The Blomberg-Fritsch Crisis of 1938 showed just how ruthless Hitler could be when it came to his expectation that everyone working for him should be totally obedient. Werner von Blomberg and Werner von Fritsch were two very senior officers in the army – and both were compelled into resigning from their posts by Hitler for failing to accept his full authority over the military.
There is little doubt that some senior ‘old school’ elements within the army were less than favourable towards Hitler. In 1934, he had cornered the army into swearing an oath of loyalty to him. This played on Hitler’s knowledge that an oath made by an officer in the army was almost like a physical entity; something that they had to uphold even if some senior officers saw Hitler as little more than a jumped-up former corporal. However, Hitler overcame their reticence to fully support him by winning many over with the massive rearmaments programme that Nazi Germany embarked on. The military had vast sums of money spent on its three parts so that the army, air force and navy became the most modern in Europe. The Luftwaffe experienced modern aerial warfare when the Blue Condor Legion was used in the Spanish Civil War. The Kriegsmarine received modern warships that senior officers could only think about during the era of Weimar Germany. The army, officially restricted to 100,000 men by the Treaty of Versailles and minimal armoured equipment, experienced a huge growth when the government openly ignored the treaty.
However, despite all this there were senior officers who were very suspicious about Hitler’s true intentions with regards to the military. Blomberg and Fritsch were two such officers. While the military had sworn an oath of loyalty to Hitler, he was never fully convinced that he had the full backing of all his senior officers. Blomberg and Fritsch were two of the highest ranking officers in the newly named Wehrmacht. Blomberg was a Field Marshal and Minister of Defence while Fritsch was a Colonel General and Commander-in-Chief of the army. Both had been present at the Hossbach Conference in November 1937 when Hitler made it clear what his intentions were in Europe. Blomberg and Fritsch were appalled at what they heard – lebensraum taken by force – and expressed their opinions. Within three months of the conference both men were out of office.
In 1937, Blomberg, a widower, remarried with Hitler and Goering at the ceremony to ostensibly show support. What happened next could not have worked out better for Hitler. Blomberg’s new bride had been a secretary. To other senior officers in the army, this marriage was unacceptable because of his new wife’s social status and her questionable past. Heinrich Graf von Helldorf, the chief of the Berlin Police force, compiled an official report about Eva and presented it to Goering who then showed it to Hitler. The report stated that Eva had posed for pornographic images in her younger days. The report also stated that she had been arrested by the police for prostitution – though there is now suspicion that Goering embellished the report regarding this knowing that it would infuriate Hitler.
Hitler gave a very public show of indignation and supported the view that Blomberg had brought disgrace to the officer corps. Hitler told Blomberg to annul the marriage, which he refused to do. Instead on 27th January 1938 Blomberg resigned when Goering said that he would release to the public police files on his wife. Hitler wrote to Blomberg on February 4th 1938 thanking him for his loyal service to Germany and for the part he played in the modernisation of the army. He accepted his resignation. Blomberg and his wife went into exile in Capri and Hitler made himself Supreme Commander of the armed forces.
Fritsch was accused of homosexuality – a crime under Section 175 of the Criminal Code. He was brought before Hitler, Goering and Himmler and accused to his face. A witness was brought forward who claimed to have seen Fritsch engaging in homosexual behaviour in November 1934 while Fritsch was in Potsdam. Fritsch was stunned by the accusation and vehemently denied it. He demanded that he should be tried before an army Court of Honour. The court found him not guilty and acquitted him for lack of evidence. However the damage to his reputation had been done and rumours circulated that the court wanted to uphold army honour first rather than consider the true evidence. Fritsch could have fought on but he chose to resign. Whereas Blomberg had received a reasonably cordial letter from Hitler regarding his resignation, the same was not true for Fritsch. Hitler’s letter accepting the resignation of Fritsch was described as “icy”. He was replaced by Werner von Brauchitsch – a man who was equally against Hitler’s aggressive policies but was tied into Hitler by the oath he took: “as a firm believer in the rule of law he felt bound by his oath of loyalty to Hitler”. (Snyder)
Fritsch was fully and publicly rehabilitated on August 11th 1938. He was offered advisory positions in South America and Spain. However, Fritsch wanted to remain in Germany and was appointed honorary commander of Artillery Regiment 12. He was killed in the early days of World War Two while inspecting the front line on September 22nd 1939 on the outskirts of Warsaw. For a senior officer to be so near to the front line was unusual and this has led some to speculate that Fritsch deliberately put himself in danger. This tends to be supported when the report of his aide de camp is read: he claimed that Fritsch specifically asked for his wound not to be treated and he died within a minute. However, an artery in his thigh had been severed so it is unlikely that Fritsch would have survived such a wound whether any attempt was made to treat it or not.
The so-called Blomberg-Fritsch Crisis allowed Hitler to put what he considered to be his own men into the posts previously held by Blomberg and Fritsch. This further brought the army into his plans. The successful Anschluss of 1938 greatly added to Hitler’s power and prestige – not least among the people of both Germany and Austria. With such public popularity, the army was now in a very difficult position to oppose Hitler.