EVENTS of the last few months have placed the Reichswehr in the forefront of world interest. But its bloodless victories in Austria and Czecho-Slovakia have not offered any insight into its real capacity to carry on another World War. The Reichswehr remains, even more than the Red Army, the mystery force of the world.

The difficulty in appreciating the Reichswehr's real strength lies not so much in the elaborate secrecy surrounding it as in the unique conditions under which it was created and now works. No other military force in the world has had to undergo such violent changes within so short a period as it has undergone since the World War; nor has any other modern army been expanded eightfold under conditions of complete secrecy and the threat of armed intervention -- and this simultaneously with the development of one of the most thoroughgoing revolutions in history.

To understand the present position of the German Army we must go back to the revolution of 1918-19. During those hectic days the foundations of the Reichswehr were laid by the somewhat chaotic "Free Corps," remnants of the old Imperial Army that assisted the new Republican Government to suppress the extreme radicals and to restore order. This unnatural partnership between the revolutionary Government and ultra-nationalist elements inevitably broke down: in March 1920 the famous Kapp Putsch found the Army divided. But thanks to the remarkable diplomacy of General von Seeckt, confidence was restored after a relatively short period of upheaval and the Army leaders were able to continue with their work of consolidating the Reichswehr's position.

The material and political circumstances in which this was carried on made the Reichswehr fundamentally different from the old Imperial Army. The Versailles Treaty had restricted Germany to a mercenary force of 100,000 long-service men, without tanks, planes or heavy artillery -- conditions such as to make the task of preparing an adequate defense for the country seem at first a bitter farce. Nevertheless, the very harshness of the conditions stimulated the officers to put forth their utmost ingenuity, with the result that under the able leadership of von Seeckt the Reichswehr soon developed into a powerful military instrument. Since it was allowed to recruit no more than 8,000 men yearly, it could choose the very best; and since the term of service was for 12 years, it was able to attain a standard of military training and a general intellectual level never even remotely approached, either before or since. In fact, without this intensive training, by which practically every private became a potential non-commissioned officer, the tremendous expansion of recent years could never have taken place at all. The same was true to an even higher degree of the officers. No longer a privileged class, but merely one profession among others, they were selected on the basis of the most thorough physical and intellectual tests that could be devised, and thereafter they were obliged to conform to rigorously high standards. Competitive examinations for the higher ranks constituted a further stimulant to individual effort.

Infinitely more difficult was the task of preserving the Reichswehr's inner cohesion under prevailing political conditions. Outwardly its position within the community might seem not to have changed appreciably. Under the Hohenzollerns the Army felt itself the chosen instrument of the Imperial House and as such it shared the monarch's proud distinction of being above party strife. But now under the Republic it had become the subordinate of a parliament whose outlook it neither understood fully nor approved.

Even more important, the sentiment of the officers themselves towards politics had undergone a fundamental change. The non-political attitude of most of the officers of the old Army was genuine: they regarded the struggles in the political arena as something sordid in which an officer had no reason to mix and which, in any event, were of no great importance since the real direction of affairs lay in the safe hands of the monarch. Now, however, the non-political attitude enforced upon Reichswehr officers (they alone among the citizens of the new Republic were debarred from voting) represented a real sacrifice. The tragedy of the World War and its aftermath of chaos had thrown Germany's political life completely out of its traditional channels; the party struggle, hitherto hardly more than an eddy in the political backwater, suddenly had become a mighty river whose course all watched with passionate interest. These circumstances demanded that officers of the Army show almost superhuman self-control; and their position became progressively more difficult as signs multiplied that the Republic, in whose name this political abnegation was imposed, was headed for disintegration.

In the years of rapid disruption of public life following the death of Stresemann, the Reichswehr was thrust first into the rôle of arbiter and then of main prop for the Republican Government. Considering the intense political excitement of those years, the Reichswehr managed to maintain its internal unity fairly intact, despite certain strong differences of opinion within its ranks. These differences were exhibited, for instance, at the famous trial in Leipzig where three subalterns were found guilty of illicit contact with the Nazi Party. That the Reichswehr was able to preserve its unity is brilliant testimony to the honesty and spirit of self-effacement of the average German soldier and to the strength of character and wisdom of the officers. It nevertheless was a thoroughly disgusted Reichswehr which Hitler found when he came into power on January 30, 1933.

The disgust of the Reichswehr for the party squabbles of the last years of the Weimar Republic explains to a large extent its subsequent attitude toward Hitler's régime. It also explains why the Reichswehr, though starting from an infinitely stronger position than the Red Army, was eventually reduced to a similar state of political subjection to the dominant party. From the beginning the Red Army was the creature of the Bolshevik Party. It had no independent tradition or ideology of its own, and when in the course of time the inevitable friction between the civilian dictatorship and the armed forces drove the military leaders to rebellion, they (if we are to credit Erich Wollenberg's account) had no other means of opposing Stalin than an appeal to militant internationalism. The Reichswehr, on the other hand, was bound by no ties, sentimental or otherwise, to the Nazi Party. Instead, it had a long and glorious tradition behind it, incomparably longer than that of the Party. Furthermore, that tradition was in fundamental opposition, if not to the Party's program, at least to the practices of the Party régime. During the last days of the Republic the Reichswehr itself held the political balance in the nation; and in 1933, and for several years thereafter, it concentrated in its hands practically the entire physical power of the country. It would, further, have had the enthusiastic support of large sections of the population if it had chosen to undertake any coup d'état. Yet within five years after Hitler's taking power it not only had abdicated from this immensely powerful position, but it possessed no longer much more independence than its Red counterpart.

The fundamental reason for this astonishing development lies in the fact that in Nazi Germany's curiously inverted societas leonina the stronger partner possessed the infinitely weaker political will -- or rather, no political will whatsoever. The Reichswehr had had nothing to do with bringing the Nazi Party into power. True, it was ready to welcome a régime which went out of its way to demonstrate its profound regard for the soldier and its appreciation of his needs and aspirations. Yet it had submitted to the change because such was the wish of its own Commander-in-Chief, President von Hindenburg. The Reichswehr had no interest in politics beyond the fulfillment of its own professional wishes, and it was only too glad to leave to a régime so obviously qualified the task of dealing with the obnoxious parties and effecting the nation's unity -- the absence of which it had long deplored.

The Reichswehr's lack of interest in politics and its acquiescence in the Nazi Party's claim to leadership is the key to what happened in their relationship during the following years. Observers at home and abroad who wonder why the Reichswehr, despite its immensely strong position, gave way step by step to the pressure of the Party, overlook the fact that there was no fundamental opposition between the two, and that, however much the Reichswehr and some of its leaders might dislike the régime or certain of its aspects, they neither had a constructive policy of their own to put in its place nor the inclination or capacity for taking over the reins of government themselves. Above all, the gigantic task of rearmament served admirably, from the Nazi point of view, to bind the Army's hands, not only by monopolizing its attention but by virtually preventing it from overthrowing the régime as long as that delicate undertaking was under way. Rearmament also fulfilled another very important function. The political abdication of the Reichswehr was not enough from the Nazi point of view; so long as it retained its independence in its own sphere it remained a potential threat, a possible rallying point for effective opposition. Thus the régime found itself faced with the dual though not uncongenial task of expanding the country's military strength at the same time that it was undermining, under the cloak of that military expansion, the traditionally independent esprit de corps of the Reichswehr and subjugating it to Nazi ideology and influence. However, this object could not be attained until the compact and homogeneous units of the old Reichswehr had been broken up and their elements merged in a huge new mass army.

Rearmament was therefore accompanied by a constant stream of attacks by the Nazi Government against the autonomy which the Reichswehr still enjoyed in its own realm. One of the attacks was against the Reichswehr's exemption from the jurisdiction of the Gestapo, and then against its exemption from the rigorous application of the racial laws. More important, an effort was made to destroy all those traditions which separated the Army from the regimented thought and life of the Third Reich. The traditions which the Nazis sought to suppress ran from the Army's Christian outlook to externals like military salutes.

It proved much more difficult to subdue the Army's spirit than to subjugate it politically. Though loyal to the régime, the vast majority of the officers had little sympathy for the Nazi Weltanschauung. So far the Nazis have still failed to convert the Reichswehr by their well-tried propaganda techniques. The grandiloquent expositions of National Socialist theory delivered before select audiences of officers by prominent Party men have not made the impression which the Nazis expected, while the persistent propaganda among the rank and file carried on by Rosenberg and his emissaries has merely served to exasperate the officers, who do not wish to let go important aspects of the soldier's education. In the struggle between the Nazi ideology and the old military standards, the latter proved the stronger. And, as countless episodes during the occupation of Austria and the November 1938 pogroms have shown, they still determine the Army's outlook.

The Army's remarkable resistance to Nazi penetration has led the régime to try to reach its objective by more direct measures. As early as the summer of 1936 the independent status of the Army was modified by a series of restrictions; it was a moment when the prestige of the Army leaders was low because they had pointed out the danger of occupying the Rhineland -- and then it had proved a resounding success. Recently the process has culminated in two highly important decrees.

The first abolishes the non-political ex-servicemen's organization which was created in 1937 when the first batch of new recruits left the colors. Henceforth, control over the training of reservists both before and after their terms of military service will be vested in the Sturmabteilungen, the Party organization of storm troopers. Thus for the first time since they were relegated to obscurity in 1934 the SA have been given a political and military task. The importance of this cannot be exaggerated. In effect, the order entrusts the whole physical and ideological training of Germany's manhood to the Brown Shirts and reduces the Army to an organization for the military training of only the active soldiers and reservists. It therefore represents the realization of plans the premature disclosure of which cost Captain Roehm, Chief of Staff of the SA, his life in the blood purge of June 30, 1934. Outwardly the position of the Army officers has not been touched. No attempt has been made to amalgamate them and the storm troop leaders; the lesson of 1934, when an attempt of that sort aroused violent indignation in the Reichswehr, has been learned. And in fact purely military reasons would have forbidden any such solution, for the SA leaders gave a very poor account of themselves as non-commissioned officers during the great September mobilization. However, by entrusting these same SA officers with the military and political training of all ex-servicemen, the whole body of Germany's trained manpower is withdrawn from the Army's sphere of influence.

At the same time, another decree profoundly changed the personal status of the Army officers themselves. This has entirely failed to receive proper attention. Under the terms of this decree (dated January 22, 1939) the Reich League of German Officers places itself under the leadership of the Reich Warrior Fuehrer, Major General Reinhard, Head of the National Socialist Reich Warrior League. By forcing Army officers to join this organization, hitherto composed exclusively of private and non-commissioned officers and completely under National Socialist control, the Nazis have at one blow reduced them from their proud position as a special class, acclaimed as the first in the state, to the mere status of military specialists. Henceforth they will be soldiers first and officers only incidentally.

Such is the background against which we must try to appraise the cohesiveness and military efficiency of the Reichswehr today. As regards the rank and file the situation is not unsatisfactory, though by no means brilliant. During the September crisis the morale of large sections of the forces, especially of the badly supplied reservists, showed signs of considerable depression. There was a definite lack of enthusiasm about a struggle of doubtful outcome. Munich brought a widespread improvement in spirit. But this lasted only a short time, and during recent months the general feeling of insecurity and disaffection has returned and increased. Nevertheless, in case of war the vast majority of the disaffected would doubtless fulfill their duties, if not enthusiastically, at least loyally. Nor should we overlook the fact that the classes which have performed their military service since the reëstablishment of conscription -- in other words, the men who would form the bulk of the field forces in case of a war -- have grown up under the Nazi régime and are generally more enthusiastic about it than the older generation is.

Inside the Army the relationship between men and officers is distinctly good. In the war and its chaotic aftermath German officers learned the need for a deeper comradeship between the leader and the led than had ever existed in the old Imperial Army. The new Reichswehr recognized that a humane relationship between officers and men need not conflict with the strict notions of discipline characteristic of the Prussian Army since the days of Frederick the Great. There are no indications that the advent of the Nazi régime has altered this.

It is harder to give a judgment about the regimental officers, whose situation is far more complicated. There is no doubt as to their professional qualifications and their capacity to train and handle men. All observers agree on that point, regardless of the troops in question. But the inner cohesion of the officers' corps inevitably suffered severely under the double strain of the Nazi revolution and rearmament, and politically the officers no longer form a homogeneous group, even in the restricted sense that that term applied to them in the Schleicher era. The old type of officer -- politically conservative, strongly religious -- is today in a minority, even though that minority still controls most of the higher commands. Against it stands another group, composed of officers of all grades who think the best way to get ahead is to champion the régime openly. Between these two minorities floats the great mass of the more or less politically indifferent. These "mere soldiers" are glad to let their immediate duties divert them from too close a scrutiny of the less attractive aspects of Nazidom.

Actually, the inner unity of the officers' corps has been more affected by the enormous expansion connected with rearmament than by political dissension. The break-up of the old units has completely destroyed the long-established, close-knit cohesion of the regimental commands in the old professional force. The new regimental units are composed of such widely divergent elements as the officers of the Reichswehr, officers of the old Imperial Army called back to active service, and hastily promoted non-commissioned officers. In the turmoil of rearmament these have found little time to settle down into any kind of real unity. The situation has been aggravated by the constant absence of officers, particularly the younger ones, on all sorts of special courses. The regimental commanders have been unable to discover the real capacities of their subordinates and to weld them into homogeneous units.

More important, the rapid expansion of the commissioned personnel has produced a mass influx of new elements, and this has shaken the social unity of the officers' corps to its foundations. Even in the old Army the officers never formed the carefully secluded feudal caste so frequently imagined and described; and after the constitution of the Reichswehr the officers were recruited to a large extent from "bourgeois" elements. But like the British aristocracy, the German officers' corps had always stood for a certain type of man, a certain outlook upon life, a certain set of ideals and traditions; and its unity and strength depended upon adherence to these standards. Up to now it was able to form newcomers to its traditional mould, for these newcomers were relatively few in comparison with the mass into which they were mixed. And anyway, most of them came from social strata strongly predisposed toward the officer outlook.

Now, however, not only has the officers' corps been expanded on an unprecedented scale, but the better part of the influx has come from sections of the community -- the peasantry and the lower middle class -- whose attitude and social background differ fundamentally from that of the officer class. The task of the regimental commanders, who must see to the social no less than the professional education of these young officers, thus becomes extremely complicated. It is not merely a question of social distinctions and table manners; a fundamental difference in tradition and point of view threatens to dissolve the esprit de corps of the officers' class and to split it up into coteries.

According to all observers, the conduct of the Army during the occupation of Austria contrasted markedly with that of the Party officials. The inference would seem to be that despite everything the officers' corps had once more been welded together into a homogeneous body. But the difficulty has not really been solved as simply as this; the fundamental problem remains, and it will inevitably become more acute as the Army becomes isolated in a state which moves further away from the conservative and Christian sources of its earlier strength.

For the moment this question of the inner reintegration of the officers' corps does not affect the military efficiency of the Reichswehr. The defects in the Army's staff work noted by recent observers are much more serious. To a large extent this deterioration is the inevitable result of the demand for more staff officers and the speeding up of their output. In the past, staff courses embraced such divergent subjects as infantry and machine gun tactics, air attack and anti-aircraft defense, transport and chemical warfare, in addition to the expanding mass of controversial and perpetually changing military lore. To these courses has now been added instruction in all sorts of political matters; while the already insufficient total of three years of study has been cut to two. The inevitable result is that the future staff officers acquire only a superficial notion of their functions.

This weakness could be borne if it were temporary. Unfortunately, this does not promise to be the case. The undeniable superiority which the German General Staff enjoyed during the latter half of the nineteenth century and up into the World War was due to its unique understanding of the Napoleonic war of movement bequeathed to it by such great thinkers as Scharnhorst, Clausewitz, Moltke and Schlieffen. The tactical superiority of the German General Staff lasted as long as the conditions which gave rise to this Napoleonic form of "pure strategy." True, the German command lost the decisive battle of the Marne as a result of its own faults rather than through any display of superior leadership by the enemy. Yet it vindicated its reputation again in such brilliant successes as the battles of Tannenberg and Lodz, and in the campaigns against Serbia and Rumania. However, the increased power of quick-firing guns and the use of trench warfare ended the mobile warfare for which the General Staff had been trained during three generations and so nullified its technical superiority.

The German General Staff's failure to comprehend the full extent and fundamental character of the changes brought about by the World War has kept it from making the necessary radical revision of its fundamental strategic doctrine. German military thought has let itself be overwhelmed by the flood of new weapons and the problems they have created. Though it has manifested intense activity in various specialized fields of military technique, it has failed to arrive at a profound conception of modern war viewed comprehensively. The German staff officer of today, though far better educated than his prewar predecessor and though possessing a much wider understanding of political and economic issues, nevertheless lacks the immense intellectual strength which the old General Staff derived from its constant application of a simple and clearly developed doctrine.

This decline in the quality of military thought and training is particularly significant in view of the strongly offensive spirit of the German Army. The old preference for the offensive, which before the World War led German military strategists to underestimate badly the strength of the defense (although not so greatly as did Foch and his school in France), has not been shaken by the vast improvement of modern fire power. On the contrary, the Versailles Treaty's prohibition of tanks and other support weapons led the German Army, more than any other army in the world, to explore and develop the possibilities of infantry attack under modern conditions. According to the current German conception, it is still the infantry and not the tank which should be the backbone of the attack: the infantry therefore is diligently trained to fulfill that rôle so far as possible unaided.

At the same time, the remarkable development in recent years of tank design and tactics has led the German High Command to concentrate most of its tanks into large armored divisions, aimed at bringing about the decisive break-through by sheer weight and speed. Since experts have come more and more to accept the vulnerability of the tank to anti-tank gunfire, this concentrated attack independent of infantry support (as propounded by the former Austrian General Eimannsberger) seems to offer the best use for that weapon. At any rate, it certainly offers a much better chance of success than the rigid system recently codified by the French. If we add the intensive development of heavy artillery, always a favorite arm with the German Army, we see that the Reichswehr is indeed a most formidable instrument of offense.

It must not be assumed, however, that this preparation for the attack denotes a neglect of the defense, as was the case before the World War. The German Army's experience in that conflict, as well as in more recent operations, has taught it that it must hold on many fronts in order to be able to attack decisively on one. Even more important, it has discovered the peculiar assets of the "luring defensive" -- and with that discovery it has returned to the teachings of its greatest military theorist, Clausewitz. In its field manuals and military literature and at its manœuvres, the German Army therefore devotes as much attention to the defensive as to the offensive. Its equipment, for instance in heavy artillery, is as well adapted to the one as to the other. In the matter of anti-tank defense, a field to which German military thought has given particular attention, it outstrips all other armies. Each German division now has 72 guns -- a figure which some would like to see raised to 135 -- as against some 30-odd in the French and Italian divisions. The Reichswehr also gives chemical aspects of defense particular attention.

Finally, there remains the much discussed question as to how far the efficiency of the German Army, as compared with that of an army in a democratic country, has been impaired by the totalitarian character of the régime. In general, the tendency abroad has been to assume that the balance inclines pronouncedly in favor of the democratic army. Yet the experience of the last years, and above all of the recent crisis, does not support this view. Armament has come to play such a decisive rôle in modern warfare that the importance of technical considerations -- organization, training and readiness to act instantly -- has greatly increased in comparison with the importance of moral factors. There is no question as to the superiority of the totalitarian régime as far as technical matters are concerned; nor is it by any means certain that its morale would prove to be in any way inferior, at least at the beginning of a war and so long as there were no decisive reverses. On the whole, it seems that the factors which would destroy army efficiency in a totalitarian régime would come into play only in the course of a protracted struggle or as the result of far-reaching internal changes.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now