On Thursday, 12 April 1934, General Werner von Blomberg, Germany’s Reichswehrminister (Minister of Defence), and thus the political master of the German armed forces, met the Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler, aboard the Deutschland, an 11,700-ton pocket battleship. There they entered into a secret pact by which the Army would support the Nazi leader in taking the presidency of Germany upon the death of Paul von Hindenburg, on condition that the Reichswehr would retain complete control over all matters military. The chief of the Sturmabteilung (SA, or Brownshirts), Ernst Röhm, had been pressing for a new ministry comprising all the armed forces of Germany, with himself at its head, a situation that augured ill for both Blomberg and ultimately possibly also for Hitler. Showing his readiness to put the Deutschland Pact into immediate effect, on 1 May Blomberg ordered the incorporation of the swastika motif on to the uniforms of the armed forces.
On 21 June, with Röhm forcefully continuing to press his case, Blomberg warned Hitler that unless measures were taken to secure internal peace, Hindenburg would declare martial law and ask the Army to restore order, a situation that would leave the Chancellor sidelined and weakened. Hitler took the hint. Nine days later, his personal Schutzstaffel (SS) bodyguard acted with sudden ferocity against Röhm on what became known as the Blood Purge or the Night of the Long Knives, in a series of summary kidnappings and executions that left 200 people dead. Not only did the Army not act during the Purge, but the very next day, 1 July, Blomberg issued an Order of the Day commending ‘the Führer’s soldierly decision and exemplary courage’ in liquidating the ‘mutineers and traitors’ of the SA.
A month later, on Thursday, 2 August 1934, Hindenburg died, and – with the complete support of the Army – Hitler assumed the presidency and with it the supreme command of the armed forces under a law agreed by the Cabinet during Hindenburg’s lifetime.1Blomberg ordered that a new oath of allegiance be sworn to Hitler personally, rather than to the office of the presidency or to the state. ‘I swear by God this sacred oath,’ its unambiguous wording went, ‘that I will render unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler, the Führer of the German Reich and Volk, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and will be ready as a brave soldier to risk my life at any time for this oath.’ At Hindenburg’s funeral on 7 August, Blomberg suggested to the new President that all soldiers should henceforth address him as ‘Mein Führer’, a proposal which was graciously accepted.
Hitler had won ultimate power, but only at the sufferance of the German Army, and just two days after Hindenburg’s funeral, on Thursday, 9 August 1934, Blomberg wrote a terse, one-sentence (and hitherto unpublished) letter to Hitler, stating: ‘Mein Führer! Ich bitte an die in Aussicht gestellte Verfügung an die Wehrmacht erinnern zu dürfen. Blomberg’ (My Leader, I would like to remind you of your statement to the Wehrmacht. Blomberg’).2 The tone was somewhat peremptory, reminding Hitler of his side of theDeutschland Pact, a pledge without which he would not have been able to gain the military and political supremacy that was to allow him, only five years later, to plunge the world into the most catastrophic war mankind has ever known. Blomberg was in a position to insist on proper observation of the Pact, for as the British historian of the German High Command, Sir John Wheeler-Bennett, wrote:
Till August 1934 the Army could have overthrown the Nazi regime at a nod from their commanders, for they owed no allegiance to the Chancellor; but, with the acceptance of Hitler’s succession, the Generals had added one more fetter, perhaps the strongest of all, to those psychological bonds which chained them ever more inescapably to a regime which they had thought to exploit and dominate.3
A week after receiving Blomberg’s letter, Hitler published the full text of Hindenburg’s Last Will and Testament in the Nazi Party newspaper, Völkischer Beobachter. This document stressed that in the Third German Reich:
The guardian of the state, the Reichswehr, must be the symbol of and firm support for this superstructure. On the Reichswehr as a firm foundation must rest the old Prussian virtues of self-realized dutifulness, of simplicity, and of comradeship… Always and at all times, the Reichswehr must remain the pattern of state conduct, so that, unbiased by any internal political development, its lofty mission for the defence of the country may be maintained… The thanks of the Field Marshal of the World War and its Commander-in-Chief are due to all the men who have accomplished the construction and organization of the Reichswehr.4
The next day, 19 August, the German people voted in a plebiscite on whether Hitler should hold the combined offices of president and Reich chancellor, with more than thirty-eight million people, or 89.9 per cent, voting yes.
On 20 August, Hitler continued to repay his Deutschland debt, writing to Blomberg and in effect confirming that the secret Pact was still operative. He thanked the general for the Army’s oath of loyalty, and added, ‘I shall always regard it as my highest duty to intercede for the existence and inviolability of the Wehrmacht, in fulfilment of the testament of the late Field Marshal, and in accord with my own will to establish the Army firmly as the sole bearer of the arms of the nation.’
Nothing so consolidated the Führer’s standing with his generals as the series of politico-diplomatic coups that he pulled off around the borders of Germany between March 1936 and August 1939, which turned the humiliated power of the Versailles Treaty – under which she had lost 13.5 per cent of her territory – into the potentially glorious Third Reich. Hitler’s regular protestations of pacific intentions worked well in lulling foreigners’ suspicions, but were correctly seen as utterly bogus by the senior commanders of the Wehrmacht, Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe whom he was simultaneously ordering to prepare for a general European conflict sooner rather than later. ‘Germany will of its own accord never break the peace,’ he told the journalist G. Ward Price of London’sDaily Mailin February 1935, for example, but a few days later he decided that the Wehrmacht needed to be increased from twenty-one to thirty-six divisions as soon as possible. His intention was to have a sixty-three-division army – almost the same size as in 1914 – by the year 1939.5
The tempo of Hitlerian aggression increased exponentially during the second half of the 1930s, as the German dictator gained in confidence and the generals absented themselves from political decision-making. Hermann Göring’s official announcement of the existence of the Luftwaffe took place in March 1935, the same month that Germany publicly repudiated the disarmament clauses of the Versailles Treaty, clauses that she had been secretly ignoring ever since Hitler had come to power. That September the Nuremberg laws effectively outlawed German Jews, and made the Swastika the official flag of Germany.
It was on 7 March 1936 that Hitler comprehensively violated the Versailles Treaty by sending troops into the industrial region of the Rhineland, which under Article 180 had been specifically designated a demilitarized zone. Had the German Army been opposed by the French and British forces stationed near by, it had orders to retire back to base and such a reverse would almost certainly have cost Hitler the chancellorship. Yet the Western powers, riven with guilt about having imposed what was described as a ‘Carthaginian peace’ on Germany in 1919, allowed the Germans to enter the Rhineland unopposed. ‘After all,’ said the influential Liberal politician and newspaper director the Marquis of Lothian, who had been Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in Ramsay MacDonald’s National Government, ‘they are only going into their own back garden.’ When Hitler assured the Western powers in March 1936 that Germany wished only for peace, Arthur Greenwood, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, told the House of Commons: ‘Herr Hitler has made a statement… holding out the olive branch… which ought to be taken at face value… It is idle to say that those statements are insincere.’ That August Germany adopted compulsory two-year military service.
November 1936 saw active German intervention in the Spanish Civil War, when Hitler sent the Condor Legion, a unit composed of over 12,000 ‘volunteers’ as well as Luftwaffe warplanes, to support his fellow Fascist General Francisco Franco. Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, meanwhile, sent forces that were eventually to number 75,000 men. It was in Spain that the technique of carpet bombing was perfected by the Legion, which dropped nearly 2.7 million pounds of bombs, and fired more than 4 million machine-gun bullets. Britain and France held a conference in London attended by twenty-six countries, which set up a committee to police the principle of non-intervention in Spanish affairs. Both Germany and Italy took seats on it, which they kept until June 1937, by which time the farce could not be played out any longer.
November 1936 also saw Germany, Japan and subsequently Italy sign the Anti-Comintern Pact, aimed at opposing the USSR’s Third Communist International, but also creating what became known as the Axis. The mise-en-scène for the Second World War was almost in place, except for one sensational twist in the plot still to come.
For the moment, however, Hitler cranked up his sabre-rattling policy towards his neighbours, and particularly those with large German populations contiguous with the borders of the Reich. That it was all part of a wider master-plan – albeit one that was to be moved forward as opportunities presented themselves – was conclusively proven by the minutes of a meeting he called in the Reich Chancellery for 4.15 p.m. on Friday, 5 November 1937. This lasted nearly four hours and was intended to leave the senior executive officers of the Reich under no illusions about where his plans were leading. Speaking to Blomberg (who had been made the first field marshal of the Third Reich in 1936), General Werner von Fritsch, commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht, Admiral Erich Raeder, commander-in-chief of the German Navy, Göring, commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, and the Foreign Minister, Baron Konstantin von Neurath, with the minutes taken carefully by his adjutant Colonel Friedrich Hossbach, the Führer began by stating that the purpose of the meeting could not be discussed before the Reich Cabinet ‘just because of the importance of the matter’.6
He then explained how the histories of the Roman and British Empires ‘had proved that expansion could be carried out only by breaking down resistance and taking risks’. These risks – by which he meant short wars against Britain and France – would have to be taken before the period 1943–5, which he regarded as ‘the turning point of the regime’ because after that time ‘The world would be expecting our attack and would be increasing its counter-measures from year to year. It would be while the world was still preparing its defences that we would be obliged to take the offensive.’ Before then, in order to protect Germany’s flanks, Hitler intended ‘to overthrow Czechoslovakia and Austria’ simultaneously and ‘with lightning speed’ in an Angriffskrieg (offensive war). He believed that the British and French had ‘already tacitly written off the Czechs’ and that ‘Without British support, offensive action by France against Germany was not to be expected.’7 Only after the speedy destruction of first Austria and Czechoslovakia and then Britain and France could he concentrate on the creation of a vast colonial empire in Europe.
The seeming immediacy of these plans deeply alarmed Blomberg and Fritsch – Fritsch even proposed postponing his holiday which was due to start the following Wednesday – and both men ‘repeatedly emphasized the necessity that Britain and France must not become our enemies’. Together, Blomberg and Fritsch might have been able to prevent Hitler carrying out the last part of the Hossbach plans. Yet on 27 January 1938 Blomberg was forced to resign his powerful post when it emerged that his new bride Margarethe Gruhn, who was thirty-five years his junior, had in 1931 posed for pornographic photographs taken by a Czech Jew with whom she had been cohabiting, and that she had also graced a register of known prostitutes kept by the Berlin police force. To make matters worse, both Hitler and Hermann Göring had stood witness for the couple at their wedding in the War Ministry on 12 January. Within a week, Fritsch was also forced to resign on suspicion of being blackmailed by a Berlin rentboy called Otto Schmidt, a charge of which he was innocent and later exonerated in court on the grounds of mistaken identity.8 It is likely that he had been framed by Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, but any collective opposition to his sacking by the German generals was undermined by General Wilhelm Keitel, a devotee of Hitler.9
Although Hitler had sought neither outcome, he was swift in exploiting the potentially embarrassing situation, and used it massively to extend his personal control over Germany’s armed forces. By appointing no formal successor to Blomberg, he effectively took over the role of war minister himself, appointing Keitel to be his adviser on all Wehrmacht matters, a man who was selected on the basis of his sycophancy and his solid lack of personality and intellect. ‘From then on Hitler gave orders directly to the army, navy and air force,’ Keitel explained to an interviewer at the Nuremberg Trials after the war. ‘No one issued orders independently of Hitler. Of course I signed them… but they originated with Hitler. It was the wish and desire of Hitler to have all the power and command reside in him. It was something he could not do with Blomberg.’10
In replacing Blomberg and Fritsch with himself and Keitel, de facto if not immediately de jure, Hitler had finally sealed his control of the German armed forces. Within days he carried out a massive reorganization of the top echelons of the military machine: twelve generals (not including Blomberg and Fritsch) were dismissed and the occupants of no fewer than fifty-one other posts were reshuffled.11 The way was now clear for Hitler to establish complete domination of Germany’s armed forces. Over the coming years, he would become more and more closely involved in every aspect of strategic decision-making, both through Keitel and through his equally obedient deputy, Colonel – later Major-General – Alfred Jodl. The German High Command – proud, often Prussian, much of it aristocratic, and just as resentful of the humiliations of 1918–19 as anyone else in the Reich – allowed its traditional role of creating grand strategy to be usurped by a man whom many of them admired as a statesman, but whose talent as a military strategist none of them knew anything about. And all because of a former prostitute and a mendacious Berlin rentboy.
As it turned out, Austria did not need to be fought in order to be absorbed into the Reich. On 11 March 1938 German troops entered the country and encountered enough genuine popular support for Hitler to declare Anschluss (political union) two days later, before being driven in triumph through the streets of Vienna. Although the union of the two countries had been expressly forbidden by the Versailles Treaty, Hitler presented the West with a fait accompli. The only shots fired in anger during Anschluss were by the many Jews who committed suicide as the Wehrmacht crossed the border.
The next crisis – over the German-speaking Sudeten areas of Czechoslovakia awarded to Prague at Versailles – was handled as deftly by Hitler as the earlier ones. The Sudeten Germans had been agitating to join the Reich in carefully orchestrated demonstrations,which had occasionally, as in October 1937, descended into violence. In November the Sudeten Nazis in the Czech parliament had staged a walk-out, following a ban on political meetings. Hitler stoked the crisis adroitly throughout 1938, mobilizing the Wehrmacht on 12 August and demanding the annexation of the Sudeten areas to Germany the following month. As before, he stated that this would be his last territorial acquisition in Europe.
On 15 September the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Hitler’s Alpine home at Berchtesgaden to try to negotiate a resolution of the crisis. On his return he wrote to his sister Ida, ‘In short I had established a certain confidence which was my aim and on my side in spite of the hardness and ruthlessness I thought I saw in his face I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.’12 It required a second meeting with Hitler, at Bad Godesberg a week later, before Chamberlain was able to come to specific terms that Britain and France could urge the Czechs to accept, in order to avoid a war for which the Western powers were still (unforgivably) unprepared. Reporting to the Cabinet after his return from Godesberg, Chamberlain said that he believed that Hitler ‘would not deliberately deceive a man whom he respected with whom he had been in negotiation’.13
It took a third meeting, at Munich at the end of September, before agreement could be reached between the Germans, Italian, British and French over the geographical extent and the timetable for the Sudetenland’s absorption into the Reich. Recommending the Munich Agreement to the House of Commons, Chamberlain said on 3 October: ‘It is my hope, and my belief, that under the new system of guarantees the new Czechoslovakia will find a greater security than she has ever enjoyed in the past.’14 For all the gross naivety of that statement, at least we can be sure that Chamberlain believed it.
During the Munich period the British Government received a number of indications from anti-Nazi German generals that they would overthrow Hitler if the Western powers refused his blandishments over the Sudetenland. Yet these promises could not be relied upon, not least because they were not representative of the Wehrmacht officer class as a whole. The reasons why the German generals never overthrew their Führer, even once the war was certainly lost, are many. They include the vital fact that they could not necessarily count on the loyalty of their own men against Hitler, they were still isolated from public affairs, they felt bound by the oath of obedience to the Führer which they had sworn, they stood for a conservative order which did not appeal to German youth, and they found it impossible as a group to put their duty to Germany over their personal interests and ambitions.15 They were far too weak a reed for Chamberlain (and later Churchill) to base British foreign policy upon.
A month after Munich, on 2 November 1938, Hitler and Mussolini supported Hungary’s annexation of southern Slovakia, which took place suddenly and without consultation with Britain and France. This reduced Chamberlain to stating in the House of Commons that ‘We never guaranteed the frontiers as they existed. What we did was to guarantee against unprovoked aggression – quite a different thing.’ A week later the Nazis unleashed the vicious six-day pogrom against German Jews known to history as Kristallnacht, leaving few under any illusions about the vile nature of Hitler’s regime.
When on 15 March 1939 German troops occupied the Bohemian and Moravian rump of Czechoslovakia and dragged non-Germans into the Reich for the first time – and Hitler was driven through a sullen Prague in further triumph – the Chamberlain ministry ran out of explanations and excuses, especially when later that month Hitler denounced the non-aggression pact that he had signed with Poland five years before.
On 1 April Britain and France therefore guaranteed Poland, promising to go to war against Germany if she invaded. The guarantee was intended as a trip-wire to deter any future adventures by Hitler, and similar promises were made to Romania and Greece a fortnight later. On 27 April Britain introduced conscription for men aged twenty and twenty-one, on the same day that Hitler denounced the 1935 Anglo-German Naval Agreement that had set limits to the size of both countries’ fleets. The next month Mussolini and Hitler signed a ten-year alliance, known as the Pact of Steel.
‘War is not only not inevitable,’ Sir Thomas Inskip, the Minister for Defence Co-ordination nonetheless reassured the British public in August 1939, ‘but it is unlikely.’ He had not counted on Hitler pulling off perhaps the greatest coup of his entire career so far. With the German generals insisting that Poland should not be invaded unless Russia’s neutrality had first been secured, Hitler decided upon the most astonishing political volte-face of the twentieth century.16 In total contravention to everything he had always said about his loathing of Bolshevism, he sent his new Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, to Moscow to negotiate with Josef Stalin’s new Foreign Minister, Vyacheslav Molotov. Placed beside the imperative for Stalin to encourage a war between Germany and the West, and the equal imperative for Hitler to fight a war on only one front rather than two as in the Great War, their Communist and Fascist ideologies subsided in relative importance, and in the early hours of 24 August 1939 a comprehensive Nazi–Soviet non-aggression pact was signed. ‘All the isms have become wasms,’ quipped a British official.
Up until that point Hitler’s treatment of the Austrian President Kurt von Schuschnigg, the Czech President Emil Hácha and the British and French leaders had been characterized by hucksterism, bullying and constant piling on of pressure, to which they had responded with a combination of gullibility, appeasement and weary resignation. Yet with his lifelong enemies the Bolsheviks, Hitler was attentive and respectful, though of course no less duplicitous. Their time would come.
The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact safely signed, Hitler wasted no time. One week later, on the evening of Thursday, 31 August 1939, an unnamed inmate of a German concentration camp was taken by the Gestapo to a radio transmitting station outside the frontier town of Gleiwitz. He was then dressed up in a Polish Army uniform and shot. A propaganda story was quickly concocted alleging that the Poles had attacked Germany, thus enabling Hitler to invade Poland ‘in self-defence’, without needing to declare war first. Operation Himmler, as this farcically transparent pantomime was codenamed, thus encompassed the very first death of the Second World War. Considering the horrific ways in which fifty million people were to die over the next six years, the hapless prisoner was one of the lucky ones.
The Deutschland itself – launched in 1931 – was renamed the Lützow in 1940, because Hitler was concerned about the demoralizing effect if a ship of that name was sunk. (For the same reason he never allowed a ship to be named the Adolf Hitler, despite plenty of prompting from obsequious admirals.) The Lützow saw action off Norway in 1940, fought Allied convoy escorts in 1942, was heavily damaged in air raids and was finally scuttled in May 1945, along with National Socialism itself. Yet had Hitler stuck to the terms of the Pact that he agreed with Blomberg on board the battleship in April 1934, allowing the professional strategists of the Reichswehr to set the timing, course and pace of the coming war while he confined himself to boosting morale and making exhortations to self-sacrifice, might the outcome of the Second World War have been different? Might the Pact that was made aboard the Deutschland have left Deutschland über alles? This is one of the questions which this book will seek to answer.