Military history


After noting in his diary on May 30 that Hitler had signed the new directive for “Green” and that because of its demand for “an immediate breakthrough into Czechoslovakia right on X Day … the previous intentions of the Army must be changed considerably,” Jodl added the following sentence:

   The whole contrast becomes acute once more between the Fuehrer’s intuition that we must do it this year and the opinion of the Army that we cannot do it as yet because most certainly the Western powers will interfere and we are not as yet equal to them.16

   The perceptive Wehrmacht staff officer had put his finger on a new rift between Hitler and some of the highest-ranking generals of the Army. The opposition to the Fuehrer’s grandiose plans for aggression was led by General Ludwig Beck, Chief of the Army General Staff, who henceforth would assume the leadership of such resistance as there was to Hitler in the Third Reich. Later this sensitive, intelligent, decent but indecisive general would base his struggle against the Nazi dictator on broad grounds. As late as the spring of 1938, however, after more than four years of National Socialism, Beck opposed the Fuehrer only on the narrower professional grounds that Germany was not yet strong enough to take on the Western Powers and perhaps Russia as well.

Beck, as we have seen, had welcomed Hitler’s coming to power and had publicly acclaimed the Fuehrer for re-establishing the conscript German Army in defiance of Versailles. As far back as 1930, it will be remembered from earlier pages, Beck, then an obscure regimental commander, had gone out of his way to defend three of his subalterns on a treason charge that they were fomenting Nazism in the armed forces and, in fact, had testified in their favor before the Supreme Court after Hitler had appeared on the stand and warned that when he came to power “heads would roll.” It was not the Fuehrer’s aggression against Austria—which Beck had supported—but the rolling of General von Fritsch’s head after the Gestapo frame-up which seems to have cleared his mind. Swept of its cobwebs it began to perceive that Hitler’s policy of deliberately risking war with Britain, France and Russia against the advice of the top generals would, if carried out, be the ruin of Germany.

Beck had got wind of Hitler’s meeting with Keitel on April 21 in which the Wehrmacht was instructed to hasten plans for attacking Czechoslovakia, and on May 5 he wrote out the first of a series of memoranda for General von Brauchitsch, the new Commander in Chief of the Army, strenuously opposing any such action.17 They are brilliant papers, blunt as to unpleasant facts and full of solid reasoning and logic. Although Beck overestimated the strength of will of Britain and France, the political shrewdness of their leaders and the power of the French Army, and in the end proved wrong on the outcome of the Czech problem, his long-range predictions turned out, so far as Germany was concerned, to be deadly accurate.

Beck was convinced, he wrote in his May 5 memorandum, that a German attack on Czechoslovakia would provoke a European war in which Britain, France and Russia would oppose Germany and in which the United States would be the arsenal of the Western democracies. Germany simply could not win such a war. Its lack of raw materials alone made victory impossible. In fact, he contended, Germany’s “military-economic situation is worse than it was in 1917–18,” when the collapse of the Kaiser’s armies began.

On May 28, Beck was among the generals convoked to the Reich Chancellery after the “May crisis” to hear Hitler storm that he intended to wipe Czechoslovakia off the map the coming autumn. He took careful notes of the Fuehrer’s harangue and two days later, on the very day that Hitler was signing the new directive for “Green,” which fixed the date for the attack as October 1, penned another and sharper memorandum to Brauchitsch criticizing Hitler’s program point by point. To make sure that his cautious Commander in Chief fully understood it, Beck read it to him personally. At the end he emphasized to the unhappy and somewhat shallow Brauchitsch that there was a crisis in the “top military hierarchy” which had already led to anarchy and that if it was not mastered the fate of the Army, indeed of Germany, would be “black.” A few days later, on June 3, Beck got off another memorandum to Brauchitsch in which he declared that the new directive for “Green” was “militarily unsound” and that the Army General Staff rejected it.

Hitler, however, pressed forward with it. The captured “Green” file discloses how frenzied he grew as the summer proceeded. The usual autumn troop maneuvers, he orders, must be moved forward so that the Army will be in trim for the attack. Special exercises must be held “in the taking of fortifications by surprise attack.” General Keitel is informed that “the Fuehrer repeatedly emphasized the necessity of pressing forward more rapidly the fortification work in the west.” On June 9, Hitler asks for more information on Czech armament and receives immediately a detailed report on every conceivable weapon, large and small, used by the Czechs. On the same day he asks, “Are the Czech fortifications still occupied in reduced strength?” In his mountain retreat, where he is spending the summer, surrounded by his toadies, his spirits rise and fall as he toys with war. On June 18 he issues a new “General Guiding Directive” to “Green.”

There is no danger of a preventive war against Germany … I will decide to take action against Czechoslovakia only if I am firmly convinced … that France will not march and that therefore England will not intervene.

   On July 7, however, Hitler is laying down “considerations” of what to do if France and Britain intervene. “The prime consideration,” he says, “is to hold the western fortifications” until Czechoslovakia is smashed and troops can be rushed to the Western front. The fact that there are no troops available to hold the western fortifications does not intrude itself upon his feverish thinking. He advises that “Russia is most likely to intervene” and by now he is not so sure that Poland may not too. These eventualities must be met, but he does not say how.

Apparently Hitler, somewhat isolated at Obersalzberg, has not yet heard the rumblings of dissent in the upper echelons of the Army General Staff. Despite Beck’s pestering of Brauchitsch with his memoranda, the General Staff Chief began to realize by midsummer that his unstable Commander in Chief was not bringing his opinions to the notice of the Fuehrer. By the middle of July Beck therefore determined to make one last desperate effort to bring matters to a head, one way or the other. On July 16 he penned his last memorandum to Brauchitsch. He demanded that the Army tell Hitler to halt his preparations for war.

   In full consciousness of the magnitude of such a step but also of my responsibilities I feel it my duty to urgently ask that the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces [Hitler] call off his preparations for war, and abandon the intention of solving the Czech question by force until the military situation is fundamentally changed. For the present I consider it hopeless, and this view is shared by all the higher officers of the General Staff.

   Beck took his memorandum personally to Brauchitsch and augmented it orally with further proposals for unified action on the part of the Army generals should Hitler prove recalcitrant. Specifically, he proposed that in that case the ranking generals should all resign at once. And for the first time in the Third Reich, he raised a question which later haunted the Nuremberg trials: Did an officer have a higher allegiance than the one to the Fuehrer? At Nuremberg dozens of generals excused their war crimes by answering in the negative. They had to obey orders, they said. But Beck on July 16 held a different view, which he was to press, unsuccessfully for the most part, to the end. There were “limits,” he said, to one’s allegiance to the Supreme Commander where conscience, knowledge and responsibility forbade carrying out an order. The generals, he felt, had reached those limits. If Hitler insisted on war, they should resign in a body. In that case, he argued, a war was impossible, since there would be nobody to lead the armies.

The Chief of the German Army General Staff was now aroused as he had never been before in his lifetime. The scales were falling from his eyes. What was at stake for the German nation, he saw at last, was more than just the thwarting of a hysterical head of state bent, out of pique, on attacking a small neighboring nation at the risk of a big war. The whole folly of the Third Reich, its tyranny, its terror, its corruption, its contempt for the old Christian virtues, suddenly dawned on this once pro-Nazi general. Three days later, on July 19, he went again to Brauchitsch to speak of this revelation.

Not only, he insisted, must the generals go on strike to prevent Hitler from starting a war, but they must help clean up the Third Reich. The German people and the Fuehrer himself must be freed from the terror of the S.S. and the Nazi party bosses. A state and society ruled by law must be restored. Beck summed up his reform program:

For the Fuehrer, against war, against boss rule, peace with the Church, free expression of opinion, an end to the Cheka terror, restoration of justice, reduction of contributions to the party by one half, no more building of palaces, housing for the common people and more Prussian probity and simplicity.

Beck was too naïve politically to realize that Hitler, more than any other single man, was responsible for the very conditions in Germany which now revolted him. However, Beck’s immediate task was to continue to browbeat the hesitant Brauchitsch into presenting an ultimatum on behalf of the Army to Hitler calling on him to stop his preparations for war. To further this purpose he arranged a secret meeting of the commanding generals for August 4. He prepared a ringing speech that the Army Commander in Chief was to read, rallying the senior generals behind him in a common insistence that there be no Nazi adventures leading to armed conflict. Alas for Beck, Brauchitsch lacked the courage to read it. Beck had to be content with reading his own memorandum of July 16, which left a deep impression on most of the generals. But no decisive action was taken and the meeting of the top brass of the German Army broke up without their having had the courage to call Hitler to count, as their predecessors once had done with the Hohenzollern emperors and the Reich Chancellors.

Brauchitsch did summon up enough courage to show Beck’s July 16 memorandum to Hitler. Hitler’s response was to call in not the resisting ranking generals, who were behind it, but the officers just below them, the Army and Air Force staff chiefs of various commands who formed a younger set on which he believed he could count after he had treated it to his persuasive oratory. Summoned to the Berghof on August 10—Hitler had scarcely budged from his mountain villa all summer—they were treated after dinner to a speech that, according to Jodl, who was present and who described it in his faithful diary, lasted nearly three hours. But on this occasion the eloquence of the Fuehrer was not so persuasive as he had hoped. Both Jodl and Manstein, who was also present, later told of “a most serious and unpleasant clash” between General von Wietersheim and Hitler. Wietersheim was the ranking officer at the gathering and as designate chief of staff of the Army of the West under General Wilhelm Adam he dared to speak up about the key problem which Hitler and the OKW were dodging: that with almost all of the military forces committed to the blow against Czechoslovakia, Germany was defenseless in the west and would be overrun by the French. In fact, he reported, the West Wall could not be held for more than three weeks.

   The Fuehrer [Jodl recounted in his diary] becomes furious and flames up, bursting into the remark that in such a case the whole Army would not be good for anything. “I say to you, Herr General [Hitler shouted back], the position will be held not only for three weeks but for three years!”18

   With what, he did not say. On August 4, General Adam had reported to the meeting of senior generals that in the west he would have only five active divisions and that they would be overwhelmed by the French. Wietersheim presumably gave the same figure to Hitler, but the Fuehrer would not listen. Jodl, keen staff officer though he was, was now so much under the spell of the Leader that he left the meeting deeply depressed that the generals did not seem to understand Hitler’s genius.

   The cause of this despondent opinion [Wietersheim’s], which unfortunately is held very widely within the Army General Staff, is based on various grounds.

First of all, it [the General Staff] is restrained by old memories and feels itself responsible for political decisions instead of obeying and carrying out its military assignments. Admittedly it does the last with traditional devotion but the vigor of the soul is lacking because in the end it does not believe in the genius of the Fuehrer. And one does perhaps compare him with Charles XII.

And just as certain as water flows downhill there stems from this defeatism [Miesmacherei] not only an immense political damage—for everyone is talking about the opposition between the opinions of the generals and those of the Fuehrer—but a danger for the morale of the troops. But I have no doubt that the Fuehrer will be able to boost the morale of the people when the right moment comes.19

   Jodl might have added that Hitler would be able, too, to quell revolt among the generals. As Manstein told the tribunal at Nuremberg in 1946, this meeting was the last at which Hitler permitted any questions or discussions from the military.20 At the Jueterbog military review on August 15, Hitler reiterated to the generals that he was determined “to solve the Czech question by force” and no officer dared—or was permitted—to say a word to oppose him.

Beck saw that he was defeated, largely by the spinelessness of his own brother officers, and on August 18 he resigned as Chief of the Army General Staff. He tried to induce Brauchitsch to follow suit, but the Army commander was now coming under Hitler’s hypnotic power, no doubt aided by the Nazi enthusiasms of the woman who was about to become his second wife.* As Hassell said of him, “Brauchitsch hitches his collar a notch higher and says: ‘I am a soldier; it is my duty to obey.’”21

Ordinarily the resignation of a chief of the Army General Staff in the midst of a crisis, and especially of one so highly respected as was General Beck, would have caused a storm in military circles and even given rise to repercussions abroad. But here again Hitler showed his craftiness. Though he accepted Beck’s resignation at once, and with great relief, he forbade any mention of it in the press or even in the official government and military gazettes and ordered the retired General and his fellow officers to keep it to themselves. It would not do to let the British and French governments get wind of dissension at the top of the German Army at this critical juncture and it is possible that Paris and London did not hear of the matter until the end of October, when it was officially announced in Berlin. Had they heard, one could speculate, history might have taken a different turning; the appeasement of the Fuehrer might not have been carried so far.

Beck himself, out of a sense of patriotism and loyalty to the Army, made no effort to bring the news of his quitting to the public’s attention. He was disillusioned, though, that not a single general officer among those who had agreed with him and backed him in his opposition to war felt called upon to follow his example and resign. He did not try to persuade them. He was, as Hassell later said of him, “pure Clausewitz, without a spark of Bluecher or Yorck”22—a man of principles and thought, but not of action. He felt that Brauchitsch, as Commander in Chief of the Army, had let him down at a decisive moment in German history, and this embittered him. Beck’s biographer and friend noted years later the General’s “deep bitterness” whenever he spoke of his old commander. On such occasions he would shake with emotion and mutter, “Brauchitsch left me in the lurch.”23

   Beck’s successor as Chief of the Army General Staff—though his appointment was kept a secret by Hitler for several weeks, until the end of the crisis—was Franz Halder, fifty-four years old, who came from an old Bavarian military family and whose father had been a general. Himself trained as an artilleryman, he had served as a young officer on the staff of Crown Prince Rupprecht in the First World War. Though a friend of Roehm in the first postwar Munich days, which might have made him somewhat suspect in Berlin, he had risen rapidly in the Army and for the past year had served as Beck’s deputy. In fact, Beck recommended him to Brauchitsch as his successor, for he was certain that his deputy shared his views.

Halder became the first Bavarian and the first Catholic ever to become Chief of the German General Staff—a severe break with the old Protestant Prussian tradition of the officer corps. A man of wide intellectual interests, with a special bent for mathematics and botany (my own first impression of him was that he looked like a university professor of mathematics or science) and a devout Christian, there was no doubt that he had the mind and the spirit to be a true successor to Beck. The question was whether, like his departed chief, he lacked the knack of taking decisive action at the proper moment. And whether, if he did not lack it, at that moment he had the character to disregard his oath of allegiance to the Fuehrer and move resolutely against him. For Halder, like Beck, though not at first a member of a growing conspiracy against Hitler, knew about it and apparently, again like Beck, was willing to back it. As the new Chief of the General Staff, he became the key figure in the first serious plot to overthrow the dictator of the Third Reich.

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