Biographies & Memoirs


Ceaseless Radicalization


To shrewd observers, it was clear: Hitler’s Rhineland coup had been the catalyst to a major power-shift in Europe; Germany’s ascendancy was an unpredictable and highly destabilizing element in the international order; the odds against a new European war in the foreseeable future had markedly shortened.

To the German public, Hitler once more professed himself a man of peace, cleverly insinuating who was to blame for the gathering storm-clouds of war. Speaking to a vast audience in the Berlin Lustgarten (a huge square in the city centre) on 1 May – once an international day of celebration of labouring people, now redubbed the ‘National Day of Celebration of the German People’ – he posed the rhetorical question: ‘I ask myself,’ he declared, ‘who are then these elements who wish to have no rest, no peace, and no understanding, who must continually agitate and sow mistrust? Who are they actually?’ Immediately picking up the implication, the crowd bayed: ‘The Jews.’ Hitler began again: ‘I know …’ and was interrupted by cheering that lasted for several minutes. When at last he was able to continue, he picked up his sentence, though – the desired effect achieved – now in quite different vein: ‘I know it is not the millions who would have to take up weapons if the intentions of these agitators were to succeed. Those are not the ones …’

The summer of 1936 was, however, as Hitler knew only too well, no time to stir up a new antisemitic campaign. In August, the Olympic Games were due to be staged in Berlin. Sport would be turned into a vehicle of nationalist politics and propaganda as never before. Nazi aesthetics of power would never have a wider audience. With the eyes of the world on Berlin, it was an opportunity not to be missed to present the new Germany’s best face to its hundreds of thousands of visitors from across the globe. No expense or effort had been spared in this cause. The positive image could not be endangered by putting the ‘dark’ side of the regime on view. Open anti-Jewish violence, such as had punctuated the previous summer, could not be permitted. With some difficulties, antisemitism was kept under wraps. The antisemitic zealots in the party had temporarily to be reined in. Other objectives were for the time being more important. Hitler could afford to bide his time in dealing with the Jews.

The Olympics were an enormous propaganda success for the Nazi regime. Hitler’s Germany was open to viewing for visitors from all over the world. Most of them went away mightily impressed. Away from the glamour of the Olympic Games and out of the public eye, the contrast with the external image of peaceful goodwill was sharp. By this time, the self-induced crisis in the German economy arising from the inability to provide both for guns and butter – to sustain supplies of raw materials both for armaments and for consumption – was reaching its watershed. A decision on the economic direction the country would take could not be deferred much longer.


Already by spring 1936, it had become clear that it was no longer possible to reconcile the demands of rapid rearmament and growing domestic consumption. Supplies of raw materials for the armaments industry were sufficient for only two months. Fuel supplies for the armed forces were in a particularly critical state. Economics Minister Hjalmar Schacht was by now thoroughly alarmed at the accelerating tempo of rearmament and its inevitably damaging consequences for the economy. Only a sharp reduction in living standards (impossible without endangering the regime’s stability) or a big increase in exports (equally impossible given the regime’s priorities, exchange rate difficulties, and the condition of external markets) could in his view provide for an expanding armaments industry. He was adamant, therefore, that it was time to put the brakes on rearmament.

The military had other ideas. The leaders of the armed forces, uninterested in the niceties of economics but fully taken up by the potential of modern advanced weaponry, pressed unabatedly for rapid and massive acceleration of the armaments programme. The army leaders were not acting in response to pressure from Hitler. They had their own agenda. They were at the same time ‘working towards the Führer’, consciously or unconsciously acting ‘along his lines and towards his aim’ in the full knowledge that their rearmament ambitions wholly coincided with his political aims, and that they could depend upon his backing against attempts to throttle back on armament expenditure. Reich War Minister Werner von Blomberg, Colonel-General Werner Freiherr von Fritsch, Commander-in-Chief of the Army, and General Ludwig Beck, Chief of the Army General Staff, were thereby paving the way, in providing the necessary armed might, for the later expansionism which would leave them all trailing in Hitler’s wake.

Even so, the economic impasse seemed complete. Huge increases in allocation of scarce foreign currency were demanded by both the Ministry of Food and the Ministry of Armaments. The position could not be sustained. Fundamental economic priorities had to be established as a matter of urgency. Autarky and export lobbies could not both be satisfied. Hitler remained for months inactive. He had no patent solution to the problem. The key figure at this point was Göring.

Hoping to keep the party off his back, Schacht helped persuade Hitler to install Göring at the beginning of April as Plenipotentiary for the Securing of the Raw Materials and Foreign Exchange Demands of the Reich. Göring’s brief was to overcome the crisis, get rearmament moving again, and force through a policy of autarky in fuel production. But by now Göring was in the driving-seat. Schacht was rapidly becoming yesterday’s man. In May, shocked at the new power-base that his own machiavellian manoeuvrings had unwittingly helped to create for Göring, the Economics Minister protested to Hitler. Hitler waved him away. He did not want anything more to do with the matter, he was reported as telling Schacht, and the Economics Minister was advised to take it up with Göring himself. ‘It won’t go well with Schacht for much longer,’ commented Goebbels. ‘He doesn’t belong in his heart to us.’ But Göring, too, he thought would have difficulties with the foreign-exchange and raw-materials issue, pointing out: ‘He doesn’t understand too much about it.’

It was not necessary that he did. His role was to throw around his considerable weight, force the pace, bring a sense of urgency into play, make things happen. ‘He brings the energy. Whether he has the economic know-how and experience as well? Who knows? Anyway, he’ll do plenty of bragging,’ was Goebbels’s assessment.

Göring soon had a team of technical experts assembled under Lieutenant-Colonel Fritz Löb of the Luftwaffe. In the research department of Löb’s planning team, run by the chemical firm IG-Farben’s director Karl Krauch, solutions were rapidly advanced for maximizing production of synthetic fuels and rapidly attaining self-sufficiency in mineral-oil extraction. By midsummer, Löb’s planners had come up with a detailed programme for overcoming the unabated crisis. It envisaged a sharp tilt to a more directed economy with distinct priorities built on an all-out drive both to secure the armaments programme and to improve food provisioning through maximum attainable autarky in specific fields and production of substitute raw materials such as synthetic fuels, rubber, and industrial fats. It was not a war economy; but it was the nearest thing to a war economy in peacetime.

At the end of July, while Hitler was in Bayreuth and Berchtesgaden, Göring had a number of opportunities to discuss with him his plans for the economy. On 30 July he obtained Hitler’s agreement to present them with a splash at the coming Reich Party Rally in September.

Hitler had meanwhile become increasingly preoccupied with the looming threat, as he saw it, from Bolshevism, and with the prospect that the mounting international turmoil could lead to war in the nearer rather than more distant future. Whatever tactical opportunism he deployed, and however much he played on the theme for propaganda purposes, there is no doubt that the coming showdown with Bolshevism remained – as it had been since the mid-1920s at the latest – the lodestar of Hitler’s thinking on foreign policy. In 1936, this future titanic struggle started to come into sharper focus.

After meeting the Japanese ambassador in Berlin early in June, Hitler repeated his view that deepening conflict was on the way in the Far East, though he now thought that Japan would ‘thrash’ Russia. At that point, ‘this colossus will start to totter. And then our great hour will have arrived. Then we must supply ourselves with land for 100 years,’ he told Goebbels. ‘Let’s hope we’re ready then,’ the Propaganda Minister added in his diary notes, ‘and that the Führer is still alive. So that action will be taken.’

By this time, events in Spain were also focusing Hitler’s attention on the threat of Bolshevism. Until then, he had scarcely given a thought to Spain. But on the evening of 25 July, his decision – against the advice of the Foreign Office – to send aid to General Franco committed Germany to involvement in what was rapidly to turn into the Spanish Civil War.

On 17 July army garrisons in Spanish Morocco rose against the elected government. The Commander-in-Chief of the army in Morocco, General Francisco Franco, put himself next morning at the head of the rebellion. But a mutiny of sailors loyal to the Republic denied him the transport facilities he needed to get his army to the mainland, most of which remained in Republican hands. The few planes he was able to lay hands upon did not amount to much in terms of an airlift. In these unpropitious circumstances, Franco turned to Mussolini and Hitler. It took over a week to overcome Mussolini’s initial refusal to help the Spanish rebels. Hitler was persuaded within a matter of hours. Ideological and strategic considerations – the likelihood of Bolshevism triumphing on the Iberian peninsula – were uppermost in his mind. But the potential for gaining access to urgently needed raw materials for the rearmament programme – an aspect emphasized by Göring – also appears to have played its part in the decision.

In contrast to the position of the Foreign Ministry, Hitler had convinced himself that the dangers of being sandwiched between two Bolshevik blocs outweighed the risks of German involvement in the Spanish crisis – even if, as seemed likely, it should turn into fully-blown and protracted civil war. War against the Soviet Union – the struggle for Germany’s ‘living space’ – was, in his view, at some point inevitable. The prospect of a Bolshevik Spain was a dangerous complication. He decided to provide Franco with the aid requested. It was an indication both of Hitler’s own greatly increased self-confidence and of the weakened position of those who had advised him on international affairs that he took the decision alone. Possibly, knowing the reluctance of the Foreign Office to become involved, and aware that Göring, for all his interest in possible economic gains, shared some of its reservations, Hitler was keen to present doubters with a fait accompli.

Only after Hitler had taken the decision were Göring and Blomberg summoned. Göring, despite his hopes of economic gains from intervention, was initially ‘horrified’ about the risk of international complications through intervention in Spain. But faced with Hitler’s usual intransigence, once he had arrived at a decision, Göring was soon won over. Blomberg, his influence – not least after his nervousness over the Rhineland affair – now waning compared with the powerful position he had once held, went along without objection. Ribbentrop, too, when he was told on arrival in Bayreuth that Hitler intended to support Franco, initially warned against involvement in Spain. But Hitler was adamant. He had already ordered aircraft to be put at Franco’s disposal. The crucial consideration was ideological: ‘If Spain really goes communist, France in her present situation will also be bolshevized in due course, and then Germany is finished. Wedged between the powerful Soviet bloc in the East and a strong communist Franco-Spanish bloc in the West, we could do hardly anything if Moscow chose to attack us.’ Hitler brushed aside Ribbentrop’s weak objections – fresh complications with Britain, and the strength of the French bourgeoisie in holding out against Bolshevism – and simply ended the conversation by stating that he had already made his decision.

Despite the warnings he had received that Germany could be sucked into a military quagmire, and however strongly ideological considerations weighed with him, Hitler probably intervened only on the assumption that German aid would tip the balance quickly and decisively in Franco’s favour. Short-term gains, not long-term involvement, were the premiss of Hitler’s impulsive decision. Significant military and economic involvement in Spain began only in October.

The ideological impetus behind Hitler’s readiness to involve Germany in the Spanish maelstrom – his intensified preoccupation with the threat of Bolshevism – was not a cover for the economic considerations that weighed so heavily with Göring. This is borne out by his private as well as his public utterances. Publicly, as he had told Goebbels the previous day would be the case, in his opening proclamation to the Reich Party Rally in Nuremberg on 9 September, he announced that the ‘greatest world danger’ of which he had warned for so long – the ‘revolutionizing of the continent’ through the work of ‘Bolshevik wire-pullers’ run by ‘an international Jewish revolutionary headquarters in Moscow’ – was becoming reality. Germany’s military rebuilding had been undertaken precisely to prevent what was turning Spain into ruins from taking place in Germany. Out of the public eye, his sentiments were hardly different when he addressed the cabinet for three hours on the foreign-policy situation at the beginning of December. He concentrated on the danger of Bolshevism. Europe was divided into two camps. There was no more going back. He described the tactics of the ‘Reds’. Spain had become the decisive issue. France, ruled by Prime Minister Léon Blum – seen as an ‘agent of the Soviets’, a ‘Zionist and world-destroyer’ – would be the next victim. The victor in Spain would gain great prestige. The consequences for the rest of Europe, and in particular for Germany and for the remnants of Communism in the country, were major ones. This was the reason, he went on, for German aid in armaments to Spain. ‘Germany can only wish that the crisis is deferred until we are ready,’ he declared. ‘When it comes, seize the opportunity. Get into the paternoster lift at the right time. But also get out again at the right time. Rearm. Money can play no role.’ Only two weeks or so earlier, Goebbels had recorded in his diary: ‘After dinner I talked thoroughly with the Führer alone. He is very content with the situation. Rearmament is proceeding. ‘We’re sticking in fabulous sums. In 1938 we’ll be completely ready. The showdown with Bolshevism is coming. Then we want to be prepared. The army is now completely won over by us. Führer untouchable … Dominance in Europe for us is as good as certain. Just let no chance pass by. Therefore rearm.’


The announcement of the Four-Year Plan at the Nuremberg Party Rally in September had by then pushed rearmament policy on to a new plane. Priorities had been established. They meant in practice that balancing consumer and rearmament spending could only be sustained for a limited period of time through a crash programme which maximized autarkic potential to prepare Germany as rapidly as possible for the confrontation which Hitler deemed inevitable and other leading figures in the regime thought probable, if not highly likely, within the following few years. Through the introduction of the Four-Year Plan, Germany was economically pushed in the direction of expansion and war. Economics and ideology were by now thoroughly interwoven. Even so, the decision to move to the Four-Year Plan was ultimately an ideological one. Economic options were still open – even if the policies of the previous three years meant they had already narrowed sharply. Schacht, Goerdeler, and others, backed by important sectors of industry, favoured a retreat from an armaments-led economy to a re-entry into international markets. Against this, the powerful IG-Farben lobby, linked to the Luftwaffe, pressed for maximizing production of synthetic fuels. The stalemate persisted throughout the summer. The economic crisis which had dogged Germany during the previous winter and spring was unresolved. With no end to the dispute in sight, Hitler was pressed in late August to take sides. The preoccupation with Bolshevism, which had weighed heavily with him throughout the summer, was decisive in his own inimitable approach to Germany’s economic problems.

The driving-force behind the creation of what came to be known as the Four-Year Plan was not, however, Hitler but Göring. Following their discussions in Berchtesgaden and Bayreuth in July, Hitler had requested reports from Göring on the economic situation, and how the problems were to be overcome. At the beginning of August Göring had in turn demanded memoranda from different branches of the economy to be sent to him as rapidly as possible. The timing was determined by propaganda considerations, not economic criteria: the proximity of the Reich Party Rally in early September was what counted. The complex reports could not be put together as swiftly as Göring had wanted. By the time he travelled to Berchtesgaden at the beginning of the last week in August, he had only a survey from his Raw Materials and Currency staff about the possibilities of synthetic raw-material production within Germany to hand. He had meanwhile been encountering powerful opposition to his economic plans from Schacht, who was voicing feelings in some important sectors of business and industry. Carl Goerdeler, too, Lord Mayor of Leipzig, who had served Hitler as Reich Price Commissioner and would eventually become a leading opponent of the regime, joined in the criticism towards the end of the month. It was in these circumstances that Hitler was persuaded during the last week of August to dictate a lengthy memorandum on the future direction of the economy – one of the extremely rare occasions in the Third Reich (leaving aside formal laws, decrees, and directives) that he put forward his views in writing.

The memorandum fell into two parts. The first, on ‘the political situation’, was pure Hitler. It was couched exclusively in ideological terms. The ‘reasoning’ was, as it had been in Mein Kampf and the Second Book, social-Darwinist and racially determinist. ‘Politics are the conduct and course of the historical struggle for life of peoples,’ he began. ‘The aim of these struggles is the assertion of existence.’ The world was moving towards a new conflict, centred upon Bolshevism, ‘whose essence and aim … is solely the elimination of those strata of mankind which have hitherto provided the leadership and their replacement by world-wide Jewry.’ Germany would be the focus of the inevitable showdown with Bolshevism. ‘It is not the aim of this memorandum to prophesy the time when the untenable situation in Europe will become an open crisis. I only want, in these lines, to set down my conviction that this crisis cannot and will not fail to arrive,’ he asserted. ‘A victory of Bolshevism over Germany would lead not to a Versailles Treaty but to the final destruction, indeed to the annihilation, of the German people … In face of the necessity of defence against this danger, all other considerations must recede into the background as being completely irrelevant.’

The second part of the memorandum, dealing with ‘Germany’s economic situation’, and offering a ‘programme for a final solution of our vital need’, bore unmistakable signs of Göring’s influence, resting in turn on the raw material programmes drawn up by his planning staff, with significant input by IG Farben. The resemblance to statements on the economy put forward by Göring earlier in the summer suggests that Hitler either had such statements before him when compiling his memorandum, or that his Raw Materials Commissar worked alongside him in preparing the memorandum. The tone was nonetheless classically Hitlerian – down to the threat of a law ‘making the whole of Jewry liable for all damage inflicted by individual specimens of this community of criminals upon the German economy’, a threat put into practice some two years later.

A temporary solution to the economic problems was to be found in partial autarky. Maximizing domestic production wherever possible would allow for the necessary food imports, which could not be at the cost of rearmament. Fuel, iron, and synthetic-rubber production had to be stepped up. Cost was irrelevant. Objections – and the opposition voiced in the previous weeks – were taken on board and brushed aside. The nation did not live for the economy; rather, ‘finance and the economy, economic leaders and theories must all exclusively serve this struggle for self-assertion in which our people are engaged’. The Ministry of Economics had simply to set the national economic tasks; private industry had to fulfil them. If it could not do so, the National Socialist state, Hitler threatened, would ‘succeed in carrying out this task on its own’. Though Germany’s economic problems, the memorandum asserted, could be temporarily eased through the measures laid down, they could only finally be solved through the extension of ‘living space’. It was ‘the task of the political leadership one day to solve this problem’. The memorandum closed by advocating a ‘Several Years Plan’ – the term ‘Four-Year Plan’was not mentioned in the document – to maximize self-sufficiency in existing conditions and make it possible to demand economic sacrifices of the German people. In the next four years, the German army had to be made operational, the economy made ready for war.

Hitler’s way of argumentation was characteristic. The inflexibility of its ideological premisses coupled with the very broadness of its dogmatic generalities made it impossible for critics to contest it outright without rejection of Hitler himself and his ‘world-view’. This ‘world-view’, whatever tactical adjustments had proved necessary, showed again its inner consistency in the central place assigned to the coming showdown with Bolshevism – an issue which, as we have seen, preoccupied Hitler throughout 1936.

Göring got what he wanted out of Hitler’s memorandum. Armed with Hitler’s backing, he was able to determine his supremacy in the central arena of the armaments economy. Schacht recognized the scale of the defeat he had suffered. Hitler was reluctant to drop him because of the standing he enjoyed abroad. But his star was now waning fast. Alternative policies to that advanced in Hitler’s memorandum could now be condemned out of hand.

Hitler – in so far as he had given any consideration at all to organizational matters – had, it appears, simply imagined that Göring would work through only a small bureaucracy and function as an overlord in coordinating economic policy with the relevant ministries, which would retain their specific responsibilities. Instead, Göring rapidly improvised a panoply of ‘special commissioners’, backed by their own bureaucratic apparatus, for different facets of the Four-Year Plan, often without clear lines of control, not infrequently overlapping or interfering with the duties of the Ministry of Economics, and all of course answerable to Göring himself. It was a recipe for administrative and economic anarchy.

But the momentum created by the Four-Year Plan was immense. All areas of the economy were affected in the following peacetime years. The resulting pressures on the economy as a whole were not sustainable indefinitely. The economic drive created its own dynamic which fed directly into Hitler’s ideological imperative. The ambitious technocrats in the offices and sub-organizations of the Four-Year Plan, not least the leaders of the rapidly expanding chemicals giant IG-Farben, were in their own way – whatever their direct motivation – also ‘working towards the Führer’. Territorial expansion became necessary for economic as well as for ideological reasons. And racial policy, too, was pushed on to a new plane as the spoils to be gained from a programme of ‘aryanization’ were eagerly seized upon as easy pickings in an economy starting to overheat under its own, self-manufactured pressures.

When Hitler drew up his memorandum in late August 1936 all this was in the future. He had no clear notion himself of how it would all unfold. Nor was he specially interested in such questions. Propaganda concerned him more immediately than economics in drawing up the memorandum. He needed the new economic programme as the cornerstone of the Party Rally. His big speech there on the economy was closely based, occasionally word for word, on his August memorandum. He now spoke publicly for the first time of a ‘new Four-Year Programme’ (recalling his initial ‘four-year plan’ put forward immediately after his appointment as Chancellor in 1933). The designation ‘Four-Year Plan’ rapidly caught on in the German press. It became officially so called some weeks later, on 18 October, with Hitler’s ‘Decree for the Implementation of the Four-Year Plan’.


In the foreign-policy arena, the shifts which had begun during the Abyssinian crisis were hardening across the summer and autumn of 1936. Clearer contours were beginning to emerge. Diplomatic, strategic, economic, and ideological considerations – separable but often closely interwoven – were starting to take Germany into more dangerous, uncharted waters. The possibility of a new European conflagration – however unimaginable and horrifying the prospect seemed to most of the generation that had lived through the last one – increasingly appeared a real one.

The long-desired alliance with Britain, which had seemed a real possibility in June 1935 at the signing of the Naval Pact, had remained elusive. It was still a distant dream. The Abyssinian crisis and the reoccupation of the Rhineland, now the Spanish Civil War, had all provided hurdles to a closer relationship despite German efforts to court those they imagined had power and influence in Britain and some British sympathizers in high places. Ribbentrop, appointed in the summer an unwilling Ambassador to London with a mandate from Hitler to bring Britain into an anti-Comintern pact, had since his triumph with the Naval Agreement become increasingly disillusioned about the prospects of a British alliance. Hitler saw the abdication on 11 December 1936 of King Edward VIII, in the face of opposition in Britain to his proposed marriage to a twice-divorced American, Mrs Wallis Simpson, as a victory for those forces hostile to Germany. Ribbentrop had encouraged him in the view that the King was pro-German and anti-Jewish, and that he had been deposed by an anti-German conspiracy linked to Jews, freemasons, and powerful political lobbies. By the end of the year, Hitler had become more lukewarm about a British alliance. Germany, he concluded, had its interests better served by close ties with Italy.

The rapprochement with Italy – slow and tenuous in the first half of 1936 – had by then come to harden into a new alliance of the two fascist-style militaristic dictatorships dominating central and southern Europe. The Abyssinian crisis, as we noted, had turned Italy towards Germany. The repercussions on Austria were not long in the waiting. Deprived de facto of its Italian protector, Austria was swept inevitably further into the German slipstream. Encouraged by the Italians as well as put under pressure by the Germans, Austria was ready by 11 July 1936 to sign a wide-ranging agreement with Germany, improving relations, ending restrictions placed upon the German press, and upon economic and cultural activities within Austria. Though recognizing Austrian independence, the agreement in reality turned the Reich’s eastern neighbour into an economic and foreign-policy dependency. It was a development which by this time suited both Germany and Italy. And within weeks, the aid provided by the two dictatorships to the nationalist rebels in Spain, and the rapidly deepening commitment to the Spanish Civil War, brought Italy and Germany still closer together.

The diplomatic benefits from closer ties with Italy were reinforced in Hitler’s own eyes by the anti-Bolshevik credentials of Mussolini’s regime. In September, he made overtures to Mussolini through his envoy Hans Frank, inviting the Duce to visit Berlin the following year – an invitation readily accepted. There was agreement on a common struggle against Communism, rapid recognition of a Franco government in Spain,

German recognition of the annexation of Abyssinia, and Italian ‘satisfaction’ at the Austro-German agreement.

Hitler was in effusive mood when he welcomed Mussolini’s son-in-law, the vain Count Ciano, to Berchtesgaden on 24 October. He described Mussolini as ‘the leading statesman in the world, to whom none may even remotely compare himself ’. There was no clash of interests between Italy and Germany, he declared. The Mediterranean was ‘an Italian sea’. Germany had to have freedom of action towards the East and the Baltic. He was convinced, he said, that England would attack Italy, Germany, or both, given the opportunity and likely chances of success. A common anti-Bolshevik front, including powers in the East, the Far East, and South America, would however act as a deterrent, and probably even prompt Britain to seek an agreement. If Britain continued its offensive policy, seeking time to rearm, Germany and Italy had the advantage both in material and psychological rearmament, he enthused. In three years, Germany would be ready, in four years more than ready; five years would be better still.

In a speech in the cathedral square in Milan a week later, Mussolini spoke of the line between Berlin and Rome as ‘an axis round which all those European States which are animated by a desire for collaboration and peace can revolve’. A new term was coined: ‘Axis’ – whether in a positive or negative sense – caught the imagination. In Italian and German propaganda, it evoked the might and strength of two countries with kindred philosophies joining forces against common enemies. For the western democracies, it raised the spectre of the combined threat to European peace by two expansionist powers under the leadership of dangerous dictators.

The menacing image became global when, within weeks of the formation of the Axis, Hitler entered a further pact with the one power outside Italy he had singled out in his August memorandum as standing firm against Bolshevism: Japan. The driving force behind the pact, from the German side, had from the beginning been Ribbentrop, operating with Hitler’s encouragement. The professionals from the German Foreign Office, far more interested in relations with China, found themselves largely excluded, as ‘amateurs’ from the Dienststelle Ribbentrop (Ribbentrop Bureau) – the agency for foreign affairs founded in 1934, by now with around 160 persons working for it, upon which Hitler was placing increasing reliance – made the running.

The Japanese military leaders saw in a rapprochement with Berlin the chance to weaken German links with China and gain a potential ally against the Soviet Union. On 27 November 1936 Hitler approved what became known as the Anti-Comintern Pact (which Italy joined a year later), under whose main provision – in a secret protocol – neither party would assist the Soviet Union in any way in the event of it attacking either Germany or Japan. The pact was more important for its symbolism than for its actual provisions: the two most militaristic, expansionist powers in the world had found their way to each other. Though the pact was ostensibly defensive, it had hardly enhanced the prospects for peace on either side of the globe.

In his Reichstag speech on 30 January 1937, celebrating the fourth anniversary of his takeover of power, Hitler announced that ‘the time of the so-called surprises’ was over. Germany wished ‘from now on in loyal fashion’ as an equal partner to work with other nations to overcome the problems besetting Europe. This pronouncement was soon to prove even more cynical than it had appeared at the time. That further ‘surprises’ were inevitable – and not long postponed – was not solely owing to Hitler’s temperament and psychology. The forces unleashed in four years of Nazi rule – internal and external – were producing their own dynamic. Those in so many different ways who were ‘working towards the Führer’ were ensuring, directly or indirectly, that Hitler’s own ideological obsessions served as the broad guidelines of policy initiatives. The restlessness – and recklessness – ingrained in Hitler’s personality reflected the pressures for action emanating in different ways from the varied components of the regime, loosely held together by aims of national assertiveness and racial purity embodied in the figure of the Leader. Internationally, the fragility and chronic instability of the post-war order had been brutally exposed. Within Germany, the chimeric quest for racial purity, backed by a leadership for which this was a central tenet of belief, could, if circumstances demanded, be contained temporarily, but would inevitably soon reassert itself to turn the screw of discrimination ever tighter. The Nazi regime could not stand still. As Hitler himself was to comment before the end of the year, the alternative to expansion – and to the restless energy which was the regime’s lifeblood – was what he called ‘sterility’, bringing in its wake, after a while, ‘tensions of a social kind’, while failure to act in the near future could bring internal crisis and a ‘weakening point of the regime’. The bold forward move, Hitler’s trademark, was intrinsic to Nazism itself.


To most observers, both internal and external, after four years in power the Hitler regime looked stable, strong, and successful. Hitler’s own position was untouchable. The image of the great statesman and national leader of genius manufactured by propaganda matched the sentiments and expectations of much of the population. The internal rebuilding of the country and the national triumphs in foreign policy, all attributed to his ‘genius’, had made him the most popular political leader of any nation in Europe. Most ordinary Germans – like most ordinary people anywhere and at most times – looked forward to peace and prosperity. Hitler appeared to have established the basis for these. He had restored authority to government. Law and order had been re-established. Few were concerned if civil liberties had been destroyed in the process. There was work again. The economy was booming. What a contrast this was to the mass unemployment and economic failure of Weimar democracy. Of course, there was still much to do. And many grievances remained. Not least, the conflict with the Churches was the source of great bitterness. But Hitler was largely exempted from blame. The negative features of daily life, most imagined, were not of the Führer’s making. They were the fault of his underlings, who frequently kept him in the dark about what was happening.

Above all, even critics had to admit, Hitler had restored German national pride. From its post-war humiliation, Germany had risen to become once more a major power. Defence through strength had proved a successful strategy. He had taken risks. There had been great fear that these would lead to renewed war. But each time he had been proved right. And Germany’s position had been inordinately strengthened as a consequence. Even so, there was widespread relief at the indication, in Hitler’s speech of 30 January 1937, that the period of ‘surprises’ was over. Hitler’s comment was seized upon throughout the land as a sign that consolidation and stability would now be the priorities. The illusion would not last long. The year 1937 was to prove the calm before the storm.

Not only ordinary people were taken in by Hitler. Even for those within Germany known to be critical of the regime, Hitler could in a face-to-face meeting create a positive impression. He was good at attuning to the sensitivities of his conversation partner, could be charming, and often appeared reasonable and accommodating. As always, he was a skilled dissembler. On a one-to-one basis, he could pull the wool over the eyes even of hardened critics. After a three-hour meeting with him at the Berghof in early November 1936, the influential Catholic Archbishop of Munich-Freising, Cardinal Faulhaber – a man of sharp acumen, who had often courageously criticized the Nazi attacks on the Catholic Church – went away convinced that Hitler was deeply religious. ‘The Reich Chancellor undoubtedly lives in belief in God,’ he noted in a confidential report. ‘He recognizes Christianity as the builder of western culture.’

Few, even of those who were daily in his company – the regular entourage of adjutants and secretaries – and those with frequent, privileged access, could claim to ‘know’ Hitler, to get close to the human being inside the shell of the Führer figure. Hitler himself was keen to maintain the distance. ‘The masses need an idol,’ he was later to say. He played the role not just to the masses, but even to his closest entourage. Despite the torrents of words he poured out in public, and the lengthy monologues he inflicted upon those in his circle, he was by temperament a very private, even secretive, individual. A deeply ingrained sense of distrust and cynicism meant he was unwilling and unable to confide in others. Behind the public figure known to millions, the personality was a closed one. Genuine personal relations were few. Most even of those who had been in his immediate company for years were kept at arm’s length. He used the familiar ‘Du’ form with a mere handful of people. Even when his boyhood friend August Kubizek met him again the following year, following the Anschluß, Hitler used the formal ‘Sie’ mode of address. The conventional mode of addressing Hitler, which had set in after 1933, ‘Mein Führer’, emphasized the formality of relations. The authority of his position depended upon the preservation of the nimbus attached to him, as he well realized. This in turn demanded the distance of the individual even from those in his immediate familia. The ‘mystery’ of Hitler’s personality had important functional, as well as temperamental, causes. Respect for his authority was more important to him than personal warmth.

Hitler’s dealings with his personal staff were formal, correct, polite, and courteous. He usually passed a pleasant word or two with his secretaries when any engagements in the late morning were over, and often took tea with them in the afternoons and at night. He enjoyed the joking and songs (accompanied on the accordion) of his chef and Hausintendant or major-domo Arthur Kannenberg. He could show sympathy and understanding, as when his new Luftwaffe adjutant, Nicolaus von Below, had – to his embarrassment – to ask to leave for his honeymoon immediately on joining Hitler’s service. He sent Christa Schroeder, one of his secretaries, presents when she was ill and visited her in hospital. He enjoyed giving presents to his staff on their birthdays and at Christmas, and paid personal attention to selecting appropriate gifts.

But genuine warmth and affection were missing. The shows of kindness and attentiveness were superficial. Hitler’s staff, like most other human beings, were of interest to him only as long as they were useful. However lengthy and loyal their service, if their usefulness was at an end they would be dispensed with. His staff, for their part, admired ‘the Boss’ as they called him. They respected, at times feared, him. His authority was unquestioned and absolute. Their loyalty to him was equally beyond question. But whether they genuinely liked him as a person is doubtful. There was a certain stiffness about the atmosphere whenever Hitler was present. It was difficult to relax in his company. He was demanding of his staff, who had to work long hours and fit into his eccentric work habits. His secretaries were often on duty in the mornings, but had to be prepared to take dictation of lengthy speeches late at night or into the early hours. Patronizingly complimentary to them on some occasions, on others he would scarcely notice their existence. In his own eyes, more even than in the eyes of those around him, he was the only person that mattered. His wishes, his feelings, his interests alone counted. He could be lenient of misdemeanours when he was unaffected. But where he felt a sense of affront, or that he had been let down, he could be harsh in his treatment of those around him. He was brusque and insulting to the lady-friend, of whom he disapproved, of his Chief Adjutant Wilhelm Brückner, a massive figure, veteran of the SA in the party’s early days, and participant in the Beerhall Putsch of 1923. A few years later he was peremptorily to dismiss Brückner, despite his lengthy and dutiful service, following a minor dispute. On another occasion he dismissed his valet Karl Krause, who had served him for several years, again for a trivial matter. Even his jovial hospitality manager, Arthur Kannenberg, who generally enjoyed something of the freedom of a court jester, had to tread carefully. Always anxious at the prospect of any embarrassment that would make him look foolish and damage his standing, Hitler threatened him with punishment if his staff committed any mistakes at receptions.

Hitler strongly disliked any change in the personnel of his immediate entourage. He liked to see the same faces around him. He wanted those about him whom he was used to, and who were used to him. For one whose lifestyle had always been in many respects so ‘bohemian’, he was remarkably fixed in his routines, inflexible in his habits, and highly reluctant to make alterations to his personal staff.

In 1937 he had four personal adjutants: SA-Gruppenführer Wilhelm Brückner (the chief adjutant); Julius Schaub (formerly the head of his bodyguard, a putsch veteran who had been in prison in Landsberg with Hitler and in his close attendance ever since, looking after his confidential papers, carrying money for the ‘Chief ’s’ use, acting as his personal secretary, general factotum, and ‘notebook’); Fritz Wiedemann (who had been Hitler’s direct superior in the war); and Albert Bormann (the brother of Martin, with whom, however, he was not on speaking terms). Three military adjutants – Colonel Friedrich Hoßbach for the army, Captain Karl-Jesko Otto von Puttkamer for the navy, and Captain Nicolaus von Below for the Luftwaffe – were responsible for Hitler’s links with the leaders of the armed forces. Secretaries, valets (one of whom had to be on call at all moments of the day), his pilot Hans Baur, his chauffeur Erich Kempka, the head of the SS-Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler and long-standing Hitler trustee Sepp Dietrich, the leaders of the bodyguard and criminal police attachments, and the doctors who, at different times, attended upon him all formed part of the additional personal staff.

By 1937, Hitler’s day followed a fairly regular pattern, at least when he was in Berlin. Late in the morning, he received a knock from his valet, Karl Krause, who would leave newspapers and any important messages outside his room. While Hitler took them in to read, Krause ran his bath and laid out his clothes. Always concerned to avoid being seen naked, Hitler insisted upon dressing himself, without help from his valet. Only towards midday did he emerge from his private suite of rooms (or ‘Führer apartment’) – a lounge, library, bedroom, and bathroom, together with a small room reserved for Eva Braun – in the renovated Reich Chancellery. He gave any necessary instructions to, or received information from, his military adjutants, was given a press summary by Otto Dietrich, and was told by Hans Heinrich Lammers, head of the Reich Chancellery, of his various engagements. Meetings and discussions, usually carried out while Hitler walked backwards and forwards with his discussion partner in the ‘Wintergarten’ (or conservatory) looking out on the garden, generally filled the next couple of hours – sometimes longer – so that lunch was frequently delayed.

The spacious and light dining-room had a large round table with a dozen chairs in the centre and four smaller tables, each with six chairs, around it. Hitler sat at the large table with his back to the window, facing a picture by Kaulbach, Entry of the Sun Goddess. Some of the guests – among them Goebbels, Göring, and Speer – were regulars. Others were newcomers or were seldom invited. The talk was often of world affairs. But Hitler would tailor the discussion to those present. He was careful in what he said. He consciously set out to impress his opinion on his guests, perhaps at times to gauge their reaction. Sometimes he dominated the ‘conversation’ with a monologue. At other times, he was content to listen while Goebbels sparred with another guest, or a more general discussion unfolded. Sometimes the table talk was interesting. New guests could find the occasion exciting and Hitler’s comments a ‘revelation’. Frau Below, the wife of the new Luftwaffe-Adjutant, found the atmosphere, and Hitler’s company, at first exhilarating and was greatly impressed by his knowledge of history and art. But for the household staff who had heard it all many times, the midday meal was often a tedious affair.

After lunch there were usually further meetings in the Music Salon with ambassadors, generals, Reich Ministers, foreign dignitaries, or personal acquaintances such as the Wagners or Bruckmanns. Such meetings seldom lasted longer than an hour, and were arranged around tea. Thereafter, Hitler withdrew to his own rooms for a rest, or went for a stroll round the park attached to the Reich Chancellery. He spent no time at all during the day at his massive desk, other than hurriedly to attach his signature to laws, letters of appointment, or other formal documents placed before him. Beyond his major speeches, letters to foreign heads of state, and the occasional formal note of thanks or condolence, he dictated little or nothing to his secretaries. Apart from his temperamental aversion to bureaucracy, he was anxious to avoid committing himself on paper. The consequence was that his adjutants and personal staff often had the task of passing on in written form directives which were unclear, ill thought-out, or spontaneous reactions. The scope for confusion, distortion, and misunderstanding was enormous. What Hitler had originally intended or stated was, by the time it had passed through various hands, often open to different interpretation and impossible to reconstruct with certainty.

The evening meal, around 8 p.m., followed the same pattern as lunch, but there were usually fewer present and talk focused more on Hitler’s favourite topics, such as art and history. During the meal, Hitler would be presented by one of the servants (most of whom were drawn from his bodyguard, the Leibstandarte) with a list of films, including those from abroad and German films still unreleased, which Goebbels had provided. (Hitler was delighted at his Christmas present from Goebbels in 1937: thirty feature films of the previous four years, and eighteen Mickey Mouse cartoons.) After the meal, the film chosen for the evening would be shown in the Music Salon. Any members of the household staff and the chauffeurs of any guests present could watch. Hitler’s secretaries were, however, not present at the meals in the Reich Chancellery, though they were included in the more relaxed atmosphere at the Berghof. The evening ended with conversation stretching usually to about 2 a.m. before Hitler retired.

In this world within the Reich Chancellery, with its fixed routines and formalities, where he was surrounded by his regular staff and otherwise met for the most part official visitors or guests who were mainly in awe of him, Hitler was cocooned within the role and image of the Führer which had elevated him to demi-god status. Few could behave naturally in his presence. The rough ‘old fighters’ of the party’s early days now came less frequently. Those attending the meals in the Reich Chancellery had for the most part only known him since the nimbus of the ‘great leader’ had become attached to him. The result only reinforced Hitler’s self-belief that he was a ‘man of destiny’, treading his path ‘with the certainty of a sleepwalker’. At the same time, he was ever more cut off from real human contact, isolated in his realm of increasing megalomania. Aways glad to get away from Berlin, it was only while staying with the Wagners during the annual Bayreuth Festival and at his alpine retreat ‘on the mountain’ above Berchtesgaden that Hitler relaxed somewhat. But even at the Berghof, rituals were preserved. Hitler dominated the entire existence of his guests there too. Real informality was as good as impossible in his presence. And Hitler, for all the large numbers of people in attendance on him and paying court to him, remained impoverished when it came to real contact, cut off from any meaningful personal relationship through the shallowness of his emotions and his profoundly egocentric, exploitative attitude towards all other human beings.

It is impossible to be sure of what, if any, emotional satisfaction Hitler gained from his relationship with Eva Braun (whom he had first met in 1929 when, then aged seventeen, she worked in the office of his photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann). It could not have been much. For prestige reasons, he kept her away from the public eye. On the rare occasions she was in Berlin, she was closeted in her little room in the ‘Führer Apartment’ while Hitler attended official functions or was otherwise engaged. Even in his close circle she was not permitted to be present for meals if any important guests were there. She did not accompany Hitler on his numerous journeys, and had to stay for the most part either in his flat in Munich or at the Berghof, the only place where she could emerge as one of the extended ‘family’. Even there, however, she was hidden away during receptions for important guests. Hitler often treated her abysmally when she was present, frequently humiliating her in front of others. The contrast with the olde-worlde charm – kissing hands, linking arms, cupping elbows – that he habitually showed towards pretty women in his presence merely rubbed salt in the wounds.

Probably the closest that Hitler came to friendship was in his relations with Joseph Goebbels and, increasingly, with his court architect and new favourite, Albert Speer, whom in January 1937 he made responsible for the rebuilding of Berlin. Hitler frequently sought out their company, liked their presence, was fond of their wives and families, and could feel at ease with them. The Goebbels home was a frequent refuge in Berlin. Lengthy talks with Speer about the rebuilding of the capital city amounted to the nearest thing Hitler had to a hobby, a welcome respite from his otherwise total involvement in politics. At least in Goebbels’s case there were elements of a father-son relationship. A rare flicker of human concern could be glimpsed when Hitler asked Goebbels to stay for an extra day in Nuremberg after the rally in September 1937, since (according to the Propaganda Minister) he did not like him flying at night. Hitler was the dominant figure – the father-figure. But he may have seen something of himself in each of his two protégés – the brilliant progagandist in Goebbels, the gifted architect in Speer.

In the case of Speer, the fascination for architecture provided an obvious bond. Both had a liking for neo-classical buildings on a monumental scale. Hitler was impressed by Speer’s taste in architecture, his energy, and his organizational skill. He had rapidly come to see him as the architect who could put his own grandiose building schemes, envisaged as the representation of Teutonic might and glory that would last for centuries, into practice. But other architects, some better than Speer, were available. The attractiveness of Speer to Hitler went beyond the building mania that linked them closely to each other. Nothing homoerotic was involved – at least not consciously. But Hitler perhaps found in the handsome, burningly ambitious, talented, and successful architect an unconsciously idealized self-image. What is plain is that both Goebbels and Speer worshipped Hitler. Goebbels’s adoration of the father-figure Hitler was undiminished since the mid-1920s. ‘He is a fabulous man’ was merely one of his effusions of sentiment in 1937 about the figure who was the centre-point of his universe. For Speer, as he himself later recognized, his love of Hitler transcended the power-ambitions that his protector and role-model was able to satisfy – even if it originally arose out of them and could never be completely separated from them.

In earlier years, Hitler had invariably spoken of his own ‘mission’ as the mere beginning of Germany’s passage to world domination. The whole process would take generations to complete. But, flushed with scarcely imaginable triumphs since 1933 and falling ever more victim to the myth of his own greatness, he became increasingly impatient to see his ‘mission’ fulfilled in his lifetime.

Partly, this was incipient megalomania. He spoke on numerous occasions in 1937 about building plans of staggering monumentality. At midnight on his birthday, he, Goebbels, and Speer stood in front of plans for rebuilding Berlin, fantasizing about a glorious future. ‘The Führer won’t speak of money. Build, build! It will somehow be paid for!’ Goebbels has him saying. ‘Frederick the Great didn’t ask about money when he built Sanssouci.’

In part, too, it was prompted by Hitler’s growing preoccupation with his own mortality and impatience to achieve what he could in his lifetime. Before the mid-1930s, his health had generally been good – astonishingly so given his lack of exercise, poor diet (even before his cranky vegetarianism following the death in 1931 of his niece, Geli Raubal), and high expenditure of nervous energy. However, he already suffered from chronic stomach pains which, at times of stress, became acute spasms. A patent medicine he took – an old trench remedy with a base in gun-cleaning oil – turned out to be mildly poisonous, causing headaches, double vision, dizziness, and ringing in the ears. He had been worried in 1935 that a polyp in his throat (eventually removed in the May of that year) was cancerous. It turned out to be harmless. During 1936, a year of almost continual tension, the stomach cramps were frequently severe, and Hitler also developed eczema on both legs, which had to be covered in bandages. At Christmas 1936, he asked Dr Theodor Morell, a physician who had successfully treated his photographer Heinrich Hoffmann, to try to cure him. Morell gave him vitamins and a new patent remedy for intestinal problems. Goebbels mentioned in June, and again in August 1937, that Hitler was unwell. But by September, Morell’s treatment had apparently made a difference. At any rate, Hitler was impressed. He felt fit again, his weight was back to normal, and his eczema had vanished. His belief in Morell would last down to the bunker in 1945. From late 1937 onwards, his increasing hypochondria made him ever more reliant on Morell’s pills, drugs, and injections. And the fear of cancer (which had caused his mother’s death) never left him. At the end of October, he told a meeting of propaganda leaders that both his parents had died young, and that he probably did not have long to live. ‘It was necessary, therefore, to solve the problems that had to be solved (living space) as soon as possible, so that this could still take place in his lifetime. Later generations would no longer be able to accomplish it. Only his person was in the position to bring it about.’

Hitler was seldom out of the public eye in 1937. No opportunity was missed to drive home to the German public an apparently endless array of scarcely credible ‘achievements’ at home and the glories of his major ‘triumphs’ in foreign policy. Flushed with success and certain of the adulation of the masses, he wanted to be seen. The bonds between the Führer and the people – the cement of the regime, and dependent upon recurring success and achievement – were thereby reinforced. And for Hitler the ecstasy of his mass audiences provided each time a new injection of the drug to feed his egomania. As always, the effect of his speeches depended heavily upon the atmosphere in which they were held. The content was repetitive and monotonous. The themes were the familiar ones. Past achievements were lauded, grandiose future plans proclaimed, the horrors and menace of Bolshevism emphasized. But there was no conflict between propaganda and ideology. Hitler believed what he was saying.

His lengthy concluding speech at the Reich Party Rally in Nuremberg in early September was an onslaught on ‘Jewish Bolshevism’. In passages at times reminiscent of Mein Kampf, and in his fiercest public attack on the Jews for many months, he portrayed them as the force behind Bolshevism and its ‘general attack on the present-day social order’, and spoke of ‘the claim of an uncivilized Jewish-Bolshevik international guild of criminals to rule Germany, as an old cultural land of Europe, from Moscow’. This is what the party faithful wanted to hear. But it was far more than window-dressing. Even in private, dictating the speeches to his secretary, when it came to passages on Bolshevism Hitler, red-faced and eyes blazing, would work himself to a frenzy, bellowing at full volume his thunderous denunciations.


Away from the continual propaganda activity revolving around speeches and public appearances, Hitler was largely preoccupied in 1937 with keeping a watchful eye on the changing situation in world affairs and with his gigantic building plans. The continuing conflict with both the Catholic and Protestant Churches, radical though his own instincts were, amounted to a recurrent irritation, especially in the first months of the year, rather than a priority concern (as it was with Goebbels, Rosenberg, and many of the party rank-and-file). With regard to the ‘Jewish Question’– to go from the many private discussions with Goebbels which the Propaganda Minister reported in his diary notes – Hitler, unchanged though his views were, showed little active interest and seldom spoke directly on the subject. But however uninvolved he was, the radicalization of the regime continued unabated, forced on in a variety of ways by party activists, ministerial bureaucracy, economic opportunists, and, not least, by an ideologically driven police.

In February 1937 Hitler made it plain to his inner circle that he did not want a ‘Church struggle’ at this juncture. The time was not ripe for it. He expected ‘the great world struggle in a few years’ time’. If Germany lost one more war, it would mean the end. The implication was clear: calm should be restored for the time being in relations with the Churches. Instead, the conflict with the Christian Churches intensified. The anti-clericalism and anti-Church sentiments of the grass-roots party activists simply could not be eradicated. The activists could draw on the verbal violence of party leaders towards the Churches for their encouragement. Goebbels’s orchestrated attacks on the clergy through the staged ‘immorality trials’ of Franciscans in 1937 – following usually trumped-up or grossly exaggerated allegations of sexual impropriety in the religious orders – provided further ammunition. And, in turn, however much Hitler on some occasions claimed to want a respite in the conflict, his own inflammatory comments gave his immediate underlings all the licence they needed to turn up the heat in the ‘Church struggle’, confident that they were ‘working towards the Führer’.

Hitler’s impatience with the Churches prompted frequent outbursts of hostility. In early 1937, he was declaring that ‘Christianity was ripe for destruction’, and that the Churches must yield to the ‘primacy of the state’, railing against any compromise with ‘the most horrible institution imaginable’. In April, Goebbels reported with satisfaction that the Führer was becoming more radical in the ‘Church Question’, and had approved the start of the ‘immorality trials’ against clergy. Goebbels noted Hitler’s verbal attacks on the clergy and his satisfaction with the propaganda campaign on several subsequent occasions over the following few weeks. But Hitler was happy to leave the Propaganda Minister and others to make the running. If Goebbels’s diary entries are a guide, Hitler’s interest and direct involvement in the ‘Church struggle’ declined during the second half of the year. Other matters were by now occupying his attention.

The ‘Jewish Question’ does not appear to have figured prominently among them. Goebbels, who saw Hitler almost on a daily basis at this time and who noted the topics of many private conversations they had together, recorded no more than a couple of instances where the ‘Jewish Question’ was discussed. Anti-Jewish policy, as we have seen, had gathered pace since 1933 without frequent or coherent central direction. It was no different in 1937. Hitler’s views remained unchanged since his first statement on the ‘Jewish Question’ back in September 1919. He gave a clear indication to a gathering of some 800 District Leaders of the party in April 1937 of his tactical caution but ideological consistency in the ‘Jewish Question’. Though he made plain to his enemies that he wanted to destroy them, the struggle had to be conducted cleverly, and over a period of time, he told his avid listeners. Skill would help him manoeuvre them into a corner. Then would come the blow to the heart.

But for the most part, he was content to remain for the time inactive in the ‘Jewish Question’. His tacit approval was all that was required. And no more was needed than his tirade against ‘Jewish Bolshevism’ at the Party Rally in September to act as a green light inviting the new antisemitic wave – even fiercer than that of 1935 – that was to unfold throughout 1938.

After two relatively quiet years, discrimination against the Jews again intensified. Increasingly radical steps were initiated to eliminate them from the economy, and from more and more spheres of social activity. The SD had in fact since the start of the year been advocating renewed pressure on the Jews to force them out of the economy and speed up their emigration from Germany. The manufacture of a ‘popular mood hostile to Jews’ and the deployment of illegal ‘excesses’ – mob violence, which was seen as particularly effective – were recommended. By autumn, the climate was becoming more hostile than ever for the Jewish population. Schacht’s loss of influence, and finally his departure from the Economics Ministry on 27 November, now removed an obstacle to the ‘aryanization’ of the economy. Pressure to fulfil this aspect of the Party’s Programme mounted. Göring, by this time in effect in charge of the economy, was more than ready to push forward the ‘aryanization’. The upswing of the economy made big business, losing the uncertainties of the first years of Nazi rule, willing partners, eager to profit from the takeover of Jewish firms at knock-down prices. By April 1938 more than 60 per cent of Jewish firms had been liquidated or ‘aryanized’. From late 1937 onwards, individual Jews also faced an expanding array of discriminatory measures, initiated without central coordination by a variety of ministries and offices – all in their way ‘working towards the Führer’ – which tightened immeasurably the screw of persecution. Hitler’s own contribution, as usual, had largely consisted of setting the tone and providing the sanction and legitimation for the actions of others.

In world affairs, events beyond Hitler’s control were causing him to speculate on the timing and circumstances in which the great showdown would occur. By the end of 1937, the signs were that radicalization was gathering pace not just in anti-Jewish policy (and, largely instigated by the Gestapo, in the persecution and repression of other ethnic and social minorities), but also in foreign policy.

Hitler had begun the year by expressing his hope to those at his lunch table that he still had six years to prepare for the coming showdown. ‘But, if a very favourable chance comes along,’ commented Goebbels, ‘he also doesn’t want to miss it.’ Hitler stressed Russian strength and warned against underestimating the British because of their weak political leadership. He saw opportunities of winning allies in eastern Europe (particularly Poland) and the Balkans as a consequence of Russia’s drive for world revolution. Hitler’s remarks followed a long briefing by Blomberg earlier that morning in the War Ministry about the rapid expansion of rearmament and the Wehrmacht’s preparations for ‘Case X’ – taken to be Germany, together with its fascist allies against Russia, Czechoslovakia, and Lithuania. The question of German occupation was evidently raised. Hitler, Goebbels, and Blomberg discussed the installation of senior Gauleiter as Civilian Commissars. Hitler was satisfied with what he had heard.

A foretaste of what might be expected from the German leadership in war followed the dropping of two ‘red bombs’ on the battleship Deutschland, stationed off Ibiza, by a Spanish Republican plane on the evening of 29 May, killing twenty-three and injuring over seventy sailors. Admiral Raeder, Commander-in-Chief of the Navy, was dispatched by Blomberg to Munich to bear the brunt of Hitler’s fury. Hitler’s immediate reaction, ‘fuming with rage’, as Goebbels put it, was to bomb Valencia in reprisal. But after a hastily arranged conference with Blomberg, Raeder, Göring, and von Neurath, he ordered instead the cruiser Admiral Scheer to fire on the southern Spanish harbour town of Almería. Hitler, seething but nervous at the outcome, paced up and down his room in the Reich Chancellery until three o’clock in the morning. The shelling of Almería for an hour left twenty-one civilians dead, fifty-three injured, and destroyed thirty-nine houses. Hitler was satisfied. He had seen it as a prestige question. Prestige had now been restored.

He had by this time lost faith in Spain becoming a genuinely fascist country. He saw Franco as a Spanish variant of General Seeckt (the former ‘strong man’ in the German army in the 1920s) – a military man without any mass movement behind him. Despite his worries about Spain, however, he had no regrets about ordering German intervention, and pointed to the many advantages which Germany had drawn from its involvement. Goebbels’s diary notes reflect Hitler’s wider perceptions of world affairs during the latter half of 1937, and his watchful eye on opportunities for German expansion. The radicalization in foreign policy which brought the Anschluß with Austria and then the Sudeten crisis in Czechoslovakia in 1938 were foreshadowed in Hitler’s musings on future developments during these months.

The arch-enemy, the Soviet Union, was in Hitler’s eyes weakened both by its internal turmoils and by Japanese triumphs in the war against China. He was puzzled by the Stalinist purges. ‘Stalin is probably sick in the brain,’ Goebbels reported him as saying. ‘His bloody regime can otherwise not be explained. But Russia knows nothing other than Bolshevism. That’s the danger we have to smash down some day.’ A few months later, he was repeating the view that Stalin and his followers were mad. ‘Must be exterminated’ was his sinister conclusion. He was anticipating that the opportunity might arise following a Japanese victory over China. Once China was smashed, he guessed, Tokyo would turn its attention to Moscow. ‘That is then our great hour,’ he predicted.

Hitler’s belief in an alliance with Britain had by now almost evaporated. His attitude towards Britain had come to resemble that of a lover spurned. Contemptuous of the British government, he also saw Britain greatly weakened as a world power. Egged on by Ribbentrop, by now aggressively anti-British, his hopes rested on his new friend Mussolini.

Nothing was spared in the preparations for a huge extravaganza with all conceivable pomp and circumstance to make the maximum impact on the Duce during his state visit to Germany between 25 and 29 September. Mussolini took home with him an image of German power and might – together with a growing sense that Italy’s role in the Axis was destined to be that of junior partner. Hitler was also overjoyed at the outcome. There had been agreement on cooperation in Spain, and on attitudes towards the war in the Far East. Hitler was certain that Italian friendship was assured, since Italy had in any case little alternative. Only the Austrian question, on which Mussolini would not be drawn, remained open. ‘Well, wait and see,’ commented Goebbels.

From remarks recorded by Goebbels, it is clear that Hitler was already by summer 1937 beginning to turn his eyes towards Austria and Czechoslovakia, though as yet there was no indication of when and how Germany might move against either state. Nor were ideological or military-strategic motives, however important for Hitler himself, the only ones influencing notions of expansion in central Europe. Continuing economic difficulties, especially in fulfilling the Wehrmacht’s demands for raw materials, had been the main stimulus to increased German pressure on Austria since the successful visit by Göring to Italy in January. Gold and foreign-currency reserves, labour supplies, and important raw materials were among the lure of a German takeover of the Alpine Republic. Not surprisingly, therefore, the office of the Four-Year Plan was at the forefront of demands for an Anschluß as soon as possible. The economic significance of the Austrian question was further underlined by Hitler’s appointment in July 1937 of Wilhelm Keppler, who had served before 1933 as an important link with business leaders, to coordinate party affairs regarding Vienna. Further concessions to follow on those of the 1936 agreement – including the ending of censorship on Mein Kampf – were forced on the Austrian government in July. ‘Perhaps we’re again coming a step further,’ mused Goebbels. ‘In Austria, the Führer will some time make a tabula rasa,’ the Propaganda Minister noted, after a conversation with Hitler at the beginning of August. ‘Let’s hope we can all still experience it,’ he went on. ‘He’ll go for it then. This state is not a state at all. Its people belong to us and will come to us. The Führer’s entry into Vienna will one day be his proudest triumph.’ At the end of the Nuremberg Rally, a few weeks later, Hitler told Goebbels that the issue of Austria would sometime be resolved ‘with force’. Before the end of the year, Papen was unfolding to Hitler plans to topple the Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg. Göring and Keppler were by then both convinced that Hitler would tackle the question of Austria during the spring or summer of 1938.

In the case of Czechoslovakia, too, Hitler’s intentions were unmistakable to Goebbels. ‘Czechia is not a state, either,’ he noted in his diary in August. ‘It will one day be overrun.’ The refusal by Czech authorities to allow children from the Sudeten area to go for holidays to Germany was used by Goebbels as the pretext to launch the beginning of a vitriolic press campaign against the Czechs. Göring had by this time been stressing to the British Ambassador, Nevile Henderson, Germany’s rights to Austria and the Sudetenland (in due course also to revision of the Polish border). To a long-standing British acquaintance, the former air attaché in Berlin, Group-Captain Christie, he went farther: Germany must have not simply the Sudetenland, but the whole of Bohemia and Moravia, Göring asserted. By mid-October, following the demands of Konrad Henlein, the Sudeten German leader, for autonomy, Goebbels was predicting that Czechoslovakia would in the future ‘have nothing to laugh about’.

On 5 November 1937 the Propaganda Minister lunched, as usual, with Hitler. The general situation was discussed. The Czech question was to be toned down for the time being because Germany was still not in a position to take any action. The issue of colonies was also to be taken more slowly, so as not to awaken false expectations among the population. In the run-up to Christmas, the heat had, too, to be turned down on the ‘Church struggle’. The long-running saga of Schacht was nearing its dénouement. Schacht had to go, it was agreed. But the Führer wanted to wait until after the party’s ritual putsch commemoration on 9 November before taking any action. In the afternoon, Goebbels went home to continue work. The Führer, he noted, had ‘General Staff talks’.


In the gloom of late afternoon, the chiefs of the army, Luftwaffe, and navy, together with War Minister Blomberg, made their way to the Reich Chancellery for a meeting, as they thought, to establish the allocation of steel supplies to the armed forces. The reason for the meeting dated back to late October, when Admiral Raeder, increasingly concerned about Göring’s allocation of steel and the preferential treatment of the Luftwaffe, had posed an ultimatum to Blomberg indicating that no expansion of the navy was possible without additional steel supplies. Raeder was unwilling to make concessions. He thought an immediate decision by the Führer was necessary. With the dispute among the branches of the armed forces simmering and the prospect of the arms drive stagnating, Blomberg pressed Hitler for clarification. Eventually, Hitler agreed to the meeting. Blomberg, not Hitler, sent out the invitations to discuss ‘the armaments situation and raw materials demands’ to the chiefs of the three armed forces’ branches. The military leaders had a surprise when they reached the Reich Chancellery at 4 p.m. to find present, alongside Hitler and his military adjutant, Colonel Hoßbach, also the Foreign Minister von Neurath. Another surprise was waiting for them when, instead of dealing with the issue of raw materials allocation (which was discussed relatively briefly only towards the end of the lengthy meeting), Hitler, speaking from prepared notes, launched into a monologue lasting over two hours on Germany’s need to expand by use of force within the following few years.

He began by emphasizing the importance of what he had to say. He wanted, he said, to explain his thinking on foreign policy. In the event of his death, what he had to say ought to be viewed as his ‘testamentary legacy’. No arrangements had been made for minutes to be taken, but Hoßbach, sitting opposite Hitler at the table, decided that what he was about to hear might be of some moment and started to scribble notes in his diary. He was sure his mentor, the increasingly critical General Beck, would be interested.

Hitler launched into a familiar theme: the need to expand German ‘living space’. Without this expansion, ‘sterility’, leading to social disorder, would set in – an argument reflecting Hitler’s premiss that permanent mobilization and ever new goals, foreign and domestic, were necessary to ensure the popular support of the regime. In characteristic vein, he raised alternatives to expansion of ‘living space’, only to dismiss them. Only limited autarky could be achieved. Food supplies could not be ensured by this route. Dependence on the world economy could never bring economic security, and would leave Germany weak and exposed. ‘Living space’, he asserted, meant territory for agricultural production in Europe, not acquisition of overseas colonies. Britain and France, both implacably hostile, stood in Germany’s way. But Britain and its Empire were weakened. And France faced internal difficulties. His conclusion to the first part of his address was that Germany’s problem could only be solved by the use of force, which was always accompanied by risks. Only the questions ‘when?’ and ‘how?’ remained to be answered.

He went on to outline three scenarios. Typically, he first argued that time was not on Germany’s side, that it would be imperative to act by 1943–5 at the latest. The relative strength in armaments would decrease. Other powers would be prepared for a German offensive. Alluding to the problems of 1935–6, he raised the prospect of economic difficulties producing a new food crisis without the foreign exchange to master it – a potential ‘weakening-point of the regime’. Declining birth-rates, falling living standards, and the ageing of the Movement and its leaders were added points to underline what he declared was his ‘unalterable determination to solve the German problem of space by 1943–5 at the latest’.

In the other two scenarios, Hitler outlined circumstances in which it would be necessary to strike before 1943–5: if France became so enveloped by internal strife, or embroiled in war with another power, that it was incapable of military action against Germany. In either case the moment would have arrived to attack Czechoslovakia. A war of France and Britain against Italy he saw as a distinct possibility arising from the protracted conflict in Spain (whose prolongation was in Germany’s interest). In such an eventuality, Germany must be prepared to take advantage of the circumstances to attack the Czechs and Austria without delay – even as early as 1938. The first objective in any war involving Germany would be to overthrow Czechoslovakia and Austria simultaneously to protect the eastern flank for any possible military operation in the west. Hitler conjectured that Britain, and probably France as well, had already written off Czechoslovakia. Problems within the Empire – Hitler had in mind here primarily the growing pressure for independence in India – and reluctance to become embroiled in a long European war would, he thought, prove decisive in deterring Britain from involvement in a war against Germany. France was unlikely to act without British support. Italy would not object to the elimination of Czechoslovakia. Its attitude towards Austria could not at the moment be determined. It would depend on whether Mussolini were still alive – another implied argument for avoiding delay. Poland would be too concerned about Russia to attack Germany. Russia would be preoccupied with the threat from Japan. The incorporation of Austria and Czechoslovakia would improve the security of Germany’s borders, freeing up forces for other uses, and would allow the creation of a further twelve divisions. Assuming the expulsion of 3 million from the two countries, their annexation would mean the acquisition of foodstuffs for 5 to 6 million people. Hitler ended by stating that when the moment arrived the attack upon the Czechs would have to be carried out ‘lightning fast’.

Hitler’s comments to his armed forces’ commanders were in line with what he had been saying for weeks to Goebbels and other party leaders. He wanted to use the occasion of the meeting about raw materials allocation to impress similar arguments upon his military leaders. The meeting on 5 November was the first time that the Commanders-in-Chief of the Wehrmacht had been explicitly told of Hitler’s thoughts on the likely timing and circumstances of German expansion into Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Hitler was under no illusion at the negative response to his comments. Blomberg, Fritsch, and Neurath in particular were alarmed at what they heard. It was not the aim of expansion that concerned them. There was no disagreement here with Hitler. His familiar racial interpretation of Lebensraum had a different emphasis, but accorded well enough with military-strategic interests in German supremacy in central Europe, and with Göring’s aims of economic dominance in south-eastern Europe. Nor did talk of the annexation of Austria and destruction of Czechoslovakia worry them. That both would happen at some point was by late 1937 largely taken for granted. Even General Beck’s sharp criticism of Hitler’s statement, when he read an account some days later, did not dispute ‘the expediency of clearing up the case of Czechia (perhaps also Austria) if the opportunity presents itself ’.

What did shock them was the prospect of the early use of force, and with that the grave danger that Germany would be plunged into war with Britain and France. Hitler, they thought, was taking foolhardy risks. They raised objections. Neurath saw an expansion of the Mediterranean conflict, in the way Hitler had conceived it, as highly unlikely. The generals pointed to deficiencies in Hitler’s military analysis. On no account must Germany find itself at war with Britain and France was the essence of their remarks. Even Göring, though he kept quiet until the discussion moved on to armaments matters, still favoured trying to reach agreement with Britain. Only Raeder, who had wanted the meeting in the first place, seemed unperturbed. If his later testimony is to be believed, he did not take Hitler’s remarks seriously, other than as a vehicle to spur on the army to speed up its armaments. Possible future conflict with Britain was, for Raeder, an inevitable component of planning for naval expansion. But an imminent conflict in the present state of Germany’s armaments was, in his view, such ‘complete madness’ that it could not be envisaged as a serious proposition.

Others were less relaxed. Fritsch had to be reassured by Hitler at the end of the meeting that there was no immediate danger of war, and no need to cancel his planned leave. General Beck, shown a copy of Hoßbach’s record of the meeting, found Hitler’s remarks ‘crushing’. What appalled him was the irresponsibility and dilettantism with which Hitler was prepared to run the risk of involving Germany in a catastrophic war with the western powers. Neurath, who had arranged with Beck and Fritsch that he would speak to Hitler, had the opportunity to do so in mid-January 1938. Hitler’s policies, he warned, meant war. Many of his plans could be attained by more peaceful methods, if somewhat more slowly. Hitler replied that he had no more time.

Blomberg’s own doubts expressed at the November meeting were, as usual, short-lived. The pliant War Minister was soon conveying Hitler’s wishes to the upper echelons of the Wehrmacht. Within weeks, without Hitler having to give any express order, Chief of Defence Staff Colonel Alfred Jodl, recognizing what was needed, had devised a significant alteration to the previous mobilization plans against Czechoslovakia, aimed at preventing Czech intervention in the event of a war against France. The new directive included the sentence: ‘Once Germany has attained its full war preparedness in all spheres, the military basis will have been created to conduct an offensive war against Czechoslovakia and thereby also to carry the German space problem to a triumphant conclusion, even if one or other great power intervenes against us.’

Externally as well as internally, the Third Reich was entering a new, more radical phase. The drift of Hitler’s thinking was plain from the November meeting, and from his comments earlier in the autumn. Nothing had been decided, no plans laid, no programme established. It was still ‘wait and see’. But Hitler’s hand became further strengthened at the end of January and beginning of February 1938 by a chance set of events – a personal scandal involving the War Minister Werner von Blomberg.


Blomberg was not popular in the top leadership of the army. He was seen as too much Hitler’s man and too little the army’s. When his personal life led to professional trouble in late January 1938, he had no friends to count upon.

On a September morning in 1937, walking in the Tiergarten, the Field-Marshal, widowed with five grown-up children, met the woman who would change his life and, unwittingly, usher in the biggest internal crisis in the Third Reich since the Röhm affair in the summer of 1934. Blomberg, a lonely and empty individual, rapidly became totally besotted with his new lady-friend, Fräulein Margarethe Gruhn, thirty-five years younger than he was, and from a crassly different social background. Within weeks he had asked her to marry him. He needed the consent of Hitler, as supreme commander of the Wehrmacht. He hinted that his fiancée was a typist, a simple ‘girl from the people’, and that he was concerned about the response of the officer class to his marriage to someone below his status. Hitler immediately offered to be a witness to the marriage to emphasize his rejection of such outmoded class snobbery, and recommended Göring as the second witness. The wedding was prepared in great secrecy. Even Blomberg’s adjutant knew nothing of it until the previous afternoon. The ceremony, attended only by Blomberg’s five children and the bride’s mother, apart from the wedding couple and the witnesses, Hitler and Göring, took place in the War Ministry on 12 January. There were no celebrations. The simplest note of the wedding was published in the newspapers.

Blomberg had good reason for wanting to keep his bride out of the public eye. She had a past. Around Christmas 1931, then aged eighteen, she had posed for a number of pornographic photos which had come into the hands of the police. The following year the police officially registered her as a prostitute. In 1934 she had again come to the attention of the police, accused of stealing from a client. Now, within days of the wedding, Berlin prostitutes started talking about ‘one of them’ rising so far up the social ladder that she had married the War Minister. An anonymous phone-call tipped off the head of the army, Colonel-General Fritsch. The Gestapo had by this time also picked up the rumours. The Berlin Police Chief, Wolf Heinrich Graf von Helldorf, was put in the picture and, aware of the political sensitivity of what he saw on the card registering Fräulein Gruhn as a prostitute, immediately took the matter to Blomberg’s closest colleague, Head of the Wehrmacht Office, General Wilhelm Keitel, to ascertain that the woman with the police record was indeed identical with the wife of the War Minister. Keitel, who had seen Fräulein Gruhn on only one occasion, heavily veiled at the funeral of Blomberg’s mother, could not help Helldorf, but referred him to Göring, who had been a witness at the wedding. Göring established the identity on 21 January. Three days later, Göring stood nervously in the foyer of the Reich Chancellery, a brown file in his hand, awaiting the return of Hitler from a stay in Bavaria.

Hitler was stunned at the news that awaited him. Prudery and racial prejudice went hand in hand when he heard that the indecent photos of Blomberg’s bride had been taken by a Jew of Czech origin, with whom she was cohabiting at the time. Scurrilous rumours had it that Hitler took a bath seven times the next day to rid himself of the taint of having kissed the hand of Frau Blomberg. What concerned him above all, however, was the blow to prestige which would follow; that, as a witness at the wedding, he would appear a laughing-stock in the eyes of the world. All night long, as he later recounted, he lay awake, worrying how to avoid a loss of face. The next day, as his adjutant Fritz Wiedemann recalled, he paced up and down his room, his hands behind his back, shaking his head and muttering, ‘ “If a German Field-Marshal marries a whore, anything in the world is possible.” ’ Goebbels and Göring tried to cheer him up over lunch. That morning, Hitler had spoken for the first time to his military adjutant Colonel Hoßbach about the matter. He praised Blomberg’s achievements. But the Field-Marshal had caused him great embarrassment through not telling him the truth about his bride and involving him as a witness at the wedding. He expressed his sadness at having to lose such a loyal colleague. But because of his wife’s past, Blomberg had to go as War Minister. ‘Blomberg can’t be saved,’ noted Goebbels. ‘Only the pistol remains for a man of honour … The Führer as marriage witness. It’s unthinkable. The worst crisis of the regime since the Röhm affair … The Führer looks like a corpse.’

Presuming that Blomberg was ignorant of his wife’s shady past, and hoping to hush the matter up and prevent a public scandal, Göring hurried to persuade the Field-Marshal to have his marriage immediately annulled. To the astonishment and disgust of Göring and of Hitler, Blomberg refused. On the morning of 27 January, Hitler had his last audience with Blomberg. It began in heated fashion, but became calmer, and ended with Hitler offering Blomberg the prospect of rejoining him, all forgotten, if Germany should be involved in war. A day later, Blomberg was gone – over the border to Italy to begin a year’s exile, sweetened by a 50,000 Mark ‘golden handshake’ and his full pension as a Field-Marshal.

The crisis for Hitler had meanwhile deepened. On the very evening, 24 January, that he was recoiling from the shock of the news about his War Minister, and in a bleak mood, he remembered the whiff of a potential scandal two years earlier concerning the head of the army, Colonel-General von Fritsch. Himmler had presented him at the time, in the summer of 1936, with a file raising suspicions that Fritsch had been blackmailed by a Berlin rent-boy by the name of Otto Schmidt on account of alleged homosexual practices in late 1933. Hitler had refused to believe the allegations, had rejected out of hand any investigation, said he never wanted to hear any more of the matter, and ordered the file destroyed. Now, he told Himmler that he wanted the file reconstructed as a matter of urgency. The reconstruction posed no difficulties since, counter to Hitler’s express orders to destroy it, Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Security Police, had had the file put in a safe. Within hours, by 2.15 a.m. in the early morning of 25 January, the file was on Hitler’s desk.

Hitler had not summoned the file as part of a well-thought-out strategy to be rid of Fritsch as well as Blomberg. In fact, he was apparently still thinking of Fritsch on the morning of 26 January, a day after he had seen the ‘reconstructed’ file, as Blomberg’s possible successor as War Minister. In the light of the shock he had just received, and his immediate loss of confidence in his leading officers, Hitler now wanted assurance that no further scandals were likely to be forthcoming. But just as the Blomberg case was unexpected, so were developments in the Fritsch case to unfold in an unpredictable fashion. Without the Blomberg affair, Hitler is said subsequently to have told his army adjutant Major Gerhard Engel, the Fritsch case would never have come up again. The second crisis arose from the first.

On the morning of 25 January, in his state of depression over Blomberg, Hitler gave the thin file on Fritsch to Hoßbach with instructions for absolute secrecy. Hoßbach was horrified at the implications for the Wehrmacht of a second scandal. He thought Fritsch, whom he greatly admired, would easily clear up the matter – or would know what to do. Either way, the honour of the army would be preserved. In this frame of mind, he disobeyed Hitler’s express order and informed Fritsch about the file. It was a fateful step.

Fritsch, when Hoßbach broke the news of the file on the evening of 25 January, reacted with anger and disgust at the allegations, declaring them a pack of lies. Hoßbach reported back to Hitler. The Dictator showed no sign of anger at the act of disobedience. In fact, he seemed relieved, commenting that since everything was in order, Fritsch could become War Minister. However, Hitler added that Hoßbach had done him a great disservice in destroying the element of secrecy. In fact, Hoßbach had unwittingly done Fritsch an even greater disservice.

When he heard from Hoßbach what was afoot, Fritsch not unnaturally brooded for hours about the allegations. They must have something to do, he thought, with the member of the Hitler Youth with whom he had lunched, usually alone, in 1933–4, in a willingness to comply with the request of the Winter Aid Campaign to provide free meals for the needy. He presumed that malicious tongues had manufactured an illicit relationship out of harmless acts of charity. Thinking he could clear up a misunderstanding, he sought out Hoßbach the following day, 26 January. All he did, however, was raise the private doubts of Hitler’s military adjutant. Hoßbach did not think to indicate to Fritsch that to mention the Hitler Youth story might not be tactically the best way to convince Hitler of his innocence.

During the afternoon, Hitler conferred with Himmler, Reich Justice Minister Gürtner, and Göring (who saw Fritsch as his rival for Blomberg’s post as War Minister). There was a general air of mistrust. By early evening, Hitler was still wavering. Göring pressed him to come to a decision. Hoßbach chose the moment to suggest that Hitler speak directly about the matter to Fritsch. After some hesitation, Hitler agreed. In the meantime, four Gestapo officers had been sent to the Börgermoor internment camp in the Emsland to fetch Otto Schmidt to Berlin. In Hitler’s private library in the Reich Chancellery that evening a remarkable scene ensued: the head of the army, in civilian clothing, was confronted by his accuser, an internee of proven ill-repute, in the presence of his supreme commander and head of state, and the Prussian Minister President Göring.

Hitler looked despondent to Fritsch. But he came straight to the point. He wanted, he said, simply the truth. If Fritsch acknowledged his guilt, he was prepared to have the matter hushed up and send him well away from Germany. He had contemplated the possibility of Fritsch perhaps serving as military adviser to Chiang Kai-shek. Fritsch vehemently professed his innocence. He then made the mistake of telling Hitler about the harmless episode of the Hitler Youth boy. It had precisely the opposite effect to that hoped for by Fritsch. Hitler’s suspicions rose immediately. He now gave Fritsch the file. While he was reading it, Fritsch’s alleged blackmailer was brought in. Otto Schmidt, who had proved a reliable witness in a number of other cases where he had blackmailed individuals, insisted that he recognized Fritsch as the man in question. Fritsch repeated several times, in a cool and collected manner, that he had never seen the man in his life before and gave Hitler his word of honour that he had nothing to do with the entire affair. Hitler had expected, so he told his generals a few days later, that Fritsch would have thrown the file at his feet. His subdued behaviour did not impress Hitler as an impassioned display of injured innocence. Fritsch for his part found it difficult to believe that Hitler and Göring retained their suspicions and simply ignored the word of honour of a high-ranking German officer. The reality, as Goebbels, recognized, was that Hitler had by now lost faith in Fritsch.

The Gestapo’s interrogation of Fritsch on the morning of 27 January, when he again faced his tormentor Schmidt, was inconclusive. Schmidt remained adamant in his accusations, Fritsch indignantly vehement in his denial of any involvement. The level of detail in the accuser’s story seemed telling. But as Fritsch pointed out, though to no avail, the detail was erroneous. The alleged meeting with Fritsch was said to have taken place in November 1933. Schmidt claimed to have remembered it as if it had been the previous day. Yet he had Fritsch smoking (which he had not done since 1925), wearing a fur coat (such as he had never possessed), and – Schmidt was repeatedly pressed on this point – announcing himself as ‘General of the Artillery von Fritsch’, a rank he had attained only on 1 February 1934. The inconsistency in evidence was not picked up or acted upon. It remained a matter of word against word.

Meanwhile, Hitler had given the Fritsch file to Justice Minister Franz Gürtner, and asked for his views. Goebbels had little confidence in the outcome. ‘Gürtner has now still to write a legal report,’ he wrote. ‘But what use is all that. The porcelain is smashed.’ Gürtner’s report, delivered before the end of the month, was damning. Upturning conventional legal notions, Gürtner stated that Fritsch had not proved his innocence and regarded the issue of the Hitler Youth boy as damaging to his case. But Gürtner insisted upon a legal trial for Fritsch in front of a military court. The military leadership backed the demand. Even if reluctantly, in the case of so prominent a person as the head of the army Hitler had little choice but to concede.

The double scandal of Blomberg and Fritsch had left the Nazi leadership with a major public-relations problem. How was it all to be explained to the people? How was a serious blow to prestige and standing to be avoided? On Thursday 27 January, Hitler, looking pale and grey, decided to cancel his big speech to the Reichstag on the anniversary of the ‘seizure of power’. The meeting of the Reich cabinet was also cancelled. Goebbels suggested that a way out of the political crisis would be for Hitler himself to take over the whole of the Wehrmacht, with the different sections of the armed forces turned into separate ministries. ‘And then comes the most difficult question,’ he added: ‘how to put it to the people. The wildest rumours are circulating. The Führer is at the end of his tether. None of us has slept since Monday.’

Goebbels’s suggestion – if indeed it originally came from him – for restructuring the Wehrmacht leadership entirely was at least in part taken up. It offered a neat way out of a choice of successor for Blomberg. Göring’s self-evident ambitions for this post were never seriously entertained by Hitler. Blomberg, Keitel, and Wiedemann all spoke out in Göring’s favour. Göring himself would have been prepared to give up his control of the Four-Year Plan in return for the War Ministry. Hitler was, however, dismissive of his military abilities. He was not even competent, Hitler scoffed, in running the Luftwaffe, let alone the whole of the armed forces. For the army and the navy, the appointment of Göring (who had in his regular military career never had a rank higher than that of captain) would have been insulting. More than that, it would have amounted for Hitler to a heavy concentration of military command in the hands of one man. Heinrich Himmler also cherished ambitions – though always wholly unrealistic ones for a police chief who headed a small rival military force to that of the army in what would develop into the Waffen-SS, who had not served in the First World War, and who, in the later disparaging comment of one general, scarcely knew how to drive a fire-engine. Hitler told his generals on 5 February that rumours of Himmler taking over had been ‘insane twaddle’. A third ambitious hopeful, General Walter von Reichenau, was seen as far too close to the party and too untraditionalist to be acceptable to the army.

In fact, already on 27 January, picking up a suggestion made by Blomberg at his farewell audience, Hitler had decided to take over the Wehrmacht leadership himself, appointing no successor to the War Ministry. Within hours, he was initiating General Keitel (scarcely known to him to this point, but recommended by Blomberg) in his – that is to say, initially Blomberg’s – ideas for a new organizational structure for the Wehrmacht. Keitel, he said, would be his sole adviser in questions relating to the Wehrmacht. With one move, this shifted the internal balance of power within the armed forces from the traditionalist leadership and general staff of the army (as the largest sector) to the office of the Wehrmacht, representing the combined forces, and directly dependent upon and pliant towards Hitler. In a statement for army leaders on 7 February, explaining the changes that had taken place, it was claimed that Hitler’s takeover of the Wehrmacht command ‘was already intended in his programme, but for a later date’. In reality, it was a rapidly taken decision providing a way out of an embarrassing crisis.

His removal for days a matter of little more than timing, Fritsch was asked by Hitler on 3 February for his resignation. By then, an increasingly urgent answer – given the rumours now circulating – to the presentational problem of how to explain the departure of the two most senior military leaders had been found: ‘In order to put a smoke-screen round the whole business, a big reshuffle will take place,’ noted Goebbels. In a two-hour discussion, alone with Goebbels in his private rooms, Hitler went over the whole affair – how disillusioned he had been by Blomberg, whom he had trusted blindly; how he disbelieved Fritsch despite his denials – ‘these sort of people always do that’; how he would take over the Wehrmacht himself with the branches of the armed forces as ministries; and the personnel changes he intended to make, particularly the replacement of Neurath by Ribbentrop at the Foreign Office. ‘Führer wants to deflect the spotlight from the Wehrmacht, make Europe hold its breath,’ recorded Colonel Jodl in his diary. The Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg, he added ominously, should be ‘trembling’.

Within four days the reshuffle was in place. Twelve generals (apart from Blomberg and Fritsch) were removed, six from the Luftwaffe; fifty-one other posts (a third in the Luftwaffe) were also refilled. Fritsch’s post was given to Walther von Brauchitsch – a compromise candidate suggested by Blomberg and Keitel to keep out Reichenau. The navy was left alone. Raeder had, according to Goebbels’s report of Hitler’s views, ‘behaved splendidly during the entire crisis and everything is in order in the navy’. Göring was given a Field-Marshal’s baton as consolation prize for missing the War Ministry. Major changes were also undertaken in the diplomatic service. Neurath, having to make way for his arch-rival Ribbentrop, was ‘elevated’ to a pseudo-position as head of a ‘privy council’ of ministers which was never to meet. The key ambassadorial posts in Rome, Tokyo, London, and Vienna were given new occupants. Schacht’s replacement by Funk at the Ministry of Economics was also announced as part of the general reshuffle.

Blomberg and Fritsch were said to have retired ‘on health grounds’. Blomberg would survive the war, still praising the ‘genius’ of the Führer but dismayed that Hitler had not called upon his services once more, and would die, shunned to the last by his former army comrades, in prison in Nuremberg in March 1946. Fritsch’s innocence – the victim of mistaken identity – would be established by a military court in Berlin on 18 March 1938. Though his name had been cleared, he did not gain the rehabilitation he hoped for. Deeply depressed and embittered, but still claiming to be ‘a good National Socialist’, he volunteered for his old artillery regiment in the Polish campaign and would fall fatally wounded on the outskirts of Warsaw on 22 September 1939.

A communiqué on the sweeping changes – said to be in the interest of the ‘strongest concentration of all political, military, and economic forces in the hand of the supreme leader’ – was broadcast on the evening of 4 February. The sensational news covered page after page of the following day’s newspapers. Great surprise, worries about the likelihood of war, and a flurry of the wildest rumours – including an attack on Hitler’s life, mass shootings and arrests, attempts to depose Hitler and Göring and proclaim a military dictatorship, war-plans opposed by the dismissed generals – were common reactions over the next days. The real reasons were kept dark. ‘Praise God the people know nothing of it all and would not believe it,’ Goebbels reported Hitler as saying. ‘Therefore greatest discretion.’ Hitler’s way to handle it was to emphasize the concentration of forces under his leadership and ‘let nothing be noticed’.

The following afternoon, 5 February, a pallid and drawn-looking Hitler addressed his generals. He described what had happened, cited from the police reports, and read out sections of Gürtner’s damning assessment on Fritsch. The assembled officers were benumbed. No objections were raised. Hitler’s explanations appeared convincing. No one doubted that he could have acted differently. At a crucial moment, the undermining of the moral codex of the officer corps by its leading representatives had weakened the authority of the military leadership and in so doing had considerably strengthened Hitler’s position.

Though the crisis was unforeseen, not manufactured, the Blomberg–Fritsch affair engendered a key shift in the relations between Hitler and the most powerful non-Nazi élite, the army. At precisely the moment when Hitler’s adventurism was starting to cause shivers of alarm, the army had demonstrated its weakness and without a murmur of protest swallowed his outright dominance even in the immediate domain of the Wehrmacht. Hitler recognized the weakness, was increasingly contemptuous of the officer corps, and saw himself more and more in the role not only of head of state, but of great military leader.

The outcome of the Blomberg–Fritsch affair amounted to the third stepping-stone – after the Reichstag fire and the ‘Röhm-Putsch’ – cementing Hitler’s absolute power and, quite especially, his dominance over the army. With the military emasculated and the hawkish Ribbentrop at the Foreign Office, Hitler’s personal drive for the most rapid expansion possible – blending with the expansionist dynamic coming from the economy and the arms race – was unshackled from the forces which could have counselled caution. In the months that followed, the radical dynamic that had been building up through 1937 would take foreign and domestic developments into new terrain. The threat of war would loom ever closer. Racial persecution would again intensify. Hitler’s ideological ‘vision’ was starting to become reality. The momentum which Hitler had done so much to force along, but which was driven too by forces beyond his personality, was carrying him along with it. ‘Vision’ was beginning to overcome cold, political calculation. The danger-zone was being entered.

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