Hitler Prepares For War
By the latter half of 1937, Hitler had begun subtly querying international leaders regarding future German expansion. In a talk with the League of Nations High Commissioner for the Free City of Danzig, the Swiss diplomat Carl Jacob Burckhardt in September 1937, Hitler protested what he regarded as British interference in the “German sphere” in Europe, which for pure selfishness was blocking German plans and the desires of Danzig’s citizens to rejoin the Reich. Other talks included meetings with Count Ciano of Italy concerning the future of Austria and South Tyrol; and meetings with Polish leaders regarding the proposition of renewing the nonaggression treaty in exchange for allowing the Free City of Danzig to be annexed by Germany as well as permitting the building of an extraterritorial motorway and railway between East Prussia and Germany proper through the Polish Corridor. Even Soviet diplomats were covertly contacted concerning a possible reorganization of Eastern Europe.
On 5 November 1937, at the Reich Chancellory, Adolf Hitler held a secret meeting with the War and Foreign Ministers and the three service chiefs, recorded in the Hossbach Memorandum, and stated his intentions for acquiring Lebensraum for the German people. He ordered the attendees to make plans for war in the east no later than 1943. In the memo, Hitler was recorded as saying that such a state of crisis had been reached in the German economy that the only way of stopping a severe decline in living standards in Germany was to embark sometime in the near-future on a policy of aggression by seizing Austria and Czechoslovakia. Moreover, Hitler stated that the arms race meant that time for action had to occur before Britain and France obtained a permanent lead in the arms race.
Hitler’s intentions outlined in the Hossbach memorandum led to strong protests from the Foreign Minister, Baron Konstantin von Neurath, the War Minister Field Marshal Werner von Blomberg, and the Army Commander General Werner von Fritsch, that any German aggression in Eastern Europe was bound to trigger a war with France because of the French alliance system in Eastern Europe (the so-called cordon sanitaire), and if a Franco-German war broke out, then Britain was almost certain to intervene rather than risk the chance of a French defeat. The aggression against Austria and Czechoslovakia were intended to be the first of a series of localized wars in Eastern Europe that would secure Germany’s position in Europe before the final showdown with Britain and France. Fritsch, Blomberg and Neurath all argued that Hitler was pursuing an extremely high-risk strategy of localized wars in Eastern Europe that was most likely to cause a general war before Germany was ready for such a conflict, and advised Hitler to wait until Germany had more time to rearm. Neurath, Blomberg and Fritsch had no moral objections to German aggression, but rather based their opposition on the question of timing – determining the best time for aggression.
Late in November 1937, Hitler received as his guest the British Lord Privy Seal, Lord Halifax who was visiting Germany ostensibly as part of a hunting trip. Speaking of changes to Germany’s frontiers, Halifax told Hitler that: “All other questions fall into the category of possible alterations in the European order which might be destined to come about with the passage of time. Amongst these questions were Danzig, Austria and Czechoslovakia. England was interested to see that any alterations should come through the course of peaceful evolution and that the methods should be avoided which might cause far-reaching disturbances.” Significantly, Halifax made clear in his statements to Hitler—though whether Hitler appreciated the significance of this or not is unclear—that any possible territorial changes had to be accomplished peacefully, and that though Britain had no security commitments in Eastern Europe beyond the Covenant of the League of Nations, would not tolerate territorial changes via war. Hitler understood Halifax’s remarks as confirming his conviction that Britain would just stand aside while he pursued his strategy of limited wars in Eastern Europe.
Hitler was most unhappy with the criticism of his intentions expressed by Neurath, Blomberg, and Fritsch in the Hossbach Memo, and in early 1938 would assert his control over the military-foreign policy apparatus.
The Blomberg–Fritsch Affair were two related scandals in early 1938 that resulted in the subjugation of the German Armed Forces (Wehrmacht) to dictator Adolf Hitler. As documented in the Hossbach Memorandum, Hitler had been dissatisfied with these two highest ranking military officials and regarded them as too hesitant towards the war preparations he demanded.
The affair started after the 12 January 1938 marriage of War Minister Werner von Blomberg when a policeman reported that the young bride had previously posed for pornographic photos, and as a result had a criminal record. This violated the standard of conduct for officers as defined by Blomberg himself and was a shock to Hitler—Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring had been Blomberg’s best man and Hitler himself a witness. Hitler ordered Blomberg to annul the marriage in order to avoid a scandal and to preserve the integrity of the army. Blomberg refused to annul the marriage and, when Göring threatened to make his wife’s past public knowledge, consequently resigned all of his posts on 27 January 1938.
The events surrounding Blomberg’s marriage inspired Hermann Göring and Heinrich Himmler to arrange a similar affair for Commander-in-Chief Werner von Fritsch. Göring did not want Fritsch to become the successor to Blomberg and thus his superior. Himmler wanted to weaken the Wehrmacht and its mainly aristocratic leaders in order to strengthen his Schutzstaffel as a competitor to the regular German Army (Heer).
A few days later, Fritsch was accused of being a homosexual by Himmler and the SS. A police file was produced which the Gestapo had already shown to Hitler in 1935. At that time, Hitler rejected it and ordered its destruction.
It is reported that Fritsch was encouraged by General Ludwig Beck to carry out a military putsch against the State, but that he declined and resigned on 4 February 1938, to be replaced by Walther von Brauchitsch, whom Fritsch himself had recommended for the post.
Hitler used the situation to transfer the duties of the Ministry of War (Reichskriegsministerium) to a new organization—the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or OKW)—and Wilhelm Keitel, who became the new head of the OKW on 4 February 1938. This weakened the traditional Army High Command (Oberkommando des Heeres, or OKH) which was now subordinated to the OKW.
Hitler took advantage of the situation by replacing several generals and ministers, Neurath in particular, with people even more loyal to him, taking more effective de facto control of the Wehrmacht which he de jure commanded. These changes were protested by some senior members in the Wehrmacht, most notably Colonel General Ludwig Beck who circulated a petition that was signed by Colonel General Gerd von Rundstedt and others.
Soon it became known that the charges were false—the file was about someone with a similar name: Rittmeister von Frisch. Himmler then presented a witness who supported the charge. The Wehrmacht demanded that an honour court of officers examine the Blomberg–Fritsch Affair as it had come to be known. The proceedings were presided over by Hermann Göring himself.
The witness supplied by Himmler claimed to recognise von Fritsch as an officer whom he had witnessed in a homosexual act in a public lavatory in Berlin with a man known (in translation) as “Bavarian Joe”. The witness, a man named Otto Schmidt, turned out to be a Munich streetwalker with a long criminal record who had been bribed to support the accusation—his chief criminal activity had been spying on and blackmailing homosexuals.
Members of the German officer corps were appalled at Fritsch’s maltreatment. Colonel General Beck resigned in protest on 18 August 1938 and Colonel General von Rundstedt obtained permission to retire in October 1938.
The witness against Fritsch later withdrew his accusation, but was murdered. Fritsch was acquitted on 18 March, but the damage to his name was done; he was never reinstated as Commander-in-Chief. Despite the Army demanding his rehabilitation, Hitler would only go as far as naming him honorary colonel of an artillery regiment. He was inspecting the front lines just after the invasion of Poland when he was shot in the leg and died within a minute. Some believed that he’d been seeking his own death.
Bound by their personal oath to Hitler (the Reichswehreid of 1934, ironically ordered by Blomberg), many members of the Wehrmacht never acted on their feelings of displeasure regarding this event. Thereafter, the army was more or less a reliable instrument for Hitler, ultimately leading to the destruction of both.