Rebuilding the Reichswehr

by HERBERT ROSINSKI

HERE is the inside picture of General von Seeckt, the Prussian who was most responsible for building up the new German Army in the years of the so-called “disarmament.” As one reads this remarkable record of Prussian persistence, the question arises: Will it happen again?
A German expert on military affairs, DR. HERBERT ROSINSKI is at present living in Washington, D. C. His articles have been published extensively in England; he is a contributor to the Infantry Journal; and his definitive work on the German Army is to be published by the Journal this month. — THE EDITOR

1

THE collapse of Germany in November, 1918, was complete and absolute. It was not only a defeat such as German arms had not known except at Jena and Auerstadt; it was not only the overthrow of a political system that had existed as far back as conscious memory went, and of a dynasty that had weathered the crises of more than five hundred years: it was also the signal for unloosing a flood of revolutionary violence that threatened to sweep away the very pillars of the social and economic structure of the country. And it was the break-up of all military order and the disruption of the forces that had fought with such tenacity and stubbornness for over four years.

Not immediately so. The troops marched back in perfect order to the Rhine, reaching and crossing it by a remarkable feat of staff work, within the short period allowed by the Allies. Once home again, however, the bonds of discipline, long overstrained, broke down completely. Even units that had come back still firmly in the hands of their officers disintegrated in the general revolutionary atmosphere. The older classes simply went home for Christmas without waiting for any formal demobilization. The youngest were provisionally retained under colors, but proved so hopeless that they had to be disbanded in the following March.

In this atmosphere of universal disruption, moderates and radicals struggled desperately with each other, the one to re-establish order, the other to extend the revolutionary movement.

The hardly concealed animosity of the armed forces for the Weimar Republic broke out openly when the conditions of the peace treaty became known and the Cabinet, after a first outburst of indignation, appeared ready to accept the terms. The men were furious. The majority of the generals were in favor of open revolt, pointing out that if they did not act, their troops would force them to do so.

Walther Reinhardt, the last Prussian Minister of War, who had loyally collaborated with the new revolutionary Minister of War, considered seriously a plan for setting up an independent state in the east and of trying to maintain it against the Allied and Polish forces. In the end General Wilhelm Groener’s views prevailed and the outward semblances of order and discipline were restored.

But the temporary alliance between the soldiers and the Weimar Republic had received the death blow. The soldiers who, disregarding their hatred against the new regime, had placed themselves at its service and had set it in the saddle were furious at their betrayal. Out of this feeling of exasperation fanned by all kinds of national and personal grievances, there arose nine months later the famous Kapp putsch of March 12, 1920. General von Lüttwitz, the head of the Berlin command, with the help of the Naval Brigade of Captain Ehrhardt, sought to overthrow the new government and replace it by a right-wing dictatorship under the leadership of Dr. Kapp, a high official of the East Prussian Administration.

The breakdown of this abortive putsch resulted in the elimination of the implacably hostile elements like Lüttwitz, but also of the two men who so far had succeeded in finding a workable basis for collaboration: the socialist Minister of War, Noske, and the newly designated military head of the Reichswehr (Chef der Heeresleitung), Reinhardt. Thus, while in one sense the putsch served to relieve an almost intolerable situation, it left behind a legacy of bitterness and distrust that seemed almost impossible to surmount.

2

IN THIS highly tense situation the leading officers of the Reichswehr and the government turned simultaneously to the same man, General Hans von Seeckt.

Almost unknown to the general public, Seeckt was the outstanding personality among the leaders of the new Reichswehr. The son of a well-known Prussian general, reared in the strictest tradition of that service, he had early distinguished himself not only by unusual ability but by a singular breadth of outlook and interest. A man of the world, adroit, self-possessed, skillful in the handling of men and affairs, he had found time in the intervals of an exceptionally swift career to travel widely in Europe and Asia.

The outbreak of the First World War found Seeckt Chief of Staff to the Third Army Corps. In this position he so distinguished himself in an operation near Soissons that he was entrusted by Falkenhayn with the direction of the great strategic break-through at Gorlice in May, 1915, as Chief of Staff to Mackensen. The success of that operation made his reputation and decided his fate for the rest of the war, for the exceptional mixture of strategic skill and diplomatic ability which he displayed during that campaign, and even more conspicuously during the subsequent conquest of Serbia, made him by all odds the best choice as Chief of Staff for the coördination of effort on the eastern front — first with various Austrian commanders, and finally as Chief of the Turkish General Staff until the collapse of that empire.

Returning to Berlin shortly after the outbreak of the Revolution, he re-emerged some weeks later in a meeting of members of the General Staff which was dramatic in its content and at the same time symbolic of the whole subsequent development of the Army. The meeting was opened by a certain Major Kurt von Schleicher, a protégé of General Groener.

With characteristic nonchalance, Schleicher began by asserting that there was no need for resignation, following this with the outline of an extensive plan for the reconstitution of the country. Three stages, he contended, were necessary. First, the establishment of a government capable of exerting its authority. Then, when order had been restored, the reconsolidation of the economic life of the country. Only upon the foundation of such economic recovery would it be possible after long years of painful preparation to approach the re-establishment of the armed power of the country.

W hen Schleicher ended, Seeckt arose. What he said was brief and not openly directed against Schleicher’s program. But he made it clear that he was approaching the whole issue in a different spirit and from a different angle. The imperative need for the re-establishment of authority and order went without saying. But he was highly doubtful that it would be possible to reconsolidate the economic life of a country that remained politically powerless. Germany had to be restored as quickly as possible to a position where it had something to offer in the field of political and military power.

As order was restored in the milit ary organization, Seeckt was entrusted with a succession of highly important posts: organizer of the return of the Eastern Forces; chief military adviser to the peace delegation; and last, Acting Chief of the General Staff, carrying through its dissolution and reconstitution in the new Truppen-Amt of which he became the head in November, 1919.

In the famous midnight meeting of March 13, 1920, in which Noske vainly advocated his plan for crushing the mutinous Ehrhardt Naval Brigade byforce, it was Seeckt, who broke the silence with the words: “Soldiers do not shoot soldiers.” When Noske accused him of sheltering the mutineers, he replied: “By no means. But I, and I perhaps alone, know the tragic consequence which any open struggle would inevitably entail. If Reichswehr clubs down Reichswehr, all feeling of comradeship in the officer ranks is destroyed forever. If that should happen, the real catastrophe, prevented with so much effort on November 9, would finally have come to pass.”

Seeckt realized that the putsch had revealed how deeply political dissension had already penetrated into the officer ranks. If the unity of the corps and the cohesion of the entire force were to be saved, the era of political adventures represented by the various “Free Corps” must end. The Reichswehr must be completely withdrawn from the political arena, all fratricidal strife in its ranks must be put down with an iron hand as incompatible with the spirit of comradeship and the demands of discipline, and all political interference from the outside must be prevented at all cost. In order to assure the Reichswehr a breathing spell in which to consolidate itself, Seeckt was ready to make far-reaching compromises with the existing regime.

As the appreciation of the crisis in which the officer corps found itself grew, the opposition began to waver and break down. “As for Seeckt, I am not yet clear about him,” wrote Colonel Ludwig—at that time Chief of Staff of the old fortress Königsberg, later head of the Waffen-Amt and one of the main preparers of the rearmament. “It may be that you misjudge him. Let’s wait and see!” And again, two months later: “ I am no admirer of Seeckt, but after the Kapp putsch he has undoubtedly saved much. The situation at that moment was more than doubtful — far more disagreeable than has been publicly realized.”

Seeckt’s own masterful personality contributed decisively to this change of attitude. His superiority as a political leader, as a military organizer, above all as a brilliant strategist, was incontestable. As the fruit of his endeavors began to appear, the Reichswehr, welded again into a strictly disciplined force, became a firm block held together by unquestioning obedience.

3

BUT Seeckt had not saved the Reichswehr for the Weimar Republic. The world to which he belonged was the world of the Prussian officer in the strictest possible sense, the very essence of the spirit of the Old Army. It was the world of the Old Emperor, of Bismarck, — whose fervid admirer he remained throughout his life, — of Molt ke, to whom he devoted the most penetrating and self-revealing of his studies.

Seeckt was violently opposed to any kind of parliamentary regime, deeming it an impossibility in a nation of theoret ical dreamers like the Germans. An astonishingly intense Prussian particularism led him to prefer as Chancellor even a Bavarian particularist like Hertling rather than a democrat with unitarian tendencies. He had a pronounced leaning towards old-fashioned paternalism and local selfgovernment, coupled with a strong aversion to any form or brand of socialism. Seeckt’s letters and writings show no appreciation of the remarkable achievements of the German labor movement.

Seeckt was not a particularly astute politician. His judgment of men was often remarkably at fault and he lacked both inclination and talent for intrigue. For that reason he was glad to leave the indispensable bargaining behind the scenes with political leaders and parties to Schleicher, who was rapidly developing into the Reichswehr’s specialist in underhanded political work. Seeckt never appeared in the Reichstag, leaving the official representation of the armed forces to the Minister of War, Gessler.

As the leading military figure Seeckt was present at all important cabinet meetings; but he avoided attendance whenever possible, or sat silent. The frequent ministerial crises appeared senseless and undignified to him. For most of the new men, in particular for the trade-union leaders, he had only contempt. Perhaps the only one he really respected was shrewd old President Ebert, whose authority he endeavored to strengthen wherever possible, in the belief that he was serving his own interests and would reap the benefits later.

And in 1923 it seemed as if that hour had come. The difficulties and dangers menacing the structure and existence of the Reich from all sides became such that the civilian authorities saw no way of coping with them and Ebert had to proclaim martial law and (for the time being) to entrust Seeckt practically with the entire task of administering the country. For many weeks Seeckt debated with himself and his intimates whether and in what form to assume absolute power. One plan after the other was considered and discarded. In the end, after prolonged struggles, Seeckt decided to hand back the reins of power to the legitimate authorities, partly because he felt that he had not yet enlisted a sufficient personal backing, and partly because he had convinced himself that the best way to carry through his plans was to secure the presidency at the forthcoming elections of 1925-1926.

The unexpected death of Ebert broke down all these hopes and plans. With his preparations incomplete and the parties of the Right unwilling to give him a blank check as their candidate, Seeckt preferred to bury his aspiration for a time rather than expose himself to possible defeat.

The election of Field Marshal Hindenburg came as a second blow — great as Seeckt’s personal veneration for the old marshal was. His accession to the post of Reichspresident in place of Ebert threatened to curtail Seeckt ‘s freedom of action and undermine the very basis of his power. Hitherto Seeckt had been able to concentrate the entire devotion and affection of the Reichswehr on his person alone. Ebert had been the nominal Commander-in-Chief, but Seeckt had seen to it that Ebert had no opportunity to make that nominal function effective.

With the first soldier of Germany in Ebert’s place, all this was changed. Seeckt was no longer in the position to pursue an issue to the point of open insubordination against Hindenburg— as he would not have hesitated to do with Ebert. That fact was to prove his undoing when, in the following autumn, a still inadequately explained incident — the eldest son of the Crown Prince took part, with Seeckt’s knowledge, in the maneuvers — precipitated a crisis in the course of which Otto Gessler, Seeckt’s collaborator in the reorganization of the Reichswehr, suddenly turned against him. When Seeckt realized that he would have to maintain himself by force and found Hindenburg disinclined to back him, he decided, against the advice of his collaborators, to give way and resign, rather than to bring about a conflict which would shake the inner unity of the force which he had built up with such great effort.

Not that he was an utterly implacable champion of the past. In matters of detail he could in fact be remarkably open-minded and willing to learn. But in his main convictions he was inflexibly rooted in a world that had passed away. When he drew his program for the reconstruction of the Reich after his retirement, it proved an idealized past with a few slight concessions to the changed conditions.

Seeckt neither found a way to the new republic nor wished the Reichswehr to do so. He reconstituted the Army, not in conjunction with the general political development of the country, but apart from it and in barely concealed opposition. Outwardly the Reichswehr’s loyalty to “state” and “nation” was proclaimed on every occasion. But “state” and “nation” as the Reichswehr understood them were not the Weimar Republic, but “the permanent substance of the German state and people.” To the Army, the existing regime constituted but an ephemeral form that would ultimately give way to another and better one.

And as a result of the impulse imparted to it by Seeckt, the Reichswehr never arrived at an honest relationship with its legitimate government. In the words of a well-known political writer, it paid lip service to the Republic, yet rejected it in its heart; was fundamentally royalist, yet avoided any open expression; sympathized secretly with the rightwing opposition, yet carefully refrained from identifying itself with it. The Reichswehr lived in the past and the future and not the present. It was rooted in the cult of the Old Army, living for the new nation which was to be.

4

THE exact role of the Reichswehr in the rise of the Nazi Party to power is still a controversial question. It is certain, however, that the rise of the young Nazi Party took place under the benevolent sponsorship, if not actually at the instigation, of the local Bavarian representatives of the Reichswehr. The success of the new movement raised it above most of the other nationalist movements which the Reichswehr endeavored to keep under its control. It is highly significant that in the spring of 1923, when Seeckt was preparing open resistance to the French occupation of the Ruhr, and to that end sought contact with all leading figures, he saw Ludendorff first and a fortnight later talked with Adolf Hitler.

It was the first time that the two men met, and the impression upon the normally so unimpressible Seeckt was remarkable indeed. He seems to have felt it one of the outstanding events of his life. We do not know whether his appreciation changed for the time being as a result of Hitler’s madcap putsch and melodramatic appearance before the court that tried him and his associates. But it would not be surprising to find that the remarkable decision that permitted Hitler to resume his agitat ional activities, after his period of confinement at Landsberg, had received the support of t he Reichswehr.

After his resignation Seeckt continued to express his sympathy with the Nazi movement, and his desire to see them participate in the government. “I counsel you to vote for Hitler. Youth is right. I am too old,” he wrote to his sister during the violently contested presidential elections of 1932. This was highly significant, since it implied voting against Hindenburg.

But it was one thing for Seeckt out of office, and out of the political running, to take so benevolent an attitude towards the new movement, and quite another for his successors in the leadership of the Reichswehr. Schleicher succeeded in overthrowing Brüning in 1932, but badly miscalculated his ability to control the Nazis as well as the situation in general. Forced to emerge from his safe retreat and to take over first the Ministry of War and finally the Chancellorship itself, he exhausted his resources in a series of political maneuvers that ended in alienating the Reichswehr and Hindenburg. On January 30, 1933, the old Marshal installed in his place a new national government headed by Adolf Hitler.

The new government of “national reconstruction ” came to the Reichswehr generals as a surprise. Time was short. The restoration of the military power of Germany which had been the Reichswehr’s ultimate goal had reached a critical stage. Both Brüning and Schleicher had taken up that question in Geneva, but after promising beginnings had failed to achieve any results. Any further hesitation or delay would be fatal. The new regime assured the elimination of any effective internal opposition, and its leader threw himself into the project with an enthusiasm that contrasted most favorably with the endless pleas for caution which the military leaders had up to that time encountered even with fundamentally well-inclined civilian authorities.

The readiness of the Reichswehr to accept the new government’s domination of the political scene was reinforced by their desire to return to Seeckt’s fundamental tradition of “holding the Reichswehr out of the political arena.” When, in the last stages of his career, Schleicher had finally been forced to emerge from the mysterious semi-obscurity where he had been manipulating the political field so long and so successfully, and to assume responsibility both for the Papen cabinet and his own, he nearly destroyed the Reichswehr’s vital unity. The result was that by the time of Hitler’s accession to power the Reichswehr was heartily sick of the political role it had been forced to play under Schleicher, and longed to concentrate upon its own military problems again.

Unlike Seeckt or Schleicher, none of the Reichswehr’s leaders had pronounced political aspirations — not even General von Fritsch, who in February, 1934, look over the Heeresleitung from the despondent Hammerstein. Fritsch was known in the Army as a particularly close disciple of Seeckt. In 1926 Seeckt had entrusted Fritsch with one of the key positions in the General Staff, the First Section of the Truppen-Amt. During the crisis that led to Seeckt’s resignation, Fritsch had been foremost in urging him to maintain his position by force of arms.

The generals were only too satisfied to leave the work of political reconstruction to the Nazis, assuming that they would always have the power to interfere whenever necessary. It was a most dangerous delusion and it left them with nothing to fall back upon if the abuses of the new regime outweighed its usefulness.

5

THESE considerations help to explain the decision of the Reichswehr leaders to back the Nazi regime not only when Hindenburg imposed it upon them, but, what was far more significant, when his death and the dissolution of the Weimar Republic had left their hands free. For by that time they had had ample opportunity, in eighteen months of partnership with the Nazis, to become acquainted with their collaborators. Barely a month before, Adolf Hitler had staged the blood bath of June 30, 1934, which for sheer cynicism and hypocrisy still stands unrivaled even in the annals of Nazism, and had then attempted to “justify” this procedure before the Reichstag. Yet little more than a fortnight later the leaders of the Reichswehr accepted him as the supreme leader of the new Germany and agreed to let the armed forces swear a personal oath of allegiance to him.

The events and decisions which preceded that vital step have remained shrouded in mystery. Perhaps promises of a restoration of the monarchy “in due course” played a part. The simplest and at the same time the most cogent reason, however, for the Reichswehr’s acceptance of the Hitler oath was that at this moment the rearmament preparations had been completed and were reaching the critical phase of action. Two months later, on October 1, 1934, the great expansion of the Reichswehr began. The Reichswehr leaders could not afford to interfere at this moment.

Yet, instead of an equilibrium in which the Reichswehr surrendered political control to the Nazis in return for autonomy in its own sphere, the arrangement of August, 1934, inaugurated a latent struggle between the two parties, in which the Nazi leaders proved more adept than the Army, despite its outwardly vastly superior strength. Only a few months later the fundamental claim of the Reichswehr to the monopoly of armed force, which had just been solemnly reaffirmed, was challenged and broken by the dispatch of a consignment of heavy arms to the East Prussian Schutzstaffel. The local Reichswehr commander at first held firm against it, but finally had to give way upon orders from the Ministry of War itself. That incident, utilized by the Nazi leaders according to their custom to test opponents, proved a decisive step in the process that led first to the constitution of fully trained and equipped Schutzstaffel units and finally, after the outbreak of the war, to the establishment of the Elite Guard side by side with the regular army.

At the same time the Army’s monopoly of armed force and military training was thus gradually being undermined. The intimate cohesion that formed the basis of its power was inevitably weakened by the process of rearmament itself, as the old closely knit units were broken up and dispersed throughout the new masses. Even more significant was the fact that the leaders of the Reichswehr could not even keep their own ranks closed. In the beginning General von Blomberg, the Minister of War, was almost the sole important Nazi “soldier,” and he had to go to extreme lengths in order to reinforce the small group of pronounced Nazi adherents in the officer corps.

But as the Third Reich consolidated itself and the Führer proved unexpectedly successful in such matters as the remilitarization of the Rhineland, the officers corps began to split up. The bulk of the older generals, backed by a substantial part of the elder officers, still stood behind Fritsch’s efforts to preserve the independence of the Army. But many of the younger men went over wholeheartedly to the new regime, and the mass was indifferent to all political issues.

Finally, in January, 1938, Fritsch decided to utilize Blomberg’s “objectionable” second marriage in order to get rid of him and to reaffirm the Army’s position. The swiftness with which Hitler broke up that attack and turned the tables on the attackers revealed how little Fritsch and his backers had realized the weakness of their position. Instead of reaffirming the Army’s independence, the incident ended with the retirement of both Fritsch and Blomberg, the breaking-up of the circle of elder generals in the Army and Air Force that had been his main support, the abolition of the post of Minister of War, and the assumption of direct personal command by Adolf Hitler.

6

THE clash of February 4, 1938, was the real dividing line in the relations between the leaders of the Army and Adolf Hitler. Up to that time the relationship between the two had still been more or less that of equal partners, and the generals, despite all concessions which they had been forced to make, could believe, as Fritsch did, that in a final crisis they would still be capable of making their will prevail. From that moment onwards the superiority of the Nazi regime over the Army was clearly established. Six months later General Beck, Chief of the General Staff and next to Fritsch the leader of the opposition, left after the Munich crisis because he had not been able to have an order enforced forbidding officers on active service to be members of the Nazi Party.

With the outbreak of the war the amalgamation of the Army into the Third Reich was concluded. With the exception of Fritsch, who chose suicide, and Beck, who seems to have kept completely aloof, the ousted generals returned to their posts, if they had not already done so during the preceding crises.

In the prosecution of the war, that collaboration between the two groups, the Nazi leaders and the generals, has functioned more effectively than most outside observers had believed possible. Some of the staunchest supporters of the Army group, like Leeb and Rundstedt, developed into outstanding commanders on the German side. But in all other respects the fundamental differences between the two camps has remained, and beneath the surface the tug-of-war between them has gone on with undiminished intensity.

It is plainly impossible to discern more than the salient points of that struggle from the flood of rumors pouring out from Germany and from the neutral press. The war greatly extended the Army’s prestige and importance, but not to the extent of giving the upper hand to the Army again, as many believed it would. Many decisive controls in the administration of the country passed into the hands of the military. Officers of the General Staff took key positions in propaganda and censorship, in the Ministries of Transportation and Economics, and through the net of armament inspectors controlled the industrial organization of the country. This control, although somewhat modified in 1942, does not appear to have been conspicuously altered during the course of the war.

Nevertheless the military leaders have at decisive moments proved clearly unable to make their will prevail — primarily because Adolf Hitler’s supreme command has been a reality. Obviously he could not have fulfilled even half the military functions attributed to him. But there can be no doubt that the supreme decisions of the war, involving simultaneously military and political issues, such as the invasion of Denmark and Norway, the decision to attack Russia, the decision to persist before Moscow in the autumn of 1941 and before Stalingrad in the following year, have been his — and his alone.