Hitler takes command of the German army

Hitler takes command of the German army

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In a major shake-up of the military high command, Adolf Hitler assumes the position of commander in chief of the German army.

The German offensive against Moscow was proving to be a disaster. A perimeter had been established by the Soviets 200 miles from the city—and the Germans couldn’t break through. The harsh winter weather—with temperatures often dropping to 31 degrees below zero—had virtually frozen German tanks in their tracks. Soviet General Georgi Zhukov had unleashed a ferocious counteroffensive of infantry, tanks, and planes that had forced the flailing Germans into retreat. In short, the Germans were being beaten for the first time in the war, and the toll to their collective psyche was great. “The myth of the invincibility of the German army was broken,” German General Franz Halder would write later.

But Hitler refused to accept this notion. He began removing officers from their command. General Fedor von Bock, who had been suffering severe stomach pains and who on December 1 had complained to Halder that he was no longer able to “operate” with his debilitated troops, was replaced by General Hans von Kluge, whose own 4th Army had been pushed into permanent retreat from Moscow. General Karl von Runstedt was relieved of the southern armies because he had retreated from Rostov. Hitler clearly did not believe in giving back captured territory, so in the biggest shake-up of all, he declared himself commander in chief of the army. He would train it “in a National Socialist way”—that is, by personal fiat. He would compose the strategies and the officers would dance to his tune.

READ MORE: How Did the Nazis Really Lose World War II?

German Army (1935–1945)

The German Army (German: Deutsches Heer, German: [heːɐ̯] ( listen ) , lit. 'German Army') was the land forces component of the Wehrmacht, [a] the regular German Armed Forces, from 1935 until it ceased to exist in 1945 and then was formally dissolved in August 1946. [2] During World War II, a total of about 13.6 million soldiers served in the German Army. Army personnel were made up of volunteers and conscripts.

Only 17 months after Adolf Hitler announced the German rearmament program in 1935, the army reached its projected goal of 36 divisions. During the autumn of 1937, two more corps were formed. In 1938 four additional corps were formed with the inclusion of the five divisions of the Austrian Army after the Anschluss in March. [3] During the period of its expansion under Hitler, the German Army continued to develop concepts pioneered during World War I, combining ground and air assets into combined arms forces. Coupled with operational and tactical methods such as encirclements and "battle of annihilation", the German military managed quick victories in the two initial years of World War II, a new style of warfare described as Blitzkrieg (lightning war) for its speed and destructive power. [4]

The Strength of Tradition

Many of those joining the officer corps came from the upper classes. They had the education and connections to get in and were motivated by a strong sense of patriotic tradition.

It led to an officer corps that was conservative and traditionalist. Hindenburg, one of its most famous representatives, stopped to salute the empty seat of the long-dethroned Kaiser on his way to see Hitler take power.

The culture was reinforced by the lack of opportunities for promotion or for young men to join. In 1933, the average age of a German colonel was 56.

The Making of Hitler’s Army

Late July 1914. A vast crowd on the Odeonsplatz in Munich, Germany, enthusiastically greets the announcement of war. In a photograph of that cheering mass, clearly identifiable, is the young Adolf Hitler, then an unknown, itinerant painter of still lifes notable chiefly for their obtuse rendering of human figures. Within days, Hitler would join the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment, which after barely two months of training shipped out to the Western Front. In the disastrous Battle of Langemarck in October 1914, it lost 3,000 killed or wounded out of its 3,600 young soldiers. Hitler was one of the regiment’s few survivors. So began Hitler’s experience with the German army.

Like all too many Germans, the Reich’s future leader found his experiences in World War I uplifting. He proved a courageous combat soldier and earned the Iron Cross, First Class, a medal rarely awarded to the enlisted ranks. But Hitler’s behavior and attitudes unsettled his superiors, and throughout the war they dared not trust him to lead other men. They did assign him to serve as a runner between the front lines and headquarters, a task ideally suited to Hitler the loner. Thus, he never rose above the rank of corporal through the course of the war. Nevertheless, his combat experiences, from Langemarck to Flanders, would mold Hitler’s attitude toward the Wehrmacht throughout World War II. In particular, the battles on the Somme in 1916 and in Flanders in 1917 deeply influenced Hitler’s understanding of war.

From our perspective at the beginning of the 21st century, the German defense of the Somme was a disaster, as its inflexible structure placed most of the German infantry well within range of British artillery, inflicting unnecessarily heavy casualties on the Frontsoldaten. In 1917 Germany introduced a far more flexible system of defense in depth, in which its infantry suffered fewer casualties but confronted greater uncertainties in terms of when to hold ground, when to pull back and when to counterattack. The new doctrine placed great decision-making responsibility on junior officers and NCOs, while introducing considerable uncertainty to the world of the common infantryman. It seems likely that Gefreiter (Corporal) Hitler found his tasks as a runner greatly hindered by the new complexities of the system of defense in depth, and his distaste for the new tactics would influence his insistence in the next war that the Wehrmacht hold every square inch of territory its troops had occupied.

We do know that Hitler, like nearly all frontline soldiers, developed contempt for the staff officers, with their crimson-striped trousers, who seemingly spent their lives in chateaus in comfort, while the Frontsoldaten suffered, bled and died in the trenches. As the British World War I combat poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote:

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.…
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die—in bed.

On many occasions, Hitler would later remind his generals that he had spent the war in the frontline trenches, while they had remained safely ensconced at the rear.

In the aftermath of World War I, Hitler, like many German veterans, found himself unemployed and deeply resentful of the war’s outcome. And like most Germans, he was more than willing to blame the Reich’s defeat on the politicians, the Jews and the Communists, who had supposedly stabbed an unbeaten army in the back, rather than blame the flawed strategy that had pitted the Central Powers against the rest of the world. That faulty understanding of the Reich’s 1918 defeat reverberated not only through right-wing circles, but also through the German army officer corps.

It was the army authorities who jump-started Hitler’s political career by launching him as an agitator into those cesspools of Munich, the city’s beer halls. By 1923 he had gained sufficient support in Bavaria’s bizarre political scene to launch his Beer Hall Putsch, a coup aimed at overthrowing the Weimar Republic. Backing him was the unstable General Erich Ludendorff, who with Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg had ostensibly ruled Germany in the last two years of the war. The failure of that attempt did little to harm Hitler’s longterm prospects in fact, he used his trial before a sympathetic tribunal as a forum not only to spread his message of disinformation and lies about the “November criminals”—the politicians who had surrendered Germany in 1918—but also to attack the republic itself.

Throughout the 1920s Hitler built the small National Socialist Party into an effective political organization. The Great Depression, sparked by the October 1929 Wall Street crash, provided Hitler with his great chance. The disastrous economic situation, which put more than a third of Germany’s workforce on bread lines, destroyed the political center in the disintegrating republic and led to a ferocious power struggle between the Nazis on the right and Communists on the left. Germany’s conservatives, including the army officer corps, increasingly saw Hitler as the Reich’s potential political savior, a man who could thwart the Communists and provide the nation with the unified political leadership and support the army had supposedly lacked in the last war. In the raucous electioneering of the early 1930s, Hitler repeatedly alluded to his intention to start another war, should he come to power. As he commented in a typical speech in November 1930: “When so many preach that we are entering the age of peace, I can only say, ‘My dear fellows, you have badly interpreted the horoscope of the age, for it points not to peace, but to war as never before.’”

On Jan. 30, 1933, one of the darkest days in German history, Reich President Paul von Hindenburg, the grizzled World War I hero, appointed Hitler chancellor. Pro-Nazi General Werner von Blomberg was appointed defense minister in Hitler’s new cabinet. Within a week, Hitler had met with Germany’s senior military leaders and announced the new regime’s agenda: a massive military buildup that would rend the shackles imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles. But Hitler also made clear to these generals and admirals that he was aiming for a complete overthrow of the European order that had existed since the 17th century. He cautioned them that if the French had any real leaders, they would act immediately to stifle the Nazi regime at birth.

Despite the initial comfort Hitler’s message undoubtedly brought his audience, relations between the new chancellor and the military remained rocky over the course of the first year and a half. The problem was not with Hitler, but with his followers. The stormtroopers—Sturm Abteilung (“storm section”), or SA—had played a major role in Nazi efforts to overthrow the republic with their street riots and general thuggery. Ernst Röhm, their highly decorated chief of staff and Hitler’s second in command, envisioned the SA replacing the army—a goal he sought to further against army officer corps opposition. But in early summer 1934, the army leadership gave Hitler an ultimatum: Ether he remove Röhm and downgrade the SA, or the army would remove Hitler’s Nazi regime.

Hitler got their message. During the so-called “Night of the Long Knives” in June 1934, the Führer ordered a purge of the SA leadership and took the opportunity to eliminate other enemies of his regime. Among those murdered was General Kurt von Schleicher, Hitler’s predecessor as chancellor, who had opposed the Nazis’ rise to power once too often. The army had sealed its pact with the devil, thus the generals uttered not a squeak of protest about Schleicher’s assassination by Nazi thugs. While this event paled in comparison to the murderous purges Josef Stalin was inflicting on the peoples of the Soviet Union, the 200 or so victims were bloody testimony that the rule of law had vanished from the German state.

Following this purge of the more rambunctious and ambitious members of the SA, and Hindenberg’s death in August 1934, Blomberg had the soldiers of the German army swear a direct, personal oath to Hitler—not to the Reich, not to the constitution, not to the German state, but to the Führer of the German people. It proved a fateful move, one that underlined how quickly and thoroughly Hitler had co-opted the army into the Nazi state as a willing and enthusiastic tool of the new regime.

Hitler gave his military a blank check to begin rearmament, in direct violation of the Reich’s treaty obligations. Dutifully, the army sought to build the largest ground force in central Europe, the Luftwaffe the largest air force and the navy a large fleet of battleships. Yet how the Reich’s fragile economy, which depended on exports, was going to meet these goals in the midst of history’s direst depression remained unclear. The nation possessed few natural resources and virtually no holdings of foreign reserves. Coal was the only raw material the Reich possessed in abundance. Everything else the Germans had to import. The result was that both the German economy and armed services lived a hand-to-mouth existence throughout the 1930s, confronting a series of bottlenecks caused by the nondelivery of required materials, production shortages and, after 1936, a lack of workers. Between 1933 and the outbreak of war, German industry failed to complete 41 percent of the orders the Wehrmacht had placed.

Apart from his efforts to speed the pace of rearmament, however, Hitler concerned himself little with the logistics. In his first years in power he respected the expertise of his military advisers and assumed they knew what they were doing. Virtually every Reichsmark Hitler and his economic experts could squeeze from Germany’s strained economy went straight into the military coffers.

The army leadership decided on conservative expansion of the Reich’s ground forces. Complicating its efforts was the fact that German troops had virtually no experience with armored operations, due to the restrictions imposed at Versailles, and that Germany herself had scant access to oil. Success would hinge on successful implementation of the army’s coherent combined-arms doctrine spelled out in the 1933 basic doctrinal manual Die Truppenführung (“troop leadership”), written by Generals Werner von Fritsch, Ludwig Beck and Otto von Stülpnagel —the first soon to be named commander in chief of the German army, and the second, chief of the general staff.

By 1935 Hitler had announced conscription and then creation of the Luftwaffe. The European powers remained mute. The following year Hitler decided to remilitarize the Rhineland, a step also forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. Expecting to find his generals champing at the bit, Hitler instead discovered that many, including Blomberg, opposed such a risky venture, given the army’s relative weakness. Senior leaders, concerned about their own strength and believing the French would respond forcefully, fretted about the possibility of war. Hitler, however, had calculated that the French would not act. They did not, and their cabinet collapsed, in effect absolving themselves of the responsibility for German remilitarization. For Hitler, remilitarization of the Rhineland represented a major military and political success.

For the next two years German rearmament proceeded relatively smoothly, despite the nation’s considerable economic difficulties. The July 1936 outbreak of civil war in Spain served to divert European concerns over the rising German threat. Mussolini and Fascist Italy responded immediately with major aid for Francisco Franco’s Nationalist movement in its effort to overthrow the socialist republic. The Germans also provided aid, their Junkers Ju-52s transporting the Spanish Foreign Legion from North Africa to the Spanish mainland. Hitler, however, made it clear he had no intention of sending major forces to aid Franco from his perspective, the longer and fiercer the distraction in Spain the better.

By late 1937, Germany had begun to amass considerable military forces, but the country’s economic picture was gloomier than ever. In early November 1937, Hitler called together his military and foreign policy leaders to discuss the economic problems confronting rearmament and the strategic possibilities open to the Reich. This meeting appears to have been the first—and last—occasion in the history of the Third Reich when Hitler engaged senior leaders in a serious discussion about strategic and economic alternatives.

Surviving notes from that meeting indicate that Hitler argued for an aggressive, risky foreign policy aimed at ridding Germany of its strategic and economic vulnerabilities. Specifically, the Führer identified Austria and Czechoslovakia as targets for German expansion. But he ran into substantial opposition from three key figures: Blomberg, Fritsch and German Foreign Minister Konstantin von Neurath. The trio argued that the Third Reich possessed neither the strategic position nor the military preparedness to embark on risky foreign policy initiatives they felt might well result in war.

The fallout from that meeting was swift. In January 1938, Blomberg, a widower, married a woman “with a past,” and shortly after the wedding, which Hitler had witnessed, rumors surfaced about Frau Blomberg’s less-than-proper behavior as a fraulein. Informed of Blomberg’s misalliance, leading generals went directly to Hitler and demanded the field marshal’s resignation. Hitler promptly fired Blomberg and Neurath and ordered the immediate retirement of a number of senior officers. Hitler himself assumed Blomberg’s seat at the defense ministry, which became the High Command of the Armed Forces (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or OKW). For OKW chief of staff, Hitler picked General Wilhelm Keitel, an enthusiastic nonentity who possessed neither integrity nor honor.

Worse was to come. Heinrich Himmler and his SS thugs delivered to Hitler falsified evidence and a dubious witness suggesting that Fritsch, the army’s highly respected commander, had been involved in a homosexual tryst. Hitler dismissed Fritsch and appointed Colonel General Walther von Brauchitsch, an enthusiastic Nazi, as the new commander in chief. Himmler’s flimsy evidence almost immediately dissolved, however, presenting Hitler with a potentially explosive crisis. Most of the army’s senior generals were furious at the treatment Fritsch had received, and a number of them clamored for his reinstatement, a step Hitler had no intention of taking.

Instead, Hitler moved with a gambler’s instincts to defuse one crisis with another: Having browbeaten Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg into resigning, Hitler ordered the Wehrmacht into Austria to annex that country into the Reich. The army had made no such plans, and Brauchitsch had hardly been in office for a month. Moreover, the army was engaged in training its yearly intake of recruits and unprepared for a major operation. Nevertheless, the German army was still the German army, and within hours Chief of Staff Beck developed a plan, mobilized reservists, deployed units to the border and launched them into Austria.

Like the remilitarization of the Rhineland, the Anschluss was a considerable political coup. Masses of Austrians enthusiastically greeted the Wehrmacht, while others delightedly cooperated with the Nazis in atrocities against the resident Jewish population. The army’s performance, however, was less than stellar: A number of tanks and trucks broke down on the road to Vienna, the accident rate was appalling and the mobilization of reserves went poorly. Luckily for the Germans, the Austrians put up no resistance.

The annexation of Austria netted the Third Reich considerable strategic and economic gains. It now shared a border with its cohort in crime, Italy, and Austrian territory reached deep into the Balkans. Moreover, the Germans now surrounded Czechoslovakia on three sides. Equally important were other gains: Austrian foreign exchange holdings supported German rearmament for the next half year the large number of unemployed Austrians provided substantial assistance to an economy desperately short of workers and the Austrian army added a significant number of units to the Wehrmacht. Perhaps most important for Hitler, the Anschluss had entirely defused army senior leaders’ anger over Fritsch’s firing.

The success clearly went to Hitler’s head. Within two months, angered by Czech reinforcement of districts along the German border, Hitler ordered the army to speed planning for an invasion of Czechoslovakia, insisting the Wehrmacht be ready by Oct. 1, 1938. Again the Führer courted confrontation with some of Germany’s leading generals over the future course of the Reich’s strategy.

Beck led the opposition to Hitler’s planned invasion. The German chief of staff was certain the Wehrmacht could overwhelm Czechoslovakia in short order. But what then? A German invasion of the republic would bring on a war the Reich could not win, as the French would honor their obligations to Czechoslovakia, and the British would inevitably support them. Equally threatening were the attitudes of the Poles and the Soviets. At present, Beck continued, Germany’s only ally would be the unreliable and incompetent Italians. Finally, the Germans had yet to begin major work on fortifications in the west.

Hitler rejected Beck’s opinion, arguing—quite correctly in hindsight—that the British and French would prove reluctant to come to Czechoslovakia’s aid. But what Hitler failed to see was that if he pushed matters to war, Germany would face intervention of the Western powers, reluctant or not. The tension between Hitler and Beck simmered throughout the summer and exploded in August 1938. A number of senior generals supported the chief of staff, but few were willing to openly oppose Hitler. Some of Hitler’s junior generals also entered the fray on Beck’s behalf, but none was in a position to influence the flow of events.

Most generals hunkered down and waited to see how matters would play out. Deputy Chief of Staff Erich von Manstein wrote to Beck in August that thus far the Führer had been right on political matters, and perhaps it would be best for the chief of staff to drop his opposition to Hitler’s plans. Beck, however, stood firm and in mid-August resigned as chief of staff, to be replaced by the enigmatic General Franz Halder. (After the war, Halder was to claim he had spent August and September preparing a coup to overthrow the Nazi regime, but that the surrender of Czechoslovakia under the Munich Agreement had undermined the rationale for a coup his subsequent performance as chief of staff suggests he had plotted no such action.) Throughout September, Hitler wrangled with Halder and Brauchitsch over tactical and operational planning for the invasion of Czechoslovakia. These quarrels presaged similar arguments that would recur throughout World War II.

The acquiescence of Western leaders at Munich once again provided Hitler with an enormous propaganda victory. He did back down at the last moment and agree to a peaceful settlement to the Czech crisis—something he regretted for the rest of his life. But the conference marked a critical juncture in Hitler’s relationship with his military leaders. From this point on, those who remained in senior positions would offer no opposition to the Führer’s strategic plans and assumptions, no matter how wild and disconnected from reality.

Despite ongoing economic difficulties in the post-Munich period, Hitler made bizarre projections regarding the expansion of German military power. In fall 1938, he demanded a five-fold expansion of the Luftwaffe by 1942, a task that would have required access to 85 percent of the world’s production of aviation gas and cost the equivalent to all Nazi defense spending between 1933 and 1939. Hans Jeschonnek, the Luftwaffe’s slavishly proNazi chief of staff, typified the new breed of Nazi generals: When experts in the Air Ministry questioned the possibility of reaching such a goal, he responded, “Gentlemen, in my view it is our duty to support the Führer and not work against him.”

In early 1939, Admiral Erich Raeder’s naval staff finished the Z Plan, which proposed expansion of the German navy into a force capable of challenging the Royal Navy for control of the Atlantic. Again an overly ambitious plan collided with reality: There was no way for the Reich to acquire adequate supplies of steel, much less the dockyard capacity, to build such a fleet. Moreover, the United States would almost certainly wield its immense industrial might to counter German production with an even greater shipbuilding effort.

But Hitler ploughed ahead. No sooner had the ink on the Munich Agreement dried than the Führer initiated plans to occupy the remainder of Czechoslovakia. Six months later he struck. Using a political crisis in Prague as an excuse, he ordered the German army to occupy the entire Czech state. As German troops rolled into Prague, Hitler, on the advice of the his military escort commander, Erwin Rommel, rode confidently in an open car through the streets of the Czech capital to Hradcany castle. The action proved one of Hitler’s last peaceful public gestures.

The Western powers, particularly Britain, exploded at what they rightly regarded as Hitler’s malicious disregard for the terms of the agreement. A British guarantee for Polish independence followed in short order. That the Poles were proving particularly implacable in negotiations with the Germans added to Hitler’s fury. He announced to his intelligence chief that he would cook the British a stew on which they would choke. On April 3, Hitler ordered the Armed Forces High Command to plan an invasion of Poland. The German generals quickly fell into line. In fact, war against Poland was a popular idea with most of the Reich’s military leaders. By this time, Germany’s military leaders had largely agreed to abandon strategy and politics to their Führer and focus on the strictly military issues involved in destroying the Polish state. Hitler’s ability to reach accord with Stalin in August, thus removing the Soviet Union from the calculus of a major European war, at least in 1939, further solidified the belief among German generals that Hitler was a strategic and political genius. Given the widespread belief that the Reich had lost World War I due to domestic political troubles, most generals were confident the Nazi regime would be able to rally the home front to its cause while German troops pursued the war. So Hitler and his generals invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, embarking on a war they could not win. The German generals believed they had reached a deal with the regime in which Hitler would handle the politics and strategy, while they handled the military operations. But that deal would quickly unravel as World War II grew into a monstrous reality.

For further reading, Williamson Murray recommends: Inside Hitler’s High Command, by Geoffrey P. Megargee, and Hitler, 1936–1945: Nemesis, by Ian Kershaw.

Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.

The High Command and the Crimes

The radicalization of Nazi racial policy that accompanied the onset of the war tested the limits of the army’s loyalty to Hitler. Ultimately, though, the army adjusted its limits.

From the start, there was cooperation between the army and the Nazi Party’s elite paramilitary wing, the SS . Before the invasion of Poland, the army provided the SS with lists of individuals who might resist German occupation. The SS made use of those lists to embark on a program to annihilate the Polish intelligentsia, including political leaders, priests, and even school teachers. Some senior army commanders objected, briefly and ineffectually, but for the most part, the army decided that this was a “political” matter in which it should not interfere.

The invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 brought the war and Nazi policy to their most radical phase. Well before the invasion, the OKW and the OKH, working from Hitler’s general guidance, planned a campaign of persecution, exploitation, and murder that is unparalleled in modern history. No German soldier’s crime against a Soviet civilian would be cause for prosecution. Soviet political officers were to be shot immediately upon capture. Any civilian who was suspected of resisting in any way was also subject to shooting. Jews and Communists were special targets, simply because of who they were (to the generals, a Jew equaled a Communist, equaled a partisan). The army and the SS drew up agreements by which Einsatzgruppen and other mobile killing squads would follow along behind the army, shooting Jews and Communists, with the army providing logistical support. The OKH and the Reich Food Ministry also agreed to take foodstuffs from the USSR in quantities that would condemn millions of civilians to starvation. And the OKW, which was in charge of prisoner of war (POW) policy, deliberately neglected to prepare for the millions of men the army would capture.

The results of these policies were catastrophic. The murder squads shot and gassed between 1.5 and 2 million people by the end of 1942: most victims were Jews, but Communists, people with disabilities, and suspected partisan s were also murdered . Over 2 million POWs and untold numbers of civilians died from starvation, exhaustion, exposure, and disease. Millions more were put to forced labor in tens of thousands of camps throughout Germany and the occupied territories. Hundreds of villages, towns, and cities were deliberately laid waste.

When it was all over, the leading generals tried to claim that they had nothing to do with the crimes, that they had never received such orders, even that they had resisted. They fought with honor against a vicious foe, they said. The evidence, however, is overwhelming. They knew about genocide and Nazi atrocities t hey approved it, and they encouraged it. The German High Command cooperated fully in the Nazis’ genocidal program, even if the generals liked to pretend they were not Nazis.

1935: How did Adolf Hitler Build Up the German Military?

On this day in 1935, Adolf Hitler ordered the rearmament of the German army, even though it was forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles, signed after Germany lost World War I.

This treaty was very unfavorable to Germany. Namely, according to it, the German army could number only up to 100,000 men and a maximum of six warships, was not allowed to keep submarines, armed aircraft, tanks, or armored vehicles. A big constraint was a ban on the import and export of weapons.

Hitler simply ignored all these provisions, and the Allies had no way to oppose him. The engagement of German industry in weapons production largely pulled the country out of an economic crisis that had lasted from 1929.

Almost full employment was achieved. At the same time, the Germans regained their national self-confidence when their army became able to compete with other world powers. The war machine that was then created conquered a big part of Europe at the beginning of World War II.

Tenth SS Panzer Frundsberg

Tenth SS Panzer was raised as a panzer grenadier division in January 1943 and was designated a tank unit in October under Gruppenführer (major general) Lothar Debes. The division was sent to Russia in March 1944 and, like its sister division Ninth SS, participated in the Kamenets breakout in April. However, it returned to France in mid-June in response to the crisis in Normandy. Somewhat understrength, it counted approximately 15,800 men at the time of D-Day. Under Gruppenführer Heinz Harmel, who was to command the division for all but the final month of the war, by 24 June the division staff and advance elements had reached the Normandy assembly area, preparing to give battle the next day.

Frundsberg fought at Arnhem (gaining a reputation for chivalry for its treatment of British POWs) and the West Wall. Returned eastward in February 1945, the division subsequently was withdrawn to Pomerania. In May, surrounded, it surrendered to the Soviets at Schonau in Saxony.

Why was Nazi Field Marshal Paulus on the Soviet payroll

Germany's Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus at Red Army Headquarters for interrogation at Stalingrad, Russia, on March 1, 1943.

By January 1943, the defeat of the Nazi Army in the Battle of Stalingrad was obvious. This monumental clash that changed the course of World War II lasted six and a half months. The USSR lost more than 1 million soldiers, while German deaths were 950,000. The Sixth Army under the command of Lt. General Friedrich Paulus was eventually surrounded and destroyed.

On the second to last day of the battle, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler promoted Paulus to the second highest military rank - field marshal. In his last message, Hitler made a clear order: "not one German field marshal has ever been taken prisoner." Hitler expected Paulus to commit suicide, but the field marshal chose life and surrendered on January 31, 1943.

Source: YouTube

Germans against Hitler

For Moscow, the surrender of Paulus was important not only in terms of prestige. After the Nazi invasion, the Soviet government, together with German Communists who sought refuge in the USSR in the 1930s after the Nazis rise to power, tried to create an anti-Fascist organization from the POWs.

After the defeat at Stalingrad, which undermined German faith in victory, about 91,000 Wehrmacht soldiers were taken prisoner - a rather auspicious occasion for the launch of the anti-Nazi organization. In July 1943, the USSR formed the National Committee for a Free Germany, and then the Union of German Officers under the supervision of captured General Walther Kurt von Seydlitz-Kurzbach. For successful anti-Nazi propaganda, however, Kurzbach was not enough. The Soviet government needed a very famous German, someone like Paulus.

Paulus in Kriegsgefangenschaft. Source: Wikipedia

A field marshal's fate

Contemporaries characterized Paulus as a responsible and attentive soldier, and a dignified officer. However, as German historian Joachim Wieder wrote in "Catastrophe on the Volga," he was not an outstanding commander and felt more comfortable performing staff duties than commanding an army at war. Paulus was a notable staff officer. In particular, he participated in the development of the infamous Operation Barbarossa - the invasion of the USSR.

During the war, until Stalingrad, Paulus served as head of staff, practically doing the paper work at the home front. "The order to appoint Paulus as Commander of the 6th Army in 1942&hellip was a fatal mistake. Before that, he hadn&rsquot even commanded a regiment," writes Wieder.

Another weakness of Paulus, according to Wieder, was his blind faith in Hitler. His refusal to commit suicide was essentially the first case where an officer refused to follow the Führer's will. Yet, even when taken prisoner, the field marshal said he remained a national socialist.

When he found out about the creation of the anti-Fascist Union of German Soldiers, Paulus at first "sharply condemned the union and in written form renounced all the German POWs who joined it," says historian Mikhail Burtsev.

On August 8, 1944, a year and a half after having been taken prisoner, Paulus spoke on Free Germany Radio and addressed Wehrmacht soldiers. "For Germany, the war is lost. This is the position in which the country has found itself as a result of Adolf Hitler's leadership. Germany must renounce Hitler." Source: Archive


Paulus soon changed his point of view, however, under the influence of psychological manipulation. At his Dubrovo dacha near Moscow he was constantly urged to side with the USSR. Then, the Allies opened a second front and the Third Reich suffered great losses in Africa, as well as near Kursk. The execution in Germany of Paulus' friend, General Field Marshal Erwin von Wirzleben, for his participation in the July 1944 anti-Hitler conspiracy, also played a role. Basically, Paulus began to see the writing on the wall.

On August 8, 1944, a year and a half after having been taken prisoner, Paulus spoke on Free Germany Radio and addressed Wehrmacht soldiers. "For Germany, the war is lost. This is the position in which the country has found itself as a result of Adolf Hitler's leadership. Germany must renounce Hitler."

Soviet propaganda

That was Paulus' first but not last anti-Hitler speech. He joined the ranks of the Union of German Officers and many times appealed to the German people. As historian Vladimir Markovkin says, Paulus even asked for a personal audience with Stalin, but was refused.

One of the field marshal's most powerful anti-Nazi speeches was his testimony during the Nuremburg Trials in February 1946. Source: Wikipedia

One of the field marshal's most powerful anti-Nazi speeches was his testimony during the Nuremburg Trials in February 1946. As someone who participated in devising Operation Barbarossa, he was an important witness in the case against generals Wilhelm Keitel and Alfred Jodi, (both were executed).

After Nuremburg, Paulus returned to the USSR where he lived in a dacha near Moscow without the right to leave the country. Until Stalin's death in 1953 his numerous requests to return to Germany were denied, and so work with the Soviet government continued. Paulus was even the main consultant on Vladimir Petrov's film, The Battle of Stalingrad (1949). After Stalin's death, Paulus was able to leave the USSR, and moved to Dresden in East Germany, dying there from illness in 1957.

Source: YouTube

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Ernst Röhm was the leader of Sturmabteilung ("Storm Detachment") or "SA" - a paramilitary group that originated as early as 1919 with the main purpose of protecting the NSDAP meetings. With NSDAP rise to power, SA became more and more popular, especially with the poor workers, that were hoping in bringing more radical, socialist-like changes to Germany (remember that the "NSDAP" stands for "National - Socialist German Workers Party"). By 1932 the SA counted 400,000 members, by 1933 that number had risen to over 3 million and Röhm started planning to merge the army (Reichswehr), which counted only 100,000 soldiers with the SA # to create a true "people's army", which was starting to look dangerously similar to what was happening in the Soviet Union (apparently 70% of SA members were former communists).

This ambitions started to become a threat: while Hitler was the official leader of the Party and therefore the SA, Röhm was the real leader of the SA and he appointed his close friends as senior leaders. His revolutionary, socialist-like ideas were sitting badly with army generals (like General Walther von Reichenau), rich industrialists supporting Hitler, and even with the president Hindenburg, who was threatening to declare martial law if the rule of the "band of thugs" was not restrained.

Since Hitler wanted to take the power after Hindenburg's death and wanted to keep the support of the Reichswehr, he agreed * to take action against Röhm, even while he was personally liking the SA leader, who was one of his oldest supporters and gave the go-ahead to the purge (which was officially based on falsified documents, stating that Röhm had been paid by France to overthrow Hitler), later known as the "Night of the Long Knives".

Arguably, Röhm indeed wanted to replace Hitler. In 1933 he wrote:

"Adolf is rotten. He’s betraying all of us. He only goes round with reactionaries. His old comrades aren’t good enough for him. So he brings in these East Prussian generals. They’re the ones he pals around with now. Adolf knows perfectly well what I want. Are we a revolution or aren’t we? Something new has to be brought in, understand? The generals are old fogies. They’ll never have a new idea." source**

The Wehrmact: A “Correct” Army?

Given these awesome crime figures, one can thus wonder why the Wehrmacht was not condemned in Nürnberg for crimes against humanity, and genocide.

Seventeen million men served in the Wehrmacht. Few were those who opted out and fought against their native country, such as German Kanzler and Nobel Prize winner Willy Brandt who fought alongside Norwegian resistance fighters, or those who took the side of the Soviet Union, working mainly in propaganda units (the film “Ich war neunzehn” – “I was 19 years old” which came out in the 60s was a good example of how such small propaganda units worked).

Far too numerous were those mindless men who supported Hitler to the bitter end, passively or actively, morally, politically, lethargically, or even by working hard, in an effective manner, within that gigantic hate and killing machine.

But, we must enlarge the circle of responsibilities. Had there been no popular support for Hitler and his demented ideas, no support at the level of the High Command of the Wehrmacht, no sick mentality among its soldiers, the country would never have resisted until May 8, 1945, nearly six years after the start of the first military campaign against Poland. And 50 million people would not have died in vain and in the atrocious, inhuman, unbearable, conditions these innocent victims had to go through before dying. As mere things…

[2] « Die Wehrmacht – eine Bilanz » by Guido Knopp, excerpt from a conversation when Guderian was a prisoner of war, his conversations being bugged by the Allies.

[3] Published by the « Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung » (Hamburg Institute for Social Research)

[4] « Die Wehrmacht – eine Bilanz », by Guido Knopp, also quoted by Raoul Hilberg

[5] Reichssicherheithauptamt (SS) – Central Office (SS) of the Reich Security

[6] « The destruction of the Jews of Europe » by Raoul Hilberg

[7] « Die Wehrmacht – eine Bilanz »

[8] « Holokaust » by Guido Knopp

[9] « Die Wehrmacht – eine Bilanz »

[10] Der Spiegel 14/2011, excerpts from a book called « Soldiers, Protocols of war, killings and death » by Sönke Neitzel and Walter Loos

[11] « Das Warschauer Getto » by Joe J. Heydecker

[12] « Die Wehrmacht – eine Bilanz »

[15] «Descent into Barbarism – History of the 20th Century 1933-1951» by Martin Gilbert.

[16] « Die Wehrmacht – eine Bilanz »

[17] Ibid for the figures and quotation

[19] « De Standaard » (Belgian newspaper, in Dutch), April 13-14, 2013

[20] « Anmerkungen zu Hitler » by Sebastian Haffner

[21] « Die Wehrmacht – eine Bilanz »

[22] « Die Wehrmacht – eine Bilanz »

[23] « De Standaard », March 4, 2013, research done by Geoffrey Megargee and Martin Dean

[25] « De Standaard », April 13-14, 2013

[26] « Guerre et Extermination à l’Est » (War and Extermination in the East) by Christian Baechler