Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord (26 September 1878 – 24 April 1943) was a German general who served for a period as Commander-in-Chief of the Reichswehr. He is famous for being an ardent opponent of Hitler and the Nazi regime.
He was born to a noble family in Hinrichshagen, Mecklenburg-Strelitz, German Empire in 1878. This family had already produced some famous officers. His parents were upper ranger of Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz Heino von Hammerstein and his wife Ida, née Gustedt (also a noble family). After his schooling Hammerstein Equord 1888 joined at the age of ten years Cadet Corps in Plön and came over the Prussian Cadet Corps Berlin-Lichterfelde (entry 1893) to 3rd Foot Guards (German Empire), where he was promoted on March 15, 1898 to lieutenant (Secondelieutenant) thus joining the German Army on 15 March 1898. In 1907 Hammerstein-Equord married Maria von Lüttwitz, the daughter of Walther von Lüttwitz. In this unit was at that time later Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher (1882–1934), and the two men were soon in a friendly connection. From 1905 to 1907 Hammerstein served in Kassel. From 1907 to 1910 he attended the Prussian Military Academy and in 1911 he was used in the deployment section of the Great General Staff. During World War I he first served as an adjutant of Quartermaster Generals and then as General Staff officer in various military units (1915 First General Staff Officer of VIII Reserve Corps, 1916 at the General staff, in 1918 as an Ia in the General staff of the General command). In 1914 he wrote the first Army reports from the Supreme Headquarters. In the meantime he led 1914 a Company in Flanders, where he was awarded the Iron Cross and participated in 1916 in the Battle of Turtucaia. In 1917 he was promoted to major.
Time of Weimar Republic
In the Weimar Republic Hammerstein was transferred to the Reichswehr. In 1919 he served under his father in law General Walther von Lüttwitz in the General Staff of the Corps Lüttwitz. In 1920 he was promoted to lieutenant colonel. In the same year he refused to participate in the support of Lüttwitz Kapp Putsch, and joined as chief of staff the group command II in Kassel. In 1922 he took a job as a battalion commander in the Munich area. In 1924, he was transferred to the staff of the Military District III in Berlin. After a brief use of the Group Command I (1929) he was appointed on October 1, 1929 as Major General chief of General Staff of Weimar Republic, the successor organization of the by the Allies in the Treaty of Versailles prohibited General Staff. He took over from General Werner von Blomberg. This was with the Reich Government (Weimar Republic) conflict because he had judged the German chances of a two-front war with France and Poland as favorable. By contrast, Reichswehrminister Wilhelm Groener and Chancellor Heinrich Brüning estimated the aversion of Hammerstein against political extremism and military risks. Hammerstein-Equord was loyal to the Weimar Republic, a close friend of Kurt von Schleicher Hammerstein worked out first tactical concepts for the army in the Truppenamt. They provided for a sustained defense in an attack until the League of Nations would intervene. In contrast, 1930 was created under his direction the first mobilization plan since 1923, which scheduled the tripling of the seven Infantry Division to 21. In 1930 he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Reichswehr, replacing General Wilhelm Heye. Schleicher (now defense minister) with support from Brüning made Hammerstein to successor. On November 1, 1930, he entered the field with the simultaneous promotion to General of Infantry. He created there a rearmament program of the army. This program wanted the formation of at least 42 divisions. Hammerstein-Equord had a reputation for independence and indolence, favoring hunting and shooting over the labors of administration. He told his friends that the only thing that hampered his career was "a need for personal comfort". He was an aloof and sarcastic man, renowned for his cutting displays of disregard. Hammerstein-Equord regarded himself as a servant of the German state, not of its political parties. He was extremely hostile to the Nazi Party, as late as 1933 referring to the Nazis as "criminal gang and perverts" (Verbrecherbande und Schweineigel), the latter an allusion to the homosexual tendencies of some SA leaders. He had earned the nickname, "The Red General," for fraternizing with the trade unions. Hammerstein-Equord personally warned Adolf Hitler in December 1932, against trying a coup by illegal means, promising that in that case he would give the order to shoot. He made reassurances to the same effect to the American Ambassador Frederic M. Sackett.
Two of his daughters, Marie-Luise and Helga, were members of the secret service of the German Communist Party KPD since the late 1920s and helped to inform the Soviet Union about the political and military intentions of Hitler which he detailed in a secret speech to leading generals on 3 February 1933.
Hammerstein-Equord repeatedly warned President Paul von Hindenburg about the dangers of appointing Hitler as chancellor. In response, Hindenburg had assured Hammerstein-Equord, that "he would not even consider making that Austrian corporal to the minister of defense or the chancellor". Scarcely four days later, on 30 January 1933, pursuant to a request by Hindenburg, Hitler formed a cabinet as the German Chancellor and Nazi leader, in coalition with the conservative German National People's Party. Owing to his opposition to Hitler, Hammerstein-Equord was forced to resign from his office on 31 January 1934.
Night of the Long Knives
From June 30, 1934 Hitler continued with large-scale arrests, murders, intimidation and elimination of suspected and known opponents, under the pretext of an imminent coup by SA - Chief Roehm. The action came within the realm resistance in that regard to consent, as thus the numbers now significantly larger SA as a competitor, the Army thus again was the sole "weapon carrier of the nation."
Some prominent opponents like Hammerstein and Papen were not affected by this violent action. According to some authors, this is attributed to a personal request by Hindenburg. In a report conducted by communist agents, however, it is said that Hammerstein "is in these days, the center of Berlin officer circles". Comrades from the Ministry would have protected him, since they had feared at any moment his arrest". General von Witzleben demanded together with the generals Wilhelm von Leeb and Gerd von Rundstedt at General Fritsch, now Chief Command, a court-martial investigation of the murder of Schleicher and Bredow Among those who protested the killing of their comrades were General Hans Oster.
Hammerstein and Field Marshal August von Mackensen first tried to reach for the massacre Hindenburg personally. Because they did not succeed, they sent him a memorandum handed over to him for a report on 18 July 1934 in a blue file folder and therefore called Blue Book. According to others, it did not reach Hindenburg before his death. On July 13, 1934 Hitler tried to justify in a Reichstag speech the violent actions. The speech was broadcast on the radio. Hitler accused notably Schleicher and Bredow of subversive collaboration with Röhm and conspiracy with other countries for the purpose of a "national-Bolshevik coup". Blomberg defended the claim of Hitler and promised documentation. Hitler finally gave in: In a closed meeting of the peaks of government, party and Reichswehr to another topic Hitler said "studies" have shown that the generals Schleicher and von Bredow were shot "by mistake". However, it was forbidden for all officers to attend the funeral of Schleicher. Hammerstein refused, and at the funeral of Schleicher, Hammerstein was enraged when the SS refused to allow him to attend the service and confiscated the wreaths that the mourners had brought. He was recalled to military service as the commander of Army Group A on 10 September 1939 but retired again on 21 September 1939.
During World War II, Hammerstein-Equord was involved in several plots to overthrow Hitler. He tried repeatedly to lure Hitler into visiting a fortified base under his command along the Siegfried Line of the Western Front. He confided to retired former army chief of staff and leading conspirator Colonel-General Ludwig Beck that "a fatal accident will occur" when the Führer visits his base. But Hitler never accepted Hammerstein-Equord's invitation. He was transferred to command in Wehrkreis (Defense District) VIII in Silesia, then relieved of his command on personal orders by Hitler, for his "negative attitude towards National Socialism". He became active in the German Resistance, working with Carl Friedrich Goerdeler.
Illness, death and legacy
Years before his death, Hammerstein developed a slow-growing mass below his left ear but declined to seek medical advice. In January 1943, however, when he was examined by Prof. Dr. Ferdinand Sauerbruch, an esteemed surgeon, he was informed that he had cancer, which had by then metastasized. Surgery, then the only potentially curative treatment, was thus futile, and Hammerstein was told that he was expected to survive for another six months. Although his medical team admitted that the cancer had advanced beyond any hope of recovery, Hammerstein underwent a course of radiation treatment, a process which had serious side-effects that caused him great discomfort. When his son, Kunrat, was informed that the process was merely palliative, he ordered that the therapy be discontinued.
Hammerstein-Equord spent the final weeks of his life under considerable pain in his house in Dahlem, an affluent quarter of Berlin. In spite of that and although aware that he was being under surveillance by the Gestapo, he continued to voice his criticisms of the regime to the visitors he regularly received. One of them, the art historian Udo von Alvensleben-Wittenmoor, noted in his diary after meeting him in mid-February 1943:
“I am ashamed to have belonged in an army, that witnessed and tolerated all the crimes”, is Hammerstein's final conclusion.
After a few weeks, on 16 April, Hammerstein fell into a coma, from which he never recovered. Finally, on Saturday, 24 April 1943, he died quietly in his house. His family refused an official funeral at Berlin Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery, because this would have meant that his coffin would have been covered by the Reichskriegsflagge with the swastika. Thus, he was buried at the family's graveyard in Steinhorst, Lower Saxony. Hitler ordered the sending of a wreath with a message of condolence, but the wreath was not on display at the funeral because it had been "forgotten" in the Berlin subway by Hammerstein's family.
Heinrich Brüning, leader of the Catholic Center party, who served as German chancellor between 1930 and 1932, called Hammerstein-Equord "the only man who could remove Hitler — a man without nerves". According to the reminiscences of his son Kunrat von Hammerstein, Hammerstein-Equord resigned from the Club of Nobility when they threw out their non-Aryan members in 1934 or 1935, and spoke of "organized mass murder" of the Jews before the summer of 1942. He supplied his daughter Maria-Therese von Hammerstein-Paasche with the names of Jews who were scheduled for deportation or arrest, enabling her to warn or hide them. Two of his sons, Ludwig and Kunrat, took part in a failed plot to kill Hitler and replace the Nazi regime with a new government on 20 July 1944, fleeing Germany in its aftermath. His widow and two younger children were then deported to a concentration camp, and freed only when the Allied Forces liberated the camps in 1945.
Family and children
Helga, third child of Hammerstein, later reported, that her father told everybody, who wanted to hear it:
In fact, many of his children had Jewish acquaintances and supported Jewish people. He did not refuse when some of his children gave files with political-military contents to the KPD.
The three oldest children had many contacts to people of Jewish descent or belief. After the reports of his children Hammerstein reported during the meals about forthcoming actions against Jewish and other persecuted people, so those could be warned by his children.
Marie Luise von Hammerstein-Equord was a friend to Werner Scholem. First he was a member of the Reichstag (KPD), organizer and redactor. He turned away from the KPD, was mostly arrested since 1933 and was shot 1940 in the KZ Buchenwald. From 1937 bis 1951 she was in a second marriage with Ernst-Friedemann Freiherr von Münchhausen, who owned an estate near Weimar. After the war the couple separated, Marie Luise moved 1949 from West-Berlin to East-Berlin, and became a member of the SED, and worked as a lawyer“. She worked mostly for Jewish clients.
Helga von Hammerstein-Equord fell at the age of 15 in love with Leo Roth, left gymnasium at the age of 17 and joined the KPD. From the age of 18 she lived together with him, both worked for the KPD. She made the connections to agent Gert Caden to the KPD. At least till 1937, when Roth was executed as an allegedly traitor in Moskau, Helga worked for the news service of the KPD with the code name "Grete Pelgert". She managed to catch up Abitur in 1934 and to achieve as an auditor a degree in chemistry. In 1939 she promoted at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute to a doctorate in chemistry on synthetic resins. Previously she had married in 1939 the then gardener Walter Rossow. After the war Rossow became gradually a landscape architect, was professor and finally professor with tenure at several places.
Kunrat von Hammerstein-Equord could not serve any longer at the front as an officer because of a war injury. He did not belong to the military resistance, but was personally acquainted with many of those. As well as his arrest was to be feared, he went into hiding in Cologne in September 1944. Later, he was like his brother Ludwig tendered by the Reichskriminalpolizeiamt Berlin for desertion, but like his brother he was not taken until the war ended. After the war he published about this period of his diary and from the records of his father.
Ludwig von Hammerstein-Equord could not serve any longer at the front, like his brother Kunrat from a war injury. He joined the military resistance against Hitler. July 20, 1944 he experienced in the Bendlerblock the arrest of other members of the resistance. He could escape and lived in the underground in Berlin until the war ended. After the war he wrote two biographical accounts about his father. Franz Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord first was an industrial merchant. After the 20. July 1944 he was a so-called Sippenhäftling. He was deported with his mother and sister Hildur. After the war he studied theology and worked later in several Christian, social and political organisations.
Classification of officers
As Chief of the Army High Command, Hammerstein-Equord oversaw the composition of the German manual on military unit command (Truppenführung), dated 17 October 1933.
He is quoted as originating a special classification scheme for his men:
I divide my officers into four groups. There are clever, diligent, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and diligent -- their place is the General Staff. The next lot are stupid and lazy -- they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is stupid and diligent -- he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always cause only mischief.
Decorations and awards
- Prussian Royal House Order of Hohenzollern, Knight's Cross with Swords
- 1914 Iron Cross 1st Class
- 1914 Iron Cross 2nd Class
- Bavarian Military Merit Order, 4th Class with Swords
- Saxon Albert Order, Knight 1st Class with Swords
- Mecklenburg-Strelitz Cross for Distinction in War, 1st and 2nd Classes
- Mecklenburg-Schwerin Military Merit Cross, 1st and 2nd Classes
- Lübeck Hanseatic Cross
- Austro-Hungarian Military Merit Cross, 3rd Class with War Decoration
- Knight of Honor (Ehrenritter) of the Johanniter-Orden
- Prussian 25-Year Long Service Cross for Officers