Military history

THE FALL OF FIELD MARSHAL VON BLOMBERG

“What influence a woman, even without realizing it, can exert on the history of a country and thereby on the world!” Colonel Alfred Jodl exclaimed in his diary on January 26, 1938. “One has the feeling of living in a fateful hour for the German people.”5

The woman this brilliant young staff officer referred to was Fräulein Erna Gruhn, and as the year 1937 approached its end she must have regarded herself as the last person in Germany who could possibly propel, as Jodl declared, the German people into a fateful crisis and exercise a profound influence on their history. Perhaps only in the eerie, psychopathic world in which the inner circle of the Third Reich moved at this time with such frenzy would it have been possible.

Fräulein Gruhn was the secretary of Blomberg and toward the end of 1937 he felt sufficiently enamored of her to suggest marriage. His first wife, the daughter of a retired Army officer, whom he had married in 1904, had died in 1932. His five children in the meantime had grown up (his youngest daughter had married the oldest son of General Keitel, his protégé, in 1937) and, tiring of his somewhat lonely widowerhood, he decided the time had come to remarry. Realizing that for the senior officer of the German Army to wed a commoner would not go down well with the haughty, aristocratic officer corps, he sought out Goering for advice. Goering could see no objection to the marriage—had he himself not married, after the death of his first wife, a divorced actress? There was no place in the Third Reich for the stodgy social prejudices of the officer corps. Goering not only approved what Blomberg had in mind; he declared himself ready to smooth matters over with Hitler, if that were necessary, and to help in any other way. As it happened, there was another way he could be helpful. There was a rival lover involved, the Field Marshal confided. To Goering that was no problem. Such nuisances in other cases had been carted off to concentration camp. Probably out of consideration for the old-fashioned morals of the Field Marshal, Goering, however, offered to ship the troublesome rival off to South America, which he did.

Still, Blomberg felt troubled. On December 15, 1937, Jodl made a curious entry in his diary: “The General Field Marshal [Blomberg] in a high state of excitement. Reason not known. Apparently a personal matter. He retired for eight days to an unknown place.”6

On December 22 Blomberg reappeared to deliver the funeral oration for General Ludendorff at the Feldherrnhalle in Munich. Hitler was there, but declined to speak. The World War hero had refused to have anything to do with him ever since he had fled from in front of the Feldherrnhalle after the volley of bullets during the Beer Hall Putsch. After the funeral Blomberg broached the matter of his proposed marriage to Hitler. The Fuehrer, to his relief, gave it his blessing.

The wedding took place on January 12, 1938, and Hitler and Goering were present as the principal witnesses. Hardly had the bridal pair taken off for Italy on their honeymoon than the storm broke. The rigid officer corps might have absorbed the shock of their Field Marshal marrying his stenographer, but they were not prepared to accept his marriage to a woman with a past such as now began to come to light in all its horrific details.

At first there were only rumors. Anonymous telephone calls began to be received by stiff-necked generals from giggling girls, apparently calling from unsavory cafés and night clubs, congratulating the Army for having accepted one of their number. At police headquarters in Berlin a police inspector, checking on the rumors, came upon a file marked “Erna Gruhn.” Horrified, he took it to the police chief, Count von Helldorf.

The count, a roughneck veteran of the Freikorps and the brawling days of the S.A., was horrified too. For the dossier showed that the bride of the Field Marshal and Commander in Chief had a police record as a prostitute and had been convicted of having posed for pornographic photographs. The young Frau Field Marshal, it developed, had grown up in a massage salon run by her mother which, as sometimes happened in Berlin, was merely a camouflage for a brothel.

It was obviously Helldorf’s duty to pass along the damaging dossier to his superior, the chief of the German police, Himmler. But ardent Nazi though he was, he had formerly been a member of the Army officer corps himself and had absorbed some of its traditions. He knew that Himmler, who had been feuding with the Army High Command for more than a year and was now coming to be regarded by it as more of a sinister threat than Roehm had been, would use the file to blackmail the Field Marshal and make him his tool against the conservative generals. Courageously, Helldorf took the police papers to General Keitel instead. He apparently was convinced that Keitel, who owed his recent rise in the Army to Blomberg, to whom he was attached by family ties, would arrange for the officer corps itself to handle the affair and also would warn his chief of the peril he was in. But Keitel, an arrogant and ambitious man, though of feeble mind and moral character, had no intention of risking his career by getting into trouble with the party and the S.S. Instead of passing on the papers to the Army chief, General von Fritsch, he gave them back to Helldorf with the suggestion that he show them to Goering.

No one could have been more pleased to possess them than Goering, for it was obvious that Blomberg now would have to go and logical, he thought, that he himself should succeed him as Commander in Chief of the Wehrmacht—a goal he had long had in mind. Blomberg interrupted his honeymoon in Italy to return to Germany for the funeral of his mother and on January 20, still unmindful of what was brewing, appeared at his office in the War Ministry to resume his duties.

But not for long. On January 25 Goering brought the explosive documents to Hitler, who had just returned from Berchtesgaden, and the Fuehrer blew up. His Field Marshal had deceived him and made him, who was an official witness at the wedding, look like a fool. Goering quickly agreed with him and at noon went off to see Blomberg personally and break the news to him. The Field Marshal appears to have been overwhelmed by the revelations about his bride and offered to divorce her at once. But this, Goering politely explained, would not be enough. The Army Command itself was demanding his resignation; as Jodl’s diary of two days later reveals, the Chief of the General Staff, General Beck, had informed Keitel that “one cannot tolerate the highest-ranking soldier marrying a whore.” On January 25, Jodl learned through Keitel that Hitler had dismissed his Field Marshal. Two days later the sixty-year-old fallen officer left Berlin for Capri to resume his honeymoon.

To this idyllic island he was pursued by his naval adjutant, who provided the final grotesque touch to this singular tragi-comedy. Admiral Raeder had dispatched this aide, Lieutenant von Wangenheim, to demand of Blomberg that for the sake of the honor of the officer corps he divorce his wife. The junior naval officer was an arrogant and extremely zealous young man and when he arrived in the presence of the honeymooning Field Marshal he exceeded his instructions. Instead of asking for a divorce he suggested that his former chief do the honorable thing, whereupon he attempted to thrust a revolver into Blomberg’s hand. Despite his fall, however, the Field Marshal seemed to have retained a zest for life—obviously he was still enamored of his bride notwithstanding all that had happened. He declined to take the proffered weapon, remarking, as he immediately wrote to Keitel, that he and the young naval officer “apparently had quite different views and standards of life.”7

After all, the Fuehrer had held out to him the prospect of further employment at the highest level as soon as the storm blew over. According to Jodl’s diary, Hitler told Blomberg during the interview in which he dismissed him that “as soon as Germany’s hour comes, you will again be by my side, and everything that has happened in the past will be forgotten.”8 Indeed, Blomberg wrote in his unpublished memoirs that Hitler, at their final meeting, promised him “with the greatest emphasis” that he would be given the supreme command of the armed forces in the event of war.9

Like so many other promises of Hitler, this one was not kept. Field Marshal von Blomberg’s name was stricken forever from the Army rolls, and not even when the war came and he offered his services was he restored to duty in any capacity. After their return to Germany Blomberg and his wife settled in the Bavarian village of Wiessee, where they lived in complete obscurity until the end of the war. As was the case of a former English King of the same era he remained to the end loyal to the wife who had brought his downfall. That end came with his death on March 13, 1946, in Nuremberg jail, where he was waiting, a pitiful, emaciated man, to testify in the trial.

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