As the war went on, Von Rundstedt became the public face of the German Army both in Germany and abroad. He was even on the cover of Time Magazine in 1942 and 1944. He was the senior general in length of service in the German Army. Von Rundstedt had actually retired before World War Two began, although he was quickly recalled to the colors once war broke out. In spite of German and Allied propaganda about von Rundstedt being an officer of the old school, honorable and distinguished, he simply was not.
Like many Prussian officers he served Hitler loyally and to the end. Although various envoys from the Kreisau Circle, the informal group which was responsible for the 20 July 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler, made contact with him about the possibility of joining the conspiracy, von Rundstedt refused to commit himself.
The man had always enjoyed strong drink but by the middle of the war he was a functioning alcoholic. He didn’t want to do much of anything. If Hitler stayed in power that was fine. If he was assassinated, well that was fine, too. If Jews and all sorts of other enemies the Nazi regime were being murdered, then let them get murdered. He would help with the murders if ordered and he was ordered and he did help. But if the government had not wanted the Jews and others murdered, he wouldn’t have done it on his own. Like Rhett Butler, his motto can be said to have been, “I don’t give a damn.”
Most of the time he read cheap detective mysteries which he kept in the front drawer of his desk. If someone came into his office, he closed the drawer. In spite of his laziness, von Rundstedt was a competent army commander and later Field Marshal. As a military man he knew his business. He refused to clutter his mind with details and simply kept his eye on the big picture, a valuable trait in a Field Marshal. His staff did everything else – very much the First World War model of Prussian Army command. His training and experience were such that he could size up a military situation very quickly and give the broad orders needed,
leaving the rest to the discretion of his subordinate commanders, also very much a part of the tradition of the old Prussian Army. Visit the troops? Never. Stay in his headquarters with good meals and wine, always.
Several months after the successful Allied landings in Normandy, Von Rundstedt is thought to have made this famous statement to German Armed Forces High Command, when asked what they should do to save the German presence in France. “Make peace, you idiots!” This is quoted in many, many histories. It is quoted on Wikipedia. It gives the impression that von Rundstedt was a reasonable man. However, he never said it. Not one historian has ever found original documentation for this alleged statement by von Rundstedt.
The highly regarded military historian, Earl F. Ziemke, PhD, says this about von Rundstedt’s ability as a field commander in his essay which appears in Hitler’s Generals edited by the British military historian Correlli Barnett:
“Duty and service to the nation were for him too frequently a means of evading moral and professional responsibility, and as the ‘first soldier’ of the Reich and guardian of the old school Prussian General Staff’s principles, his performance approached caricature. The Elder von Moltke admonished General Staff officers to ‘be more than you seem’. Gerd von Rundstedt seemed to be more than he was.”