Those who speak of “the Wehrmacht” and mean the power structure of the institution as a whole are referring mainly to the responsible group of military leaders. It cannot be doubted that the top level-that is, the ranking officers in the high commands and the troop commanders-were largely responsible for converting into specific military orders Hitler’s general ideas about race and waging an ideologically based war of extermination. By comparison, the responsibility of millions of German enlisted men, many of whom were drafted for military service against their will, is incomparably smaller, even though, over the course of the war, many of them became accessories to crimes, or even accomplices in them.
But how much military and political influence did the military elite possess, beyond the confines of the institution, within the overall power structure of the National Socialist regime? While National Socialists persecuted their political opponents and achieved the Gleichschaltung (Nazification) of most political and social organizations, they handled the Wehrmacht with kid gloves, and even favoritism. The military was strengthened enormously, in terms of both personnel and materiel, and Hitler declared it to be the “second pillar” of the state, alongside the Nazi Party itself. In comparison with the treatment of military affairs under the Weimar governments, Hitler’s policies brought about the restoration of the authoritarian state for which the military had been longing. And that in turn brought officers immense gains in social prestige and possibilities for professional advancement.
One development with significant consequences for the relationship between the new government and the military leadership occurred on February 3, 1933, only a few days after Hitler had been named chancellor. The new head of government met for the first time with the commanders of the army and navy in a secret meeting at the Berlin home of General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, chief of the Army High Command. In a speech that lasted two and a half hours, Hitler laid out his new policies. Lasting relief for the present crisis, he explained to them, could be found only “by seizing new Lebensraum in the East and Germanizing it relentlessly.” In order to achieve this, the first requirement would be a “complete reversal” of current domestic policies, entailing “the strictest kind of authoritarian government, eliminating the cancerous tumor of democracy,… [and] eradicating Marxism root and branch.” It would further be necessary to make Germany ready to defend itself again, that is, to attack pacifism and strengthen the resolve of the population to fight “by all possible means.” Germany would need to build up its armed forces and existing arsenal, freeing up the Nazi Party storm troopers (SA) to concentrate on domestic political issues. It would also be necessary for the army to refrain from all intervention in the domestic struggle.
Hitler thus announced to the commanders of the armed forces in unmistakable terms his agenda for establishing an authoritarian state, and also for militarizing the government, the economy, and society. He even mentioned his goal of conquering new territory as Lebensraum. The generals and admirals in his audience were pleased by the “strong will and ideological energy” in Hitler’s speech.
Hitler’s program for making the entire nation “ready to defend itself again” corresponded to the ideas then current in the armed forces that the wars of the future would be “total” in character. Werner von Blomberg, the new Reichswehr minister, was thus probably speaking for the commanders as a whole when he declared on the same day, February 3, that Hitler’s cabinet had turned the aspirations of many of Germany’s finest into a reality because the cabinet represented the first step in readying the average citizen for “self-defense.” In this case, then, the interests of the National Socialist government and the military coincided. The same holds for the long-term prospect of a future war. The officers could have had no doubt that when Hitler spoke of expanding the military and building new weapons, he did not mean strengthening the country’s defenses-a goal that in itself represented a violation of the Treaty of Versailles-but rather preparations for an extensive campaign of conquest.
All this indicates that Hitler and the military leadership were in agreement from this early date on about a policy to militarize German society as a necessary first step on the path to later wars of aggression. A not insignificant circumstance in the solidifying of this alliance was the way Hitler repeatedly emphasized his sense of obligation to the traditions embodied by Paul von Hindenburg, the former field marshal of the First World War and current president of Germany. Adolf Hitler’s public gesture on Potsdam Day, March 21, 1933, could not have failed to make a lasting impression on military leaders of a conservative Prussian stamp and leaders from industry, the churches, the civil service, the legal system, and the aristocracy: in a well-calculated symbolic gesture, the old field marshal had appeared at the military ceremony in full uniform, with all his medals and a spiked helmet, and the man who had served in the war as a private bowed to him before the eyes of the assembled soldiers in a gesture of respect.
Hindenburg died in 1934, and after that Hitler became, at least pro forma, “supreme commander of the armed forces.” The military leadership now saw to it that all soldiers swore an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler personally. Such an oath may not have meant much to the average enlisted man, but for career officers it was a different matter. Up to 1918 they had sworn loyalty to the Kaiser as their supreme commander; he had been the central figure from which everything else took its orientation, and the new oath to the Fuehrer and chancellor of the Reich, Adolf Hitler, appeared to stand in the same tradition. Certainly the oath the generals had sworn to Hitler played a critical role during the Second World War, in particular when they struggled with the question of whether to join the resistance movement.
In the scholarly literature on the Wehrmacht, much has been made of Hitler’s distrust of the generals, most of whom were Prussian and members of the aristocracy, and of various crises in which they were involved. Both the distrust and the crises were real, and have been well documented. Hitler was in fact by no means always certain that he had the generals’ support, and he remained suspicious of them to the very end. Members of the military elite expressed doubts about Hitler’s radical war strategy, as General Ludwig Beck did, for example, in 1938. Objections of this kind were raised during the preparations for war against France. But when the Blitzkrieg against France was waged exactly as Hitler wanted and ended in triumph, the generals were reduced to silence. From that point on they accepted the priority of Hitler’s political leadership more than ever. In their eyes the military success had proved particularly convincing. And with few exceptions, they had no objections on principle to the fact that Hitler’s radical kind of warfare violated international law. As we have seen, they accepted both the planning of the Russian campaign and the events at several sites.
The weight of the events referred to as the “generals’ crises” has often been overemphasized since 1945. It is true that a number of generals were recalled, replaced, or transferred to the so-called “Fuehrer’s reserve,” and often this occurred against their will, of course. The resulting anger and resentment, however, never rose to levels that could have threatened the survival of the regime. The sole event amounting to a direct political attack on the dictatorship was the assassination attempt against Hitler on July 20, 1944. In sum, the relationship between Hitler and the generals who did not participate in the conspiracy was one of trust, approval, and subordination; it was not characterized by conflicts, let alone fundamental differences of opinion on how the war should be waged.
The fact is that a basic consensus developed early on between the military leadership and Hitler, given their similar political interests and their views on war as an instrument of policy-even a policy of aggression, conquest, and extermination. Through the oath they swore to the “Fuehrer and supreme commander of the Wehrmacht,” career officers saw themselves as the latest link in the long Prussian tradition of unconditional obedience to military orders. The victories of 1939-40, which National Socialist propaganda ascribed to Hitler’s genius as a military strategist, further reduced the officers’ independence and political clout, binding them even more closely to the country’s political leaders and their party.
Given so much consensus, it is almost surprising to find that Hitler made systematic use of bribes to keep the leaders of the Wehrmacht on his side. Hitler did not invent the use of gifts (in this case mostly cash or real estate) as a tool of leadership; it had existed earlier under rulers like Frederick the Great in Prussia and Napoleon in France. The goal always remained the same: to bind the generals more closely to the ruler by giving them valuable presents. Hitler marked special occasions such as military victories, but also birthdays, with gifts of money or land (tax free) as well as expensive objects, such as works of art, that had been seized by revenue officials. Occasionally politicians like Robert Ley and Joachim Ribbentrop or the staff of the architect Albert Speer were rewarded in this way, but as a rule such gifts flowed to the top echelon of the military. As early as 1935 Hitler thanked August von Mackensen, the prominent elderly field marshal, for his services to the regime with a country house, which came with three thousand acres of land and a staff of two hundred. Field Marshals Gerd von Runstedt, Erhard Milch, and Hans-Günther von Kluge each received 250,000 reichsmarks, and General Heinrich von Kleist got the lavish sum of 480,000 marks, while Admiral of the Fleet Erich Raeder and Luftwaffe General Hugo Sperrle were given paintings valued at 38,000 and 90,000 marks, respectively. Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel even took the initiative in this area, asking for and receiving from Hitler 250,000 reichsmarks in cash and a tract of land valued at 730,000 marks, from tax money and confiscated property. The book Dienen und Verdienen (Serving and Earning) by Gerd R. Ueberschär and Winfried Vogel documents the extent to which members of the top echelon were dependent on the regime for their standard of living, and how Hitler ensured their gratitude, continued compliance, and support through his material gifts-buying it, in effect. The fact that generals allowed themselves to be rewarded in a manner smacking of corruption remained “largely unknown” to the German public during the war.
In the final phase of the war, when it had become clear that Germany could not win it, the generals did not distance themselves from their supreme commander, Hitler, even though more people died from war-related causes than in the previous four years. They remained devoted-one could even say chained-to him, and let the soldiers entrusted to their oversight fight on until the unconditional surrender of May 8, 1945.