Friday, 26 August 2011

Hitler and the Generals

When Hitler became President of Germany in 1934 he automatically became the head of the German armed forces. At that time the high command of the armed forces was a complex organisation of planners, staff officers and field commanders organised into a series of structures and chains of command supported by a feeling of officer corps solidarity. There was space for group decision making, discussion and even dissent, although once a decision had been made the command structure was such that it could be carried out quickly and efficiently. Hitler was to change everything. He wanted absolute power over the military. The way in which he achieved this was ultimately to drive some officers to resign, others to question their duties and some to attempt the murder of the Führer.

During the Nazi rise to power, the army officer corps were not wholly hostile to Hitler and his party. Indeed, Hitler’s failed 1923 putsch in Munich numbered the Great War hero General Erich von Ludendorff among its leaders. Nor were the generals opposed to one of the Nazi Party’s central policies, that the Versailles Treaty which ended the Great War was unfair and needed revising. The treaty had put severe constraints on the German military and many senior officers wanted to shake these off.

Once Hitler came to power, his desire to win over the military to whole-hearted support of himself was a dominant influence in persuading him to destroy the power of the Nazi brownshirt storm troopers, the Sturmabteilung or SA. The army officers jealously guarded the army’s traditional right to be the only body in Germany authorised to carry arms and, as such, the ultimate guarantors of the constitution. Under the Versailles Treaty the army was allowed to be only 100,000 men strong. Ernst Röhm, the SA leader, had 3 million followers in uniform and wanted his SA to form the basis of the armed might of Nazi Germany.

In July 1934 Hitler ordered the murders of Röhm and dozens of other leading SA men, together with the disbanding of large numbers of stormtroopers. The immediate reaction of the army officers was to support Hitler’s actions and welcome the overthrow of the SA. Some officers opposed the brutal and illegal methods used but most were prepared to overlook them.

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