The “Good Germans”


From a reader:

Dear Jonah,

Not to belabor the point concerning the “good Germans” who opposed the Nazis, but the more I study the history of the Prussians, the less I am inclined to believe their post-World War II version of things. Yes, there were men of aristocratic lineage such as the Georg von Moltke, who paid the ultimate price. Other notable Prussians from the Junker class who were executed were Field Marshal von Witzleben, General Ludwig Beck, and Major von Treskow. But an overwhelming number of senior Prussian officers sat on the fence and waited to see how the war transpired before they would throw in their hats. Generals von Braunstitsch and Halder (both ran the Army from 1939 through 1941-42) had more than ample opportunities to protest Hitler. These 2 men planned and executed Hitler’s most victorious campaigns and never once questioned his plans for the eradication of the Poles, nor Hitler’s notorious Commissar Order. Germany’s most able field commander, Field Marshall von Manstein, was present with other senior officers in an August 1939 meeting with Hitler, in which Hitler outlined his bloody plans for the Polish civilians. Goering was so happy he actually danced a jig. Manstein did record this meeting in his memoirs and only complained about Goering’s attire and behavior. Apparently, the mass execution of Polish Jews and civilian elites didn’t bother anyone in the least.

I do admit that General Beck was planning a coup before the invasion of the Sudetenland, but the coup was forestalled by Chamberlin’s appeasement. Yet, even this should be seen in light of Beck’s concern about fighting a potential 2 front war, and not about the rights of the Czechs. The Prussians only became concerned and planned a coup when it became obvious they were going to lose the war.

After the war there were many Prussian officers who attempted to rewrite history. They attempted to convince the world that they represented all that was best in the Germans – which they actually had much in common with Englishmen and Americans. They were after all conservative Lutherans who only wanted what was best for their country. They were victims of Hitler just like everyone else. The Cold War made this kind of revisionism necessary, I suppose. After the War, Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt was made into an icon – the last of the Prussian Old Breed, an officer and gentleman. Very few people outside of Russia even mention that in this “gentleman’s” area of operation whole-sale slaughter of Ukrainians and Jews occurred.

The truth be known, the Prussians never really were that hot about democracy. The German prime ministers of the Weimar Era never really knew if they could count on the support of the Junkers. The Prussian aristocracy despised democracy, and welcomed the Nazis at least initially. Hitler was the only major German politician who promised to break the Versailles Treaty, and return the German Army to its glorious past. The Prussians made a deal with the Devil and even stood down when Hitler carried out his bloody Night of the Long Knives murders. (They even failed to utter a word of protest when the Nazis butchered one of their own –retired General Kurt von Schleicher). The Prussians no doubt were willing to go to great lengths to get what they wanted. It is ironic how a class of men, whose lineage goes back before the Hohenzollern Dynasty, was more than willing to partner with fascist revolutionaries.

Me: This readers knows more about some of this stuff than I do. I do know that there was a very active effort to use the plot to kill Hitler as a useable past after the war. I’m sure that story is more romantic than the reality. Though you can hardly blame the German people for wanting to find a past that let them off the hook, if only a little.

I agree that “the Prussians” made a deal with the devil. But, as I hope I at least suggest in my book, I think that deal stems in no small part from the deal they — and the rest of Germany — made with Bismarck fifty years earlier. Thanks to Bismarck, the democratic tradition in Germany was strangled as he delivered his “socialism from above.” By the time Hitler came around, much of the fascist bargain had already been made.

Update: A friend sends this along:

[The reader above wrote:]It is ironic how a class of men, whose lineage goes back before the Hohenzollern Dynasty, was more than willing to partner with fascist revolutionaries.

It’s only superficially ironic. It actually came out of a profound confluence of goals, even if they might have dissented on Hitler’s domestic program. The Junkers—the group of Prussians we’re talking about here—were above all a military aristocracy. They dominated the Prussian Army, the military of the Kaiserreich, the General Staff, and indeed, the upper eschelons of the Nazi Wehrmacht, as Hitler (unlike Stalin) was smart enough to leave in place the guys who knew how the place worked.

My non-expert, but reasonably informed, take is that political systems, per se, mattered not a whit to the Junkers, outside of an aristocratic disdain for democracy (and hence the Weimar Republic). When Hitler came along offering a more authoritarian system, this likely struck them as the restoration of being able to have the “right people” in unfettered charge—even if the Nazis themselves were a bunch of jumped-up, lunatic proles.

As military aristocrats whose overriding value was honor, the Junkers were obsessed with avenging the shameful defeat of 1918. Whether or not any given person believed the Dolchstoßlegende or understood that they had lost the war on the ground, their absolute determination was to win the next one—which entailed having a next one. And Hitler, pretty much alone on the scene, was promoting a reinvigoration of the German military—and indeed the militarization of Germany tout court. So whatever distaste or disdain the Junkers might have had for Hitler and Nazism as revolutionary fascism—the end justified the means.

There were exceptions to be sure (like Stauffenburg, a Junker on his mother’s side, but significantly a Bavarian Catholic by upbringing, though even he was initially impressed with Hitler’s apparent military acumen); but my sense is that because the Junkers wanted another shot at the hated English and French, they were more than willing to throw their lot in with the Austrian paperhanger.


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