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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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