The von Fritsch Affair: a WW II-era cautionary tale of how character assassination can succeed even despite complete exoneration

The recent spectacle/trainwreck concerning SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh could not help remind the WW II history buff in me of the tragicomic episode known as the Fritsch Affair or Fritsch Scandal. That story bears retelling as a cautionary tale on how a character assassination may be successful even if the accusations are proven false and the accused is exonerated. Below follows my short summary.

Sometime in 1936, Berlin police arrested and interrogated a habitual criminal and extortionist named Otto Schmidt. His particular racket at the time was to spy on men who picked up homosexual prostitutes and to blackmail them.

During interrogation (clearly aimed at arresting the “johns” in question for violating the notorious “Article 175” of the penal code) he named various of his “clients”. Some enjoyed “protection” from above and could not be touched. Then Schmidt dropped the name of one “General von Fritsch”.

“You mean: Generaloberst[*] Freiherr von Fritsch?!”

“Yes! Him! I saw him in the act with Bayern-Seppl!” [Freely: “Bavarian Joe”, street name of a well-known male prostitute.]

Holy shmoly! Colonel-General Baron von Fritsch?! The Commander in Chief of the Army?!? [**]

The report made its way up the chain all the way to Reichsführer-SS Himmler (y”sh), who was also the supreme head of all police forces in the Third Reich. Himmler’s agenda at the time included fostering  his own parallel army (the Waffen-SS) at the expense of the regular army with its officer caste dominated by Prussian nobles — and therefore, pleased as punch, he immediately ran off to his master with the report. To his surprise and disappointment, however,  Hitler (y”sh) immediately told Himmler to “burn this filth”. (Evidently, von Fritsch still could not be spared.)

But instead of destroying the report as ordered, Himmler tucked it away in his safe, figuring it might yet come in handy.

Then the fateful Hossbach conference happened. At this closed gathering of the Führer with then-foreign minister Konstantin von Neurath, Defense Minister Werner von Blomberg, and the heads of the three Wehrmacht branches (army commander von Fritsch, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, and Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring) Hitler for the first time unveiled concrete military objectives, specifically Austria and Czechoslovakia. (Minutes of the meeting were taken down by his military adjutant, Col. Hossbach, by whose name the conference is hence known.) To the great surprise and disappointment of the grandiose dictator, Blomberg and especially Fritsch pushed back hard against the invasion plans, while von Neurath was not enthusiastic either.

Blomberg was shortly later forced into retirement when it turned out his much younger second wife had a past as a prostitute and X-rated photo model. The post of Defense Minister was then supplanted by a new Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW, Supreme Command of the Armed Forces) with the toadyish Wilhelm Keitel at the helm. Foreign Minister Neurath ended up being replaced in a cabinet reshuffle by the repulsive Joachim von Ribbentrop. But how to get rid of von Fritsch?

Aha! The “burned” report suddenly reappeared. Since Fritsch had never married and had no known girlfriend (he was, basically, married to his job) it all made sense…

When confronted with the accusation, Fritsch at first was stunned. He did not help matters by muttering something about how he had lunched with some Hitler Youth to satisfy his Winter Aid quota, and maybe people got the wrong idea…

An official announcement followed that both Blomberg and Fritsch were retiring “for health reasons”. However, with the help of pressure from senior army officers, Reichskriegsgerichtsrat [roughly: Judge Advocate General] Karl Sack, a secret member of the anti-Nazi underground, won the concession that Fritsch would appear before a court-martial rather than before one of Freisler’s kangaroo courts.

Sack started his own investigation, and quickly discovered that “Bavarian Joe”s actual “client” was a retired Rittmeister [cavalry captain] named Achim von Frisch (without the extra “t”). The Rittmeister had even kept receipts for the hush money he had paid to his blackmailer.

Confronted with the evidence, Otto Schmidt broke down and confessed he had deliberately confounded the identity of his victim in order to make himself more important (and valuable to his jailers).

Schmidt was packed off to a concentration camp (where he was later shot on the direct orders of Himmler) and von Fritsch was “acquitted due to proven innocence” and exonerated.

But… he was not reinstated as Army CinC. Instead, that position fell to the more pliant Werner von Brauchitsch[***].  Von Fritsch was instead appointed Kommandant (honorary commander, ceremonial commander) of the 12th Artillery Regiment (his onetime unit).

On September 22, 1939, after the invasion of Poland, von Fritsch went to the front and deliberately exposed himself to Polish fire, thus seeking and finding a soldier’s death. Call it “suicide by enemy fire” if you wish.

Am I comparing the Deep/Derp State to the Third Reich? Of course not, and I am not suggesting parallels between Kavanaugh and von Fritsch either?

I just can’t help thinking of how a character assassination can be successful even when the accused is fully exonerated.

 

[*] In the Wehrmacht’s table of ranks, Generaloberst [literally: General-Colonel or Colonel-General] is a rank between General and Field Marshal. Freiherr [literally: free lord] is the equivalent of Baron in the German nobility.

[**] The Heer (army) was only one of three branches of the Wehrmacht (armed forces) — the other two branches being the Kriegsmarine (war navy) and the Luftwaffe (Air Force).

[***] von Brauchitsch would in turn be dismissed in late 1941 as a scapegoat for the first failures of the invasion of Russia, at which point Hitler put himself in direct command of the army.

 

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