Curt Riess: The Corporal vs. the Generals (1944)

The Pittsburgh Press (August 2, 1944)


Führer seeks to block Junkers’ long-plotted march to power

Curt Riess, author of 15 books and hundreds of articles on Nazi Germany, forecast the present German appeal two years ago in his book, The Self-Betrayed: Glory and Doom of the German Generals. A former leading Berlin editor, he writes from carefully documented, first-hand evidence in this series, the first of which follows.

Whatever the final official version – the German official version – of the bomb assault against the Führer, whether he can prove a clique of high-ranking officers was involved in a plot to kill him, one thing is certain: The military leaders of Germany for a long time have been opposed to Hitler, and Hitler has known all along of this opposition.

It began even before Hitler came to power.

On the evening of Jan. 29, 1933, Hindenburg, President of the German Republic, was consulting with a few party leaders of the extreme right to determine whether he should appoint Adolf Hitler, leader of the strongest party in the Reichstag, as German Chancellor.

Into this meeting, like a bombshell, fell the news that Gen. Kurt von Schleicher, Army Minister and at that time Chancellor, had mobilized several regiments in Potsdam and was about to march on Berlin. It was an attempt to prevent Hitler’s appointment, and it was said a considerable number of generals were on the side of Schleicher.

Hindenburg acted first. Within a few hours, he not only appointed Hitler Chancellor, but saw to it that Gen. von Blomberg, a friend of the Führer, became Army Minister. Blomberg, in turn, immediately swore in a number of high-ranking officers. Thus, Gen. von Schleicher’s march against Berlin was frustrated. Hitler became Chancellor of Germany and the first collision between him and the army had been avoided successfully.

Army opposed to SA

For more than a year, the Nazis were drunk with triumph. In particular, Hitler’s stormtroopers, the SA, acted as if the country belonged to them. The leader of the SA, Capt. Ernst Röhm, hoped that eventually his men would be incorporated into the Army, with himself in a key post. Army leaders were definitely opposed to this, considering the stormtroopers gangsters. There was friction between these irregular troops and Army units.

The Army leaders were particularly angry when the Chief of the Berlin SS, Karl Ernst, told them that if the Army wished to inspect the SA, they should send an officer who did not wear a monocle. This was an intentional slap in the Army’s face. Most of the high-ranking officers, among them the commander-in-chief, Gen. von Fritsch, wore monocles.

The 1934 purge

Finally, the Army demanded a showdown. Gen. Ludwig Beck, chief of the General Staff and the intellectual leader of the generals’ clique, demanded that the SA disappear and its most prominent officers be thrown out.

At that time – the spring of 1934 – Hitler was still dependent on the good graces of the Army. He had to give in. The result was the famous blood purge of June 30, 1934, in which Ernst Röhm and many other SA officers were killed.

But though Hitler had to accommodate the generals, he was able to double-cross them in part and also revenge himself. For among those killed during the blood purge, were Gen. von Schleicher, his old enemy, and Gen. von Bredow, chief of Army intelligence, an officer widely known for his opposition to the Nazis.

Rundstedt planned revolt

Still, for almost four years following the blood purge, the Army controlled Hitler almost completely. There was some friction.

Gen. von Rundstedt, in May 1935, was about to lead a revolt against Hitler, but at the last minute, thought better of it and had his co-conspirators arrested. Gen. Beck was radically opposed to Hitler’s invasion of the demilitarized Rhineland because he figured that, if the French marched, the German Army couldn’t possibly defend itself. But Hitler believed the French would not march, and he completed his Rhineland plan successfully.

The next decisive clash between Hitler and the Army did not occur until February 1938. Then about 20 of the most prominent generals walked out on the Führer.

Army wanted Luftwaffe

There were many issues at stake at this time. Gen. von Blomberg, Hitler’s Army Minister, had married a girl almost 40 years his junior, and far below his social station. The generals felt that they could not work with a man who thus had betrayed his caste.

They also wanted assurances from Hitler that he would no longer mix in Army affairs. Further, they wanted the Luftwaffe, which Göring had built up as a unit completely controlled by the party, to be incorporated in the armed forces under the control of the General Staff.

Hitler refused all these demands. He had to let von Blomberg go, but used this to tighten his control of the Army. He had no idea of letting the Luftwaffe fall under the influence of the generals. He called their bluff and when they walked out, let them go. He knew that if he called them back, they would come.

Hitler was right, They came. The only one he didn’t want was his commander-in-chief, von Fritsch. The one he wanted back most, but had most difficulty in persuading to return, was Gen. Beck, chief of the General Staff.

The chief of the General Staff retired a second time, this time for good, after the Munich Conference. Beck knew that Hitler would not keep the pact of Munich, that he would take Prague, would demand Polish territory, and that sooner or later, a World War would be the consequence of the Führer’s ever-increasing demands. Beck, who had done more to build up the German Army than any other general, who had devised most of the plans later used by Hitler, knew that the German Army could not be victorious in a long-drawn-out war of attrition.

Russian timetable fails

At first, events seemed to prove Hitler was right and Beck wrong. The German Army overran half a dozen countries. On July 19, 1940, after the successful French campaign, Hitler made his leading generals field marshals, covering them with decorations – and it looked as if the peace between him and these generals would be final.

But it only looked that way. Hardly 15 months later, Oct. 15, 1941, the leading German generals knew they could not win the war. They knew it that early because the timetable of the Russian conquest had not been kept. The Russian Army, far from being crushed, became stronger day by day. England’s strength, too, was increasing, and it was only a question of time until America entered the war. Something must be done, the generals decided. The conspiracy against Hitler was on.

NEXT: Hitler’s “intuition” put to grim test.

The Pittsburgh Press (August 3, 1944)


Red Army’s sweep ignites Hitler’s feud with Russians

This is the second of three articles by Curt Riess, former Berlin editor and author of numerous articles on Nazi Germany, revealing the true story behind the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler.

Frequent frictions between Hitler and some of Germany’s most gifted generals were ironed out in the early months of the war. But there can be no doubt that high-ranking officers had been conspiring against the Führer for a long time prior to the recent assault on his life.

The differences between Hitler and his army commanders really became serious Oct. 15, 1941, when the military leaders on the Eastern Front met to discuss the situation.

What was this situation? The Russian Army had not been crushed. It was becoming stronger and stronger each day and there was not the slightest chance of finishing the Russian war in 1941 or early in 1942.

The generals felt that Hitler had betrayed them, because the Führer had assured them of the complete collapse of Russia at an early stage of the war. His intelligence reports, he told them, came from very reliable sources.

Hitler demands attack

The generals decided the only thing to do was to retire to fortified lined and wage a defensive war. Then Hitler appeared at the meeting. This was strange, for the generals had kept the gathering secret. The Führer made it clear he wanted no part of a plan to retreat. On the contrary, he demanded the generals attacks at any cost.

The generals decided to meet again Dec. 9, 1941. This time the Führer did not appear. Present were, among others, the Commander-in-Chief Gen. von Brauchitsch and Gens. von Rundstedt, von Bock, von Leeb, von Kleist and von Reichenau.

They were pessimistic, for they knew that when the extreme winter cold hit an unprepared German Army, losses in men and material would be terrific. Brauchitsch no longer wanted the responsibility. He announced he would resign. Those present pledged themselves that, if offered his post, they would decline it.

Führer takes command

A few weeks later, a surprised world learned that Hitler had taken over the command on the Eastern Front himself and would win the war by his superior “intuition.” Many observers believed this was another victory for Hitler over the generals. The truth was that he had not found any prominent general willing to take over.

The Nazis did not take this rebuke lying down. Heinrich Himmler, chief of the Intelligence Service of the Nazi Party, had known for some time that the generals were planning passive resistance. In fact, it was he who tipped off Hitler to their meeting of Oct. 15, 1941. He decided to act now.

One of the generals, Reichenau, had been closer to the party than the others’ indeed, closer than the generals liked. Himmler now approached Reichenau with the demand that he take over the command, and also that he give Himmler’s own men, the Elite Corps and the SS, a more prominent role in the German Army.

Reichenau dies suddenly

For once, Reichenau refused. On Jan. 16, 1942, he died suddenly. Officially, it was termed apoplexy, although he was a man known for his virility and health. While the precise cause of his death has never been established, it is known that three of Himmler’s aides visited him Jan. 16, and that Reichenau was dead when they left.

The generals were alarmed by such drastic action. Again they met, this time March 10, 1942, in the Army Ministry in Berlin, to decide what steps to take. Their object was twofold. They wanted to protect themselves against the Nazis, and to find a way to saving as much as possible of the Army from disaster.

They knew that the victorious Allies would never deal with the Nazis. If they wanted to deal with the Allied, they would have to dissociate themselves as much as possible from Hitler. That was their only chance of surviving defeat and of rebuilding the army, as they had done after the defeat of 1918.

Friction during truce

After this meeting, the first emissaries of the generals went to neutral countries, particularly to Sweden and Spain, to seek contact with the Allies.

It can be assumed that Himmler and his Gestapo intelligence knew all this. But for almost a year, truce reigned between the Nazi Party and the generals. The war was going badly for Hitler and he could not dispense with the services of experienced military leaders. On the other hand, there was almost daily friction between the generals and the high officers of the SS. The old-time generals did not believe the SS men were good soldiers, and failed to hide their contempt for them and their leaders.

Himmler resented the generals’ arrogance and even more their habit of putting the SS in particularly dangerous spots where great numbers of them were killed. After all, the black-uniformed Elite Guards represented the entire military strength of the party – aside from the Luftwaffe.

Split in ranks

Also during this year, the split in the ranks of the generals became more visible. Hitler had promoted to high rank a number of officers on whim he could depend, among them Field Marshal Rommel and Gens. Jodl and Dietl. The old-time generals did not think much of this trio, particularly disliking Rommel and missing no opportunity to let this be known. On the other hand, Dr. Goebbels missed no opportunity of playing up the achievements of Rommel and the commanders friendly to Hitler, while the other side got almost no publicity.

Early in 1943, after the German defeat at Stalingrad, Hitler once more was at the mercy of his generals. He had a nervous breakdown and could no longer give orders, let alone lead a retreat. Gen. von Manstein took over and saved what could be saved, under the humiliating condition that Hitler should not interfere.

Himmler’s hands tied

A number of generals who had retired, among them Gen. Halder, Beck’s successor as chief of the General Staff, and the former Commander-in-Chief, von Brauchitsch, assisted Manstein – who, in spite of Goebbels, became popular in Germany as “the man who achieved the miracle of the Donets.”

So, Himmler’s hands were bound, no matter how dangerous he considered the generals. He could not eliminate them without risking complete chaos in Germany.

NEXT: Who attempted Hitler’s assassination?

The Pittsburgh Press (August 4, 1944)


Hitler bombing a frameup designed to lead to purge

In his last of three articles, author Curt Riess today tells why he, a former Berlin editor, believes the high German Army officers are not guilty of the recent attempt on Hitler’s life.

Hitler and his most trusted officer, Heinrich Himmler, lied when they stated shortly after the bomb assault that they had just discovered the existence of a conspiracy of high officers against the Führer.

They have known of the opposition of these officers ever since Hitler took power in 1933, and of active conspiracies against him ever since things began to go badly on the Russian front in October 1941.

However, the hands of the Nazi leaders were tied because they needed the generals, particularly after the catastrophe of Stalingrad. Only the great experience of the military leaders could possibly avoid a complete collapse of Germany’s Eastern Front at that time. In the fall of 1943, it seemed as if Himmler had decided to collaborate with the generals, not only during the war but also as far as the execution of the Nazi post-war plans was concerned.

Double-cross begins

There was a meeting Sept. 10, 1943, at the estate of Prince Pückler, near Cottbus, about 50 miles from Berlin, in which Field Marshal von Rundstedt, von Kleist, von Manstein, von Brauchitsch and von Kluge met with Himmler and Martin Bormann, the latter successor of Rudolf Hess as Deputy Leader of the Nazi Party.

During this meeting, they discussed ways and means of saving part of the army as well as of the Nazi Party machinery, after the final defeat and after an Allied occupation of Germany. At that meeting, it looked as if the party and generals saw eye to eye on decisive issues.

But each side immediately began to double-cross the other. The generals, who knew better than anyone else that final collapse was approaching rapidly, decided to carry through their original idea of dissociating themselves from Hitler. Field Marshal von Rundstedt began once more with the retired Gen. Ludwig Beck to work out plans for getting rid of Hitler. Rundstedt, who was Commander-in-Chief of all armies in the West, was willing to play the role of Darlan or Badoglio after the Allied landings in France.

Nazis know at last

On the other side stood Himmler and his most trusted helpers, SS Gens. Werner Heissmeyer and Fritz Kaltenbrunner, the latter director of the Gestapo and successor to Reinhard Heydrich. The Nazis by now had no illusions about the outcome of the war. They knew the Germany could not win, and that the Party would eventually have to go underground. But this also meant that the Party now could get rid of the generals.

There was not much time to lose, since the generals were preparing to get rid of Hitler and the entire crowd of Nazi officials. Only a few of the generals could still be depended upon by the Nazis. One was Rommel; another one Günther von Kluge; still another the man who first had introduced mechanized warfare, Col. Gen. Heinz Guderian; and Gens. Alfred Jodl, Karl Warlimont, and Col. Gen. Eduard Dietl.

Sabotage in Dietl death

On June 23, 1944, Dietl, who was needed more than ever to defend the Finnish positions, was killed in a crash. The intelligence department of the Gestapo investigated and found evidence of sabotage.

The next thing the world knew was that an assault had been made on Hitler’s life. First it was said the bomb had been ordered by “Moscow Jews,” and imported from England. Then the Führer himself blamed a small clique to high-ranking German officers.

The world will have to wait until the final defeat of the Nazis before the real story of this assault can be established beyond doubt. However, from what is known so far, the following can be assumed:

More than likely, high-ranking German officers, opposed as they are to Hitler, had nothing to do with the bomb assault. Psychologically, it would be nearly impossible. German generals, no matter how brutal and merciless they are, do not plant bombs. They don’t need to. It would have been too simple for one of them, while talking to Hitler, to take out a revolver and shoot him.

On the other hand, it is extremely likely that the bomb assault never took place in the way described, and that it was a prearranged affair – prearranged by Himmler. For Himmler needed an excuse to strike at the generals. Nazi history knows of more than one such prearranged affair. The Reichstag fire served the Nazis in getting rid of the Communists and thus attaining the majority in the Reichstag. The faked plan of revolt allegedly planned by Röhm was the cue for the blood purge of 1934.

There are many indications that the purge of the generals going on now was planned for a long time. Field Marshal von Rundstedt, for instance, was not relieved of his command after the bomb assault, but before. The retired Gen. Beck, the first victim of the purge, was killed less than 10 hours after the assault. Within a short time, even the Gestapo could not have discovered threads leading to Beck, who had been out of the Army almost six years.

Action all planned

Further, Himmler’s advancement to the post of supreme commander of the German hinterland, as well as of the German Army – which is what he is now, to all practical purposes – had been planned and prepared for at least six months. Last March, it was decreed that his picture should be hung next to the Führer’s in all German schools. There are more details which prove the Nazis did not have to “discover” a plot in order to act the way they are now acting. For example, the decree that from now on all members of the armed forces, including highest officers, use the Hitler salute – a change unimportant in itself, but which could not have been spread over the armed forces within 24 hours without ample preparation.

In short, Hitler and Himmler planned to get rid of the generals for a long time. They acted before the generals could act, and have done away with all those who might become dangerous to them and the Party.

Back to wall fight

Now they will try to prolong the war as long as possible, since the end of the war means their death. They will make war with all the brutality and cruelty of which only Nazis are capable, uninhibited and undisturbed by any qualms which the old-fashioned generals might have had.

They will make true their promise to leave the stage of contemporary history slamming the door so hard that the centuries to come will remember it well.

accurate in some places, and inaccurate in others.

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