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Scandal in Berlin
What influence a woman, even without realising it, can exert on the history of a country and thereby on the world.
Colonel Alfred Jodl, January 26, 1938
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.Â€ˆ.Â€ˆ.Â€ˆ.Â€ˆHitler's personal drive for the most rapid expansion possible was unshackled from the forces which could have counselled caution. The danger-zone was being entered.
Sir Ian Kershaw, Hitler 1936-45: Nemesis
Field Marshal Werner Freiherr von Blomberg, Hitler's Minister of War and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, was a far from popular figure in the higher echelons of the army. It was widely felt that he failed to present the army's view sufficiently forcefully to Hitler, and that his fawning admiration for the Führer clouded his professional judgment. Behind his back he was sneeringly referred to as "Hitlerjunge Quex," after the Hitler Youth hero of a propaganda film who was prepared to sacrifice his life for Hitler. He was considered impulsive, easily influenced and too friendly with the Nazi Party hierarchy for the liking of the aristocratic old guard among the German officer corps. The British embassy in Berlin too recognized that he was "completely dominated by Herr Hitler whose words he quotes on each and every occasion." Blomberg, on the other hand, believed that he was much more "a man of the world" than his army contemporaries, having studied and traveled in Russia, the United States and throughout Europe. He was pointedly pro-British, and had relished acting as Hitler's representative at the coronation of King George VI in May 1937, where Chamberlain had found him to be "a very pleasant agreeable man of the world who talks extremely good English."
Although he had registered a passing unease as Hitler unveiled his expansionist plans at the Reich Chancellery on November 5, Blomberg's doubts were short-lived. As he left the meeting he told Admiral Raeder that Hitler's speech "had not been meant so earnestly and was not to be judged so seriously. He believed that the Führer would settle these questions peacefully." Yet he refused to discuss Fritsch's concerns with him, or even to acknowledge Beck's written memorandum, which was submitted to him on November 12. Instead, he set to work updating the one aspect of the Führer's orders over which he had personal control, the coordination of military planning. By December 21 he was ready to issue a new military directive, amending the provisions for Case Green, the existing plans for a lightning invasion of Czechoslovakia.
When Germany has achieved complete preparedness for war in all fields, then the military conditions will have been created for carrying out an offensive war [Angriffskrieg] against Czechoslovakia, so that the solution of the German problem of living space can be carried to a victorious end even if one or other of the Great Powers intervene against us.
Blomberg, meanwhile, had other, more personal, matters on his mind. He had married his first wife, the daughter of a retired army officer, in 1904, but she had died in 1929 after a long illness, leaving him with five grown-up children. Now fifty-nine, and growing increasingly tired of a lengthy and lonely widowhood, at some moment during September 1937 he met, and soon become infatuated with, a considerably younger woman. Legend varies as to whether he first met her on a park bench in the Tiergarten while out for his daily morning walk, or at the local hostelry where she worked. But the fact remained that Fräulein Margarethe Gruhn, known to her friends as Erna or Eva, was thirty-five years younger than the War Minister and came from a vastly contrasting social background. She had been born in 1913, the daughter of a cleaner and a gardener at the Royal Palace in Berlin, but after her father died in the First World War, her mother, Luise, lost her job and took up work instead as a masseuse. After working for her mother for a while, the two apparently fell out with each other, and a few years before her meeting with Blomberg, the young Erna had set out on her own in the world.
At some stage Erna secured a job as a stenographer at the Reich Egg Board, possibly with Blomberg's help, but, as he became increasingly besotted with his newfound lover, he became aware also that he was competing for her affections with another, younger man. The obvious course of action was for him to marry Erna, although he was well aware that the snobbery and prejudice that were prevalent among the army's aristocratic officer corps would lead to dismay among his colleagues at the proposed union. Incredibly, given that Göring had long coveted Blomberg's job for himself, it was to the Luftwaffe chief that Blomberg chose to turn. He confided in him that he was having an affair with a "girl of the people," and inquired confidentially whether it would be in order for him to marry her, given that she was also "a lady with a past." Göring, who had himself married an actress after the death of his first wife, assured him that the Third Reich was actively struggling to overcome just such social prejudices, and that the field marshal's high standing would not be compromised one iota. Indeed, such a marriage would help to bridge the social divide that unfortunately all too often still existed, and he would personally intervene with Hitler to secure the necessary support to fend off any criticism from within the officer corps.
A few days later an agitated Blomberg felt emboldened to return to see Göring again, with a further request for assistance. His younger rival for Erna's affection was refusing to bow out quietly could Göring possibly come up with a way of discreetly removing him from the fray? Göring shamelessly continued to play the role of well-wisher and promised that he would do what he could. The president of the Reich Grain Office was summoned, and agreed to find a suitable, well-paid position for Blomberg's rival in Argentina. The startled young man was duly sent for and informed by Göring that his passage was booked, and "that his health demanded a drastic change of climate." It would be in his best interests to leave immediately. Doubtless grateful that he had avoided being shipped instead to a concentration camp, the rival suitor "accepted his fate philosophically," but before setting out on his voyage called on Göring one last time. He felt it only right, he informed his unlikely benefactor, to warn him that Fräulein Gruhn was a woman of highly questionable character, and "had a rather more lurid personal history than she had probably told the field marshal." He strongly advised Göring that Blomberg should give careful consideration as to whether or not he should marry her.
His own impending nuptials were not Blomberg's only cause for celebration. His daughter Dorothea was engaged to be married to Lieutenant Karl-Heinz Keitel, the son of General Wilhelm Keitel, the chief of the Wehrmachtsamt, the Armed Forces Department within the Ministry of War, and thus effectively Blomberg's chief of staff. The elder Keitel had recently noticed that Blomberg's behavior had become increasingly bizarre, and that the field marshal had taken to driving out on his own, in civilian clothes, to a hotel in Oberhof, in the Thuringian forest. On December 15 Keitel's assistant, Colonel Alfred Jodl, noted in his diary that "The General Field Marshal is in a high state of excitement. Reason not known. Apparently a personal matter. He retired for eight days to an unknown place." Blomberg's adjutant refused to confide in Keitel, claiming that his chief was visiting a lady in Oberhof who had broken her ankle skiing.
In mid-December 1937 the First World War veteran General Erich Ludendorff died, and Hitler decreed that he should have a state funeral in the Feldernhalle in Munich. It fell to Blomberg to give the funeral oration. Keitel commandeered a special train, complete with Blomberg's new personal carriage which he had recently been given by Hitler, to take the field marshal's entourage to Munich. However, Blomberg failed to board with the others in Berlin, and the train was forced to take a detour to collect its principal passenger at Oberhof, where he was once again enjoying a few quiet days with Erna. After the funeral Blomberg persuaded Hossbach to let him have a few minutes alone with Hitler, and he repeated the bare facts of his earlier conversation with Göring, again conceding that his fiancée was a girl of humble origins. Hitler, like Göring before him, warmly endorsed the idea of Germany's senior military officer bridging the class divide in this way. Indeed, so enthusiastic was he to emphasize his complete rejection of any suggestion of snobbery that he insisted that he and Göring act as witnesses. As a result Blomberg felt suitably confident to spend Christmas with Erna at Oberhof, away from his own family, and on his return to confirm his plans to Keitel. "It was no disgrace," he insisted defensively, "in our modern National Socialist Germany to marry a 'child of the people' and he did not care a hoot for the gossip in so-called society." He had confided in his children, who had happily given him their blessing.
The wedding was to take place quietly on Wednesday, January 12, in one of the state rooms at the War Ministry in the Bendlerstrasse. The wedding party was kept deliberately small in accordance with the low-key occasion, and included just Erna's mother, Blomberg's former naval adjutant, an old friend and his three current adjutants. Blomberg arrived in ordinary uniform, proudly wearing his Iron Cross, while his bride was dressed in a gray dress and silk blouse, with no jewelry, and carried a bunch of red roses. They waited nervously in silence, until Hitler and Göring arrived together at noon. Hitler was wearing a plain brown storm trooper's uniform tunic, but with no swastika armband, while Göring, never one to miss an opportunity to dress up, was in full-dress uniform of the air force, complete with all decorations. Blomberg presented his bride to the Führer, who in turn handed her a bouquet of yellow roses, before he and Göring took their places either side of the couple for the civil ceremony. At its conclusion all four signed the register, and, as was the custom, the registrar handed the newly married couple a copy of Mein Kampf, as Hitler looked on impassively. One of Blomberg's adjutants later noticed that it had been left on the table when the guests departed.
News of the marriage and Hitler's participation appeared prominently, albeit with no accompanying comment, in that evening's Berlin newspapers. The announcement caused a considerable stir, and was greeted with incredulity by the majority of senior Nazis, many of them friends of Blomberg, who had had no idea that the field marshal was planning to remarry. The lack of detail and photographs in the reports, however, immediately caused suspicion and rumors soon began to circulate. The publication a few days later of a photograph of Blomberg and his new wife on their honeymoon, apparently taken in front of the monkey enclosure at Leipzig zoo, did little to still the gossip. The Daily Mail took it upon itself to fill the gap and investigated the story with alacrity. "Field Marshal von Blomberg," it announced, "has astonished his friends and colleagues by getting married." Reports suggested that the bride was variously from Hamburg or Geneva, and that the ceremony had taken place "in a hospital, where, it is said, the bride is being treated for an injury received while ski-ing." Blomberg's original cover story had by now gained credibility.
Showing considerable ingenuity, the paper's Berlin correspondent managed to track down Frau Gruhn to a "small workman's shack in Neukölln, a working class district of Berlin." "We have probably been more surprised than anyone else," mused Frau Gruhn, describing herself as a "State-registered masseuse." Her daughter, she assured the reporter, had gone to work as a typist in the War Ministry after leaving school. "We knew she had been getting on well, but we did not dream that she had become friendly with the Field Marshal." Meanwhile the page opposite this scoop ran a trailer for the paper's forthcoming serialization of Agatha Christie's latest thriller, A Date with Death (later entitled Appointment with Death) "a gripping first-rate story in which the excitement and interest never flag." As the Daily Mail briefly became the most widely read newspaper in Berlin, the city's residents were enjoying a first-rate story of their own.
The happy couple's honeymoon was cut short by the sudden death of Blomberg's mother, and he returned for the funeral, at Eberswalde near Berlin, on January 20. The sense of mystery surrounding his new wife was only heightened by her appearance at the graveside, so heavily veiled that it was impossible to see her face, and her hurried departure before anyone could talk to her afterward. By now the trickle of malicious rumors was becoming a torrent. The following day Fritsch's adjutant took a telephone call in his office, and when he refused to put the anonymous caller through to the commander-in-chief in person, the voice at the other end of the line shouted back: "Then tell the general that Field Marshal von Blomberg has married a whore." With that he hung up, leaving the adjutant staring incredulously at the telephone receiver. He reported the call to Fritsch, who in turn discussed it with Beck and Hossbach, but in spite of much shaking of heads the army hierarchy failed to accept the proffered bait and move against Blomberg.
On the same day, however, Erna Gruhn's true background was finally revealed. There are a number of explanations as to how her police file may have found its way onto the desk of the chief of the Berlin police, Count Wolf Heinrich von Helldorf. One has the wife of a Berlin police inspector discussing the latest gossip surrounding Blomberg with her husband, who, on checking his files in the Residence Registry Office the next morning, was astonished to discover that Erna was indeed known to the Berlin police. Another has a police official overhearing a little girl on the street, boasting to her friend that "Mother Gruhn has gotten herself a fine new son-in-law, a field marshal." A further account describes how a drunken prostitute is arrested one night and boasts that she is not so bad if girls like her can aspire to rise to the highest places. And the most detailed has an officer in the Bureau of Moral Offences recognizing Erna's name on a number of pornographic photographs which had recently come into the office.
By whatever tortuous means it may have arrived there, the fact remains that by late morning on January 21 a bulging dossier detailing all of Erna Gruhn's past misdemeanors lay open on Helldorf's desk. The dry legal language could not conceal the clear implication that the wife of Field Marshal von Blomberg, the Minister of War and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, was a prostitute. It had apparently been common knowledge that her mother was running a brothel under the camouflage of her massage parlor, and had two convictions against her name for procuring and prostitution. Eva too had come to the attention of the Berlin police at an early age, and was also registered in the file as a prostitute, having "used her domicile for naked orgies." As well as a more mundane conviction for stealing, she had also acquired a lengthy record for having "posed for pornographic photographs with partners of both sexes; further she had made commercial transactions in the said photographs," five of which were included in the dossier. Incredibly, she had at the time taken out an action against the photographer, complaining that he had only paid her sixty marks for her trouble. The images had apparently "been obscene enough to sell tremendously."
Helldorf was well known to British diplomats as an ardent Nazi, "a bullyâ€ˆ.Â€ˆ.Â€ˆ.Â€ˆnotorious for rowdy attacks on Jews" who had gambled away a substantial fortune. However, nothing in his training had prepared him for this eventuality. As he looked at the face of the nude girl in the incriminating photographs, he was "thunderstruck" at the possibility that it might be Frau von Blomberg. He quickly realized that if he acted as properly as he should, and took the file to his ultimate superior, Heinrich Himmler, he would be providing the SS with an invaluable weapon with which to blackmail the head of the armed forces. Only recently he had dared to step outside official channels by taking evidence that the Under-Secretary in the Propaganda Ministry, Walther Funk, was homosexual, direct to Goebbels. He had been severely reprimanded for doing so, and it was therefore a considerable risk for him to consider doing the same again.
Bravely, however, Helldorf decided to bypass the SS and take the evidence instead to Blomberg's nearest associate, General Keitel. The conversation began cautiously, with Helldorf delicately inquiring whether Keitel could identify the new Frau Blomberg from a passport-style photograph on her registration card. Keitel had to admit that he had only seen the young lady on one occasion, when she had been heavily veiled at Blomberg's mother's funeral. Helldorf was incredulous, pointing out that Blomberg and Keitel were soon to be related by marriage, and insisted that Keitel call Blomberg there and then to ascertain the truth. Unfortunately for Blomberg, he was out of Berlin attending to his late mother's affairs and could not be reached. Finally Helldorf came out with the unvarnished truth, and showed Keitel the full dossier. As the future father-in-law of Blomberg's daughter, Keitel could not conceal his embarrassment, and his first thought was that Helldorf should leave the evidence with him, and he would show it to Blomberg on his return to Berlin. But Helldorf refused; it was too late for a cover-up, too many people were already in on the story. Lamely, Keitel, who wanted nothing more to do with the whole sorry saga, referred Helldorf to Göring, "who as a witness at their wedding had, of course, met and seen the young lady."
Having seen Keitel, Helldorf telephoned Arthur Nebe, the chief of the Reich Criminal Police, and asked him to come round to his office. Although Nebe was a general in the SS, Helldorf trusted him, and knew that he preferred to keep Himmler, and his Gestapo chief, Reinhard Heydrich, at arm's length. As Nebe cast a cold eye over the file's contents, Helldorf impatiently asked him what he made of it. "It is evidently an attempt to destroy Marshal von Blomberg," replied the police chief. "It is a coup, well prepared and well executed, probably by the Gestapo." When Helldorf interjected that the Gestapo as yet knew nothing of the affair, Nebe scoffed. "Do you really believe that Heydrich, who keeps files on everybody from Hitler and Göring downwards, including yourself and myself, did not know that Erna Gruhn was a prostitute? You may be sure that when the most important man in the German army marries, Heydrich knows all about this lady." The only question in his mind was who had "pushed this prostitute at the Field-Marshal."
Not only had he failed to warn Blomberg of the dark clouds that were circling, but the spineless Keitel, so desperate was he to wash his hands of any further involvement, had rung Göring's office personally to make the appointment. In the words of one observer at the time, Helldorf was now "being asked to carry the bomb with its lighted fuse to the very place where the most spectacular explosion would be welcomed." The following morning, a Saturday, Helldorf drove out to see Göring at Karinhall. Göring did not like having his weekends disturbed, and greeted his uninvited guest brusquely: "Well, what's it about?" As Helldorf began slowly to recount his story, Göring paced impatiently back and forth around the room, listening with increasing interest as Helldorf reached his inevitable climax. Göring went over to a window, threw it open, took a deep breath and exclaimed: "This is the last straw." How far he was acting out a role, and how far he was genuinely shocked, Helldorf was unable to judge.
Two days later, during the early evening of Monday, January 24, the staff at the Reich Chancellery were nervously awaiting the Führer's return from a stay at Obersalzberg. Hossbach was hanging about in the entrance hall, anxious to inform him of a request he had received from Blomberg for an urgent audience. At that moment an unusually apprehensive Göring arrived with his adjutant, Colonel Karl Bodenschatz, clutching a brown file in his hand. To Hossbach, Göring immediately launched into a lengthy tirade about the unfortunate affair of Field Marshal Blomberg, and how "it always fell to his lot to bring particularly unpleasant matters to the Führer's attention." He then continued into Hitler's outer office, where he encountered Captain Fritz Wiedemann, Hitler's personal adjutant, who found the Air Minister to be in a state of considerable agitation, pacing around the room "like an angry lion." To his casual request as to whether all was well, Bodenschatz whispered conspiratorially: "I am telling you, Blomberg will have to get out; he has married a whore!"
When Hitler finally arrived, he and Göring were closeted together for a considerable time, and all contemporary reports suggest that the Führer was genuinely stunned at what Göring had to tell him, letting out a despairing cry: "Nothing is spared to me." Wiedemann later found him "crushed," walking around his office in a trancelike state, head bowed, and hands clasped behind his back. For Hitler, there were a number of factors that made the situation even worse that it might initially have appeared. It transpired that the indecent photographs of Frau Blomberg and her erstwhile lover had been taken by a Czechoslovak Jew. Scurrilous rumors that later did the rounds of Berlin suggested that Hitler "took a bath seven times the next day to rid himself of the taint of having kissed the hand of Frau Blomberg." Worse still, the potential blow to his international prestige, having stood as witness at the wedding, was too horrific to contemplate. That night he lay awake worrying at how to avoid a loss of face. "If a German Field Marshal marries a whore," he lamented to Wiedemann, "anything in the world is possible." Göring was told to see Blomberg the following day and insist that he get an immediate divorce, or better still a full annulment of the marriage on the grounds of gross deception. In the meantime, he was to be barred from the Chancellery and forbidden to wear uniform.
Rumors of Blomberg's impending demise were soon rife throughout the political and diplomatic circles of Berlin. Colonel Jodl recorded in his diary that "telephone calls from [Erna Gruhn's] friends are supposed to have reached the generals from public houses in which they celebrated the social rise of their 'colleague.'Â€ˆ" At Abwehr headquarters on Tirpitzufer, Admiral Canaris was warned that rumors were circulating by his chief of staff, Colonel Hans Oster, a close friend of Wiedemann. Like a number of others, Canaris was perplexed as to why Keitel had not warned Blomberg of the existence of the dossier, and was perturbed at Göring's close involvement in what should have been a purely army affair. "Blomberg can't be saved," Goebbels recorded in his diary. "Only the pistol remains for a man of honour.Â€ˆ.Â€ˆ.Â€ˆ.Â€ˆThe Führer as a marriage witness. It's unthinkable." But Göring, with his eye now firmly on stepping into Blomberg's shoes, was playing for altogether higher stakes. If Hitler meant to allow Blomberg to keep his job on the sole understanding that he brought his marriage to a speedy end, then it was vital for Göring's plans that Blomberg was not informed of this fact, and that he remained defiantly married.
When Göring called on Blomberg at the War Ministry on the morning of January 25, his demeanor was businesslike, even brutal. Eschewing any opening niceties, he informed the horrified field marshal that "certain matters in the distant past" of his wife had come to light, and that he was to be relieved of his post and discharged from the army. He falsely told Blomberg that the army high command was demanding his resignation, and failed utterly to pass on Hitler's message that an annulment of the marriage might lead to his keeping his job. Göring may even have failed to make clear the full details of the charges against his wife that were contained in the dossier. Blomberg, believing that he had nothing to gain by divorcing his new bride, refused absolutely to contemplate such a move, insisting that he was deeply in love, and complaining bitterly at "such unspeakably unfair treatment." Why should he not enjoy the freedom customary to anyone in his choice of wife? Göring replied tersely that he could "please himself about the marriage, but the dismissal was absolutely final." The conversation lasted just five minutes, and after Göring had left his office, Blomberg's nervous adjutants opened the door a crack to reveal "the hale and hearty field marshal staggering, a broken man, to his private rooms behind the office."
Blomberg, however, was not the only senior officer in the armed forces whose world was about to collapse. While Göring was reading him the riot act at the War Ministry, back at the Reich Chancellery Hitler was holed up with the trusty Hossbach. They were discussing the question of Blomberg's succession. Hitler was furious that he had been betrayed by Blomberg, who had told him nothing of his wife's past, and yet had happily allowed him to act as a witness at the wedding. Although Hossbach already had an inkling of what had happened, he was appalled at the grim detail and furious that the good name of the officer corps had been dragged into such a quagmire of immorality. He was still coming to terms with the implications of what he had learned when suddenly, completely out of the blue, Hitler shifted the conversation away from Blomberg and on to Fritsch. The commander-in-chief of the army, he declared solemnly, was homosexual, and would have to go as well. The evidence had been in his hands for some time. Hossbach was stunned.
Göring was well aware that Fritsch would be the obvious candidate to fill the vacant post of War Minister. He had therefore taken the opportunity quietly to remind Hitler of the existence of an SS file, created by Himmler in 1936. It contained the accusation that Fritsch had been subjected to persistent blackmail by a Berlin rent-boy on account of alleged homosexual activity in 1933. When originally shown the accusations, Hitler had refused to believe them, had forbidden an investigation, and had ordered the file to be burned. Now he asked Himmler to "reconstruct" the file, a simple task for the SS chief as it had in fact been sitting for the past two years in a safe in Heydrich's office. By the morning of January 25 it was back on the Führer's desk, delivered in person by Himmler not only in pristine condition, but in a remarkably expanded form. Hossbach read it with horror, clearly understanding the appalling implications of a second scandal so soon after the first. Throughout the day, and late into the night, he tried to convince Hitler that the charges against Fritsch were absolutely without foundation and clearly a clumsy manipulation. By the time he left the office to return home that night he had decided on his course of action. Although Hitler had expressly forbidden him to warn Fritsch of the accusations against him, Hossbach drove straight to the Bendlerstrasse, where Fritsch had his private apartment in the War Ministry, and confronted him. Fritsch was horrified and, in uncharacteristically colorful language, vehemently rejected them as a tissue of "stinking lies."
The following morning, January 26, Hossbach returned to work and immediately sought an interview with Hitler. He admitted that he had been to see Fritsch, recounted their conversation, and again tried to reassure his chief that the allegations were completely without foundation. Hitler listened calmly and made a convincing show of appearing relieved. All would be well, and Fritsch could, after all, become Minister of War. Later that morning, unknown to Hossbach, Blomberg arrived at the Chancellery at Hitler's request for a final meeting. The Führer was calm, but firm. The scandal of the field marshal's marriage was too much for the Reich to bear and, with great sadness, he had decided that it was time for them to part company. Blomberg again protested his innocence and, to Hitler's annoyance, played down the serious nature of the accusations against his wife, insisting that she was but "a simple girl of the people." But by now Hitler had heard enough and, as quickly as he could, shifted the conversation on to the issue of the succession. Having told Hossbach just a short time earlier that Fritsch was back in the running, he began by informing Blomberg that the commander-in-chief of the army was a homosexual and therefore not in contention.
Blomberg tried to hide his surprise, and probably his pleasure too, that he was not alone in his misfortune. He even concurred that he thought such a prospect entirely conceivable. Fritsch, he agreed, was not a "woman's man," and the general, a lifelong bachelor, might well "have succumbed to weakness."
"In that case," Blomberg said, "the choice must fall on Göring." Now it was Hitler's turn to look surprised.
"Not possible," he replied. "He has neither the patience nor the application to work."
"In that case," continued Blomberg, "the Ministry of War must revert to the Führer himself."
Such a radical idea clearly held an immediate appeal for Hitler, who promised to consider it, but pointed out that he would need someone to do the intensive staff work that would be required.
"What's the name of that general who's been in your office up to now?" Hitler asked.
"Oh, Keitel," replied Blomberg. "There's no question of him; he's nothing but the man who runs my office."
Hitler seized on this at once. "That's exactly the man I am looking for."
Having been told, untruthfully, by Göring that it was the army hierarchy that had been at the forefront of demands for his dismissal, it is hardly surprising that Blomberg decided to get his own back before his own departure. Having delivered the army into Hitler's hands, he then proceeded to identify a list of generals who were not in his opinion sufficiently supportive of the aspirations and machinery of National Socialism. Beck was later to brand the former War Minister a "scoundrel [Schuft]" for this final act of treachery against his erstwhile colleagues. Hitler, however, seemed pleased with the information and, according to Jodl, "by his superhuman kindness, succeeded in comforting the Feldmarschall. He told him: As soon as Germany's hour comes, you will be at my side, and everything which happened in the past will be forgotten." Blomberg too later claimed that Hitler promised him "with the greatest emphasis that I would take over the supreme command in wartime." In the meantime, he would continue to draw his full salary, and would be provided with the sum of 50,000 marks to enable him and his new wife to travel abroad for what Blomberg believed was to be a year's holiday.
Blomberg returned to the War Ministry to clear his desk, and told Keitel that he was to report to the Führer in civilian clothes that afternoon. Blomberg recounted the details of his earlier interview, in particular Hitler's promise that he would be recalled to active duty in time of war. However, it was transparently plain to Keitel that his old friend "was clutching very strongly at these words," and that Hitler had no such intention whatsoever. Keitel reproached Blomberg for not having confided in him sooner, indeed before he had taken such a momentous step as marriage, and tried one last time to persuade his chief to initiate divorce proceedings, and thus possibly to hang on to his job. But Blomberg indignantly rejected the idea, even for the sake of their respective children, soon to be married themselves. It had been a "love-match on both sides," and he would "rather put a bullet in his head than do that." With that he rushed from the room, the tears streaming down his face.
The following day Blomberg set off on his belated honeymoon, effectively to spend a year in exile, with Hitler's golden handshake in his pocket. He told his friends that he was embarking on a voyage to the Indian Ocean, but went first to Rome and then on to Capri for a holiday, from where news filtered back that the newly weds were thoroughly enjoying themselves in the warm Italian sunshine. An enterprising reporter from the Daily Express tracked the happy couple down to their island hideaway, from where he filed a feature on Frau Blomberg that could hardly have been further removed from the scandalous reputation she had left behind in Berlin.
She is a tall woman, large-boned, well rounded. In a flowing white robe and crown she might play Brunnhilde. In modern dress, she is that large comforting type of woman whom you know would make you a good cup of tea, and would always have a newspaper laid out for you on the breakfast table. Her eyes are blue-grey, and she looks at you in a quietly fearless way. Her profile is cleanly chiselled. Her broad forehead slopes to a smallish nose. Her lips are full and mobile. Like most Germans she has a hearty, healthy appetite.
Lord Beaverbrook's scoop-seeking correspondent was not the only unwanted guest to track down the Blombergs in Capri. In a bizarre, tragicomic final twist to the story, they were pursued there by a young naval officer, Baron Hubertus von Wangenheim, who had acted as Blomberg's adjutant at the Wehrmachtsamt. Wangenheim had been despatched by Admiral Raeder in a final effort, as Keitel had made before his departure, to persuade Blomberg to divorce his wife and thus save the honor of the officer corps. However, the arrogant and overzealous young officer far exceeded his instructions. On finding Blomberg in his hotel, he first described in gruesome detail the full litany of Erna's previous indiscretions, and then thrust his revolver into the field marshal's face with the suggestion that he should do the honorable thing. Blomberg, who was by now enjoying married life far too much even to consider such nonsense, waved the young fanatic away and wrote angrily to Keitel, complaining that Wangenheim "apparently held entirely different opinions and a different standard of life." Keitel was furious that Wangenheim had gone to Capri without his permission, and that the clumsy attempt to offer Blomberg the honorable way out had shown "an extraordinary arrogance on the part of this young officer who believes it is his duty to be the guardian of the honour of the officer corps." Göring, meanwhile, was so angry that he threatened to have the young officer shot. A dead field marshal was the very last thing that either he or Hitler needed at that precise moment.
Keitel kept his appointment with Hitler at the Reich Chancellery later that afternoon, having first been summoned to see Göring, who was now busily canvassing for support as Blomberg's successor. He had already persuaded Wiedemann to put his name forward, but Hitler had dismissed the idea out of hand.
"Out of the question. He does not even understand anything about the Luftwaffe."
Keitel received much the same reply when he repeated the suggestion a few hours later.
"Never," exclaimed Hitler, "he is much too easygoing and lazy. I am going to take direct command of the Wehrmacht myself."
When Keitel then recommended Fritsch as next in line for the post, he too was shown the incriminating dossier alleging homosexuality. Hitler made it clear that he was now seeking a successor for both Blomberg and Fritsch, and flattered Keitel, inviting him to become his chief of staff, with the prospect of further self-improvement in due course. Keitel's first task was a distasteful one, a "thankless duty," he complained. Hitler was furious with Hossbach for having disobeyed orders, and going behind his back to warn Fritsch of the accusations against him. Hossbach "had broken his confidence and he never wanted to see him again." Keitel was to dismiss him forthwith and find the Führer a new adjutant.
Colonel General Werner Freiherr von Fritsch, the commander-in-chief of the army, was a gifted officer of the old school. A typical General Staff character, he sported a monocle, was stiff and reserved, but determined. His professional ability and his fierce loyalty to the army ensured that he was widely admired and respected. The army in turn demonstrated its allegiance to him, and his authority as commander-in-chief was unquestioned. Unlike Blomberg, he did not rely for his prestige on Hitler's personal favor, and the Führer felt uneasy in his presence. He tended to keep out of politics, except when it impinged on army matters, for instance when he spoke out in opposition to Hitler's plans at the Reich Chancellery on November 5. Bravely, he had never made any attempt to conceal his long-standing hostility to the Nazi Party, nor the contempt he felt for Himmler and the SS in particular. As a result, Himmler had been plotting his overthrow for some time. Similarly, it is unlikely that Hitler had either forgiven or forgotten Fritsch's display of defiance, and once Blomberg had been safely removed, it was to Fritsch, and the earlier allegations against him, that Hitler now turned his attention.
The dossier had its genesis over five years earlier, in November 1933. One cold winter evening that month, an unremarkable member of the city's underworld was loitering in the dimly lit lobby of the Potsdamer Platz railway station, on the Wannsee suburban line in downtown Berlin. Otto Schmidt was an occasional male prostitute, thief, blackmailer and extortionist. When necessary, he was also a police informer. That night, as was often his custom, he was keeping a careful eye on the comings and goings outside the station's public washroom, a venue he knew to be a lucrative source of easy blackmail. His patience was soon rewarded. A group of army and navy officers approached, accompanied by a man of advanced middle age, with a monocle, wearing a dark coat with fur collar, and carrying a cane with a silver handle. After talking for a short time, they split up to go their separate ways, and the man excused himself and went into the washroom. Not long after he came out with a young man whose face was immediately familiar to Schmidt Josef Weingärtner, a well-known local rent-boy, who went by the sobriquet of "Bavarian Joe."
Schmidt surreptitiously followed the two men along a dark alleyway beside the perimeter fence of the station, until they reached the cover of some scaffolding against a local building. Keeping his distance, he waited until they emerged from the shadows sometime later and then quickly separated. Assuming the anonymous man had paid Bavarian Joe for homosexual sex, Schmidt approached the rent-boy and asked point-blank what had taken place. Weingärtner, though shocked, confirmed his suspicions, whereupon Schmidt quickly tracked back to the station platform where his intended mark was boarding a train. Having caught up with him in his carriage, to the old man's horror, Schmidt gravely informed him that he was "Criminal Commissar Kröger" of the morals police, and confronted him with the shameful scene he claimed to have just witnessed. He was prepared, however, to turn a blind eye for a suitable sum in return. After some debate as to what might constitute a suitable payoff, the terrified gentleman identified himself as Cavalry Captain Achim von Frisch, and offered 200 marks, all that he had in his wallet at the time. The similarity of his name to that of the commander-in-chief of the army was to prove the latter's undoing.
Schmidt dismissed the amount as insufficient, but agreed to accompany Frisch to his home in Ferdinandstrasse, in the suburb of East Lichterfelde. There, Frisch went into his apartment, leaving Schmidt outside, and emerged soon after with a further sum, still only a down payment toward a newly agreed figure of 500 marks. The following morning Frisch went to his local bank, withdrew more money, and later met Schmidt in the waiting room of the station at East Lichterfelde, where the full 500 marks was finally paid over, accompanied by brandy and cigars. Frisch believed that he had done enough and was now in the clear, but in the time-honored manner of all blackmailers, Schmidt returned just a few days later and confronted Frisch with another man, supposedly his police superior, who demanded his own cut. This time a sum of 2,000 marks was agreed, half to be paid immediately and half in a few weeks' time. When the further rendezvous took place, again in the station waiting room, Schmidt turned up with yet another "detective." The three of them proceeded to drink vast amounts of beer and whisky (so much so that the bar owner still remembered them four years later), and finally Frisch handed over the final payment of 1,000 marks.
Sadly for Frisch, but inevitably, even this supposedly final disbursement failed to satisfy the bloodsucking Schmidt, who turned up from time to time to demand further payments, always accompanied by a heavy drinking session. The old cavalry officer's health declined rapidly, apparently worn out by the stress of being so persistently blackmailed, and he was forced to employ a nurse, which he could scarcely afford anyway. Having bled him dry, one day Schmidt passed his house with a friend and boasted that there lived a man he once "laid on the cross," his most successful sting ever. But Otto Schmidt was soon to fall victim himself to the changing political climate in Germany.
In the aftermath of the Röhm affair of June 1934, and in an effort to divert attention from the savagery of his actions, Hitler chose in part to justify his liquidating the leadership of the SA by emphasizing the homosexual depravity of Ernst Röhm and his followers. Although Hitler had never appeared to have taken much interest in this issue previously (and was shortly to promote a notorious homosexual, Walther Funk, to be Minister of Economics), this was enough to give the green light to a relatively underemployed Gestapo that the full power of the Nazi state's repressive machinery should be used to purge those committing this most heinous of crimes. It was an ideal opportunity for the Gestapo greatly to expand its sphere of influence. A "Reich Centre for Combating Homosexuality" was established as Gestapo Department II-H, and a homosexual witch-hunt was instituted, resulting in hundreds of men being rounded up, brought before special courts on an assembly-line basis, and hauled off to concentration camps.
It was not long before the Gestapo hit upon an ingenious idea for quickening the pace of the process of investigation and conviction. Instead of searching for homosexuals themselves, it proved infinitely easier to trawl through the prisons of Germany and find the low-life degenerates who had made a living out of spying on, and then blackmailing, homosexuals in the past. Clearly they would be only too happy to spill the beans in return for a reduction in their own sentence. Otto Schmidt had been in and out of custody since his teenage years, and by 1936 he was back in prison, serving a seven-year sentence. When first approached for interview by the local police, he cheerfully recounted in full the details of quite literally hundreds of homosexuals whom he had blackmailed in the past. Among them, he claimed, was a senior army officer by the name of Frisch. When the file reached Department II-H at Gestapo headquarters, the name that called to mind the commander-in-chief of the army inevitably attracted the immediate attention of the department's chief, Joseph Meisinger, "a corrupt, repulsive, sordid figure, addicted to the cruder methods of conducting investigations and detested by more fastidious associates."
Schmidt was delivered into the custody of the Gestapo, and at his first interrogation was shown a photograph of Fritsch in full regimental uniform, above a caption giving his name and military rank. Schmidt, who was by now enjoying his moment in the limelight and was only too happy to please his interrogators, duly identified him as the man he had seen at the Potsdamer Platz station, and whom he had subsequently blackmailed. Meisinger could not believe his good luck. The news that the SS now had a weapon with which to attack Fritsch soon found its way to Heydrich, then to Himmler, and finally to Hitler himself. It was at that stage, in 1936, that Hitler was supposed to have expressed his revulsion at the very idea of Fritsch being homosexual, and ordered the file to be burned, an order which Himmler had notably disobeyed. Thus it was that two years later the dossier reappeared, in pristine condition, on the Führer's desk in the early hours of the morning of January 25, 1938.
Fritsch had already been on his guard, even before Hossbach defied Hitler's orders by visiting him to warn him of the accusations contained in the dossier. Just two days previously he had been visited by an old friend, who had received an anonymous telephone call warning him that: "You are a friend of General von Fritsch. He is in the greatest danger." Further disturbed by his conversation with Hossbach, Fritsch had subsequently spent a sleepless night mulling over the issues in his mind, and trying to explain the source of the allegations against him. He recalled the few occasions during the winter of 1933-34 when he had lunched alone with fatherless boys of the Hitler Youth, in a charitable, and wholly innocent, effort to support the Reich Winter Aid Campaign. He could only conclude that the predicament with which he was now faced must have originated from some accompanying malicious, but inaccurate, gossip. The following morning he called Hossbach and invited him to a meeting in the riding ring of the War Ministry, but his story of the Hitler Youth boys served only to unnerve his most ardent supporter.
Hossbach returned to the Chancellery and again confronted Hitler, demanding to know why the charges, which he had refused to believe in 1936, had now suddenly acquired such prominence. If the material was so damning, why had Hitler continued to work with Fritsch for those two years? Hitler mumbled that Fritsch had been indispensable during the period of military rearmament, and implied that he might once again be back in the running for the post of War Minister. Hossbach replied that Fritsch wished only to remain in his existing post. However, Hitler later told both Blomberg and Keitel that even that was out of the question, due to the charges of homosexuality that had been brought against him. And any generous feelings he may indeed have harbored toward Fritsch were all but obliterated by the constant comings and goings of Göring, Himmler and Heydrich throughout the day. By late afternoon Hitler was again warning Hossbach that the charges against Fritsch were all but proven. "Homosexuals," he gravely informed his adjutant, "the highest and lowest alike, are all liars." Fritsch was to be suspended from duty with immediate effect. Hossbach then proposed that Fritsch should face a tribunal of honor, composed of army generals, but Hitler brushed that suggestion aside also.
He did, however, agree to consult the Minister of Justice, Franz Gürtner, who was summoned to the Chancellery. Gürtner was a representative of the ministerial old guard, from the days of pre-Third Reich government. He had kept his head down and, largely by telling Hitler what he wanted to hear in a cool and calm manner, had managed to survive in his job. He was known to be weak-willed, and when Hitler called him to the Chancellery that afternoon he almost certainly knew that Gürtner would be happy to do his bidding. Hitler thrust the Fritsch dossier into his hand and demanded that Gürtner provide a written opinion there and then. He emphasized, as he was to do over the following days, that Schmidt's evidence had always proved reliable in cases in which he had testified (this was, in fact, the exact opposite of the truth, since Schmidt's police file made it clear that he was a professional liar who had never been taken seriously in the past). Gürtner hurriedly scribbled out an opinion, declaring that the documents showed Fritsch to have been accused under Article 175 of the penal code, that he had not as yet cleared himself of the charge, and that "in the form in which the documents lie before me they can provide the basis for a charge by the public prosecutor."
Hitler finally agreed to Hossbach's insistent suggestion that Fritsch should be given the opportunity of being confronted with the evidence against him in person. "It is not for von Fritsch to exonerate himself," he added, "as he will only tell lies. Our purpose is to confront him with a witness named Schmidt who is detained by the Gestapo." In fact Schmidt had been released from prison after giving his original testimony in 1936, but had conveniently been recently taken back into custody by the Gestapo. Now, on Himmler's instructions, a senior Gestapo officer, Franz Josef Huber, was despatched to fetch him from the internment camp where he was being held. That evening Hossbach summoned Fritsch to the Chancellery by telephone and went down to meet him in the entrance hall, primarily to warn him about the intended confrontation with Schmidt, before leading him upstairs to Hitler's library. In the words of one historian, it was to be an experience for Fritsch for which "his long training as an aristocrat, an officer and a gentleman had scarcely prepared him."
The interview began with Hitler, Göring and Fritsch in the room. Hitler came straight to the point, demanding to know if the allegations were true, and offering to have the whole affair hushed up, and Fritsch sent far away from Germany. Fritsch listened carefully to the charges, and then vehemently protested his innocence. Schmidt had meanwhile arrived at the Chancellery with Huber and an accompanying guard of Gestapo officers. One of Hitler's personal adjutants was so appalled at the disgusting state Schmidt was in, that he insisted that he be shaved and generally cleaned up before being taken into the Führer's presence. Huber and Schmidt then took up their positions at the foot of the Chancellery staircase, and at an agreed signal Hitler and Göring led Fritsch out onto the landing above. Huber and Schmidt slowly climbed to the top of the stairs, whereupon Hitler gazed at the seedy-looking ruffian before him and asked if he recognised Fritsch. Schmidt paused, pointed dramatically at Fritsch and, far from being overawed by the occasion or the company he was in, replied confidently, "That's the man." Fritsch, his high-minded sensibility outraged by the very presence of such a creature in the inner sanctums of German government, appeared too dumbfounded to speak.
Back in the library Fritsch repeatedly and calmly protested his innocence. He had never laid eyes on Schmidt before, and again gave the Führer his word of honor, as an officer and a gentleman, that he had nothing to do with the whole sordid affair. Only then did he make a mistake. When Hitler asked if he could think of any reason why he might have aroused any suspicion of homosexuality, Fritsch foolishly referred to the incident with the Hitler Youth boys. Hossbach, who had been deliberately excluded from the interview, had failed to warn him to keep off the subject in spite of his own reservations, and the admission had precisely the opposite effect on Hitler to that which Fritsch had hoped for. His composed demeanor also counted against him. He had steeled himself to stay calm and in control, but his lack of histrionics made Hitler more suspicious still. "Just imagine, Wiedemann," Hitler confided to his adjutant later that evening. "Now it is suddenly not two but four fellows with whom he has had to do. Now this matter can no longer be kept secret. All I wanted was to hear from his own mouth the proof."
Hitler decided that Fritsch's guilt was established beyond doubt. "Here is word against word," recorded Goebbels in his diary. "That of a homosexual blackmailer against that of the head of the army. And the Führer does not trust Fritsch any longer." Hitler again suggested that his senior general should disappear quietly on the grounds of ill-health, but Fritsch understood only too well that such a course of action would represent a public admission of guilt. He refused, and demanded instead that he be tried by a court of honor of his fellow officers. Hitler bluntly informed him that he was now on indefinite leave and showed him the door. Still shell-shocked by what had happened, the humiliated and exhausted Fritsch was shown to his car by Hossbach, still indignantly protesting his innocence. When Hossbach returned, Göring rushed out of the Chancellery library, threw himself on a sofa with his hands covering his face and, howling melodramatically, proclaimed Fritsch's guilt: "It was he, it was he, it was he!" he repeated, over and over again.
Although it was now midnight, Hossbach asked Hitler's permission to call General Beck, now the senior army officer on duty, at home. A car was sent to collect the chief of staff, who hurriedly made his way to the Chancellery in civilian clothes and went straight into conference with Hitler and Göring. He found them both in a state of extreme excitement, Göring pacing the room like a wild animal, and Hitler rocking about nervously on his sofa, dripping with perspiration. Hitler's opening gambit shocked Beck: when and where had he last lent money to Fritsch? It seemed that the Gestapo had been unable to locate a bank account in Fritsch's name anywhere in the East Lichterfelde area hardly surprising as it had not, of course, been Fritsch who had paid off Schmidt. As Beck lived in that part of Berlin, it had been assumed that he had made funds available to Fritsch instead. Beck angrily denied ever having lent money to the head of the army, and was then horrified to be told the precise nature of the charges against both Blomberg and Fritsch. Although he already had an inkling of the former, the latter came as a complete bombshell to him, and he immediately supported Fritsch's own request that the matter should be dealt with by a military court.
Much to the annoyance of both Hitler and Göring, whose purposes were well suited by bundling the two scandals together, Beck chose to make a clear distinction between them. In Blomberg's case, he took a surprisingly hard line, insisting that the depravity of his lapse was so serious that he had automatically excluded himself from the army. As he was later to lecture Keitel: "One cannot permit the highest-ranking officer soldier to marry 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 the case of Fritsch, however, there were still numerous questions to be answered and the dignity of the army demanded a thorough investigation by the army itself. Although it was by now the middle of the night, Beck drove to see Fritsch in his apartment in the Bendlerstrasse, finding him in a despairing state. After a lengthy conversation he returned to the Chancellery convinced of Fritsch's innocence. When he reported that Fritsch was standing steadfastly by his story, and now enjoyed his, Beck's, support, Hitler reluctantly agreed that Göring, Beck and Fritsch should meet the following morning to hammer out the details of a judicial review of the case.
Beck woke up on the morning of January 27, reluctantly convinced that Fritsch lacked the necessary stomach for a fight to deal with the allegations against him. Taking matters into his own hands, he drove out to see Göring at Karinhall, only to find that the meeting with Fritsch had been canceled, and that Göring was loudly proclaiming Fritsch's guilt to anyone who would listen. At that very moment, the browbeaten Fritsch was submitting to the ultimate humiliation, interrogation by the Gestapo at their infamous headquarters in Prinz Albrechtstrasse, just around the corner from his own apartment and military headquarters. Given that the Gestapo had no jurisdiction over the military, and thus no way of forcing Fritsch to appear before them, it seems incredible that he agreed to enter the lion's den at all, but he clearly believed that it was the only way in which he could convince Hitler of his innocence.
Even the Gestapo themselves were unsure whether he would appear. When he arrived in civilian clothes at 10 a.m., he was greeted at the entrance by a nervous Franz Huber, the officer who had brought Schmidt to the Chancellery the day before, and who now conducted Fritsch to the interview room on the third floor. As they made their way down the long corridors of the old building, Fritsch was vaguely aware of a number of shadowy figures loitering in doorways and window alcoves. The Gestapo had picked up some of Berlin's better-known young homosexuals, including Bavarian Joe, who were being given the opportunity to catch a glimpse of Fritsch so that they could later positively identify him as a client. Fritsch's performance during the interview was again spiritless and lackluster, even when confronted with Schmidt for a second time. His interrogators provoked him repeatedly. "But Colonel General, a man with such a squeaky voice must be a homosexual."
The legal process now slowed to a snail's pace. Hitler was reluctantly forced to concede that Fritsch should face a military court over the allegations, and the defendant retained the services of Count Rüdiger von der Göltz as his counsel. Keitel summoned the head of legal affairs at the Wehrmacht, Dr. Heinrich Rosenberger, and instructed him to draw up a memorandum on the affair for submission to Gürtner, the Minister of Justice. Rosenberger was another officer of the old school, and was immediately skeptical. On receiving his report, Gürtner strongly advised Hitler "not to take proceedings against General von Fritsch on the basis of this sort of documentation." Indeed, Gürtner realized that he had not been shown all the relevant documents, and made it clear that his advice would have been stronger still had he known the full truth. "The evidence is very flimsy," he warned the Führer, "and the case should be seriously reviewed before any further step is taken." Hitler ignored this advice, but agreed to a pre-hearing investigation by two military judges. Ominously, a parallel investigation was to be carried out by the Gestapo.
The case against Fritsch soon unraveled, as Schmidt's story came under increasing scrutiny. Even within the Gestapo there were doubters. After Fritsch's interrogation at Prinz Albrechtstrasse, Huber had become so suspicious that he and two fellow officers had Schmidt picked up, and taken to the house in Ferdinandstrasse, where they subjected him to intense questioning. Schmidt then showed them the nearby bank, from which he claimed Fritsch had withdrawn the money, but Huber remained unconvinced. That evening, after his colleagues had left for home, he decided to have a quiet look around some of the other offices at Gestapo headquarters, in particular those of Meisinger's Department II-H. There, lying openly on a desk, was a file of bank statements in the name of Captain von Frisch, dating back to 1933. The comprehensive list of withdrawals tallied precisely with the payments listed in the dossier on Fritsch. Huber felt "as if he had been stung by a tarantula."
The military judges too quickly realized that this was a case of mistaken identity, albeit a deliberate one. In spite of the Gestapo's best efforts, Bavarian Joe was located, and denied absolutely that his client at the Potsdamer Platz railway station in 1933 had been Fritsch. This should have been the end of it, but Hitler intervened personally to insist that their investigation continued. Schmidt's story too was riddled with inaccuracies. He told them Fritsch was a smoker, which he was not in 1933; he claimed he had been wearing a fur-lined coat, such as Fritsch did not possess; he was mistaken as to his rank at the time; and Fritsch had never lived anywhere near Ferdinandstrasse in Lichterfelde. When the judges finally got around to visiting Lichterfelde for themselves, they found both the house where Frisch lived, and the bank where he kept his account. Although his nurse told them that he was too ill to be moved, he did agree to be interviewed in bed. The ailing captain, a sick and broken man, confirmed under oath that it had indeed been he who had for so long been the object of Schmidt's blackmail.
As the nurse showed the two judges to the door, they were startled to be told by her that the Gestapo too had recently visited Frisch clear evidence that they knew it to be a case of mistaken identity, but had continued the investigation anyway. The same officers had also visited the bank in Lichterfelde. But the Gestapo was not yet ready to throw in the towel. That evening the elderly and frail Frisch was taken into "protective" custody, and subjected to a terrible beating in the cells at Prinz Albrechtstrasse. Bravely, however, he refused to change his story. Schmidt, meanwhile, was hurriedly forced to change his. Terrified by Gestapo threats, he now made the wholly implausible claim that there had been two completely distinct events, and that he had been blackmailing both a Fritsch and a Frisch. The Gestapo stuck steadfastly to this newly agreed version of events, and when the investigating judges visited Hitler to suggest that the case should be dropped, they were again ordered to continue their inquiries. "As long as the witness has not withdrawn his charge," said Hitler, a beaming Himmler at his side, "the case for me remains unsettled."
Throughout the last week of January, a state of extreme tension gripped Berlin. Rumors circulated unchecked. At first it was reported that Blomberg and Fritsch had been sacked. The French ambassador heard that Fritsch had been forced to cancel a dinner engagement because he had been arrested. The generals, it was said, were in open revolt and planning a military coup, a rumor which gathered momentum when it was announced that Hitler had canceled his planned fifth-anniversary speech at the Reichstag on January 30. This, it was alleged, was because of the discovery of an army plot to surround the Reichstag and arrest the entire Nazi government. Within the Chancellery, the mood was no less feverish, as Hitler realized that he was facing an international public relations disaster, a potentially devastating blow to his prestige both at home and abroad. "The wildest rumours are circulating," moaned Goebbels. "The Führer is at the end of his tether. None of us has slept since Monday."
It was obvious to Hitler that a bold stroke was required to halt the wagging tongues, and restore his reputation. He was still faced with the problem of finding a successor for both Blomberg and Fritsch. Although he knew perfectly well how fervently Göring coveted Blomberg's job, as he had already made clear to Blomberg himself, to Keitel, and to Wiedemann, he had no intention of satisfying this particular yearning. He was scathing on the subject of Göring's military competence, and had no intention of concentrating so much power in the hands of his second-in-command. Hitler now recalled his farewell interview with Blomberg. "The Ministry of War must revert to the Führer himself," had been his parting words. Goebbels too had come up with a similar idea. "In order to put a smoke-screen round the whole business," he confided to his diary, "a big reshuffle will take place." Keitel too recognized that Hitler "was making use of the current bad odour left especially abroad by the departure of Blomberg and Fritsch to carry out a major Cabinet reshuffle."
Within a few days, the reshuffle was complete. In all fourteen generals were removed, and fifty-one other posts were reallocated, many within the Luftwaffe. The naval command was left intact, a reward for Raeder's abject submissiveness during the crisis. Fritsch was replaced by infantry General Walther von Brauchitsch, who had been strongly endorsed by Keitel, and supported by Blomberg, in an effort to keep out the unpopular General Walther von Reichenau. Far from being a staunch Nazi, Brauchitsch was regarded within army circles as a distinguished example of the Prussian aristocratic tradition and as "an efficient and ruthless commander" by the British embassy. By coincidence, he was himself going through a particularly messy divorce of his own, and had recently even been considering retirement. After several days of negotiation, during which Brauchitsch was holed up in a Berlin hotel waiting for news, Hitler offered personally to provide the 80,000 marks he needed to pay a final, one-off settlement to his wife. This, coupled with the previously adulterous nature of his second marriage, ensured that the servile and dependent Brauchitsch would remain forever in Hitler's debt.
As compensation for missing out on Blomberg's job, Göring was promoted to field marshal, while among the casualties was the long-suffering Foreign Minister, Neurath. Having in vain requested an audience with the Führer following the Chancellery meeting on November 5, he eventually wrote to Hitler in early December indicating his desire to resign. Hitler ignored the letter. On January 14 Neurath was present when Hitler met the Polish Foreign Minister and ambassador, Józef Beck and Józef Lipski, and was upset to discover that the mood and language of the Hossbach meeting continued to prevail. Hitler again revealed his preoccupation with Austria and Czechoslovakia, declaring "with absolute firmness that he would not hesitate to march immediatelyâ€ˆ.Â€ˆ.Â€ˆ.Â€ˆas quickly as lightning." Immediately after the meeting Neurath again plucked up the courage to confront the Führer. His policy, he protested, "would lead to a world war," and he "would have no part in it." But Hitler stuck to his guns, and eventually Neurath, according to his testimony at Nuremberg, told him that if he was determined to pursue his expansionist plans, then "he would have to find another Foreign Minister, and that I would not be an accessory to such a policy."
In fact, Hitler had already decided to sack him. "The Foreign Office are not cooperating," recorded Hans Lammers, the chief of the Reich Chancellery. Hitler "had for some time now decided to replace Neurath with Ribbentrop." Joachim von Ribbentrop was at the time still ambassador in London, and Göring argued strongly against his appointment as Foreign Minister. But Hitler was determined "above all to change the Foreign Office because only such a change would make a strong impression abroad and would be likely to divert attention from the military affairs." Even then, Neurath's sacking was executed in a typically cowardly manner. On February 2 Hitler attended a party to celebrate Neurath's sixty-fifth birthday and fortieth anniversary in the foreign service. When Neurath quietly reminded him of his resignation request, Hitler countered that he could "never let you leave my side. You must make this sacrifice for me." To Neurath's daughter he boasted: "You know, this man is like a father to me. I can't let him go."
Two days later, having just returned to his office from a perfectly amicable meeting with Hitler, Neurath was summoned back to the Chancellery. Leading him out of his crowded office into the Wintergarten, Hitler's opening words were blunt. "Look, I have appointed Ribbentrop as my new foreign minister." At Göring's suggestion, Neurath was compensated with a new post, as chairman of the Secret Cabinet Council. When Hitler naively pointed out that no such council existed, Göring replied that "the expression would sound quite nice, and everyone would imagine that it meant something." A few names were jotted down on a piece of paper, but most were never even told of the council's existence, and for Neurath it was a wholly meaningless appointment. According to Göring the council never met once, "not even for a minute." The diplomatic reshuffle was completed by new appointments to the key ambassadorial posts in London, Rome, Tokyo and Vienna. The ambassador to Rome, Ulrich von Hassell, regarded as an advocate of restraint, was visiting Berlin at the time, and read of his sacking in the morning newspaper over breakfast at his hotel.
On February 4 the Cabinet met for what was to prove to be the last occasion during the lifetime of the Third Reich. Blomberg and Fritsch, announced Hitler, had resigned on health grounds. "From now on I take over personally the command of the whole armed forces," he told them. The War Ministry was abolished. In its place Hitler created the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or OKW. Hitler appointed himself Supreme Commander, with the pliant Keitel as his chief of staff. Shortly before midnight on February 4, a communiqué announcing the changes was broadcast on radio, leading to blanket coverage and frenzied rumor in the following day's newspapers. "STRONGEST CONCENTRATION OF ALL POWERS IN THE FÜHRER'S HANDS," screamed the Nazi Party's newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter. In London, the Daily Express reported that Blomberg was the victim of a "Potsdam clique of senior officers of the army, who typify today the stiff-backed Prussianism of the Kaiser régime." On February 5 the same paper blazed the headline "KAISER HITLERÂ€ˆ.Â€ˆ.Â€ˆ.Â€ˆMakes himself Supreme War Lord."
Later that afternoon Hitler addressed his shell-shocked generals. They stood around him in a semicircle, in a large hall in the Chancellery, as he described what had happened to Blomberg and Fritsch. Quite deliberately, he read aloud the most gruesome details that he had been able to glean from police reports, and Gürtner's dossier on Fritsch. The generals were "flabbergasted," and "cut to the quick" by the allegations against colleagues they had believed to be "men of spotless honour." For the proud officer corps, this was an unbearable indignity for their honor to suffer, but they were forced to bear it without complaint. The army had suffered a devastating blow. There were no objections; no one said a word. They had been "outwitted, demoralised and bribed." Hitler knew perfectly well that he had never been entirely accepted by those two upper-class bastions, the army and the Foreign Ministry, and as a result had always distrusted them. Now, at precisely the moment his expansionist policies were beginning to cause 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."
The military court of honor set up to try General Werner von Fritsch on charges of homosexuality under Article 175 of the penal code finally convened on March 10 in the Preussenhaus, once the home of the Royal Prussian House of Peers. It was chaired by Göring, flanked by Raeder for the navy and Brauchitsch for the army. The public and the press were, naturally, excluded. Fritsch, in full regimental uniform, was unimpressed by Göring's latest toy, a blue field marshal's baton, and in a direct challenge refused to stand when the hearing opened. Schmidt spent the first morning repeating his accusations until, shortly before noon, an adjutant of the Wehrmacht rushed into the courtroom and conferred with Göring. The field marshal immediately suspended proceedings, citing "reasons touching on the interests of the Reich." In fact, Hitler had just given the order to invade Austria, the Anschluss was underway, and the commanders-in-chief were needed at their posts. Whether by intent or good fortune, the invasion of Austria gave Hitler the pretext he needed to divert attention from Fritsch's imminent acquittal, and to prevent any resulting uprising within the army.
The trial resumed on March 17 and concluded the following day. Schmidt did his best to stick to his story, but eventually broke down under sustained questioning from Göring, who, realizing that there was no way back for Fritsch, understood that an acquittal would be irrelevant anyway. Perversely, he began to play the role of the fair-minded judge. Under further pressure, Schmidt admitted he had been intimidated, but refused at first to say by whom. When pressed by Fritsch's defense counsel, he replied that Commissioner Meisinger of the Gestapo had told him only that morning that "if I retract my evidence, I will go to heaven." Fritsch was duly acquitted and the trial brought to a close, but incredibly without any reference to the role of Himmler or the Gestapo in the whole affair. There was to be no public rehabilitation of Fritsch, nor was he reinstated to a senior post in the army. He accepted his fate with the same calmness and silence with which he had met the allegations throughout. On the outbreak of war he returned to his former regiment, and was killed very possibly deliberately seeking his own death during the invasion of Poland in September 1939. No proceedings were ever taken against the Gestapo, but neither did they forgive Otto Schmidt for failing them. In April 1938, he disappeared without trace. Copyright © 2008 by David Faber