Herr General Feldmarschal and devoted Nazi Gerd von Rundstedt in France, April 1944. He is carrying the standard issue field marshal’s baton for everyday use and not the ceremonial baton carried when in full dress uniform.
Let us first dismiss the myth that there was something honorable about Gerd von Rundstedt or that he represented in any way the hard working Protestant morality of Prussia. The only biography of him, The Last Prussian: A Biography of Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt 1875-1953 by Charles Messenger is hagiography, not history, and isn’t worth reading.
That von Rundstedt is often described as ‘The Last Prussian’ makes a mockery of the values associated over the centuries with the Prussian aristocracy from whence came almost all Prussian Army officers. Were these officers often arrogant – particularly in the late 19th century after their thrashing by Napoleon earlier in the century had been forgotten? Yes. Dedicated to war – hoping for war? Yes. Narrowly educated? Yes. All those things. But they were not men who would permit wholesale murder of innocent civilians or genocide. And if someone under them had been doing it, they would put a stop to it. And if someone above them ordered such an action, they would have refused to carry out such an order.
Left to Right: General Gerd von Rundstedt, General Werner von Fritsch (Commander-in-Chief of the German Army) and Colonel General Generaloberst Werner von Blomberg, Berlin, 1934. The Nazis had only recently come to power (1933). Blomberg (right) had been appointed as Minister of Defence in Chancellor Hitler’s new government. Blomberg was a boot licking toady to Hitler to the point of revulsion.
Was their strong anti-Semitism in Prussia? Yes, there was. Yet long before other European countries took such actions, Frederick the Great of Prussia removed many restrictions against Jews in his kingdom and thus arose a flourishing German-Jewish culture in Berlin in the mid to late 1700s. One of the great intellectuals of the age, Moses Mendelssohn, was the leader of what many scholars refer to as the Jewish Renaissance, which created the school of thought and of specific belief we call Reform Judaism. As the leading intellectual of the age, Mendelssohn made Berlin the cultural capital of Europe.
I mention this great man to illustrate the complexity of the relationship between largely Christian Germany and its Jewish citizens. There was a great deal of intermarriage, far more than people realize, and this furthered the complexity of the German/Jewish relationship to the broader society. While a very strong feeling of anti-Semitism was present in Prussia and the other states which would eventually comprise the actual nation state of Germany, this anti-Semitism did not include the idea of murdering some, or all, of the Jews of Europe.
By the time the Nazis came to power, much of the Prussian aristocracy had become morally and financially bankrupt and most Prussian officers served Hitler zealously. Von Rundstedt was such a man. Like many high ranking officers, he had accepted large amounts of money, bribes, from Hitler, the first check coming in December of 1941 in the amount of 250,000 Reichsmarks. The yearly pay of a German Army captain was approximately 8,000 Reichsmarks which will give you a point of comparison.
von Rundstedt, Benito Mussolini, and Adolf Hitler, Russia, 1941. Von Runstedt is carrying his everyday field marshal’s baton and not the gaudy ceremonial baton.
Says Anthony Beevor in his very good (I rate it four stars) history of D-Day: “The British regarded ‘the Last Prussian’ (that is, Rundstedt) as nothing more sinister than a reactionary (Prussian Imperial) Guards officer and failed to appreciate that he shared many of the Nazis’ murderous prejudices. Rundstedt had never objected to the mass murders of Jews by the SS Einsatzgruppen on the eastern front. He had spoken of the advantages of using the Russian slave labourer in France. ‘If he does not do as he is told,’ he said, ‘he can quite simply be shot.'”
To those who defend von Rundstedt, and there are many, I recommend Beevor’s book on D-Day. Yet far more important as an indictment of von Rundstedt and what he knew about the Holocaust and the behavior of his troops on the Eastern Front, is the organization known as Fremde Heere Ost, which translates as Foreign Armies East. (It’s other unit was Fremde Heere West). While most students of German military history are familiar with the Abwehr, a sort of German CIA, and with RSHA, the SS controlled Reich Main Security Office which included the notorious Gestapo, not so many are familiar with Foreign Armies East and that is unfortunate.
This organization was directly subordinated to OKH, German Army High Command – not, I stress, OKW, German Armed Forces High Command. Thus the German general staff and high ranking German Army field officers received their own undiluted intelligence from an organization in their own chain of command. It beggars the imagination to suggest that Fremde Heere Ost failed to learn about the Holocaust, about the actions of SS murder squads, about the starvation of Russian POWs and the general horrendous treatment of Soviet civilians. It beggars the imagination even more to suggest this information was not reported to the highest levels of the German Army.