Germany's last professional Commander-in-Chief of the Army. Walther von Brauchitsch, was an artilleryman who had served throughout the Great War on the General Staff. When the Nazis achieved the discrediting and downfall of his predecessor, Colonel-General von Fritsch, it had been Hitler's wish and intention to get von Reichenau promoted in his place. But this the Army, led by von Rundstedt, would not accept, so the post went to von Brauchitsch who was acceptable to all and popular throughout the Army. He was several years junior in age and seniority of rank to von Rundstedt, but was promoted Colonel- General on the day of his appointment, 4 February 1938, and became Field-Marshal in the mass promotion Hitler ordained after the victory over France in July 1940.
Brauchitsch has been hardly, even severely, dealt with by many historians, particularly by Sir John Wheeler-Bennett ('a man of little moral courage and no strength of character'), Barry A. Leach, Walter Görlitz, and Colonel Albert Seaton, and his case has not been helped by the disloyalty to his Chief which Haider sometimes showed even during the war. It is time that at least a part of his reputation be re-established.
Brauchitsch was born in Berlin in 1881. In 1900 he became a subaltern in the 3rd Foot Guards, a famous regiment which nurtured one of his predecessors as Commander-in-Chief, Colonel-General Freiherr Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, and Field-Marshal von Manstein. But the next year Brauchitsch, despite promptings to the contrary from his friend in the cavalry, von Kleist, transferred to the 3rd Guards Field Artillery Regiment. A major at the end of the Great War, he served as a staff officer in the Truppenamt from late 1922, and in 1925 commanded an artillery battalion. By 1928 he was a colonel, followed by further spells of duty in the Truppenamt in 1930 as Director of Army Training, a departmental head, and in 1932 as Inspector of Artillery. He became a Major-General in 1930; a Lieu tenant-General in 1933, when commander of Wehrkreis I and the 1st Division at Königsberg; commander of I Army Corps at Königsberg from June 1935; a full General of Artillery in 1936, and commander of Gruppenkommando 4 in 1937.
An innovator in artillery methods and a thoroughly good gunner, Brauchitsch was not fenced in by traditional military beliefs and was, in fact, largely responsible for developing the formidable 88 mm. gun for dual-purpose work, that is as both an anti-tank and an anti-aircraft gun. The dual-purpose 88 mm. became the finest artillery piece of the war. As a former grammar-school boy he was not subservient to the tenets of the Junker class. When he was commanding in East Prussia Brauchitsch clashed with Gauleiter Erich Koch, an equivocal character, and with the S.S., elements of whom he ejected from Army manoeuvres. His appointment as C-in-C Army came as a great surprise, partly because he was by no means considered to be a Nazi sympathizer. Powerful though such an appointment might be, much of its strength was vitiated because Hitler chose the time of the demise of von Blomberg and von Fritsch to establish the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or O.K.W., under General Keitel, who had previously been head of the lesser Wehrmachtsamt and, in Blomberg's words, 'the man who runs my office'. Thus the new C-in-C Army became less of a power than he had been previously. His position with the Nazis was also weakened because in 1938 he divorced his first wife, and married a woman who was notoriously pro-Nazi. It was suggested at the time that possibly Hitler and certainly Goring had smoothed the way for this second marriage to take place, as conservative Army circles did not relish divorces in those days, and Brauchitsch was the son of a Prussian General of Cavalry.
Brauchitsch has been criticized for accepting his appointment before Fritsch's case was dealt with, for tamely accepting Hitler's new unification of command in the O.K.W., and for agreeing to some vital changes of personnel in the High Command. Jodl thought he would have accomplished most of the latter in his own interests anyway, but it remains true that more or less contemporaneously with Brauchitsch's promotion sixteen high-ranking generals lost their commands (though nearly all were to regain them within a year or so) and many others were transferred. In the view of Wheeler-Bennett, Brauchitsch was an appeaser who had sold the pass before he started his top job. Others may feel that he had a sincere desire to protect the Army from undue Nazi influence. He told Hitler in 1938 that the interference of civilians in military affairs invariably led to disastrous results, a warning which seems to have passed the Führer by; and he kept on von Fritsch's staff and remained on good terms with his predecessor. He did not think much of Keitel, and he was bold enough to threaten to challenge Dr Göbbels to a duel for spreading unpleasant rumours about his divorce.
Like others who had thought that they might tame the tiger, von Brauchitsch was to find Hitler an impossible customer to deal with. The tragedy is that Brauchitsch progressively weakened and eventually lost control of his own organization, to become merely a figurehead. The reasons for this were a certain weakness of character, the unstoppable success and undeniable orders of an emphatic Hitler, a misguided sense of loyalty, and the very considerable influence upon him of his '200 per cent' Nazi wife. It was thus that he became, in von Manstein's words, 'demoted from the status of military adviser to the Head of State to that of a subordinate commander pledged to unquestioning obedience'.
In various ways Brauchitsch had a wider outlook than many of his colleagues. He was a well-educated man, spoke several foreign languages, and himself listed economic and political questions of the day as his outside interests. Like Raeder in the Navy, he tried to maintain the old religious traditions in the Army. He had very good manners, to those outside the Army as well as to his colleagues, and showed warmth and understanding towards his subordinates. As a result people liked to serve under him. He was particularly solicitous of the welfare of the troops, and paid attention to their housing and food. Militarily he had shown himself keen on new ideas in the 'twenties by organizing manoeuvres to test the co-operation of aircraft with motorized troops. Unfortunately, although not a Nazi in the sense that his more galvanic superior, von Blomberg, had been, he was when he came to his high post a warm personal admirer of Hitler.
Thus, in an order about the training of officers issued on 18 December 1938, he said: 'Adolf Hitler, our leader of genius, who has recast the great lesson of the front-line soldier in the form of the National Socialist philosophy, has built and secured for us the new Great-German Reich. Only he who can comprehend the yesterday, today and tomorrow in their full difficulty and immensity can appreciate the historic nature of the deeds of this man. The revolution has been stupendous in all fields. A new German being has grown up in the Third Reich, filled with ideas different from those of the generation which went before us. . . . Our loyalty to the man who has created all this, who by his faith and will has worked this miracle, is unshakeable, our confidence in him is firm. . . . The Armed Forces and National-Socialism are of the same spiritual stem. They will accomplish much for the nation in the future, if they follow the example and teaching of the Führer, who combines in his person the true soldier and National-Socialist.'
This was not at all the stuff to appeal to Colonel-General Ludwig Beck, Brauchitsch's first Chief of Staff, who, though he had resigned by the time of that order, had had to listen to much similar tub-thumping before. Beck was utterly against a war with the West, as indeed was Brauchitsch, but whereas Beck put his arguments in the most forceful way Brauchitsch managed only to convey weak protests to Hitler, though he himself had told a conference of senior generals that war would mean the end of German culture. Relations between the two men progressively worsened, and Beck finally did for himself in Hitler's eyes by a memorandum of 3 June 1938, in which he asserted that a war with Czechoslovakia would involve all Europe in a war, which Germany would lose. After several offers of resignation Beck finally went that August, to be succeeded by the Bavarian General Franz Halder.
In Hammerstein's view Brauchitsch had no political sense, and, owing to the deliberate reorganization by Hitler of the High Command, no power. The opinion of this most anti-Nazi and intelligent of German generals, interestingly one who achieved the reputation of being 'red', is recorded by Ambassador Ulrich von Hassell as early as December 1938, and should be respected.
It is evident that Brauchitsch, in many ways a reformer, had the opportunity to put the German Army on a new track, but followed the wrong one. Had he made common cause with Beck and decent and respected pillars of the old school such as Rundstedt, Witzleben, Leeb, and Blaskowitz, and had he tried to win over Goring, with whom he was on good terms, and some of the ex-Army officers in the Luftwaffe such as Kesselring and Sperrle, and Raeder, who as a traditionalist presented no great problems, it is just possible that a last chance to head off Hitler from his path to destruction might have been created. Whether Brauchitsch thought, like some Army generals before him, that Hitler could be used, and did not see the dangers in this false belief until too late; or whether he genuinely believed that the Army and Nazism must walk hand in hand, is not certain. At all events, either from weakness when confronted with the extraordinary forcefulness of Hitler, or from compliance, he proved lamentably unable to stand up to Hitler, and not the man to lead an Army revolt against him. Not that the idea did not occur to him, for though Beck had learned to put no faith in him and the conspirators did not include him in their plans, Brauchitsch was well aware that there was a conspiracy. Beck had tried to get him to act, and had sought at least a free hand to act himself before it was too late and the West flared into war, but Brauchitsch had never consented. Political events had conspired, it seemed, to give Hitler one triumph after another, in the Rhineland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. Brauchitsch, meanwhile, consoled himself with the trappings of office and a genuine but naive hope that all would turn out for the best.
It is significant of the weakness of his position that when the German- Soviet Pact was signed in late August 1939, Brauchitsch was not consulted, nor had he been given any hand in drawing up the 'Pact of
Steel' signed between Italy and Germany on 22 May 1939, though the latter was a military alliance containing military clauses, and there were pronounced military undertones in the former.
Brauchitsch was not against the invasion of Poland, but only because he believed Hitler's assurance that it would not lead to general war. He was in charge of the planning of the campaign, but in fact this closely followed plans that had been laid down by von Fritsch. Brauchitsch was more worried about Russian intervention than anything else, for he had consistently urged Hitler to come to an accommodation with the Russians. He was well-informed about the strength of the Red Army.
Hitler did not interfere with the conduct of the Polish campaign, but he very much resented it when Brauchitsch reported that many German infantry units had not shown the same dash and discipline as had been noteworthy in the Great War. Brauchitsch was against the Norwegian venture, because he did not believe that the Royal Navy would allow a German force to reach Norway; as things turned out the major planning was done by Raeder and his staff, and Brauchitsch was proved wrong. He was also against the invasion of France, for having been at Verdun and other Great War battles he tended, like most Germans of his age and experience, to over-estimate the qualities of the French Army and of Gamelin's leadership. He was also afraid that the full weight of the British Empire would be brought into the war and would not prove easy to deal with. He and Halder became responsible, however, for the detailed planning of the invasion of France, and he resisted the changes proposed by Rundstedt and Manstein which took away the main effort from the German right flank and put it towards the left. When, however, he was overruled he went even further than Rundstedt and Manstein so that the former ended up with more divisions and much greater armoured strength than had originally been proposed.
In the famous 'halt' dispute before Dunkirk Brauchitsch emerges well. On 24 May 1940 he ordered that encircling attacks should proceed, and, more important, that the whole 4th Army, which controlled all the panzer divisions and was attacking the B.E.F. and the 1st French Army from the south and west, should be removed from von Rundstedt's Army Group A and given to von Bock's Army Group B which was attacking the Allies, including the Belgians, from the east. This would place Bock in command of the final encirclement drive, and had the advantages of nominating one ground commander to finish off the Allies in the north, and of using troops who were fresher than those of von Rundstedt. Halder did not agree with Brauchitsch and, as was his right as Chief of Staff, expressed his disagreement by annotating the order to the effect that it went out without his signature 'to signify disapproval of the order and its timing'.
Hitler, however, heard Rundstedt's explanation of the 'halt and close up' order when he visited him on 24 May, and without bothering to consult Brauchitsch countermanded his order and endorsed that of Rundstedt. This was both high-handed and discourteous; worse, it was a grave tactical error. Not unnaturally the atmosphere at Hitler's headquarters was very unpleasant when next Brauchitsch saw the Führer. It is also regrettable that the personal war diary (not the official one) of Halder, kept throughout the French campaign, sometimes contains unpleasant references to Brauchitsch, to whom he owed absolute loyalty.
Brauchitsch had had many arguments after Poland with Hitler, Keitel and Jodl, some of which had been bitter; he had actually offered to resign when Hitler called for a Saarbrücken offensive, and according to Allen Welsh Dulles 'told the conspirators, with whom he was still in touch, that he did not know whether he would arrest Hitler or Hitler would arrest him'. But he had given no encouragement to Beck when the latter tried to get him to act before the real war in the west began.
About 'Sea-Lion' Brauchitsch had mixed feelings, but he did believe that, given the right circumstances—which included a triumphant Luftwaffe, good weather, and proper naval preparations—it might well be feasible. He was certainly more optimistic than Rundstedt, and he might have shared the feeling in some Army quarters that the Navy were dragging rather cold feet about the prospect of invading England. Raeder wrote on 22 June 1940, the day the French armistice was signed: 'I told the C-in-C [Brauchitsch] that the operation would involve very great dangers indeed.'
Looking forward to the German occupation of Britain, Brauchitsch produced a series of instructions, some in considerable detail, called 'Orders Concerning the Organization and Function of Military Government in England'. They included matters of law, order, requisition, deportation, work, etc., of which the keynote, in Peter Fleming's words, is 'a drab, impersonal ferocity'. On 9 September 1940 Brauchitsch signed a directive which provided that 'the able-bodied male population between the ages of 17 and 45 will, unless the local situation calls for an exceptional ruling, be interned and dispatched to the Continent'. In other words, the bulk of the adult male English population were to become slave labour for the Nazis, and would probably never see their homes again. It shows how far Brauchitsch had progressed along the slippery path of Nazism that he allowed himself to sign an order like this.
Brauchitsch had instructed Halder to examine the possibility of a war with Russia as early as 2 July 1940, though it was not until 31 July at the Obersalzberg that Hitler told Brauchitsch and Halder of his intention to attack the Soviet Union 'the sooner the better, and preferably this year. With Russia defeated, Britain's last hope will be gone'.
To start with, owing to surprise, good weather, and the aggressive dash of individual German generals and their troops, things went remarkably well. But at the end of July 1941 a serious difference of opinion arose between the Commander-in-Chief and Hitler, a dispute which was to become even more acrimonious in August. It involved Moscow. Brauchitsch was, after the capture of Smolensk, in favour of an all-out effort to take Moscow and thus finish off Stalin and the war, for he thought that if the capital went the country would collapse. His opinion was shared by Halder, Guderian, Bock, Hoth, and all the other leading commanders on the Eastern front. And as O.K.H. was charged with the conduct of the Russian war, it should have prevailed.
But Hitler disagreed. In his Directive No. 34 of 30th July 1941 he ordered Army Group Centre, which faced Moscow, to go over to the defensive. The main targets were given as, in the north, the encirclement of Leningrad and juncture with the Finnish Army; and, in the south-east, the destruction of strong enemy forces west of the Dnieper and the establishment of bridgeheads across that river. Hitler had always held that Leningrad should be captured before Moscow, and refused to consider a strike against the capital first. On 18 August Brauchitsch submitted his views on the conduct of future operations, but three days later Hitler replied tersely that they were not in accordance with his instructions.
'The most important aim to be achieved before the onset of winter is not to capture Moscow, but to seize the Crimea and the industrial and coal region on the Donets, and to cut off the Russian oil supply from the Caucasus area. In the north, the aim is to cut off Leningrad and to join with the Finns.'
Finally, on 23 August, Colonel-General Guderian, representing the views of Field-Marshal von Bock and Colonel-General Halder, flew to Rastenburg in East Prussia to put to Hitler the case for taking Moscow. Although forbidden by von Brauchitsch to broach the subject of Moscow himself, Guderian, when asked by Hitler if he thought his Panzer Group still capable of a major effort, found it easy to get on to the vital subject. Hitler heard him out in silence, then rejected the Moscow idea.
Brauchitsch was not present to protest, but it would have made no difference, for Hitler had ceased to consult him seriously. From the beginning of the Russian campaign he had opposed and then ignored the views of his General Staff, in particular their insistence that the best way to finish the war quickly was an all-out drive on Moscow to bring down the Soviet government. On 21 August Hitler had accused Brauchitsch of not conducting the offensive as he wished it, a fairly idle complaint since he was standing for no opposition to his own views.
In Directive No. 35, of 6 September 1941, the main objective was 'a decisive operation against the Timoshenko Army Group which is attacking on the Central Front'. On von Bock's front the attack against Timoshenko would take place at the end of September to destroy the Russian forces east of Smolensk and in the Vyazma area. Only when these had been defeated would his Army Group Centre be directed against Moscow 'with its right flank on the Oka and its left on the Upper Volga'. Von Bock's strength was raised to some seventy divisions by additions from Army Groups North and South, and the air forces covering him were also strengthened. Fourteen of his divisions were Panzer ones, and eight Panzer Grenadier ones.
But Hitler had, by ignoring the advice of Brauchitsch and the experts, left it too late. In west and central Russia summer ends by early September at the latest, the autumn is short, and the weather breaks up—and so do the roads—in October, with heavy rains, hard frosts, thaws, and mud. By mid-November Hitler's Moscow offensive had ground to a halt, held up more by bad weather than by Russian resistance. At a conference at Orsha on 13 November the representatives of von Leeb and Rundstedt advocated going over to the defensive in the sectors of Army Groups North and South; Leeb, indeed, had already done so. Von Bock was in favour of resuming the Moscow offensive at once, and since Brauchitsch, Haider and Guderian had long striven without result for the Moscow objective, they too wanted to press on now that it at last was a reality. Even Brauchitsch's bad heart attack on 10 November did not change his views.
It was decided at Orsha that the attack on Moscow would be resumed on 19 November. It was, and in the face of fierce Russian resistance and further bad weather 'Operation Typhoon', as it was now called, made progress but at very heavy cost in casualties. Some advanced units and reconnaissance troops managed to reach the farthest of Moscow's outlying suburbs, but could get no farther. Exhausted, lacking winter clothing, and short of supplies, the troops of Guderian's Panzer Army could get no farther than a general line twenty miles from the capital, and there were no reinforcements now to make the breakthrough. On 5/6 December Guderian recalled his advance units and went over to the defensive. The attack on Moscow had failed. Two days later even Hitler realized this, though he put it down to 'the surprisingly early winter and the consequent difficulties in bringing up supplies'. Heads now began to fall. Rundstedt had already gone; Brauchitsch was to be next, at an acrimonious meeting on 19 December 1941. The dismissal of Brauchitsch was a watershed. Never again now was there to be a Professional head of the German Army during Hitler's war. Instead, contemptuous of the General Staff and convinced of his own military far-sightedness, Hitler himself assumed the chief command. He became Commander-in-Chief, in tide as well as in effect, thus brooking even less interference or guidance than before. In fact the position of Brauchitsch had long been eroded, and since the summer of 1941, with the O.K.W. ventures in Yugoslavia and Greece, over which he was not consulted, and then Africa, Russia had been the only proving ground where' the Army could have recovered its old authority. But even here, though it was officially an O.K.H. theatre of war, Hitler had constantly interfered, so that Brauchitsch was never able to fulfil his function as Commander-in-Chief, certainly not to the extent that he had in Poland and France.
It is facile to criticize him for weakness in not standing up to Hitler. This was more difficult than it sounds, not only because the danger of dismissal, disgrace, and even prison always loomed in the background, but because it was simply not possible to argue with Hitler. On various occasions Brauchitsch had been prepared to resign, or offered his resignation, but either Halder persuaded him that they could best serve their colleagues—and their country—by remaining where they were, or Hitler
contemptuously rejected it. His constant bullying and rudeness would have worn down most men—they were infinitely worse than anything Field-Marshal Sir Alan Brooke ever had to endure from Winston Churchill in his worst moments. Moreover, Brauchitsch genuinely suffered from a bad heart. It could not have been improved by the knowledge that in the east by December 1941, Germany had suffered three million casualties in soldiers dead, wounded, ill, or frostbitten. These figures were not disclosed to the public, but they weighed heavily on Brauchitsch, who was a decent man. A final cause of his dismissal was his belief that the German Army should conduct a large scale withdrawal to a safe winter line in 1941-2, west of Smolensk, to the Baltic states in the north, and to the west Ukraine in the south. Here he was only in agreement with his Army Group commanders. But, as always, Hitler would not concede ground.
For the remainder of the war von Brauchitsch was to be in sad retirement, though he was not forgotten, least of all by Hitler, who even on 15 March 1942 was referring to him as 'a nincompoop and a coward'. Assuredly Brauchitsch was neither. Göbbels, taking a leaf from his master's book, wrote in his diary on 20 March 1942 of the grievous German losses in the Russian winter of 1941-2: 'Brauchitsch bears a great deal of responsibility for this. The Führer spoke of him only in terms of contempt A vain, cowardly wretch who could not even appraise the situation, much less master it. 'By his constant interference and consistent disobedience he completely spoiled the entire plan for the eastern campaign as it was designed with crystal clarity by the Führer. The Führer had a plan that was bound to lead to victory. Had Brauchitsch done what was asked of him and what he really should have done, our position in the east today would be entirely different.
'The Führer had no intention whatever of going to Moscow. He wanted to cut off the Caucasus and thereby strike the Soviet system at its most vulnerable point But Brauchitsch and his general staff knew better. Brauchitsch always urged going to Moscow. He wanted prestige successes instead of factual successes. The Führer described him as a coward and a nincompoop. He also had tried to weaken the plan of campaign in the west. But the Führer was able to intervene in t i m e . . . .'
After the war von Brauchitsch gave evidence at Nuremberg, and was himself listed as a war criminal. In the sense that every general staff has to prepare contingency plans for attacking other countries, it is hard to see how he could have been convicted, for he had steadfastly done his best to maintain the old traditions of the German Army, and to prevent excesses by the S.S., of whom he disapproved. But he never came to trial, as he died in 1948. Brauchitsch never joined or countenanced the anti-Nazi generals or their conspiracy, of which he was well aware. Equally, he never betrayed them although he once threatened to have General Georg Thomas, the Chief of War Economy and Armament, arrested if he did not cease his persistent intrigues against Hitler. Later, however, shortly before his dismissal, in November 1941 he seems to have relented, for Hassell records on 1 November 1941: 'Falkenhausen and General Thomas have visited Brauchitsch and report that he comprehends what beastliness is rampant. He is also gradually awakening to the fact that a share of the responsibility is his. If Hitler should be eliminated, he has decided to take action. This at least indicates some progress.' According to Hassell, Brauchitsch intervened to save von Falkenhausen from being dismissed from his post as C-in-C of occupied Belgium and north-western France, and Falkenhausen was one of the most consistent anti-Hitler plotters. Brauchitsch was Commander-in-Chief for nearly four years. He is the classic example of the man who thought that, by going along with Hitler, he could save the Army and Germany. The result was failure and bitterness, and when he went the position of the Army became weaker than ever before. Now there was no one to intervene between Hitler and disaster, for Halder's days were numbered and he himself already a broken reed.
Brauchitsch cannot be rated in the high ranks as a Hofgeneral. This small, wiry, upright man, whose speech and actions were rapid and brisk, came to his high rank with the full support of the Army; when he left it, he had lost the goodwill of some and the respect of others, but he still maintained the confidence of a large body of his colleagues. Because he did not exercise strict personal control over the campaigns in which he was engaged, his abilities as a general are hard to assess. It must be granted, however, that as Commander-in-Chief of the mightiest Army that Europe had ever seen, the huge successes it achieved from 1939 to 1941 reflect no little credit on his own pre-war preparations as a professional soldier.
His tactical decisions, had they been freely carried out, seem to have been the right ones, notably his wish to push on in France in 1940, his desire to concentrate on the capture of Moscow in the summer of 1941, and his wish to withdraw to a safe winter line in 1941—2. Had he been an outstanding personality, he might just have been able to stand out against Hitler. But whilst having the intelligence, he lacked the character. Hermann Rauschning gives a somewhat different judgement: 'I make no secret of the fact that I esteemed and sympathized with this man . . . but his features did not bear the stamp of any extraordinary ability.'
Brauchitsch himself, paraphrasing words of von Fritsch, has summed up most vividly his quandary. 'Hitler was the fate of Germany, and this fate could not be stayed.'
"Hitler's Generals" by Richard Brett-Smith