The relationship between Hitler and the Reichswehr – Germany’s regular military – was a critical factor in the survival and success of the Nazi regime. The Reichswehr was an important influence on German politics during the Weimar era. Strongly traditionalist and conservative, the generals of the Reichswehr despised the Weimar constitution, its political system, its weak and unstable democratic government. Most Reichswehr generals were of the Prussian elite, so favoured authoritarianism and military participation in government and policy formation. The Reichswehr also maintained close links with nationalist and paramilitary groups, such as the Freikorps. The first half of the 1920s was littered with rumours that the Reichswehr might support, or even initiate, a counter-revolution. These fears were placated in 1925 when General Paul von Hindenburg was elected to the presidency. The anti-democrats in the Reichswehr believed Hindenburg, a trusted and adored former military leader, would protect the nation from the perils of democracy.
The Reichswehr shared many ideas and objectives with the rising NSDAP. Both yearned for a restoration of German imperial and military power. Both hated the Treaty of Versailles, the Allied war reparations and the French occupation of the Ruhr. Both craved an authoritarian government, strong enough to protect German sovereignty. This common ground should have made the Nazis and the Reichswehr political allies – or at least sympathetic to each other’s interests. But the relationship between the two groups was problematic. Hitler did have several admirers amongst high-ranking officers of the Reichswehr. But others disliked the Nazi leader, thinking him a chest-beating Austrian corporal who had risen above his station. They viewed Hitler not as a potential national leader or military commander, but as an organiser of brawlers, henchmen and street thugs. Hitler would most likely be a political flash-in-the pan, who would fall as quickly as he had risen. The strongest of Hitler’s critics was the Reichswehr commander-in-chief, General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, who described the Nazis as a “criminal gang” and “perverts”.
Another pressing concern for Reichswehr generals was the rapid growth of the Sturmabteilung (SA), the Nazi paramilitary. By 1932 the SA numbered more than 150,000 men; in comparison, the Reichswehr was limited to just 100,000 men by the Versailles treaty. Reichswehr officers were also alarmed by some of the radical political rhetoric in SA ranks. Some in the SA began to speak of it as a fledgling revolutionary army, destined to eventually replace and possibly even do battle with the Reichswehr. Hitler, who for most of 1932 was courting the army for its support, played down these ideas. In a February 1932 meeting with Reichswehr commanders, Hitler assured them the SA was purely a political and cultural movement: it had no military ambitions and no intention to replace the Reichswehr. He promised the generals a Nazi-led government would end democracy, re-install authoritarian government and – importantly for them – ignore the Versailles treaty and expand and re-arm the military.
Hitler’s pledges earned him cautious support from some – but not all – Reichswehr leaders. Hammerstein-Equord continued to distrust Hitler and lobby against him. In December 1932, during the strife-filled chancellorship of Kurt von Schleicher, Hammerstein-Equord called on Hindenburg and urged him not to appoint Hitler as chancellor. Hindenburg scolded the general for interfering in political matters. Days after becoming chancellor, Hitler again met with high-ranking military officers and re-affirmed his commitment to enlarging the Reichswehr. Hitler also appointed General Werner von Blomberg as defence minister. Though von Blomberg was not an NSDAP member, he was a strong supporter of Hitler – and as a general of the Reichswehr he would provide an important link between the government, the military and the Nazi Party. The appointment of the pro-Nazi Blomberg made Hammerstein-Equord’s position untenable; by late 1933 he had resigned as Reichswehr commander-in-chief. Blomberg later oversaw the first phase of military expansion ordered by Hitler. He also issued directives of his own, some of which were intended to impress Hitler, such as the discharging of 74 Jewish Reichswehr soldiers on racial grounds.
As loyal as Blomberg was to Hitler, even he was greatly concerned about the growth of the SA. By the end of 1933 SA membership was approaching three million men. Talk of the SA replacing the Reichswehr had escalated. The SA, it was said, embodied the youthful revolutionary spirit of National Socialism. “Wait until Papa Hindenburg is dead”, trumpeted one SA leader, “then the SA will march against the army”. SA leader Ernst Rohm repeatedly suggested to Hitler that he (Rohm) should replace Blomberg as defence minister. When Hitler refused these requests, Rohm became critical of the fuhrer, both in public and private. On one occasion Rohm caused a minor scandal by referring to Hitler as “a ridiculous corporal”.
Attempts to ease tensions between the Reichswehr and the SA in the spring of 1934 proved unsuccessful. In June, Blomberg visited Hitler with an order from the ailing president Hindenburg. The old man wanted the situation resolved; Hindenburg had also hinted if it could not be done, then he may impose martial law and hand control of Germany to the Reichswehr. This implied threat led Hitler to order the ‘Night of the Long Knives’, an SS-led purge that saw dozens of people arrested and killed, most of them SA leaders. The SA was downsized and disempowered, cleared of its demagogues and tub-thumpers, the men who wanted the SA to lead the Nazi revolution rather than follow it. The Reichswehr leadership was placated and their confidence in Hitler bolstered.
Adolf Hitler, late 1934
Hitler’s influence over the Reichswehr was further enhanced a month later, with the death of the ailing Hindenburg (August 2nd 1934). His merging of the chancellorship with the presidency made him head of government, head of state and – importantly – commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The move was constitutionally illegal, but Hitler bypassed legalities by scheduling a national plebiscite that resulted in strong public support. Shortly after the plebiscite, defence minister Blomberg altered the Reichswehreid – the oath of allegience taken by all Reichswehr personnel – at Hitler’s insistence. German soldiers now swore their loyalty directly to Adolf Hitler, rather than to the nation and the commander-in-chief. This not only bound the Reichswehr more closely to the Nazi leader, it made disobedience or disloyalty to Hitler a breach of the oath, and therefore a punishable offence. In March 1935 Hitler ordered a program of military expansion and the reintroduction of conscription, a move which pleased Reichswehr generals. On May 20th 1935 Hitler formally announced the reorganisation of the defence forces: the Reichswehr was re-formed and retitled as a new Nazi-led military force called the Wehrmacht.
1. Despite being downsized at Versailles, the Reichswehr (regular army) remained an important factor in German politics.
2. Aware that the Nazi regime needed the support of the Reichswehr, Hitler began courting its generals by making promises to expand and re-equip the military.
3. The growing size and hostile rhetoric of the SA concerned Reichswehr commanders, who held a negative view of the SA rank and file but feared their military potential.
4. In mid-1934 Hitler ordered the Night of the Long Knives, in part to deal with intransigence in the SA and placate the generals of the Reichswehr.
5. With the death of Hindenburg in August 1934, the men of the Reichswehr began swearing loyalty directly to Hitler. The following year, the Reichswehr was re-formed as the Wehrmacht.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Hitler and the Reichswehr“, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/nazigermany/hitler-and-the-reichswehr/.