“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 had been sentenced to death for cowardice. 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. With the rank of Generaloberst, he had been the head of army equipment and commander of replacement forces, based in Berlin’s Bendler Block. Over two million men (after 1943), together with a vast network of reserve regiments, planning and administration departments, machine parks and supply 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 20th of July, 1944, 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 using of 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 simple: reserve army units would be sent out to quell a coup d’etat, not realising that they themselves were the coup. When the soldiers found out the truth, they would be delighted to have been tricked into risking their lives to topple their government. That, at least, is what the conspirators must have assumed, though they would not have bothered to consult with anyone outside the right-minded elites to which they belonged. The bomb went off at 12:42, killing four people and wounding nine. Hitler survived with minor injuries.
Generaloberst Fromm did not believe that the conspiracy could succeed, and he refused to take part. He was placed under arrest, and Walküre was launched by his deputy, General Olbricht. All over Germany, bemused army commanders received orders to lock up key officials and seize control of the levers of power. Few obeyed. Within hours, the coup attempt collapsed, and Fromm took charge once more. A court martial was hastily convened, and Stauffenberg, Olbricht, and 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.
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 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 heart 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.
Of those who played a role in the events of the 20th of July, none have suffered as thoroughgoing a vilification as Friedrich Fromm. While Stauffenberg, Olbricht and others came to enjoy varying degrees of approval after 1945, Generaloberst Fromm remained in the public mind what the Nazis had declared him to be, a dishonourable coward. It seemed only too obvious that Fromm had acted as he did that fateful night merely to prevent his own contacts to the circles of resistance from becoming known. Fortunately, since 2005, and the publication of the biography of Fromm by Bernhard R. Kroener, a fuller picture has begun to emerge, one more to the credit of this much-maligned man.
In some respects, Friedrich Fromm is a tragic figure. The hamartia, or tragic flaw, to attempt an Aristotelian interpretation, can be discerned in the nature of sectoral loyalties and in the technical rationality which characterised Fromm’s life and work. It is the all-too-human, but morally pernicious, conviction that if one just does one’s job well, things will turn out for the good. Many who, like Fromm, belonged to Germany’s ‘loyal opposition’ wanted to compartmentalise themselves in this way, believing that they could serve a regime they were not in agreement with, enjoy the rewards of service, and yet remain untainted by the evident corruption. Because Fromm, despite his Christian upbringing, had at best only a weakened conception of the good, and of the moral effort required to seek it, he lacks the nobility of a truly tragic figure. Had Fromm been a good man, 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. As it stands, his fate, though it evokes a measure of fear and pity, fails to purify and 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. The First World War saw Fromm enter the general staff, where he distinguished himself. 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, many senior officers, Fromm included, welcomed his rise to power. The unmistakeable fact that Hitler was using murder and terror as tools of politics may have been distasteful to Fromm; 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, the Generaloberst 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 relinquish operational command, leave the fighting to his generals and devote himself to the task of negotiating a peace agreement.
Very few individuals 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, 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 was 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 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 enough, it could be the turn of his wife and daughter, and of himself. Yet, he soldiered 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.
Bernhard R. Kroener. Generaloberst Friedrich Fromm “Der starke Mann im Heimatgebiet.” Eine Biographie. Schoeningh, 2005.