|Erwin von Witzleben|
Field Marshal von Witzleben
|Born||4 December 1881|
|Died||8 August 1944(aged 62)|
|Place of birth||Breslau, German Empire|
|Place of death||
Plötzensee Prison, Berlin,|
German Empire (to 1918)|
Weimar Republic (to 1933)
|Years of service||1901–1944|
|Commands held||1. Armee|
World War I|
World War II
|Awards||Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross|
Job Wilhelm Georg Erdmann Erwin von Witzleben (4 December 1881 – 8 August 1944) was a German officer, by 1940 in the rank of a Field Marshal (Generalfeldmarschall), and army commander in World War II. A leading conspirator in the 20 July plot, he was designated to become commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht armed forces in a post-Nazi regime.
Erwin von Witzleben was born in Breslau in the Prussian province of Silesia (now Wrocław, Poland), the son of Georg von Witzleben (1838–1898), Hauptmann in the Prussian Army, and his wife Therese née Brandenburg. The Witzleben dynasty was an Uradel family of old nobility and many officers, descending from Witzleben in Thuringia.
He completed the Prussian Cadet Corps program in Wahlstatt, Silesia and in Lichterfelde near Berlin, and on 22 June 1901 joined the Grenadier Regiment König Wilhelm I No. 7 in Liegnitz, Silesia (now Legnica, Poland) as lieutenant. In 1910, he was promoted to first lieutenant (Oberleutnant).
He was married to Else Kleeberg from Chemnitz, Saxony. The couple had a son and a daughter.
First World War
At the beginning of the First World War, Witzleben served as brigade adjutant in the 19th Reserve Infantry Brigade before being promoted to captain (Hauptmann) and company chief in the Reserve Infantry Regiment no. 6 in October 1914. Later, in the same regiment, he became battalion commander. His unit fought in Verdun, the Champagne region and Flanders, among other places. He was seriously wounded and was awarded the Iron Cross, both first and second classes. Afterwards, he was sent to General Staff training and witnessed the war end as First General Staff Officer of the 121st Division.
Between the wars
In the Reichswehr of the Weimar Republic, Witzleben was promoted to company chief. In 1923, he found himself on the Fourth Division staff in Dresden as a major. In 1928, he became battalion commander in Infantry Regiment No. 6 and retained that position as lieutenant colonel (Oberstleutnant) the following year. After being promoted to full colonel (Oberst) in 1931, he took over as head of (Pruusian) Infantry Regiment No. 8 in Frankfurt (Oder).
Early in 1933 came a transfer to the post of Infantry Leader VI in Hanover. He was promoted to major general on 1 February 1934 and moved to Potsdam as the new commander of the Third Infantry Division. He succeeded General Werner von Fritsch as commander of Wehrkreis (Military District) III (Berlin). In this position, he was promoted to lieutenant general and in the newly established Wehrmacht forces became commanding general of Army Corps III in Berlin in September 1935. In 1936, he was promoted to a General of the Infantry.
Even as early as 1934, Witzleben had come out against the Nazi regime when he and Erich von Manstein, Wilhelm von Leeb and Gerd von Rundstedt demanded an inquiry into Kurt von Schleicher's and Ferdinand von Bredow's deaths in the Night of the Long Knives. As a result of this and also his criticism of Adolf Hitler's persecution of General Fritsch in the Blomberg–Fritsch Affair, he was temporarily forced into early retirement. His "retirement" did not last, however, as Hitler would need him in the preparation of World War II.
By 1938, Witzleben belonged to the group of plotters around Colonel General Ludwig Beck, Generals Erich Hoepner and Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel, and Abwehr Chief Wilhelm Canaris. These men planned to overthrow Hitler in a military coup d'état which seemed feasible at the time of the 1938 Sudeten Crisis — until the Munich Agreement defused the crisis, temporarily averting war. Although the Agreement was seen internationally as a victory for Hitler, the Nazi Führer privately resented this interference of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in his plans for war. Witzleben's command, including the key Berlin Defense District, was to have played a decisive role in the coup.
In November 1938, Witzleben had been installed as commander-in-chief of Army Group 2 in Frankfurt (Oder). He was also involved in Colonel-General Kurt Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord's 1939 conspiracy plans. The latter planned to seize Hitler outright in a kind of frontal assault while the former would shut down Nazi party headquarters, but this plan also fell through.
Second World War
In September 1939, Witzleben, now a colonel-general, took command of the 1st Army, stationed at the Western Front. When Germany attacked France on 10 May 1940, the First Army was part of Army Group C. On 14 June it broke through the Maginot line, and within three days had forced several French divisions to surrender. For this, Witzleben was decorated with the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross; and on 19 July, he was promoted to Generalfeldmarschall.
In 1941 he was even appointed Commander-in-Chief OB West, succeeding Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, but only a year later he took leave from this position for health reasons. Some sources, however, claim he was again forcibly retired at this time after criticizing the regime for its invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 in the so-called Operation Barbarossa.
20 July 1944
In 1944, the conspirators around Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg saw Erwin von Witzleben as the key man in their plans. Whereas Colonel-General Beck was seen as prospective provisional head of state and Colonel-General Hoepner as commander of the inner Ersatzheer ("Reserve Army") forces, von Witzleben was to take over supreme command of the whole Wehrmacht as the highest-ranking German officer.
However, on 20 July 1944, the day of Stauffenberg's attempt on Hitler's life at the Wolf's Lair in East Prussia, Witzleben did not arrive at the Bendlerblock in Berlin from the OKH-HQ (Oberkommando des Heeres Headquarters) at Zossen to assume command of the coup forces until 8 pm, when it was already clear that the coup attempt had failed. He then protested angrily that it had been bungled and left after 45 minutes to return to Zossen, where he reported the situation to General Eduard Wagner and then drove back to his country estate 30 miles away where he was arrested the next day by a General Linnertz.
He was then cast out of the Wehrmacht by the so-called Ehrenhof der Wehrmacht ("The Regular Army's Court of Honor"), a conclave of officers set up after the attempted assassination to remove officers from the Wehrmacht who had been involved in the plot, mainly so that they were not longer subject to German military law and could be arraigned to a show-trial before the infamous Nazi "People's Court" (Volksgerichtshof).
Trial and death
On 7 August 1944, Witzleben was in the first group of accused conspirators to be brought before the Volksgerichtshof. Ravaged by the conditions of his Gestapo arrest, surprisingly, he approached the bench giving the Nazi salute, for which he was rebuked by the presiding judge Roland Freisler.
In an attempt to humiliate Witzleben, he was made to appear before the court wearing trousers that were several sizes too big and, additionally, being denied a belt or suspenders, forcing him to continually hitch them up during the farcical pseudo-trial to prevent them from falling down. Freisler, who was notorious for ranting and belittling defendants in court, at one point in Witzleben's "trial" bellowed, "You dirty old man, stop fumbling with your trousers!" Later that same day, he sentenced Witzleben to death for his part in the plot. Witzleben's closing words in court, addressed to Freisler, were:
|“||"You may hand us over to the executioner, but in three months' time our disgusted and harried people will bring you to book and drag you alive through the dirt in the streets!"||”|
Much of the Volksgerichtshof, including scenes of Witzleben's "trial," was filmed for the German weekly newsreel Die Deutsche Wochenschau; however, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels decided against releasing the footage, firstly because Freisler's vituperative, insulting verbiage in the courtroom might draw sympathy for the accused, and secondly because the regime wanted to quell public discussion of the event. The material was classified as secret (Geheime Reichssache).
Erwin von Witzleben was put to death that same day at Plötzensee Prison in Berlin. By Hitler's positive orders, he was strangled with piano wire that had been wound around a meat hook, and the execution was filmed. The footage has since been lost.
- Iron Cross (1914)
- 2nd Class
- 1st Class
- Wound Badge (1914)
- in Black
- Knight's Cross of the House Order of Hohenzollern
- Knight of Justice of the Order of Saint John
- Honour Cross of the World War 1914/1918
- Sudetenland Medal
- West Wall Medal
- Iron Cross (1939)
- 2nd Class
- 1st Class
- Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross
- Military Merit Order, 4th class with Swords (Bavaria)
- Hanseatic Cross of Hamburg
- Cross of Honour 3rd Class with swords and crown (Reuss)
Depiction in media
- East German actor Otto Dierichs depicted Witzleben in the 1970 Eastern Bloc co-production Liberation.
- Joachim Bißmeier portrays von Witzleben in the 2004, Stauffenberg.
- English Actor David Schofield portrays von Witzleben in the 2008 Bryan Singer thriller Valkyrie.
Notes about personal names
- The terms Schenk and Graf in "Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg" began as titles, but are now considered additional name elements; with the 1918 revolution noble titles were abolished in Germany. Families in the former nobility got around the law by making the title a legal part of the person's name. Schenk was a role-title ("Butler" or "Cup-bearer"); Graf was the title "Count".
- Likewise, the term Freiherr in "Kurt Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord" is now also a name element, not a title, Freiherr is equivalent to "Baron".
- Generalfeldmarschall Erwin von Witzleben in connection with the 20 July plot, failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, was deprived of all honors, ranks and orders and dishonourably discharged from the Heer on 4 August 1944. The civilian von Witzleben was sentenced to death by the Volksgerichtshof on 8 August 1944.
- Exponat: Photo: Witzleben, Erwin von, 1941–1944 at www.dhm.de
- In the Name of the Volk: Political Justice in Hitler's Germany Hannsjoachim Wolfgang Koch & I. B. Tauris (November 15, 1997), p. 198
- "His execution on 8 August 1944 was a particularly grisly affair. The sixty-three-year-old Field Marshal was pushed into a cellar at Berlin's Plötzensee prison, placed under a meathook and, half-naked with a running noose around his head, he was lifted and slowly strangled." Robert Solomon Wistrich, "Witzleben, Erwin von (1881–1944) General Field Marshal of the Wehrmacht", Who's Who in Nazi Germany, (Routledge, 2001), p. 279–80.
- "SS men were filming. ... Gestapo people were in the shed, and so was the cameraman." Eyewitness Viktor von Gostomski documented the execution in Brigitte Oleschinski, Plötzensee Memorial Center, translated by John Grossman, (Berlin: Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand, 2002), p. 35. (English)
- (in German) Rangliste des Deutschen Reichsheeres. Berlin: Mittler & Sohn. 1930. p. 115.
- Scherzer 2007, p. 185.
- Fellgiebel, Walther-Peer (2000), Die Träger des Ritterkreuzes des Eisernen Kreuzes 1939–1945. Podzun-Pallas.
- Scherzer, Veit (2007). Die Ritterkreuzträger Die Inhaber des Ritterkreuzes des Eisernen Kreuzes 1939 von Heer, Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine, Waffen-SS, Volkssturm sowie mit Deutschland verbündeter Streitkräfte nach den Unterlagen des Bundesarchives. Jena, Germany: Scherzers Miltaer-Verlag. ISBN 978-3-938845-17-2.
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