In January 1938, the 60-year-old defense minister of Nazi Germany, Werner von Blomberg, seemed on top of the world. Less than two years before, German Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler had made him the first of the Third Reich’s field marshals in reward for his successful rebuilding of the German armed forces under the Nazi regime. His role as military commander and adviser to the Führer soon came to an abrupt end, however, when the scandalous details of his new marriage were revealed.
Blomberg’s rise to power in the Third Reich had begun in 1932, when German Chancellor Heinrich Brüning had asked Defense Minister Wilhelm Gröner to relieve Lieutenant General Blomberg of his East Prussian duty station. Soon Blomberg was named chief of the German military delegation to the International Disarmament Conference at Geneva, where he had direct access to President Paul von Hindenburg. Blomberg spoke his mind to the Reich leader about the chancellor’s disarmament policies. Brüning’s government fell in June, followed by a Franz von Papen chancellorship and still another, led by Major General Kurt von Schleicher. Blomberg was then ordered to Berlin from Switzerland by presidential fiat on January 29, 1933, to avert an army coup.
By accepting an appointment by Hindenburg in Hitler’s first cabinet as defense minister in 1933, Blomberg in fact ensured that there would be a Nazi regime. He forestalled the army plot to kidnap the president, launch a military coup and thus prevent Hitler from taking office in a coalition government.
Blomberg and Hitler got on rather well, despite a showdown in June 1934 over whether or not the Führer was willing to suppress his own 2-million-man-strong storm trooper battalions, whose leader, Sturmabteilungen Chief Ernst Röhm, wanted to take over the army. A deal was reached, however, whereby Hitler would strike down Röhm and his cronies before the army did, and in return he would be named president at Hindenburg’s death. Both sides of this bargain were kept in the summer of 1934. Hindenburg died on August 1, and Hitler was proclaimed head of the German state the following day.
On Heroes’ Memorial Day in March 1935, Hitler announced to the world that he was ignoring the Versailles Treaty, which Republican Germany had been forced to sign in 1919, and was immediately expanding the German armed forces. A year later, although Blomberg annoyed Hitler by advising against it, the Führer sent his troops to reoccupy the former German Rhineland opposite hostile France.
A few weeks later, on his own 47th birthday, April 20, 1936, the Führer presented the tall, handsome general with a field marshal’s baton, making Blomberg the most powerful peacetime commander in German military history. This was a tacit acknowledgement of how well the two men had worked together in the expansion of the country’s military forces, and in particular during the creation of its new armored corps and reborn Luftwaffe. Because Blomberg pretended put on such a tough demeanor with others but was so amenable to Hitler’s wishes, his rivals secretly called him “The Rubber Lion.”
The next glitch in their relationship came in July 1937, with Hitler’s decision to send German “volunteers” to fight in Spain on the side of Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War, another move that his defense minister had cautioned against. Finally, on November 5, 1937, Hitler hosted a top-secret meeting of his service chiefs at the old Reich Chancellery in Berlin to announce that he planned to launch the nation into a general European war by 1943 at the latest. Blomberg opposed this as well, asserting that the Third Reich simply was not ready to take on France and Britain, let alone the Soviet Union. Again, Hitler was not pleased by the attitude of the man he had made a field marshal.
Blomberg had other difficulties at the time aside from the Führer’s disapproval. In 1931, Blomberg had suffered a serious concussion as the result of a riding accident. Historian Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr., has speculated that his injury, coupled with the death of his first wife, may have led to an increase in Blomberg’s emotional instability. Charlotte von Blomberg, his wife of 28 years, died in 1932.
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Six years later, in January 1938, Blomberg sought the Führer’s permission to remarry. Wilhelm Keitel, chief of the German high command and Blomberg’s former deputy, wrote of the episode from his jail cell at Nuremberg in October 1946, while he was awaiting execution as a war criminal.
“From his adjutants I learned that the wedding, a civil one, was to take place very privately towards the middle of January, in a hall at the War Ministry Building, and that Hitler and [Hermann] Göring had accepted invitations to attend as witnesses,” Keitel wrote. “I myself received no invitation to the ceremony, which was not followed by any religious wedding service….” According to Keitel: “Towards the end of the month, the Chief of Police in Berlin, Count [Wolf Heinrich Graf] von Helldorf, called on me in my office, having urgently asked for an interview. He was very agitated and began at once to ask me what the young bride had looked like….Finally, he pulled out of his pocket a change-of-address registration card with a passport-style photograph of one Fraulein Erna Grühn. This police file card reported her move to Blomberg’s flat in the Ministry Building on Tirpitzufer; it had been sent up to him by her local police station….The Fraulein Erna Grühn, who had in her new name as Blomberg’s wife checked out with the police authorities where she had lived, had in fact a criminal record for immorality. It would be indecorous of me to expand upon the details, which I was able to read for myself on her police record card.
“The Field Marshal’s wife was indeed a convicted prostitute. She had been under surveillance by the Morals Squad for years before she got her typing job at the War Ministry. Not only that, but her mother was also a notorious prostitute and madam, and had operated a bordello disguised as a massage parlor in a Berlin suburb. Erna had learned her ancient profession, so to speak, at her mother’s knee.
“What made the situation all the more shocking and intolerable was that in addition to selling her body for cash, which was at least a somewhat private transaction, Erna had also posed for pornographic pictures, which made her disgrace a far more public matter. The pictures had been widely sold and circulated, so that hundreds of Berliners now possessed photographs exhibiting the War Minister’s wife in a variety of obscene, shameless poses.
“The record further disclosed that she had been arrested in connection with the pictures and brought to court. She had testified that her lover and partner in the poses [who was said to be a 41-year-old Czech Jew] had run off, leaving her with only 60 marks as her share of the proceeds. The court had sympathetically given her a light sentence.”
Keitel sent Count von Helldorf with the dossier to Blomberg’s greatest rival, Hermann Göring, who not only coveted the field marshal’s baton but also resented being subordinate to Blomberg in the formal chain of command. Ironically, Blomberg himself—even though he was well aware of Göring’s rapacious ambitions—had secretly confided to Göring that Erna was a “child of the people,” to which the latter said that in the Nazi state this would be no obstacle to their wedlock. There was also another lover to be gotten rid of (possibly the Czech Jew?), but Göring had secured a job for him in South America as well as passage there.
Now an enraged Göring read the Helldorf dossier and took it to an equally enraged Hitler. The wedding had taken place on Göring’s own birthday—January 12, 1938—and both men felt they had been used by the field marshal. He had managed to marry Erna as well as retain his post, baton, flat and private railroad car, in which he had ridden exactly once—to see Fraulein Grühn at Oberhof in late 1937.
Göring confronted Blomberg with the Führer’s demand that his marriage be annulled, but the field marshal refused. Said Keitel in his postwar memoirs: “He justified this stand to me later by saying that he was deeply in love with his wife and claimed that had Hitler and Göring only wanted to help him he would have been able to stand firm on ‘the position he had taken’ in the affair.
“The fact was, however, that neither Hitler nor Göring believed Blomberg’s protestations that he had embarked innocently upon this adventure; they were beside themselves with rage at having been exploited as witnesses at his wedding. Both were convinced…that Blomberg had wanted to compel them in this way to hush up and stamp out any rumors and after-effects that might follow this step….He was absolutely shattered and near to collapse. He repeated to the Führer his disinclination to dissolve his marriage, and their long interview ended in his resignation.
“Afterwards Blomberg confided to me that he laid the blame squarely on Göring; if Göring had not entertained hopes of becoming his successor they would very easily have been able to cover up the whole affair with the mantle of true love. He had known all along that his wife had lived loosely in the past, but that was no reason for casting a woman out forever; in any case, she had for some time now been employed by the Reich Egg [Marketing] Board and earned her keep like that, though her mother was only an ironing-woman.”
Besides being devious about his affair, was the field marshal also naive? After all, King Edward VIII had abdicated the English throne for the sake of a controversial marriage in 1936, and Blomberg himself had been the Führer’s delegate to the coronation of King George VI. That event should have been a warning to him that such an alliance would have serious consequences.
The reactions of his fellow officers were summed up by then Colonel Alfred Jodl in his private diary: “What an influence a woman can exert on the history of a country, without even knowing it! One has the feeling of witnessing a decisive hour for the German people….The situation with regard to the wife of the Field Marshal affects the whole upper echelon of the Wehrmacht….One cannot tolerate the highest-ranking soldier marrying a whore. He should be forced to divorce the woman or else be taken off the list of officers, he could no longer be the commander of even a regiment….”
In his memoirs, Keitel says of his former boss, “I had always known how thickheaded and obstinate he was, once he had set his mind on a course of action,” but admitted later that maybe his chief had been right about Göring after all. “Göring was telling me that he had known of Blomberg’s wedding plans for some time in advance….In the meantime, Göring had ascertained all the details of the lady’s earlier character and he told me everything.”
Blomberg tried to bluff his way through the scandal, only to have his bluff called by Göring, who was apparently enraged by the whole thing. Whether Hitler was offended or only pretended to be, subsequent events served his ultimate purpose. Hitler took over the war ministry himself, renamed it Oberkommando der Wehrmacht—the high command of the armed forces—and appointed Keitel as his deputy. Göring was named a field marshal, but of the Luftwaffe, not the army in which he had been a general for the past four years. The army commander in chief was next forced out, as was the foreign minister, and both the military and the foreign and diplomatic services were reshuffled in time for the start-up of the war.
Hitler promised to recall Blomberg to active duty once the war began, although he never did. But he kept him on at full pay throughout the life of the Third Reich, and in the heady days of 1940 he acknowledged the debt he owed to the organizing genius of his once-vaunted Rubber Lion.
While enjoying an all-expenses-paid, round-the-world honeymoon from the Führer, Blomberg was offered a pistol with which to shoot himself by a German naval officer. He declined and survived the war to testify as a witness before the International Tribunal at Nuremberg.
Werner von Blomberg died of cancer on March 14, 1946, at the age of 67. At first he was buried in an unmarked grave at the Nuremberg jail, but his remains were later disinterred and reburied near his home in Bavaria. As for Erna Grühn von Blomberg, in 1952 she passed a state examination as a masseuse and announced her intention of taking over her mother’s massage parlor.