Monday, February 01, 2016

The Night of the Long Knives from Piers Brendon

YET for a totalitarian Hitler ruled Germany in a surprisingly anarchic manner. Ever the Bohemian, he avoided office routine—after Hinden-burg's death he abandoned it altogether. He rose late, kept an erratic schedule and saw visitors according to whim. He spent several hours over a late lunch, talking inordinately but eating sparingly: he indulged him-self only in the consumption of sweetmeats. Many were struck by the "extraordinary contrast" between Hitler's petty-bourgeois addiction to chocolate cake and "talk that revolved round death, revolt, gaol, murder, robbery."33 The contrast was equally marked in Hitler's preference for sentimental cinema. Greta Garbo was his screen goddess and on most evenings he watched a romance, a comedy or a musical, often more than one, seeing his favourites (among them King Kong) over and over again. He also went to Bayreuth, where Wagner regularly reduced him to tears—behaviour which Hugh Walpole, when he had been obliged to share a box with this "curious tenth-rate fellow" in 1926, thought curable only by a few terms at an English public school.34 These entertainments apart, Hitler's main recreation was architecture: he liked to sketch triumphal arches, concrete bunkers and monumental facades; he dreamed of con-structing the largest hall in the world, 16 times the size of St. Peter's in Rome. (So jealous was he of its planned rival, the Congress Hall to honour Lenin in Moscow, that when the invasion of Russia began in 1941 Hitler remarked: "That puts paid once and for all to Stalin's building.")35 He con-ducted evening business haphazardly, reading little but quizzing officials and filing away their answers in a prodigious memory. Mostly, though, he engaged in interminable monologues, reiterating familiar themes, reduc-ing his coterie to a state of catatonic exhaustion and sometimes even dron-
The Nazis in Power
289 
ing himself to sleep. Talk, as Hitler's press chief Otto Dietrich said, "was the very element of his existence."36 The Fiihrer was relatively austere in his domestic arrangements, living in a modest apartment on the first and second floors of the old Chan-cellery. But that austerity was tempered by his overweening architectural obsessions and a new Chancellery was designed by Albert Speer to reflect the might of the Third Reich. Similarly, Hitler's rustic retreat at Berchtes-gaden, where he enjoyed relaxing at weekends in a light-blue Bavarian sports coat and a yellow tie, started as a simple, pine-panelled villa. The furniture, as Albert Speer recalled, was "bogus old-German peasant style and gave the house a comfortable petit-bourgeois look. A brass canary cage, a cactus, and a rubber plant intensified the impression." So did a clutter of knick-knacks and cushions embroidered with swastikas, sent to Hitler by admiring women. But Hitler soon transformed the Berghof, as it was called, into an uncomfortably elaborate chalet embellished with en-graved silver, rich carpets, Gobelin tapestries, red Morocco leather chairs and mythopoeic paintings—he was fond of voluptuous female nudes. He installed large marble fireplaces for he loved staring into the flames. He also liked to gaze through the huge picture window in his 6o-foot-long salon, across the awesome gulf to the Untersberg where, according to legend, Barbarossa slept, one day to rise and restore the glory of the Ger-man empire. From his lofty eminence Hitler soared to new heights of megalomania, proclaiming that here "my creative genius produces ideas which shake the world."37 Yet, like any house-proud host, he came down to earth with a bump when the flower arrangements or the place-settings were not to his satisfaction. Over more important matters Hitler was apt to procrastinate and change his mind. He operated by intuition, putting off decisions until the spirit moved him. A spasm of genius, he reckoned, was worth a lifetime of uninspired work. He despised orthodox functionaries, "dusty bureau-crats,"3s "those [sleepy] Father Christmases at the Foreign Ministry,"39 the military "saurians" in the Bendlerstrasse.4° In theory Hitler insisted on centralisation according to the "Fiihrer principle," yet in practice he added to officialdom. He set up and worked through competing authori-ties of his own, rather in the manner of Roosevelt. One historian has gone so far as to describe Hitler as in some respects a "weak dictator,"4' not a view his victims would have shared. The Fiihrer's technique was to let his subordinates fight among themselves and to act as "supreme arbiter,"4z mesmerising them by his "hypnotic dilation of the eye."43 Administrative chaos was inveterate because personal control was absolute.
Himmler and Goring were rivals for Rohm's command. The ambitious duo tried to convince Hitler that an SA uprising was imminent, and he may well have believed them. He may also have been influenced by Mussolini when they met for the first time at Venice in mid-June 1934. On this occasion, it is usually said, the Duce, in his immaculate uni-form complete with dagger and fez, upstaged the Fiihrer, ill at ease in yellow mackintosh, grey felt hat and too-tight patent leather shoes. Actually, Hitler thought the Italian army ridiculous because, as the band played at too quick a pace, its troops did not so much march past as trot. The Italian navy astonished him, for where flags ought to have flown from the war-ship he inspected the sailors had hung out their washing. Still, as Mus-solini moved the throng in St. Mark's Square to shrieking ecstasy, doctors and nurses standing by to succour those "overcome by emotion," there was no denying his charisma. The Rihrer's pilot had never seen "crowds so hypnotised by anyone, not even Hitler." In private, Hitler said, the dicta-tors "talked together like comrades," though the Duce complained that his guest had recited the whole of Mein Kampffrom memory. But appar-ently Mussolini did urge Hitler to treat his internal opposition as he had treated Matteotti. Still Hitler hesitated. On his return to Germany he kept out of Berlin. He posed wearing Tyrolean dress for photographers in Bavaria and inspected the Krupp steelworks in Essen, gazing with rapt intensity at tor-rents of molten metal cascading from fiery crucibles and flattened by gigantic power-hammers. But plans had been laid to eliminate the SA leadership and when, at the fashionable Hotel Dreesen in Bad Godesberg, Himmler presented Hitler with more "evidence" of Rohm's treachery the Fiihrer screamed, "It's a putsch!" Outside, over the Rhine, a thunder-storm raged. Inside, foaming and twitching, slapping the side of his boot with a rawhide whip and cursing Rohm, Hitler vowed to "settle that swine's hash" in person. So, in the early hours of Saturday 3o June, he flew to Munich. Next to the pilot, Hitler stared into the darkness. As the dawn began to break Viktor Lutze, who sat among the Fiihrer's entourage in the body of the Junkers 52 and would replace Rohm as head of the SA, hummed to himself:
Red of the morning, red of the morning, Thou lightest us to early death. Meanwhile Rohm and his SA cronies had been enjoying a holiday at the attractive spa of Bad Wiessee on the Tegernsee. They had bathed naked in the beautiful lake, its limpid surface reflecting the wooden chalets, lush meadows and forested hillsides which made this Edwardian watering-place so popular in the hot Bavarian summer. They had walked on the promenade and in the mountains, visited the Schloss and the rotunda, and drunk the sulphurous waters which were said to cure those afflicted with everything from heart disease to gout. At the Pension Hanselbauer leading Stormtroopers had also caroused late into the night, some disporting themselves with their catamites in a fashion which Goebbels, suddenly the puritan, would denounce as nauseating. All were fast asleep when Hitler, at the head of a convoy of SS men (some of them guards from Dachau) burst into the hotel at 6:3o A.M. and dragged the Brownshirts from their beds. Pistol in hand the Fiihrer confronted Rohm, furiously accusing him of treason and (as one witness wrote) pacing up and down "with huge strides, fiery as some higher being, the very personification of justice."The prisoners, Rohm wearing a blue suit and smoking a cigar, were bun-dled into a bus and taken to Stadelheim Prison in Munich. Then Hitler supervised the arrest of more SA functionaries arriving by train at the great grey municipal railway station. By Io:oo A.M. he was at the Brown House, where Goebbels sent a coded signal to Berlin—"Hummingbird." On receipt of the signal Goring and Himmler widened the terror, send-ing out Gestapo and SS squads to settle scores not only with prominent Brownshirts but with older adversaries. In his palatial office on the Leipzigstrasse Goring strutted about "in a white military tunic and blue-grey military trousers, with high black boots that reached over his fat knees," his voice booming: "Shoot them . . . take a whole company .. . shoot them . . . shoot them at once!" So General von Schleicher and his wife were gunned down in their own house. Gregor Strasser, once Hitler's deputy and now his Trotsky, was shot in a cell at the Gestapo headquarters on Prinz Albrechtstrasse. Two of Papen's staff were murdered and he him-self barely escaped with his life—which did not stop him from after-wards serving Hitler. Gustav von Kahr paid a hideous penalty for having opposed the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923: he was butchered with pickaxes. Several people were killed by mistake; a few intended victims escaped. Some SA men, loyal and uncomprehending to the last, were executed shouting "Heil Hitler.

No comments: