Study Guide

Dishonorable German Officers in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

By William L. Shirer

Dishonorable German Officers

Throughout The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Shirer names dozens of the captains, generals, admirals, and field marshals who served in the German Army, Navy, and Luftwaffe (Air Force) during the years of Hitler's rise to power. We'll look at some of them individually later in this section. But let's take a step back and see what larger point Shirer wants to make about this group.

One important thing to keep in mind is that before Hitler monopolized an absolutely unprecedented degree of power over every political, judicial, and armed institution in German society, the German officer corps was a pretty powerful bunch with a strong sense of its own traditions and importance.

As Shirer tells us, for example, the German Army functioned like "a state within a state" (2.5.11). Its organizational structure impressed Hitler at first, and gave him inspiration for the Nazi "state within a state" that he began to create before he rose to power and swallowed up every institution in Germany (2.5.11).

This is one of the reasons why Shirer has so much scorn for the German officers who capitulated to—and were cowed by—Hitler over and over again during the years of the would-be Fuehrer's rapid ascent to power. Why did the proud men who controlled the most powerful institution in Germany give that power away to a man like Hitler?

From August 1934 on, the generals, who up to that time could have overthrown the Nazi regime with ease had they so desired, thus tied themselves to the person of Adolf Hitler, recognizing him as the highest legitimate authority in the land and binding themselves to him by an oath of fealty which they felt honor-bound to obey in all circumstances no matter how degrading to them and the Fatherland.

[…] It was an oath which was to trouble the conscience of quite a few high officers when their acknowledged leader set off on a path which they felt could only lead to the nation's destruction and which they opposed. It was also a pledge which enabled an even greater number of officers to excuse themselves from any personal responsibility for the unspeakable crimes which they carried out on the orders of a Supreme Commander whose true nature they had seen for themselves in the butchery of June 30. (2.7.181)

Shirer concludes that whatever honor these officers once had, they dragged it through the mud.