German Re-armament

During his struggle for power, Hitler promised to recover Germany’s lost national pride. He swore to undo what had been imposed on Germany, to regain German pride and to re-unite the Volk within an all powerful Reich.

Despite its scale, the Aufrüstung was largely a secret operation, carried out mostly in a cloak-and-dagger manner through organizations engaged in covert operations.


Germany’s post World War I re-armament began with the Weimar Republic, when the Chancellor of Germany Hermann Müller, who belonged to the SPD Social Democratic Party, passed cabinet laws that allowed secret and illegal re-armament efforts.

Within the government of the Weimar Republic the army organization was decisive in organizing the illegal armament effort. Under the emperor the army had been a “community of its own,” a virtual state within a state, with large budgets, tightly-knit social groups, and elaborate connections with industrial management circles. The Republic, born out of defeat, never tried to create a Republic-minded officer corps. Instead, it accepted the monarchist-minded officers. Owing to this general characteristic, it was possible for the military to carry out the illegal rearmament despite the specific antagonism of an important sector of German society—the Center, Democratic, and Socialist parties which formed the government and had their base in the industrial working class and parts of the bourgeoisie.

The methods used by the limited Reichswehr of Versailles Treaty creation to transform itself into a formidable military machine required extensive government complicity at all stages of the operation. The feudal origin of the army put this institution on a higher moral level than any other government institution. It identified the imperial army with the state, whose chief, himself, claimed a specific divine grace.

Although national unity has been an ideal of the bourgeoisie, feudal powers played a larger role within Imperial Germany than in other contemporary liberal states. The army, where the higher echelons were chosen from the aristocracy, was a strong political force. The emperor was, first of all, the Chief of the Army. Thus, the army had been identified with the empire. Its very continuation under monarchist-minded officers was a contradiction to the Republic. The army was a body foreign to the socialist, and later liberal, aims of the Republic. As a sign, the army never accepted the black-red-gold colors of the Republic, taken from the Revolution of 1848. The whole history of Weimar is characterized by the antagonism of the army and civilian powers. The secret armaments were a tool by which the army tried to regain its power.

Defeat, and widespread hatred of war and bloodshed, had deprived the army of its respectability. Now, by definition, every national army is invincible and, since the defeat was evident, it had to be disproved. Different fictions are available for such purposes. Usually, traitors are found in the government and in the army. This time, it was the Fatherland which had betrayed the army. Thus, the legend of the “stab-in-the-back” was invented. The civilian power, derived from these traitors, was therefore illegal. The army was the only remnant of the legal government. For many weeks no officer had dared to show his insignia. The desecration cried for revenge. The leaders of the revolution had to be punished. The workers, the basis of the Republic, had to be restored to their “proper place.” Thus, the important elements of the new army saw their task as the restoration of order and justice by plotting crime and murder.

The reduction of the army as foreseen in the Versailles Treaty was based on the premise of a defeat. It was therefore the alleged right of the army to regain its power lost through treason. Any illegal expansion of the army was thus the true legality of a hidden, invisible, but real government.

Within the framework of defeat and drastic reduction in manpower and resources, the army maintained a tight core of officers whose first loyalty was to the grand political role of the German army and its continuation in politics. For these men there was no possibility in society other than to recreate the army and its “just” position as a leading element of a renascent German imperial state. Toward these ends, the officer group contrived a military machine that could be readily expanded from a small nucleus, and could maintain itself with legal as well as illegal sections.

The Army Fights Back

The disarmament prescriptions of the Versailles Treaty consisted of four parts. First, the demilitarization of a border line adjacent to the Rhine. This was carried out. Until the occupation of the Rhineland under the Nazi government in 1936, no German soldier existed in the demilitarized zone and no illegal armament took place there. Second, certain heavy weapons, tanks, and military airplanes were prohibited. Third, the number of ships for the navy and their size were limited. Fourth, the army was to be reduced to 100,000 men.

At the beginning of the Republic, during the demobilization and the formation of the new troops, there was no clear distinction between legal and illegal parts of the army. This distinction became clearer when the reduction was enforced by the federal government under pressure of the Allied powers.

The army reaction was in two phases: first the Kapp Putsch, then the systematic illegal rearmament. The Kapp Putsch in 1920 was an open revolt of army officers. Threatened by demobilization, parts of the army, led by an East Prussian Junker, Kapp, General Ludendorff, and Captain Ehrhardt, seized Berlin. The Minister of War, Noske, a Socialist, had vouchsafed in parliament the loyalty of the same troops which overthrew the government. The Kapp government declared military law and instituted the death penalty against strikers. No military action against the rebels was possible, since no loyal troops were available. The Kapp Putsch was finally defeated by a general strike.

The failure of the Kapp Putsch brought a change in the illegal methods of the army. Instead of engaging in open revolt, it worked at undermining the Republic from within, especially through organizations which it dominated, financed, trained, and equipped with arms, such as the Free Corps, border patrols, home guards, patriotic (i.e., anti-Republican) organizations, and innocent-looking youth organizations with ever-changing names, headquarters, forms, admitted and non-admitted aims.

The official army (Reichswehr) consisted of 4,000 officers, 20,000 noncommissioned officers, 38,000 Gefreite, and 38,000 soldiers. Of course the army took advantage of any loophole that existed or could be constructed in the Versailles disarmament rules. Each company continued the tradition of an imperial regiment and got the corresponding numbers and colors. Since four companies make up a battalion, the battalion corresponded to a division and the regiment to an army corps. Thus, the Reichswehr threw a shadow, and the shadow was the larger of the two. The meaning of this shadow was the image of the Imperial Army.

The officers in the Reichswehr served longer in the same ranks, sometimes up to two and a half times the length of service in the Imperial Army. Thus, the average officer was actually a higher-ranking officer in the shadow army. Reserve officers were illegally trained and advanced in a legally non-existing reserve. Fifty-eight thousand noncoms were able to train a much larger army which existed, partly on paper, in the patriotic organizations forming an illegal reservoir, and in illegal parallel military formations. The instructions in official manuals were based on the strength of arms and munitions of a great modern military power and not on the legal 100,000-man army. Since the soldier had to sign up for twelve years, 8,000 could leave after each twelve years and 8,000 new soldiers could then be enrolled. In reality, various devices such as unforeseen illnesses were used to justify large, premature dismissals and new entrants. New soldiers were introduced under the identification of legal soldiers, so that the formal number remained constant.

The legal army maintained close liaison with various groups which trained men in arms, and had a variety of “cover” identities to shield them from view as military groups. The Stahlhelm, for example, was a nationalistic, middle-class organization which advocated the merit of military life and agitated publicly for restoration of the German military machine. Unlike the Nazis, the Stahlhelm was not a terroristic body. The Nazis started as a movement of the outcasts of society, the Lumpenproletariat—long-standing unemployed. This movement, originating with desperate men who had little to lose, took on a politically fanatic and terroristic character. Here, military methods were important for use in the party’s struggle for political supremacy.

Finally, the illegal military groups included an array of fanatic terroristic organizations, small in size, but important for their work of political assassination in eliminating first the leaders of the Revolution, then prominent Republicans, and finally the enemies of the illegal rearmament.

Techniques of Clandestine Re-armament 

The techniques used by the German government, and by quasi-governmental and private organizations, to conceal weapons covered an extremely wide range. In the following summary only the principal devices are noted, because they have important implications for any disarmament inspection system.

In 1919 the victorious powers instituted an Inter-Allied Control Commission. It was authorized to make payments for reports leading to discoveries of arms caches. Some rewards were claimed. The extra-territoriality of the Commission was never clarified and its personnel was left without protection. Individual inspectors were physically molested at times.

From its beginning the Commission was handicapped by the failure of the Allies to maintain a common front. In general, the French were the most interested in disarmament and the British the least. The French members of the Commission, especially General Nollet, objected to the fraternization between British Commission officers and German liaison personnel. This is borne out by Guhr, who successfully sabotaged Commission work in Silesia and commends the British attitude. After the France-Belgian Ruhr occupation in 1923, the German authorities refused to furnish liaison personnel to the French members and enforcement was further hindered.

War material was defined in an unpublished Blue Book of the Inter-Allied Control Commission. War weapons were to be destroyed and convertible equipment converted. Of course, a widespread effort was made to prevent the destruction of military equipment. Many thefts, especially of small arms, took place. Some arms were concealed. The actual level is hard to determine, but finds such as 600 105 mm. gun barrels were made.

Plant inspection visits could generally be made only with German liaison personnel present. Visits were also often prevented by management refusal to “guarantee safety” of visitors. Factory inspections were resented as commercial espionage. Guhr reports that the French General LeRond refused liaison officers and, by making impromptu visits, discovered a great deal of illegal manufacturing. In one case, the management claimed that the arms had been smuggled in by a disgruntled employee who then reported them to the Commission. The Commission, at Guhr’s request, eventually accepted this story. In Silesia, the chief problem was small arms manufacture. At the time German and Polish border patrols engaged in continual raids in preparation for the plebiscite, and thereafter. The few approved factories for arms were not allowed to make anything else and had to be kept small. The separation from peacetime production was to hinder sudden conversions and to facilitate inspection. A further criterion of approved plant selection was that no space for expansion at the plant site was available. A control commission was maintained at Krupp’s factory until 1932 but much of Krupp’s equipment had been shipped to Holland for safekeeping at the end of the war. In addition, Krupp owned a part of Bofors, in Sweden, and produced arms there.

Another technique was the maintenance of a floating stock of arms in constant transit. There were many lonely branch lines in Germany’s railroad system.

Permitted quantities in authorized plants were widely exceeded. By 1924 the Control Commission estimated that Germany could, within a year, produce arms at First World War rates. The industrial base had been increased and several wartime bottlenecks eliminated.

With regard to specific equipment, the German authorities maintained that flame throwers were necessary for insecticide spraying and range finders to determine cloud heights. There were also dispersals and physical removal of unusually large aggregates of machines harmless in themselves but usable in numbers for large-scale war production. The growth of the automobile industry provided an opportunity for development of cross-country vehicles, tractors, etc., thus setting the base for some tank manufacture. In 1926 the Inter-Allied Control Commission was replaced by a conference of ambassadors which had always exercised a right of veto over its decisions. Thereafter effective control ceased. At the time Britain was most alarmed over Russia and less concerned with illegal German acts.

Armaments Production and Trade 

German export trade flourished with arms to China, the Baltic states, etc. Corporate ties between German manufacturers and Skoda (Czechoslovakia, partly owned by Schneider-Creuzot), Schneider-Creuzot itself, Vickers-Armstrong, Hotchkiss, etc., facilitated this trade.

The League of Nations convention against arms shipments was not ratified by a sufficient number of countries. (The U.S.A. did not do so, for example.) This fate was typical of the fruitless and interminable disarmament negotiations of the 1920s. By 1929, League of Nations statistics listed Germany as the major arms supplier of thirteen countries. France and Belgium gave Germany as their chief foreign source. In addition to the discrepancies in the League of Nations statistics themselves—imports and exports reported never balanced—so much trade was camouflaged under false customs declarations, etc., that estimates range up to five times the reported figure.

In all major countries the aircraft industries have always been grossly overexpanded relative to any conceivable need of civil aviation. Government subsidies have been the rule. In Germany the government guaranteed the interest on bonds of individual manufacturers and set up a cartel to standardize products. Junkers, Heinkel, Dornier, and the Bayerische Motorenwerke were all active in the production of engines and air frames, and several smaller companies made air frames only. In 1930 the export of war planes started, especially to China for use against the Japanese and between rival war lords. In 1930 the first German tests of rockets and missiles were made, including liquid fuels and solid propellants. The large German aircraft of 1925-1935 were actually intended as prototype bombers, e.g., the JU-52 and the Junkers G-38, the first flying wing type aircraft. There were many flying clubs and by 1930 Germany had 1,000 planes, of which 500 were convertible for war purposes.

In the chemical industry war and peace products are often almost identical. Nitrates, ammonia, etc., are well-known examples. After the First World War the Germans held on to their plants successfully, although Nollet warned of their war potential and even foresaw “energy released through disintegration of matter.” By 1926 Germany made a third of all nitrates in the world, having in effect eliminated the Chilean natural product. Hydrogenation of coal, synthetic rubber, etc., were all started in the first instance because of autarchy objectives and military needs.

An explosion in a chemical factory in Hamburg in 1928, causing the death of eleven persons, proved that poison gas had been produced—for use by the army. Germany also maintained large powder factories for “sporting arms” and by 1924 was DuPont’s greatest competitor in Europe. Because of the convertible products involved, control over filling facilities and delivery vehicles is paramount in the control of chemical weapons.

Many of the major German arms manufacturers had subsidiaries in the countries neutral in the First World War, particularly Sweden, Holland, Switzerland, and Spain. These served as branches of the German parent companies engaged in armament production, research, and development. Thus the Swedish branch of Junkers, A. B. Flygindustri, in 1931 tested a pioneer two-seater fighter. A Dutch subsidiary of Pintsch made torpedoes. German advisers were sent to Spain, Turkey, and Finland, and organized arms production there for the regimes of Prime de Rivera, Kemal Ataturk, and Mannerheim. Shipping companies were formed under flags of convenience to serve naval rearmament. Submarines were also made in Holland, according to Raeder’s testimony at Nuremberg. The German government used neutral banks to lend government funds to its own industries, as in the case of a loan to Krupp’s via Holland. Austrian industry collaborated both with German and with Swiss (Solothurn) and Dutch interests to continue illegal arms production.

After the First World War, Austria was under military restrictions similar to those imposed on Germany, in accordance with the treaty of St. Germain. The so-called “Hirtenberg-St. Gotthard incident” is a good example of operation of “inspection by the people.” A group of social democratic Austrian railroad workers halted shipments of Italian arms to the Austrian government because these arms were suspected to be meant for the use of Austria’s fascist militias. An attempt was made to bribe railway workers to divert the shipments to a line which loops briefly into Hungarian territory, so that the arms could be unloaded in Hungary. Such a shipment to Hungary would have violated the Treaty of Trianon, which restricted Hungarian armaments. Under pressure from Britain and France the intercepted arms shipment was finally returned to Italy.

The Russian Phase of Re-armament

The use of neutral facilities was in addition to the large scale collaboration with Russia. It extended beyond manufacturing to the clandestine training of army personnel.

Starting their collaboration with the Rapallo Treaty (1921), the contracting powers, the Russian government and the German Army, had different aims. The Russians wanted to profit from German industrial technology and were keen on getting an armament industry of their own to be built by the Germans. The German Army had an interest in producing weapons and munitions which could not be controlled by the power of Versailles. This connection led to the construction of an air force. The Junkers airplane factory in Dessau built airplane factories in Russia. The costs were, of course, to be provided by the army. Other airplane factories were built near Moscow, and in Samara (Kuibyshev) and Saratow. Military air personnel got their instruction in Russia. To this end, German officers dismissed from the army went to Russia as civilians and, after a period of training there, returned to the army with a higher rank. In addition to airplanes, the army built a poison gas factory. Krupp had a firm in Russia which produced heavy artillery, especially howitzers.

In October, 1926, three Russian ships landed in Stettin with about 350,000 illegal grenades. But the workers became suspicious and wanted to know the content of the cases. Thus, it became known that grenades had been introduced for illegal uses by the Reichswehr from Russia.

In the Moscow purges of 1936, one of the main accusations was the collaboration of Russian officers with the German army identified with the Nazis. The defendants had collaborated, but on official orders of the Russian government.

Financing the Clandestine Re-armament

The nationalist supporters of illegal rearmament received funds from big industry and the feudal estates, difficult to trace, except for the subventions paid by Thyssen. But the main source was the army’s budget.

About 25 percent of the military budget consisted of amounts which could be transferred, i.e., used for purposes different from those they were intended for. Another source of income was the fantastically high prices that were charged for munitions, far exceeding the real costs. Surplus funds were thus made available. Large amounts were at the disposal of the military for aims not specified. A further source was the private funds which the army collected through its public relations. The army sent agents to big business and asked for contributions to defray the costs of secret armaments, from which industry profited. Certain military items appeared in the budget as innocent-looking civilian needs. From all these sources the army disposed of enormous sums for which it did not have to account. In 1929, this led to so large a surplus that illegal army funds were invested in films, real estate, shares, ships, and aviation. But the investments were bad. The secret fund lost 28 million marks which had to be reimbursed from the legal budget.

The Nazis Take Power

After the Nazi takeover of power the re-armament became the topmost priority of the German government. Hitler would then spearhead one of the greatest expansions of industrial production and civil improvement Germany had ever seen.

Third Reich Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick, one of the most influential Nazi figures of the time, and Hjalmar Schacht, a Nazi economist who introduced a wide variety of schemes in order to tackle the effects that the Great Depression had on Germany, were the main key players of German rearmament policies.

Dummy companies like MEFO were setup to finance the re-armament; MEFO obtained the large amount of money needed for the effort through the MEFO bills, a certain series of credit notes issued by the Government of Nazi Germany. Covert organizations like the Deutsche Verkehrsfliegerschule were established under a civilian guise in order to train pilots for the future Luftwaffe.

Hitler saw Nazi Germany as being at the centre of Europe and as the great power of Europe, the nation needed a strong military. Throughout the 1920’s, Germany had been technically keeping to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles but in reality she had been bending the rules regarding training. Versailles had not stated that Germany could not train submarine crews abroad or that pilots for the banned German Air Force could train on civilian planes. Therefore, on paper Hitler inherited a weak military but this was not in reality the case. However, Hitler knew that publicly Nazi Germany was still seen within Europe as being held to the terms of Versailles and he was determined to openly break these terms and re-assert Germany’s right to control its own military.

In 1933, Hitler ordered his army generals to prepare to treble the size of the army to 300,000 men. He ordered the Air Ministry to plan to build 1,000 war planes. Military buildings such as barracks were built. He withdrew from the Geneva Disarmament Conference when the French refused to accept his plan that the French should disarm to the level of the Germans or that the Germans should re-arm to the level of the French. Either way, the two main powers of Europe would be balanced. Hitler knew that the French would not accept his plan and therefore when he withdrew from the conference, he was seen by some as the politician who had a more realistic approach to foreign policy and the French were seen as the nation that had caused Nazi Germany to withdraw.

For two years, the German military expanded in secret. By March 1935, Hitler felt strong enough to go public on Nazi Germany’s military expansion – which broke the terms of the Versailles Treaty. Europe learned that the Nazis had 2,500 war planes in its Luftwaffe and an army of 300,000 men in its Wehrmacht. Hitler felt confident enough to publicly announce that there would be compulsory military conscription in Nazi Germany and that the army would be increased to 550,000 men.

The Nazi re-armament policy led to full employment during the 1930s and began a sudden change in fortune for many factories in Germany. Numerous industries were taken out of a deep crisis that had been induced by the Great Depression. Some large industrial companies, which had until then specialized in certain traditional products began to diversify and introduce innovative ideas in their production pattern. Shipyards, for example, created branches that began to design and build aircraft. Thus the German re-armament provided an opportunity for advanced, and sometimes revolutionary, technological improvements, especially in the field of aeronautics.

The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 would provide an ideal testing ground for the proficiency of the new weapons produced by the German factories during the re-armament years. Many aeronautical bombing techniques were tested by the Condor Legion German expeditionary forces against the Republican Government on Spanish soil with the permission of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Hitler insisted, however, that his long-term designs were peaceful, a strategy labeled as “Blumenkrieg,” though the future would prove otherwise.


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