“I always wanted only the best for Germany.” In the prison yard, the rifles of the firing squad were at the ready. The condemned man, seeing their nervousness, tried to calm them. They shouldn’t blame themselves, he said. They were only doing their duty. He himself stood strong. “Shoot well, comrades,” he finished, looking each of them in the eye. The giant-like man before them, who was comporting himself with such dignity and courage, had been sentenced to death for cowardice. It was a travesty of justice. Not that it was any of their business. That the condemned man, a former general, had put his signature to hundreds of execution orders carried out in that very place, wasn’t their business, either. Still, they didn’t like it. Not any of it.
It was the 12th of March, 1945, only a few weeks from the end of the war. The former general was Friedrich Fromm. Until the 20th July, 1944, Generaloberst Fromm had been the head of munitions procurement and commander of the reserve forces, based in Berlin’s Bendler Block, the headquarters of the army. A sprawling empire of planning and administration departments, machine parks and vehicle depots, recruitment and training units, as well as inspectorates and support services of all kinds, had been under his authority. In the event of the breakdown of civil order, executive power in the homeland would have fallen to him. Instead of standing in a prison yard in Brandenburg, waiting for his death, he could have been the military governor of Germany.
On that fateful 20th of July, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, Chief of Staff to Generaloberst Fromm, had used a routine briefing in Rastenburg to plant a bomb next to Hitler. The plan was to kill the dictator and then seize power in Germany, using the resources of the reserve army. The conspirators were relying in particular on a set of contingency orders known as Walküre, which had been drawn up in Fromm’s offices for the containment of an insurrection. The idea was brilliantly simple: loyal soldiers would be sent out to quell a coup d’etat, not realising that they themselves were the coup. When they found out the truth, the soldiers would be delighted to have been tricked into risking their lives to topple their government. That is what the conspirators must have assumed, though they would not have bothered to consult with anyone outside the social elites to which they belonged. The bomb went off at 12:42, killing four people and wounding nine. Hitler survived with only minor injuries.
Generaloberst Fromm did not believe that the conspiracy could succeed, and he refused to take part. He was placed under arrest, and Operation Walküre was launched by his deputy, General Olbricht. All over Germany, bemused army commanders received orders to lock up high-ranking Nazis and seize control of the levers of power. Few obeyed. Within a few hours, the coup attempt collapsed, and Fromm took charge once more. Stauffenberg, who had returned to Berlin, was placed under arrest, together with the other conspirators. A court martial was convened, and Stauffenberg, Olbricht, and two others were sentenced to death. By now, it was after midnight. The executions took place immediately, in the yard of the Bendler Block, with light provided by the headlights of army vehicles. Fromm went to report to Goebbels, where he was again placed under arrest. He never saw freedom again.
All that is clear about Fromm’s actions that night is that the chief conspirators were put to death with astonishing haste. It seemed only too obvious that the Generaloberst had sought merely to prevent the conspirators from revealing what they knew about his own contacts to the circles of resistance. Other motives are just as plausible. It is true, for example, that Fromm’s actions saved the conspirators from being handed over to the Gestapo, where they would have been treated much more harshly, and would almost certainly have betrayed many others. Fromm may have wanted to save lives, and not only his own. Fromm’s biographer, Bernhard R. Kroener, foregrounds the concept of military honour. In his account, imprisonment by trusted subordinates was an intolerable slight to Fromm’s honour as an officer which demanded immediate satisfaction. However, because the court martial and executions ordered by Fromm were procedurally irregular, it is difficult to see how they could have provided that satisfaction. What is more, although honour was undoubtedly of importance to Fromm, as to all Prussian officers, it is unlikely to have been uppermost in his mind. A State emergency was boiling around him. Fromm would have been concerned first and foremost with the containment of damage and the restoration of order. In this wider context, the immediate execution of Stauffenberg and the others would have seemed unavoidable.
Hitler was convinced that Generaloberst Fromm was the secret mastermind behind the conspiracy of the 20th of July. There was some reason to think this, but there was no firm evidence. After all, those who might have provided that evidence had been shot by Fromm. Therefore, instead of trying the Generaloberst for High Treason and probably having to acquit him, the Nazis decided to try him for ‘Cowardice in the Face of the Enemy.’ This was a strange charge, one which usually applied to cases of desertion under fire. The fact that Fromm had allowed himself to be taken prisoner by General Olbricht without a fight was deemed to be proof of cowardice. With perfidious artifice, the Nazis had struck at the very core of Fromm’s honour as an officer. It was one more sign from Hitler to his generals that the price of disfavour could be very great. In the show trial which followed, the highest levels of the Reich kept a close watch on the proceedings. The sinister Kaltenbrunner, head of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, was dispatched to the court to encourage prosecutorial zeal. Prominent individuals who wanted to appear as witnesses for the defence, among them Albert Speer, were prevented from doing so. Needless to say, the verdict had been communicated to the court in advance.
Of those who played a role in the conspiracy of the 20th of July, none have suffered as thoroughgoing a vilification as Friedrich Fromm. After 1945, and the slow return to normal life in the ruined Germany, Stauffenberg, Olbricht and others came to enjoy varying degrees of approval, but in the public mind, Generaloberst Fromm remained what the Nazis had declared him to be, a dishonourable coward. Appeals by former comrades to clear Fromm’s name fell on deaf ears. It was obvious, however, that reasons of expediency were paramount, as if the shaky consensus on which the new Germany stayed afloat might be punctured by too great a concern for the truth. Fortunately, since 2005, and the publication of Kroener’s biography, a fuller picture has begun to emerge, one more to the credit of this much-maligned man.
Richly evident is not cowardice, but failure of a different kind, admixed with some of the elements of tragedy. Kroener places Fromm among Germany’s ‘loyal opposition.’ Such a stance, while not necessarily unprincipled, was always contradictory, for it required the commitment of energies to the Nazi cause while simultaneously hoping that it would fail. In the case of a thoroughly evil regime, such as Hitler’s, this is not opposition at all. More fundamentally, Fromm’s near-tragedy has to do with the form of rationality which characterises his life and work, which, as Kroener shows, was limited to technical efficiency.
A tragic flaw, to attempt an Aristotelian interpretation, can be discerned in the nature of sectoral loyalties and in excessive faith in the value of the optimization of processes. It is the all-too-human, but morally pernicious, conviction that if one just plays one’s own part well, things will always turn out for the good. A technical process, however, is not oriented towards the good without moral effort. Because Fromm, despite his Christian upbringing, had no conception of this, he lacks the nobility of a truly tragic figure. Fromm was not a good man. Had he been, his impressive courage and far-sightedness would have been moral in scope, rather than merely strategic, and his life energies would not have been in the ownership of the Nazis. His fate, therefore, though it evokes a measure of fear and pity, does not purify or uplift.
The formative power in Fromm’s life was the army. The son of a Prussian general, he followed in his father’s footsteps at an early age, and was commissioned in an artillery regiment. During and after the First World War, Fromm, now an officer of the general staff, distinguished himself by his competence in planning and organising roles and by his capacity for hard work. A monarchist at heart, Fromm’s loyalty was to Germany, that is, to the diffuse, but still powerful vision of Germany that remained in the military mind after the defeat in 1918 and the collapse of the monarchic State. Central to this vision was the concept of the strong army which stayed aloof from politics and civil life, but was always ready to step into the fray as the guarantor of the national interest.
Because Hitler was the only politician of note who could be counted on to make the concerns of the army a priority of policy, many senior officers, Fromm included, welcomed Hitler’s rise to power. The unmistakeable fact that Hitler was using murder and terror as tools of politics may have been distasteful to Fromm, but it was certainly tolerable. Whenever Hitler’s initiatives served army interests, he could count on Fromm’s approval and support. In 1934, as head of the General Army Office (Allgemeines Heeresamt), Fromm provided important logistical assistance for the Röhm putsch, in which hundreds of senior Nazis lost their lives. Röhm had committed the unpardonable sin of trying to subordinate the army to his SA paramilitaries. Fromm, it appears, had no concerns about the murderous nature of the putsch.
It is only after 1936, when certain Nazi policies met with Fromm’s professional disapproval, that anything like distance towards the regime can be detected. Hitler had begun to force the pace of re-militarisation, and Fromm’s calculations led him to foresee an unfavourable outcome. The subordination of the manufacturing sector to military procurement targets, he warned, would lead to either the collapse of the national economy or a premature engagement in war. But in 1939, when his prediction came true, and Germany started a war it was ill-prepared for, Fromm committed his prodigious energies to plugging the holes, and succeeded brilliantly.
Late in 1941, when the German invasion of Russia began to slow down, Fromm raised his voice once more. Like few others, Fromm was able to assess the position of the thousands of supply items that enable an army to keep fighting. Contrary to Hitler’s rhetoric, he now warned, the Russian war machine was superior to the German, and the advance in the East could not be maintained. His warning was ignored. A year later, in the autumn of 1942, Fromm managed to present an updated, and even more pessimistic, analysis, this time to Hitler in person. Fromm told the dictator that the war could not be won. The only rational course of action was for Hitler to leave the fighting to his generals and devote himself to the task of negotiating a peace agreement.
Very few individuals ever found the courage to speak the truth to Hitler. On the military side, Fromm was one of the first, and probably the best-informed, to take that risk. There was no positive result, but it is to Fromm’s credit that he tried. Ordinarily, such plain speaking meant dismissal, or worse. Whatever his reasons, Hitler kept Fromm in place, but slowly weakened his command. The head of the reserve army was forced to put a brave face on it as important structures were dissolved and key resources were shifted elsewhere. If he now welcomed the overtures of those who wanted Hitler forcibly removed, it is due more to professional frustration than to a genuine insight into the evil nature of the regime.
In my modest view, it is not the military and political environment, but Fromm’s personal life that best illuminates his fate. Of personal life there was very little. A shy, insecure man with a habit of sarcasm, Fromm had few friends. Blessed with a strong and happy marriage, he seems to have found much joy and consolation in family life. But only there. One looks in vain for cultural pursuits or social interests which did not serve the representational purposes of the army.
All the more painful, then, must have been the loss of his son, Lieutenant Harald Fromm, who was killed on the Eastern Front in November, 1943. Afterwards, as his daughter remembered, Fromm was only a shadow of his former self, so reduced in emotional capability that when he arrived home after his day’s work, he was little more than a ‘stony-faced stranger’ (ein steinerner Gast) at the dinner table. Naturally, Hitler’s displeasure played a part, as did the cut-throat competition in the Bendler Block. Upon him, though, was a new and compelling vista: the interleaving of Germany’s predicament, the army’s predicament, and a moral predicament that was his very own. It cannot have been otherwise. At this decisive moment, it is sad to relate, he did absolutely nothing.
Long before his son went into action that day, Fromm knew that the military situation was hopeless. It was inevitable that Germany would lose the war. Hitler was impervious to rational argument. The operations in the East, which cost millions of lives, had no military value and served only a hideous ideological purpose. Berlin would soon come within reach of enemy bombers, while the capacities of the German air defence were falling behind. It did not matter to Hitler if Germany was utterly destroyed in defeat. On this altar of insanity, Fromm had sacrificed his soldier’s ideals. Now, most bitter indeed, came the sacrifice of his son. Soon, it would be the turn of his wife and daughter, and of his own life. Yet, he continued on. Long before the 20th of July, 1944, Friedrich Fromm had lost everything. His tragedy was that he could not take off his uniform and walk away.
© Eamon Kiernan
Bernhard R. Kroener. Generaloberst Friedrich Fromm “Der starke Mann im Heimatgebiet.” Eine Biographie. Schoeningh, 2005.