German records give a vivid account of how his apolitical army was turned into a political weapon before WWII, the rest, as they say, is history
It may sound weird, but if the Indian Army was in a boxing fight against the Modi government, they would have either been knocked out for the count or the referee would have stopped the fight due to a technical knockout. What Pakistan or the PLA can only aspire to achieve, our civilian politicians and bureaucrats have done without blood on their hands.
Admittedly, however, they had an unfair advantage. Many of the highest ranks in the military, over the years, have found it easier to sway with the wind than to stand firm against the hurricane that attempts to weaken and destroy long-held and cherished traditions. to be an apolitical and secular institution dedicated to the protection of this Sovereignty of nations and democratic heritage.
How a relatively autonomous and professional institution that has anchored our Nation against all storms for the past seven decades has been brought to its knees is best understood through the prism of history. Between September 1, 1939 and April 1940, the German army, the Wehrmacht, traversed large swaths of Europe like a knife through butter, proving quite decisively that it was the preeminent and most powerful military of the time. That they were able to rise from the embers of their defeat in the First World War, despite the restrictions imposed by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, was no small feat. The credit must go to General Hans Von Seeckt, their leader. But their actions also laid the foundation for the eventual destruction of the Wehrmacht.
From before Bismarck’s time, the earlier iteration of the Wehrmacht, the Reichswehr, had traditionally operated as a “state within a state”, exercising immense institutional autonomy. After its defeat in the Great War, the much-reduced Reichswehr retained its traditional autonomous status.
In fact, in the early 1920s, General Seeckt, with the support of other serving generals, refused to accept the legitimacy of the Weimar Republic, whose President was Commander-in-Chief of the Reichswehr and to which she swore to defend the constitution. As a result, the high command became increasingly partisan in its actions, a break from its apolitical traditions.
His actions were motivated by the belief that the Treaty of Versailles had been inherently unfair to Germany and that she could only regain her former glory by growing stronger and resorting to another world war. Preparations for this required a total militarization of German society. A vision that brought her closer to Nazi ideology. As Seeckt wrote after meeting Adolf Hitler in 1923, “We were one in our purpose; only our paths were different.”
In 1928, civilian Defense Minister Otto Gessler was forced to resign due to a financial scandal. This weakened the already weak civilian control of the military and, in turn, led to further politicization of the military, as it became involved in matters that had little to do with its functioning. .
By the early 1930s, many servicemen expressed admiration for Nazism, with some even joining the party, despite existing orders to the contrary. In fact, the military leadership developed secret ties with the SA and other right-wing paramilitary groups, as the best alternative to conscription. By the end of 1931, the military had seized power, ending the Weimar Republic, with Field Marshal Hindenburg remaining as President and General Seeckt’s successor, General Kurt von Schleicher, as Chancellor.
Within a few years, due to growing opposition to General Schleicher, the military pressured the president to impeach him and instead appoint Hitler as chancellor. Despite their sympathy and approval of the Nazi regime, by 1934 the military leadership was at odds with senior members of the Nazi Party, in its efforts to preserve its autonomous status and avoid being absorbed into Ernst’s much larger SA. Rohm.
Ironically, his self-preservation efforts involved further Nazification of his troops, which in turn eroded his autonomy and, more importantly, the authority of his senior leaders. It was only a matter of time before the old guard was ejected by a new breed of officers, who understood that their personal ambitions and aspirations could only be realized by identifying more closely with the ideology Nazi and the Hitler regime.
The consequences of their actions are not difficult to risk. By May 1945, a total of 84 German field marshals and generals had been executed on Hitler’s orders. Ten others were convicted of their crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg trials and subsequently executed. What remains of the Wehrmacht today is only a pale shadow of what existed then.
There are many lessons here that any military professional can learn. More importantly, in our context, given that our military is at a very unknown crossroads, facing very difficult choices ahead. The question before us is this: will our military follow in their footsteps in fairly certain disasters, or will they rise up and fight to maintain the values and traditions that have served us so well during all these years ?
(The author, a military veteran, is a Visiting Scholar at the Observer Research Foundation and a Senior Visiting Scholar at the Peninsula Foundation, Chennai. Opinions expressed are personal.)