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The 1940 Field Marshal Ceremony refers to the 19 July 1940 promotion ceremony at the Kroll Opera House in Berlin. Therein Adolf Hitler promoted 12 generals to the rank of field marshal for their role in the swift victory over France and the Low Countries. It was the first occasion in World War II that Hitler appointed field marshals due to military achievements. No other field marshal-promotions were celebrated like this ceremony throughout the rest of the war.

The 12 generals were Walther von Brauchitsch, Fedor von Bock, Albert Kesselring, Wilhelm Keitel, Günther von Kluge, Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, Wilhelm List, Erhard Milch, Walther von Reichenau, Gerd von Rundstedt, Hugo Sperrle and Erwin von Witzleben. Hermann Göring had already been promoted field marshal in 1938 and was instead promoted to Reichsmarschall, and was the only one to have held this rank.

The ceremony deeply highlighted the power and prestige of the Wehrmacht; France was considered to have the strongest army in the world, yet had been humiliatingly defeated in just 6 weeks. Some suggest the reason for promoting an unexpected total of 12 generals to field marshal was to raise morale and war-fever for the biggest military operation in history: the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

The number of promotions was unexpected since, throughout the whole of the World War I, Kaiser Wilhelm II had promoted only five generals to field marshal.

Field marshalEdit

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-W0402-504, Generaloberst Werner von Blomberg

Werner von Blomberg became the very first field marshal of Nazi Germany. He was promoted field marshal on 20 April 1936, because of his position as Minister of War and Commander-in-Chief of the army.

After World War I, the prestigious and respected rank of field marshal was banned, alongside other military restrictions imposed on the newly formed Weimar Republic.[1] In 1936, Hitler revived the rank of field marshal, originally only for the use of the Minister of War and Commander-in-Chief of the army.[2] The traditional attribute distinguishing a field marshal is a symbolic ornamented baton.[3]

In 1943, Hitler promoted Friedrich Paulus to field marshal in the belief he would commit suicide to avoid captivity by the Soviets since no German field marshal had ever been taken prisoner.[4] Both the Germans and the Allies were astonished when, on 3 February, Paulus and the 6th Army surrendered to the Soviets.[5]

The event unofficially downgraded the value of the prestigious rank. Hitler vowed never to promote another field marshal again, because of the shame Paulus had brought upon the rank, but he would in fact promote 7 other generals to field marshal, in a desperate attempt to raise morale and fighting spirit, as the war became more and more precarious.[6] The last field marshal of Nazi Germany was Robert Ritter von Greim, promoted 25 April 1945. On 8 May, Ritter von Greim was captured by American soldiers. He committed suicide on 24 May to avoid being handed over to the Soviets.[7]

Prelude to battleEdit

Most of Hitler's generals were appalled at the possibility of another major war in Europe and thought about overthrowing Hitler and his military ambitions, in particular Ludwig Beck, Franz Halder and Walther von Brauchitsch. On 5 November 1939, Brauchitsch agreed to read a document to Hitler, claiming the morale in the German Army was worse than that of 1918, a statement which infuriated Hitler.[8] Brauchitsch complained:

The aggressive spirit of the German infantry is sadly below the standard of the First World War ... [there had been] certain symptoms of insubordination similar to those of 1917–18.[9]

— Walther von Brauchitsch

Hitler responded by flying into a rage, accusing Brauchitsch and the entire General Staff of personal disloyalty and defeatism.[10] Even though many generals still felt that a successful Western offensive was impossible, there were no further attempts to overthrow Hitler, or to protect the professional independence of the German Army in 1940.[10]

Battle of FranceEdit

During the Battle of France, Walther von Brauchitsch served as Commander-in-Chief of the army, and oversaw most army operations.[11]

Fedor von Bock served as the commander of Army Group B and played a key role in the swift drive through the Netherlands.[12]

Albert Kesselring served as commander of Luftflotte 2 and took part in the infamous Rotterdam Blitz.[13]

Wilhelm Keitel served as one of the primary planners in OKW operations, but was mainly promoted for arranging the armistice with France.[14]

Günther von Kluge led the 4th Army in its attack through the Ardennes which culminated in the fall of France.[15]

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-127-0362-14, Belgien, belgischer Panzer T13

An abandoned Belgian tank is inspected by German soldiers during the Battle of Belgium

Wilhelm von Leeb commanded Army Group C that, unexpectedly, broke through and surrounded the troops in the Maginot Line.[16]

Wilhelm List commanded the 12th army which played a key role in cutting the BEF's supply routes while it's retreat to Dunkirk.[17]

Erhard Milch, Göring's deputy, commanded Luftflotte 5 and directed several air attacks on the BEF.[18]

Walther von Reichenau commanded the 6th Army which he led through Belgium.[19]

Gerd von Rundstedt commanded Army Group A and became famous for his decision to halt his forces right outside Dunkirk, thus allowing the BEF to escape to Britain.[20]

Hugo Sperrle commanded Luftflotte 3 which played an important role as "tactical bombing support unit".[21]

Erwin von Witzleben commanded the 1st Army which played a key role in breaking through the Maginot line.[22]

Hermann Göring served as Commander-in-Chief of the then powerful Luftwaffe and oversaw all air operations.[23]

After the destruction of France and the Low Countries in June 1940, many generals were looking forward and expected their field marshal's batons and wealthy estates.[24] On the 19 July 1940, Hitler summoned his high command to a ceremony in the Kroll Opera House in Berlin.[25][26] After a speech regarding a peace proposal directed at Britain, Hitler personally rewarded his generals with their richly decorated field marshal batons,[25] and thanked them for their contributions to what he called, "the most famous victory in history".[27][28]

Erich von Manstein, who had developed the "sickle cut" strategy which formed the core of the war plan against France, was promoted by Hitler to the rank of full general.[29][30] Some believe that it was the personal dispute between Hitler and Manstein that prevented Manstein's field marshal promotion. Manstein's son Rüdiger later said:

At the time, he saw it as his greatest achievement. At home we knew it was his doing. He was therefore not terrible pleased that everyone else, including Hitler, was [now] claiming the plan for themselves. And that Hitler was now selling it as his own brilliant idea.[31]

— Rüdiger Manstein

Hitler called the victory over France, "the most beautiful moment of his life",[31] but also admitted Manstein's role was rather significant by saying:

With all the generals with whom I discussed the plan with, Manstein was the only one who understood what I meant. He's certainly a clever fellow, but I don't trust him.[31]

— Adolf Hitler

20 July plotEdit

Even though army support for a plot against Hitler had increased by 1944, Erwin von Witzleben and Günther von Kluge are the only two of these field marshals known to have been involved in the 20 July Plot. After it became clear that the assassination attempt had failed, Kluge committed suicide by taking cyanide on 17 August 1944.[15] Witzleben was arrested and sentenced to death by the People's Court; He was strangled with piano wire which had been wound around a meat hook.[32]

See alsoEdit

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ReferencesEdit

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