Monday, June 29, 2015

Monarchists in the German Military of World War II

After the victorious German blitzkrieg of 1940, Adolf Hitler was angered by the exiled German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, referring to the victorious troops as his own. This is usually understood as being a reference on the part of the ex-Kaiser to the fact that the German military leadership of World War II had been the officer-cadets and junior officers of World War I; they had learned their trade in the Kaiser’s Germany. However, there was more literal truth to the Kaiser’s statement than many people realized. The military of Nazi Germany was not filled with hardcore Nazis, though some certainly leaned in that direction. Many were apolitical men who considered matters of government to be none of their business and not the sort of thing for professional military men to concern themselves with. However, there were also those who were monarchists and who were very conscious of the distinction that they were fighting for their German Fatherland and not Adolf Hitler or the Nazi Party. There may have been more monarchists than can ever be known for sure since so many did see expressing political opinions as unseemly and due to the fact that, after the Nazis came to power, voicing any support for any other form of government would have meant ruination for themselves and their families.

Korvettenkapitan Hermann Ehrhardt
Even before the Nazis came to power, being too openly monarchist could be disastrous for a German military officer even under the Weimar Republic. Army commander Colonel General Hans von Seeckt brought about the end of his military career when he invited Prince Wilhelm, the Kaiser’s grandson, to the army’s 1926 autumn maneuvers. There had also been a backlash after an earlier coup attempt against the republic in which many monarchists participated. Imperial Naval Captain Hermann Ehrhardt, leader of one of the best Freikorps units in the post-Great War chaotic period in Germany had to flee the country after taking part in the Kapp Putsch but later returned and opposed the Nazis first bid to seize power in Bavaria. Targeted for assassination during the “Night of the Long Knives” he managed to escape to Austria and eluded the Nazi regime throughout World War II. General Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben, who came from the untitled Prussian nobility, was assumed by most to be of monarchist sympathies and though he clashed with the Nazis, was called out of retirement to serve in World War II but was later executed for his part in the failed plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Major General Ferdinand von Bredow, a monarchist and head of military intelligence, did not escape and was murdered in the “Night of the Long Knives”.

GFM Gerd von Rundstedt
The most senior German officer known to be a monarchist was General Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt. He came from a Prussian aristocratic family with a history of military service stretching back to the army of the revered Frederick the Great. He was a staff officer in World War I and was later made colonel-in-chief of the Eighteenth Regiment. He stands out in photographs for his preference to wear the collar lace of his regiment rather than the usual collar rank insignia for general officers. Called out of retirement for the Polish campaign, he was known for being a brilliant commander when it came to broad planning, a master of the “big picture” while leaving the details to others. When SS units, working behind the lines, began massacring Jews he had them banned from his area of operations. He was commander of Army Group A in the blitzkrieg in Western Europe and commander of Army Group South in the invasion of the Soviet Union, leading the conquest of the Ukraine.

During these years, he was contacted by members of the anti-Nazi resistance who tried to enlist him in their cause but, while he sympathized, he refused to take part, fearing the chaos that would follow the violent overthrow of the regime. Dismissed for clashing with Hitler, he was later reinstated and made commander of the western front, where he disagreed with his subordinate, Field Marshal Rommel, over how best to repel the expected Allied invasion that came in June of 1944 in Normandy. When he remarked that, after the defeat at Normandy, Germany should make peace he was dismissed again but was again recalled later and presided over the defeat of the Allied invasion of The Netherlands known as Operation Market Garden. He was still commander of the western front when the Ardennes offensive was launched (resulting in the Battle of the Bulge) and in the aftermath oversaw the establishment of a new defensive line along the Rhine. However, Hitler was as erratic as ever and von Rundstedt was dismissed again, for the last time, in March of 1945, replaced by Luftwaffe Field Marshal Albert Kesselring.

GFM Fedor von Bock
Another senior military figure known to be a monarchist, and another Prussian from a long-standing military family, was General Field Marshal Fedor von Bock. A product of German and Russian aristocratic stock, he was born in what is now Poland and was the nephew of Colonel General Erich von Falkenhayn, mastermind of the Verdun offensive in World War I. He served as a junior officer in that conflict in the army group of Bavarian Crown Prince Rupprecht, with whom he became close friends, and so distinguished himself that he earned the coveted Pour le Merite (aka the Blue Max), Imperial Germany’s equivalent of the Victoria Cross. He was a staunch opponent of the Allied restrictions placed on the German military by the Treaty of Versailles and as such approved of some Nazi policies in regard to rearmament and reasserting German independence, however, he had no love for the Nazi regime itself. He was a staunch monarchist and continued to make regular visits to the exiled Kaiser Wilhelm II in The Netherlands. Hitler would have liked to do away with him but he was simply too valuable as a military leader. He led German forces into Vienna after the union with Austria and into Czechoslovakia after that country was dismembered and occupied.

During World War II, von Bock commanded Army Group North in the conquest of Poland and Army Group B in the invasion of France and the Low Countries. When the invasion of the Soviet Union came in 1941 he was part of a bloc of German monarchist commanders on the eastern front. He commanded Army Group Center while on his flanks were Army Group North commanded by monarchist Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb and Army Group South commanded by monarchist Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt. He disagreed with Hitler’s meddling in the campaign and favored pressing on to Moscow as rapidly as possible with his panzer divisions, leaving Russian armies to be mopped up by the slower infantry rather than taking the time to encircle and wipe out each enemy force. The constant order to divert his armored forces to the north or south on such errands were, he warned, wasting their resources and slowing down the campaign. When his forces were given the key role in the drive on Moscow (Operation Typhoon) von Bock was shown to have been correct all along. The delays had allowed the Russians to reinforce their positions and the High Command ordered him to dispatch his armored forces under the famous panzer General Heinz Guderian toward Bryansk to encircle more Red Army forces rather than pressing ahead. A combination of stiff Russian resistance, these diversions of resources and increasingly bad weather finally brought the offensive to a halt just short of Moscow.

Field Marshal von Bock was later dismissed by Hitler after continued disagreements over the Fuhrer’s handling of the Russian campaign. Von Bock was also frustrated by the treatment of Russian civilians and Hitler’s opposition to enlisting anti-communist Russians in the Axis cause (the Russian Liberation Army of General Andrei Vlasov). As a known monarchist who opposed the Nazi regime, he was naturally approached by members of the resistance who were plotting Hitler’s assassination. Like von Rundstedt, von Bock sympathized but refused to get involved. He was convinced that the SS were too powerful and that SS Chief Himmler would prevent any coup from being successful even if they did manage to kill Hitler. He remained in retirement until 1945 when Admiral Karl Doenitz took over leadership of the Reich after Hitler’s suicide. Von Bock set out to meet with the new Fuhrer, presumably to take up a military post again but his car was attacked by British aircraft on his way to Kiel. Fedor von Bock thus became the only German Field Marshal of World War II to die by hostile fire.

GFM Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb
The aforementioned Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb was another monarchist to rise to prominence in the German military in World War II. He was a Bavarian with a long record of service to his country, serving in China during the Boxer Rebellion as an artillery officer and then seeing extensive service, both in the field and as a staff officer in World War I, predominately on the eastern front. In 1915 he earned the Knights Cross of the Military Order of Max Joseph, a very prestigious Bavarian decoration, and was elevated to the rank of knight and minor nobility, Wilhelm Leeb becoming Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb. Staying in the army, it was Ritter von Leeb who commanded the troops that suppressed the first Nazi attempt to take power in the Munich “Beer Hall Putsch” of 1923. Needless to say, Hitler despised the Bavarian royalist and after coming to power promptly promoted him to Colonel General and retired him. Talented officers of such experience as Ritter von Leeb were rare though and Hitler had to tolerate him when necessary. In the occupation of Czechoslovakia he was briefly recalled and given command of an army but then quickly retired again when the Allies did not respond.

When World War II broke out, Ritter von Leeb was recalled to duty again for the blitzkrieg in the west, given command of Army Group C. However, he annoyed Hitler again by objecting to the violations of Dutch and Belgian neutrality which Germany had promised to respect. He was a man of honor and integrity but, of course, such values were not always appreciated by the new leadership in Berlin. Nonetheless, he gave his usual service, displaying his expert leadership and for his contribution to the victory over the Allies in the west was awarded the Knights Iron Cross and promoted to Field Marshal. For the invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler decided he could not do without him and gave Ritter von Leeb command of Army Group North. His forces performed magnificently, smashing through Soviet resistance and quickly moving to surround the key, historic city of Leningrad. It might have been taken but at that crucial time, he was ordered to divert forces from his command to the south. Leningrad would never be taken but would be the scene of the longest siege in modern military history. When Ritter von Leeb advised staying on the defensive so that Army Group Center could be reinforced and push toward Moscow, Hitler accused him of timidity and blamed his Catholicism, saying that von Leeb would rather pray than fight. Ritter von Leeb was just as disgusted with Hitler’s micromanaging of the war and asked to be relieved of command. Hitler promptly granted his request and he never saw active service again.

Kapitan zur See Hans Langsdorff
There were, presumably, quite a few monarchists serving in the German military of World War II but the political situation as well as the prevailing sensibilities and traditions of the officer corps prevented most from ever making their monarchist sentiments explicitly known. However, some managed to send signals that would seem to most to be a clear message as to their true political opinions. So, lastly, we will look at the case of a famous German naval officer in World War II. Prior to the conflict, partly because of treaty restrictions and partly because of an intentional naval strategy, Germany built a number of vessels known as “pocket battleships”. These were designed to be lighter and faster than most any other warships while still packing the powerful punch of the full-size battlewagons. Of these, probably the most famous was the Admiral Graf Spee commanded by Captain Hans Langsdorff. Captain Langsdorff had served in the High Seas Fleet in World War I, earning the Iron Cross for his actions at the Battle of Jutland and he continued to advance his career in the inter-war years. In 1938 he was given command of the Admiral Graf Spee and the following year, with the outbreak of war, set out with orders to do as much damage as possible to British shipping lanes in the South Atlantic. As such, merchant ships were to be his primary targets while he was to outrun any warships he encountered, especially those he could not outgun.

Captain Langsdorff did his duty brilliantly, sinking nine British ships for a total of 50,000 tons of lost shipping. The British Admiralty was thrown into a panic as resources were diverted from far and wide to hunt down and sink the Graf Spee. However, Captain Langsdorff was no pirate but truly an officer and a gentlemen. He followed all the appropriate rules for war at sea and no one from any of the ships he sunk were killed. The pocket battleship was soon packed full of British prisoners and they were unanimous in attesting to how well treated they were by the German captain. However, the brief, brilliant career of the Graf Spee was soon to come to an end as more British warships moved into the area. Eventually, the pocket battleship was cornered in Montevideo, Uruguay by the Royal Navy. After a brief battle off the Rio de la Plata, Captain Langsdorff was ordered to scuttle his ship rather than see it interned by the Uruguayan authorities. He did so and after seeing to the well being of his crew, Captain Hans Langsdorff dressed in his best uniform, wrapped himself in a German naval ensign and shot himself in the head. It was a tragic, noble end to a promising naval officer. In his death, he also sent a message that strongly suggests that Captain Langsdorff was of monarchist sympathies for the flag he wrapped himself in before taking his own life was not the swastika flag of Nazi Germany, but the ensign of the old Imperial German Navy under which, in service to the King of Prussia and German Kaiser, he had begun his career. In death, he had shown the world what his true loyalties were.

6 comments:

  1. If Germany was winning hypotheticaly WWI there was no holocaust, probably no Hitler, and a more monarchist world order. I believe most socialist revolts were crushed and maybe Germany would aid the White Russians or even, intervate to destroy Red Russia. We would have spoken German and the greatest brains were not going USA, and perhaps it was falling apart. Austria-Hungary maybe was surviving and a great Ottoman Empire to rule and stabilize ME. The British Empire was not so great although, and maybe France would go Communist. What do you think abiu such alternative history, MM?

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    1. It's always hard to speculate, much would depend on how Germany won and at what point. The stated goals was for German control of the Low Countries, the northeast coast of France and economic mastery over Europe. Poland, Finland, the Baltics, Ukraine were to all be German-affiliated states. Central and southern Africa would be dominated by Germany, north and east Africa, the Middle East, southern Russia and central Asia would be dominated by Ottoman Turkey and the Balkans would be dominated by Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria.

      The British Empire would effectively have been destroyed, most of Africa being gone and India likely to break away and there may have been a post-war conflict between Germany and Japan as Germany would insist on the return of captured German colonies which Japan probably wouldn't do unless forced. Although most ignore it, a Central Powers victory could have changed things most dramatically in favor of the Ottoman Empire. The Turks had more territorial demands than anyone and if they had achieved what they desired, all of the oil fields of Libya, Iran, the then-British protectorates in the Persian Gulf etc would have all been under Turkish control and, if maintained, would have led to a huge and fabulously wealthy Islamic empire from north Africa to India.

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    2. Hello MM,

      Virtually all reactionaries and monarchists have been tarred with the argumentum ad hitleram since the advent of the New Left and the Frankfurt School, which tried to see Nazism in any conservative figure. Do you see any cracking in the left wing spell? Can we look at these conservative figures now on their own terms?

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  2. This is a beautifully-written, poignant article. Thank you.

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  3. Hello MM,

    I want to say that I have been reading your blog for some time; it is among the best written and most erudite reactionary blogs on the internet--actually, it is better than most blogs, period. I have a quick question for you. As you know, since the Frankfurt School and the emergence of the New Left, all forms of reactionary thought have been filtered through the "Nazi lens" by which all traditional thought is smeared, e.g., all monarchs are proto-Hitlers. Do you think that the leftist spell is beginning to fade, and we are now able to see royalism on its own terms?

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    1. Alas no, but then I tend to be a rather 'gloomy gus' so my perspective may be distorted. The modern intellectuals who have been willing to promote the cause of traditional monarchy, as far as I can tell, remain a minority of a minority. I did recently come across an old WW2 propaganda picture, from Britain no less, which equated Hitler with a succession of past monarchs, with the picture implying that all had tried to "conquer the world".

      However, I do think the restoration is bound to happen eventually if for no other reason than that the leftist utopia is an impossibility. What they promote is impractical, unworkable and unnatural, it just may take considerable 'storm and stress' before people are forced to face facts.

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