Erwin von Witzleben

Erwin von Witzleben

Job-Wilhelm Georg "Erwin" von Witzleben (4 December 1881 - 8 August 1944) was a German army officer (by 1940 a Generalfeldmarschall) and in the Second World War an Army commander and a resistance fighter in the July 20 Plot.

Early years

Erwin von Witzleben was born in Breslau to a Thuringian family of officers. He completed the Prussian cadet corps programme in Wahlstatt and Lichterfelde and on 22 June 1901 joined the Grenadier Regiment (König Wilhelm I) No. 7 in Liegnitz as lieutenant. In 1910, he was promoted to first lieutenant.

He was married to Else Kleeberg (who was born in Chemnitz, Saxony). The couple had a son and a daughter.

First World War

At the beginning of the First World War, von Witzleben served as brigade adjutant in the 19th Reserve Infantry Brigade, before he rose to captain and company chief in the Reserve Infantry Regiment no. 6 in October 1914. Later, in the same regiment, he became battalion commander. Von Witzleben's unit fought at Verdun, in the Champagne Region, and in Flanders, among other places. He was seriously wounded and was awarded the Iron Cross, both first and second classes. After being wounded, he went to General Staff Training and saw the war end as First General Staff Officer of the 121st Division.

Between the wars

In the Reichswehr, von Witzleben was taken on as a 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 the following year. After being promoted to full colonel in 1931, he took over as head of Infantry Regiment No. 8 in Frankfurt (Oder). Early in 1933 came a transfer to the post of Infantry Leader VI in Hanover.

In the Wehrmacht, von Witzleben 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 September 1935, became Commanding General of III Army Corps in Berlin. In 1936, he received his promotion to general of the infantry.

Even as early as 1934, von Witzleben had taken up a position 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 Werner von Fritsch, von Witzleben was forced into early retirement. His "retirement", however, did not last, as Hitler would later need von Witzleben upon the outbreak of war.

By 1938, von Witzleben belonged to the group of plotters around Colonel General Ludwig Beck, Generals Erich Höpner 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 Sudeten Crisis in 1938. Von Witzleben's command, through the key Berlin Defence District, was to play a decisive role in the plan. However, Hitler's success in the Munich Agreement thwarted the conspirators' plans, and they were not put into operation.

Von Witzleben was likewise involved in Colonel-General Kurt Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord's 1939 conspiracy plans. Von Hammerstein-Equord planned to seize Hitler forthrightly, in a kind of frontal assault. It was to be von Witzleben's job to shut down Party Headquarters, but this plan also fell through.

Meanwhile, in November 1938, von Witzleben was posted as commander-in-chief of Army Group 2 to Frankfurt (Oder).

Second World War

In September 1939, von Witzleben, now a colonel-general, assumed command over the First Army, stationed in the West. When Germany attacked France on 10 May 1940, von Witzleben's army belonged to 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, von Witzleben was decorated with the Knight's Cross, and on 19 July 1940, he was promoted to Generalfeldmarschall. In 1941, he was appointed Commander-in-Chief West, but only a year later, he took his leave of this position for health reasons. Some sources, however, claim that he was forcibly retired at this time after criticizing the regime after Operation Barbarossa.

In 1944, the conspirators around Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg saw Erwin von Witzleben as the key man in their plans. Whereas Colonel-General Beck was foreseen as provisional head of state and Colonel-General Höpner as Commander of the Ersatzheer ("Reserve Army"), Generalfeldmarschall von Witzleben was to take over supreme command of the whole Wehrmacht as the highest German soldier. Von Witzleben, however, was arrested on 20 July 1944 – the day of von Stauffenberg's attempt on Hitler's life at the Wolf's Lair in East Prussia – upon arriving at OKH-HQ (Oberkommando des Heeres Headquarters) in Berlin to assume command of the coup forces. He was then unceremoniously cast out of the Wehrmacht by the so-called Ehrenhof der Wehrmacht ("The Regular Army's Court of Honour"), 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 could be tried at the Volksgerichtshof rather than at a court-martial.

On 7 August 1944, von Witzleben was in the first group of accused conspirators to be brought before the Volksgerichtshof. The presiding judge was Roland Freisler, and that same day, he sentenced von Witzleben to death for his part in the plot. Von Witzleben's closing words in court – addressed to Freisler – were:

You can hand us over to the hangman. In three months, the disgusted and harried people will bring you to book and drag you alive through the dirt in the streets!

Erwin von Witzleben was put to death that same day at Plötzensee Prison in Berlin. He was hanged, with the execution filmed for Hitler's viewing.


Notes about personal names

  • The term Graf in "Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg" is a title, not part of Stauffenberg's name as such. It means "Count".
  • The term Freiherr in "Kurt Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord" is also a title, similar to "Baron".


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