Hindenburg’s recommendations in the document expressing his last wishes were contrary to Hitler’s intentions. He therefore took advantage of the fact that the envelope bore the address “Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler.” “These recommendations of the late President,” he said, “are given to me personally. Later I shall decide if and when I shall permit their publication.” In vain I begged him to publish both documents. The only one handed to his press chief for publication was Hindenburg’s account of his service, in which he included praise of Hitler.31

What happened to the second document recommending that not Hitler but a Hohenzollern become head of state Papen does not say and perhaps does not know. Since it has never turned up among the hundreds of tons of captured secret Nazi documents it is likely that Hitler lost no time in destroying it.

Perhaps it would have made little difference if Hitler had been courageous and honest enough to publish it. Even before Hindenburg’s death, he had made the cabinet promulgate a law giving him the President’s powers. This was on August 1, the day before the Field Marshal died. That the “law” was illegal also made little difference in a Germany where the former Austrian corporal had now become the law itself. That it was illegal was obvious. On December 17, 1932, during the Schleicher government, the Reichstag had passed by the necessary two-thirds majority an amendment to the constitution providing that the president of the High Court of Justice, instead of the Chancellor, should act as President until a new election could be held. And while the Enabling Act, which was the “legal” basis of Hitler’s dictatorship, gave the Chancellor the right to make laws which deviated from the constitution, it specifically forbade him to tamper with the institution of the Presidency.

But what mattered the law now? It mattered not to Papen, who cheerfully went off to serve Hitler as minister in Vienna and smooth over the mess caused by the murder of Chancellor Dollfuss by the Nazis. It mattered not to the generals, who went eagerly to work to build up Hitler’s Army. It mattered not to the industrialists, who turned enthusiastically to the profitable business of rearmament. Conservatives of the old school, “decent” Germans like Baron von Neurath in the Foreign Office and Dr. Schacht in the Reichsbank, did not resign. No one resigned. In fact, Dr. Schacht took on the added duties of Minister of Economics on August 2, the day Hitler seized the powers of the expiring President.

And the German people? On August 19, some 95 per cent of those who had registered went to the polls, and 90 per cent, more than thirty-eight million of them, voted approval of Hitler’s usurpation of complete power. Only four and a quarter million Germans had the courage—or the desire—to vote “No.”

No wonder that Hitler was in a confident mood when the Nazi Party Congress assembled in Nuremberg on September 4. I watched him on the morning of the next day stride like a conquering emperor down the center aisle of the great flag-bedecked Luitpold Hall while the band blared forth “The Badenweiler March” and thirty thousand hands were raised in the Nazi salute. A few moments later he sat proudly in the center of the vast stage with folded arms and shining eyes as Gauleiter Adolf Wagner of Bavaria read the Fuehrer’s proclamation.

The German form of life is definitely determined for the next thousand years. The Age of Nerves of the nineteenth century has found its close with us. There will be no other revolution in Germany for the next one thousand years!

Being mortal, he would not live a thousand years, but as long as he lived he would rule this great people as the most powerful and ruthless autocrat they had ever had. The venerable Hindenburg was no longer there to dispute his authority, the Army was in his hands, bound to obedience by an oath no German soldier would lightly break. Indeed, all Germany and all the Germans were in his bloodstained hands now that the last recalcitrants had been done away with or had disappeared for good.

“It is wonderful!” he exulted at Nuremberg to the foreign correspondents at the end of the exhausting week of parades, speeches, pagan pageantry and the most frenzied adulation for a public figure this writer had ever seen. Adolf Hitler had come a long way from the gutters of Vienna. He was only forty-five, and this was just the beginning. Even one returning to Germany for the first time since the death of the Republic could see that, whatever his crimes against humanity, Hitler had unleashed a dynamic force of incalculable proportions which had long been pent up in the German people. To what purpose, he had already made clear in the pages of Mein Kampf and in a hundred speeches which had gone unnoticed or unheeded or been ridiculed by so many—by almost everyone—within and especially without the Third Reich.

* This cabinet meeting, of course, was private, and, like most of the other conferences, many of them taking place in the strictest secrecy, held by Hitler and his political and military aides during the Third Reich, its proceedings and decisions were not accessible to the public until the captured German documents were first perused during the Nuremberg trial.

A great many of these highly confidential discussions and the decisions emanating from them—all regarded as state secrets—will henceforth be chronicled in this book, which, from here to the end. largely rests on the documents which recorded them at the time. At the risk of somewhat cluttering the pages with numbers indicating notes, these sources will be indicated. No other history of a nation over a specific epoch has been so fully documented, I believe, as that of the Third Reich, and to have left out reference to the documents, it seemed to the author, would have greatly weakened whatever value this book may have as an authentic historical record.

* Both in his interrogations and at his trial at Nuremberg, Goering denied to the last that he had had any part in setting fire to the Reichstag.

* A document which came to light at Nuremberg shows that the Nazis had been planning for some time to destroy the trade unions. A secret order dated April 21 and signed by Dr. Ley contained detailed instructions for “co-ordinating” the unions on May 2. S.A. and S.S. troops were to carry out the “occupation of trade-union properties” and to “take into protective custody” all union leaders. Union funds were to be seized.17 The Christian (Catholic) Trade Unions were not molested on May 2. Their end came on June 24.

*Some months previously, on May 11, Lord Hausham, the British Secretary of State for War, had publicly warned that any attempt of Germany to rearm would be a breach of the peace treaty and would be answered by sanctions, in accordance with the treaty. In Germany it was thought that sanctions would mean armed invasion.

* The Munich trial in May 1957 was the first occasion on which actual eyewitnesses and participants in the June 30, 1934, purge talked in public. During the Third Reich it would not have been possible. Sepp Dietrich, whom this author recalls personally as one of the most brutal men of the Third Reich, commanded Hitler’s S.S. Bodyguard in 1934 and directed the executions in Stadelheim prison. Later a colonel general in the Waffen S.S. during the war, he was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison for complicity in the murder of American prisoners of war during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. Released after ten years, he was brought to Munich in 1957 and sentenced on May 14 to eighteen months in prison for his part in the June 30, 1934, executions. His sentence and that of Michael Lippert, who was convicted as being one of the two S.S. officers who actually killed Roehm, was the first punishment given to the Nazi executioners who took part in the purge.

* Kate Eva Hoerlin, former wife of Willi Schmid, told the story of her husband’s murder in an affidavit sworn on July 7, 1945, at Binghamton, N.Y. She became an American citizen in 1944. To hush up the atrocity Rudolf Hess himself visited the widow, apologized for the “mistake” and secured for her a pension from the German government. The affidavit is given in Nuremberg Document L-135, NCA, VII, pp. 883–90.

* The two senior officers continued their efforts to clear the names of Schleicher and Bredow, and succeeded in getting Hitler, at a secret meeting of party and military leaders in Berlin on January 3, 1935, to admit that the killing of the two generals had been “in error” and to announce that their names would be restored to the honor rolls of their regiments. This “rehabilitation” was never published in Germany, but the officer corps accepted it as such. (See Wheeler-Bennett, The Nemesis of Power, p. 337.)

* It is interesting and perhaps revealing that Hitler now promoted Oskar from colonel to major general. See above, p. 181.

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