Military history

THE FALL OF GENERAL FREIHERR WERNER VON FRITSCH

Colonel General Freiherr Werner von Fritsch, the Commander in Chief of the Army and a gifted and unbending officer of the old school (“a typical General Staff character,” Admiral Raeder called him) was the obvious candidate to succeed Blomberg as Minister of War and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. But Goering himself, as we have seen, had his eye on the top post, and there were some who believed that he had deliberately pushed Blomberg into his marriage with a woman whose unfortunate past he may have had prior knowledge of, in order to clear the way for himself. If this was true, Blomberg did not know it, for during his farewell interview with Hitler on January 27 he at first suggested Goering as his successor. The Fuehrer, however, knew his old Nazi henchman better than anyone else; Goering, he said, was too self-indulgent and lacked both patience and diligence. Nor did he favor General von Fritsch, whose opposition to his grandiose plans on November 5 he had not liked or forgotten. Moreover, Fritsch’s hostility to the Nazi Party and especially to the S.S. had never been concealed—a circumstance which not only had attracted the attention of the Fuehrer but had provoked in Heinrich Himmler, the S.S. leader and chief of police, a growing determination to overthrow this formidable antagonist who led the Army. *

Himmler’s opportunity now came, or, rather, he created it by setting in motion a frame-up so outrageous that it is difficult to believe that it could have happened—at least in 1938—even in the gangster-ridden world of the S.S. and the National Socialist Party, or that the German Army, which after all did have its traditions, would have stood for it. Coming on the heels of the Blomberg scandal, it set off a second and much more explosive bomb which rocked the officer corps to its foundation and settled its fate.

On January 25, the day on which Goering was showing Hitler the police record of Blomberg’s bride, he also spread before the Fuehrer an even more damaging document. This had been conveniently provided by Himmler and his principal aide, Heydrich, chief of the S.D., the S.S. Security Service, and it purported to show that General von Fritsch had been guilty of homosexual offenses under Section 175 of the German criminal code and that he had been paying blackmail to an ex-convict since 1935 to hush the matter up. The Gestapo papers seemed so conclusive that Hitler was inclined to believe the charge, and Blomberg, perhaps venting his resentment at Fritsch for the severe attitude the Army had taken toward him because of his marriage, did nothing to dissuade him. Fritsch, he confided, was not a “woman’s man,” and he added that the General, a lifelong bachelor, might well have “succumbed to weakness.”

Colonel Hossbach, the Fuehrer’s adjutant, who was present when the Gestapo file was shown, was horrified and, in defiance of Hitler’s orders that he was to say nothing to Fritsch, went immediately to the Army commander’s apartment to inform him of the charge and to warn him of the dire trouble he was in. The taciturn Prussian nobleman was stupefied. “A lot of stinking lies!” he blurted out. When he had calmed down he assured his brother officer on his word of honor that the charges were utterly baseless. Early the next morning Hossbach, fearless of the consequences, told Hitler of his meeting with Fritsch, reported the General’s categorical denial of the accusations and urged that the Fuehrer give him a hearing and the opportunity of personally denying his guilt.

To this Hitler, to Hossbach’s surprise, assented, and the Commander in Chief of the German Army was summoned to the Chancellery late on the evening of the same day. He was there to undergo an experience for which his long training as an aristocrat, an officer and a gentleman had scarcely prepared him. The meeting took place in the Chancellery library and this time Himmler as well as Goering was present. After Hitler had summed up the charges, Fritsch gave his word of honor as an officer that they were completely untrue. But such assurances no longer had much value in the Third Reich and now Himmler, who had been waiting for three years for this moment, introduced a shuffling, degenerate-looking figure from a side door. He must have been one of the strangest, if not the most disreputable, figures ever let into the offices of the Chancellor of Germany. His name was Hans Schmidt and he had a long prison record dating back to his first sentence to a boy’s reformatory. His chief weakness, it developed, had been spying on homosexuals and then blackmailing them. He now professed to recognize General von Fritsch as the Army officer whom he had caught in a homosexual offense in a dark alley near the Potsdam railroad station in Berlin with an underworld character by the name of “Bavarian Joe.”* For years, Schmidt insisted to the three most powerful figures in Germany, this officer had paid him blackmail to keep quiet, the payments only ceasing when the law again clamped him behind the bars of a penitentiary.

General Freiherr von Fritsch was too outraged to answer. The spectacle of the head of the German State, the successor of Hindenburg and the Hohenzollerns, introducing such a shady character in such a place for such a purpose was too much for him. His speechlessness only helped to convince Hitler that he was guilty and the Fuehrer asked for his resignation. This Fritsch declined to give, demanding in turn a trial by a military court of honor. But Hitler had no intention of allowing the military caste to take over the case, at least for the moment. This was a heaven-sent opportunity, which he would not let pass, to smash the opposition of the generals who would not bend to his will and genius. He then and there ordered Fritsch to go on indefinite leave, which was equivalent to his suspension as Commander in Chief of the Army. The next day Hitler conferred with Keitel about a successor not only to Blomberg but to Fritsch. Jodl, whose chief source of information was Keitel, began sprinkling his diary with entries which indicated that a drastic shake-up not only in the Army Command but in the whole organization of the armed forces was being worked out which would at last bring the military to heel.

Would the senior generals surrender their power, which though by no means absolute was the last that remained outside the grip of Hitler? When Fritsch returned to his apartment in the Bendlerstrasse from the ordeal in the Chancellery library he conferred with General Beck, the Chief of the Army General Staff. Some English historians10 have recounted that Beck urged him to carry out a military putsch at once against the Hitler government, and that Fritsch declined. But Wolfgang Foerster, the German biographer of Beck, who had the General’s personal papers at his disposal, states merely that on the fateful evening Beck saw first Hitler, who apprised him of the grave charges, then Fritsch, who denied them, and that finally, late on the same evening, he hurried back to Hitler to demand only that the Army commander be given a chance to clear himself before a military court of honor. Beck too, his biographer makes clear, had not yet attained that understanding of the rulers of the Third Reich which was later to come to him—when it was too late. Some days later, when it was also too late, when not only Blomberg and Fritsch were gone but sixteen of the senior generals retired and forty-four others transferred to lesser commands, Fritsch and his closest associates, of whom Beck was one, did seriously consider military countermeasures. But they quickly abandoned such dangerous thoughts. “It was clear to these men,” Foerster says, “that a military putsch would mean civil war and was by no means sure of success.” Then, as always, the German generals wanted to be sure of winning before taking any great risks. They feared, as this German writer states, that not only would Goering’s Air Force and Admiral Raeder’s Navy oppose them, since both commanders were completely under the Fuehrer’s spell, but that the Army itself might not fully support its fallen Commander in Chief.11

However, one last chance was given the ranking Army officers to deal a blow in their turn to Hitler. A preliminary investigation conducted by the Army in collaboration with the Ministry of Justice quickly established that General von Fritsch was the innocent victim of a Gestapo frame-up initiated by Himmler and Heydrich. It was found that the ex-convict Schmidt had indeed caught an Army officer in an unnatural act in the shadows of the Potsdam Station and had successfully blackmailed him for years. But his name was Frisch, not Fritsch, and he was a bedridden retired cavalry officer listed in the Army rolls as Rittmeister von Frisch. This the Gestapo had known, but it had arrested Schmidt and threatened him with death unless he pointed the finger to the Commander in Chief of the Army. The ailing Rittmeister also was taken into custody by the secret police so as to prevent him from talking, but both he and Schmidt were eventually wrested from the Gestapo’s clutches by the Army and kept in a safe place until they could testify at the court-martial of Fritsch.

The old leaders of the Army were jubilant. Not only would their Commander in Chief be vindicated and restored to his leadership of the Army. The machinations of the S.S. and the Gestapo, of those two unscrupulous men, Himmler and Heydrich, who held such unbridled power in the country, would be exposed and they and the S.S. would go the way of Roehm and the S.A. four years before. It would be a blow too to the party and to Hitler himself; it would shake the foundations of the Third Reich so violently that the Fuehrer himself might topple over. If he tried to cover up the crime, the Army itself, with a clear conscience, now that the truth was known, would take matters in its own hands. But once again, as so often in the past five years, the generals were outsmarted by the former Austrian corporal and then utterly defeated by fate, which the Leader, if not they, knew how to take advantage of for his own ends.

All through the last week of January 1938 a tension, reminiscent of that of late June 1934, gripped Berlin. Again the capital seethed with rumors. Hitler had dismissed the two top men in the Army, for reasons unknown. The generals were in revolt. They were plotting a military putsch. Ambassador François-Poncet heard that Fritsch, who had invited him to dinner for February 2 and then canceled the invitation, had been arrested. There were reports that the Army planned to surround the Reichstag, when it met to hear Hitler’s fifth-anniversary speech on January 30, and arrest the entire Nazi government and its hand-picked deputies. Credence of such reports grew when it was announced that the meeting of the Reichstag had been indefinitely postponed. The German dictator was obviously in difficulties. He had met his match at last in the unbending senior generals of the German Army. Or so the latter must have thought, but they were in error.

On February 4, 1938, the German cabinet met for what was to prove the last time. Whatever difficulties Hitler had experienced, he now resolved them in a manner which eliminated those who stood in his way, not only in the Army but in the Foreign Office. A decree which he hastily put through the cabinet that day and which was announced to the nation and the world on the radio shortly before midnight began:

“From now on I take over personally the command of the whole armed forces.”

As head of state, Hitler of course had been the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, but now he took over Blomberg’s office of Commander in Chief and abolished the War Ministry, over which the now moon-struck bridegroom had also presided. In its place was created the organization which was to become familiar to the world during World War II, the High Command of the Armed Forces (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or OKW), to which the three fighting services, the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, were subordinated. Hitler was its Supreme Commander, and under him was a chief of staff, with the high-sounding title of “Chief of the High Command of the Armed Forces”—a post which went to the toady Keitel, who managed to keep it to the end.

To assuage the wounded feelings of Goering, who had been confident of succeeding Blomberg, Hitler named him a Field Marshal, which made him the ranking officer of the Reich and apparently pleased him no end. To calm the uneasiness of the public, Hitler announced that Blomberg and Fritsch had resigned “for reasons of health.” Thus Fritsch was got rid of once and for all even before his trial by a military court of honor, which Hitler knew would exonerate him. This seemed particularly outrageous to the senior generals but there was nothing they could do about it, for they were sent into the discard in the same decree. Sixteen of them, including Generals von Rundstedt, von Leeb, von Witzleben, von Kluge and von Kleist, were relieved of their commands, and forty-four others, who were regarded as less than enthusiastic in their devotion to Nazism, were transferred.

As Fritsch’s successor to command the Army, Hitler, after some hesitation, picked General Walther von Brauchitsch, who enjoyed a good reputation among the generals but who was to prove as weak and as compliant as Blomberg when it came to standing up to the mercurial temperament of Hitler. For a few days during the crisis it appeared that a problem of sex would prove Brauchitsch’s undoing as it had that of Blomberg and Fritsch. For this officer was on the point of getting a divorce, an action frowned upon by the military aristocracy. The ever curious Jodl noted the complication in his diary. On Sunday, January 30, he recorded that Keitel had called in Brauchitsch’s son “in order to send him to his mother (he is to get her assent to the divorce),” and a couple of days later he reported a meeting of Brauchitsch and Keitel with Goering “for a discussion of the family situation.” Goering, who seemed to have made himself an arbiter of the sex difficulties of the generals, promised to look into the matter. On the same day, Jodl further noted, “the son of Br. returns with a very dignified letter from his mother.” The inference was that she would not stand in her husband’s way. Nor would Goering and Hitler disapprove of a divorce, which the new commander of the Army actually obtained a few months after assuming his new post. For both of them knew that Frau Charlotte Schmidt, the woman he wanted to marry, was, as Ulrich vonHassell said, “a two hundred per cent rabid Nazi.” The marriage took place in the following autumn and was to prove, as Jodl might have noted again, another instance of the influence of a woman on history.*

Hitler’s house cleaning of February 4 was not confined to the generals. He also swept Neurath out of the Foreign Office, replacing him with the shallow and compliant Ribbentrop. Two veteran career diplomats, Ulrich von Hassell, the ambassador in Rome, and Herbert von Dirksen, the ambassador in Tokyo, were relieved, as was Papen in Vienna. The weakling Funk was formally named as the successor of Schacht as Minister of Economics.

The next day, February 5, there were screaming headlines in the Voelkischer Beobachter: STRONGEST CONCENTRATION OF ALL POWERS IN THE FUEHRER’S HANDS! For once, the leading daily Nazi newspaper did not exaggerate.

   February 4, 1938, is a major turning point in the history of the Third Reich, a milestone on its road to war. On that date the Nazi revolution, it might be said, was completed. The last of the conservatives who stood in the way of Hitler’s embarking upon the course which he had long determined to follow, once Germany was sufficiently armed, were swept away. Blomberg, Fritsch and Neurath had been put in office by Hindenburg and the old-school conservatives to act as a brake upon Nazi excesses, and Schacht had joined them. But in the struggle for control of the foreign and economic policy and the military power of Germany they proved to be no match for Hitler. They had neither the moral strength nor the political shrewdness to stand up to him, let alone to triumph over him. Schacht quit. Neurath stepped aside. Blomberg, under pressure from his own brother generals, resigned. Fritsch, though he was framed in gangster fashion, accepted his dismissal without a gesture of defiance. Sixteen top generals meekly accepted theirs—and his. There was talk in the officer corps of a military putsch, but only talk. Hitler’s contempt for the Prussian officer caste, which he held till the end of his life, proved quite justified. It had accepted with scarcely a murmur the officially condoned murder of Generals von Schleicher and von Bredow. It was swallowing supinely now the cashiering of its senior officers. Was not Berlin swarming with younger generals eager to replace them, eager to serve him? Where was the vaunted solidarity of the Army officers? Was it not a myth?

For five years up to this winter day of February 4, 1938, the Army had possessed the physical power to overthrow Hitler and the Third Reich. When it learned on November 5, 1937, where he was leading it and the nation, why did it not attempt to do so? Fritsch himself gave the answer after his fall. On Sunday, December 18, 1938, he entertained the deposed Ambassador von Hassell at his manor house at Achterberg, near Soltau, which the Army had put at his disposal after his retirement. Hassell noted down in his diary “the substance of his views”:

“This man—Hitler—is Germany’s destiny for good and for evil. If he now goes over the abyss—which Fritsch believes he will—he will drag us all down with him. There is nothing we can do.”13

   With foreign, economic and military policy concentrated in his hands and the armed forces directly under his command, Hitler now proceeded on his way. Having got rid of Fritsch without giving him the opportunity of clearing his name, he belatedly afforded him the opportunity by setting up a military court of honor to hear the case. Field Marshal Goering presided and at his side were the commanders in chief of the Army and Navy, General von Brauchitsch and Admiral Raeder, and two professional judges of the Supreme War Tribunal.

The trial, from which the press and the public were excluded, began in Berlin on March 10, 1938, and was suddenly suspended before the day was over. Late on the previous night news had come from Austria which sent the Fuehrer into one of his greatest tantrums.* Field Marshal Goering and General von Brauchitsch were urgently needed elsewhere.

* The astute French ambassador, François-Poncet, who knew him well, says in his book The Fateful Years (p. 221) that at one time Schacht had hoped to succeed Hindenburg as President, and even Hitler, “should things go ill with the Fuehrer.”

* On March 1, 1935, the day Germany took over the Saar, I stood next to Fritsch in the reviewing stand at Saarbruecken for some time before the parade started. Although he scarcely knew me, except as one of the many American correspondents in Berlin, he poured out a running fire of sarcastic remarks about the S.S., the party and various Nazi leaders from Hitler on down. He did not disguise his contempt for them all. See Berlin Diary, p. 27.

 This cost Hossbach his job two days later, but not, as some feared, his life. He was restored to the Army General Staff, rose during the war to the rank of General of the Infantry and commanded the Fourth Army on the Russian front until abruptly dismissed by Hitler by telephone on January 28, 1945, for withdrawing his troops in defiance of the Fuehrer’s orders.

* The name is supplied by Gisevius in To the Bitter End, p. 229.

* According to Milton Shulman (Defeat in the West, p. 10), Hitler himself intervened with the first Frau von Brauchitsch in order to obtain her consent to the divorce and helped provide a financial settlement for her, thus putting the Army Commander in Chief under personal obligation to him. Shulman gives as his source a Canadian Army intelligence report.

 To divert attention from the military crisis and to save something of Neurath’s prestige both at home and abroad, Hitler, at Goering’s suggestion, created the so-called Secret Cabinet Council (Geheimer Kabinettsrat) whose purpose, said the Fuehrer’s February 4 decree, was to furnish him “guidance in the conduct of foreign policy.” Neurath was appointed its president, and its members included Keitel and the chiefs of the three armed services as well as the most important members of the ordinary cabinet and of the party. Goebbels’ propaganda machine gave it much fanfare, making it look as if it were a supercabinet and that Neurath actually had been promoted. Actually the Secret Cabinet Council was pure fiction. It never existed. As Goering testified at Nuremberg, “There was, to be sure, no such cabinet in existence, but the expression would sound quite nice and everyone would imagine that it meant something … I declare under oath that this Secret Cabinet Council never met at all, not even for a minute.”12

* When Papen arrived at the Chancellery in Berlin thirty-six hours later he found Hitler still “in a state bordering on hysteria.” (Papen, Memoirs, p. 428.)

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