Ludwig August Theodor Beck (29 June 1880 – 20 July 1944) was a German general and Chief of the German General Staff during the early years of the Nazi regime in Germany before World War II. Ludwig Beck never became a member of the Nazi Party, though in the early 1930s he supported Adolf Hitler's forceful denunciation of the Versailles Treaty and his belief in the need for Germany to rearm. Beck had grave misgivings regarding the Nazi demand that all German officers swear an oath of fealty to the person of Hitler in 1934, though he believed that Germany needed strong government and that Hitler could successfully provide this so long as the Führer was influenced by traditional elements within the military rather than by the SA and SS.
In serving as Chief of Staff of the German Army between 1935 and 1938, Beck became increasingly disillusioned, standing in opposition to the increasing totalitarianism of the Nazi regime and to Hitler's aggressive foreign policy. Due to public foreign-policy disagreements with Hitler, Beck resigned as Chief of Staff in August 1938. From this point Beck came to believe that Hitler could not be influenced for good, and that both Hitler and the Nazi party needed to be removed from government. He became a major leader within the conspiracy against Hitler, and would have served as head of state—with the title of either President or regent ("Reichsverweser"), depending on the source—had the 20 July plot succeeded. However, when the plot failed, Beck was arrested. He reportedly made an unsuccessful attempt at suicide, and was then shot dead.
Early life and career
Born in Biebrich (now a borough of Wiesbaden, Hesse) in Hesse-Nassau, he was educated in the Prussian military tradition. He served on the Western Front in World War I as a staff officer. After the war he served in various staff and command appointments. In 1931–1932, he led the group of army writers, at the Department of the Army (Truppenamt) which published the German Army Operations Manual entitled Truppenführung. The first section was promulgated in 1933 and the second section in 1934. A modified version is still in use today by the Bundeswehr. He was promoted to the rank of Generalleutnant in 1932 and, two years later, he replaced General Wilhelm Adam as chief of the Truppenamt, the camouflaged General Staff (the Treaty of Versailles explicitly forbade the existence of the General Staff).
In Nazi Germany
In September–October 1930, Beck was a leading defence witness at the trial in Leipzig of three Reichswehr junior officers, Lieutenant Richard Scheringer, Hans Friedrich Wendt and Hanns Ludin. The three men were charged with membership in the Nazi Party while membership in political parties was forbidden for members of the Reichswehr. The three officers admitted to Nazi Party membership and used as their defence the claim that the Nazi Party membership should not be forbidden to Reichswehr personnel. When the three officers were arrested after being caught red-handed distributing Nazi literature at their base, Beck, who was the commanding officer of the 5th Artillery Regiment based in Ulm, to which the three Nazi officers belonged, was furious and argued that since the Nazi Party was a force for good, Reichswehr personnel should not be banned from joining the Nazi Party. At the preliminary hearing, Beck spoke on behalf of the three officers. At the Leipzig trial of Ludin and Scheringer, Beck testified as to the good character of the accused, described the Nazi Party as a positive force in German life and proclaimed his belief that the Reichswehr ban on Nazi Party membership in his opinion should be rescinded. When Lieutenant Scheringer spoke of a future war in which the Nazi Party and the Reichswehr were to fight hand in hand as brothers in a "war of liberation" to abrogate the Treaty of Versailles, Beck supported Scheringer by testifying, "The Reichswehr is told daily that it is an army of leaders. What is a young officer to understand by that?" Historians such as Sir John Wheeler-Bennett have noted that Beck was deliberately distorting Hans von Seeckt's Führerarmee ("Army of Leaders", training soldiers to be leaders for when the army would be expanded beyond the limits permitted by the Treaty of Versailles) principle by seeking to apply it to politics.
In 1933, upon witnessing the Nazi Machtergreifung, Beck wrote, "I have wished for years for the political revolution, and now my wishes have come true. It is the first ray of hope since 1918". In July 1934, Beck expressed some alarm at Nazi foreign policy involving Germany in a "premature war" after the failed Nazi putsch in Austria, leading Beck to warn that those in "leading positions" must understand that foreign adventures might then lead to Germany being forced to make a "humiliating retreat" that might bring about the end of Nazi Germany. In August 1934, after the death of President Paul von Hindenburg, which led to Hitler's assumption of the roles of powers of the presidency, most notably the position of Commander-in-Chief, Beck wrote that Hitler's move created "favourable conditions" for the Reichswehr.
Beck gained respect with the publication of his tactical manual, Truppenführung. Both Beck and General Werner von Fritsch commanded the 1st Cavalry Division, in Frankfurt an der Oder prior to assuming their command positions. During his time first as Chief of the Truppenamt (1933–1935), and then as Chief of the General Staff (1935–1938), Beck encouraged the development of armoured forces but not to the extent that advocates of Panzer warfare, such as Heinz Guderian, wanted. In Beck's conception of power politics, it was crucial to have German military power restored to its pre-1919 levels, and from the latter half of 1933, advocated a level of military spending beyond even those considered by Hitler. In Beck's opinion, once Germany was sufficiently rearmed, the Reich should wage a series of wars that would establish Germany as Europe's foremost power and place all of Central and Eastern Europe into the German sphere of influence.
As Chief of the General Staff, Beck lived in a modest home in the Lichterfelde suburb of Berlin, and worked normally from 09:00 to 19:00 every day. As General Staff Chief, Beck was widely respected for his intelligence and work ethic but was often criticized by other officers for being too interested in administrative details. In 1934, Beck wrote a lengthy covering letter to a long report on the British Army armour maneuvers as a way of encouraging interest in armoured warfare. In Beck's view of the General Staff's role, the War Minister served in a mere administrative function, and the Chief of the General Staff should have been able to advise the Reich leadership directly. His views led to conflicts with the War Minister, Field Marshal Werner von Blomberg, who resented Beck's efforts to diminish his powers.
In 1936, Beck strongly supported Hitler during the remilitarisation of the Rhineland against Blomberg, who feared the French reaction to such a move. By late 1937 and early 1938, Beck had come into increasing conflict with other officers over the place and importance of the General Staff in the German military hierarchy in which Beck wished to have all of the important decision-making moved into the arms of the General Staff.
Starting in the mid-1930s, Beck created his own intelligence network comprising German military attaches, which he used both to collect and to leak information. Besides military attachés, Beck also recruited civilians for his private intelligence network, the most notable volunteer being Carl Goerdeler.
In May 1937, Beck refused an order to draw up orders for executing Fall Otto (Case Otto), the German plan for an invasion of Austria, under the grounds that such a move might cause a world war before Germany was ready. During the Anschluss of February–March 1938, once Beck was convinced that no war would result from a move against Austria, he swiftly drew up the orders for Fall Otto. In Beck's conception of power politics, war was a necessary part of restoring Germany to a great power provided both the wars were limited and Germany possessed enough strength and had sufficiently-strong allies.
During the Blomberg-Fritsch Crisis in early 1938, Beck saw a chance to reassert the interests and power of the army against what he regarded as the excessive power of the SS.
Pre-war conflict with Hitler
Beck resented Adolf Hitler for his efforts to curb the army's position of influence. Beck tried very early—as Chief of the General Staff—to deter Hitler from using the grievances of the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, the population of which was mostly ethnic-German, as an excuse for war against the latter state in 1938.
Beck had no moral objection to the idea of war of aggression to eliminate Czechoslovakia as a state. In 1935, he had a series of meetings with Prince Bernard von Bülow, the State Secretary of the German Foreign Office and the Chief of the Hungarian General Staff to discuss plans "for the division of Czechoslovakia". On 12 November 1937, Beck submitted a memorandum stating that "various facts" show the requirement "for an imminent solution by force" of the problem of Czechoslovakia and that it was desirable to start preparing "the political ground among those powers which stood on our side or who were not against us", and that the "military discussion in either the one case or the other should begin at once".
However, Beck felt that Germany needed more time to rearm before starting such a war. In Beck's assessment, the earliest date Germany could risk a war was 1940, and any war started in 1938 would be a "premature war" that Germany would lose. While most of the generals felt the idea of starting a war in 1938 was highly risky, none of them would confront Hitler with a refusal to carry out orders, since the majority opinion was that Beck's arguments against war in 1938 were flawed. From May 1938, Beck had bombarded Hitler, Wilhelm Keitel and Walther von Brauchitsch with memoranda opposing Fall Grün (Case Green), the plan for a war with Czechoslovakia. In the first of his memos, on 5 May 1938, Beck argued that the Sino-Japanese War meant Japan would be unable to come to Germany's aid, that the French Army was the best fighting force in Europe, and that Britain was certain to intervene on the side of France should Germany attack Czechoslovakia.
In his May memo, Beck argued that Hitler's assumptions about France, made in the Hossbach Memorandum of 1937, were mistaken, and stated his belief that France "wishes for peace or, perhaps more accurately, abhors a new war", but that "in case of a real threat, or what is perceived by the people to be foreign policy pressure, the French nation comes together as if one". Beck stated his belief that "The French army is and remains intact and is at the moment the strongest in Europe". Beck ended his memo with the comments that: "The military-economic situation of Germany is bad, worse than in 1917–1918. In its current military, military-political and military-economic condition, Germany cannot expose itself to the risk of a long war". The May Crisis of 21–22 May 1938 further convinced Beck of the dangers of going to war in 1938, and led him to increase his efforts to stop a war that he felt Germany could not win. In November 1938, Beck informed a friend that, from the time of the May Crisis, the only consideration in his mind was "How can I prevent a war?".
On 22 May 1938, Hitler stated that, though he had deep respect for Beck for his pro-Nazi testimony at the Ulm trial of 1930, his views were too much that of a Reichswehr general, and not enough of a Wehrmacht general. Hitler commented that Beck was "one of the officers still imprisoned in the idea of the hundred-thousand-man army". On 28 May 1938, Beck had a meeting with Hitler, the Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, Admiral Erich Raeder, Hermann Göring, Wilhelm Keitel, and Walther von Brauchitsch, during which Hitler restated the views he had first expressed in the Hossbach Memorandum. In response, Beck drafted another memo on May 29, in which he presented a case that the Czechoslovak Army was not, as Hitler argued, a weak force, and that a limited regional war in Central Europe was not a realistic possibility. In the same memo of 29 May, Beck proclaimed his agreement with Hitler's views about the necessity of acquiring Lebensraum in Eastern Europe, called the existence of Czechoslovakia "intolerable", and concluded that "a way must be found to eliminate it (Czechoslovakia) as a threat to Germany, even, if necessary, by war". However, Beck argued that Germany was not strong enough to fight the general war that would result from an attack on Czechoslovakia in 1938, and urged Hitler to avoid a "premature war". In particular, Beck argued that "It is not accurate to judge Germany today as stronger than in 1914", and he presented a detailed military case that more time was needed before the Wehrmacht would be as strong as the Army of 1914. Furthermore, Beck contended that he could not "accept these estimates of the military power of France and England...Germany, whether alone or in alliance with Italy, is not in a position militarily to match England or France".
At first, Beck felt that Hitler's rush to war in 1938 was not caused by the Führer's personality, but was rather caused by Hitler receiving poor military advice, especially from Keitel. As a result, Beck spent much of his time urging a reorganization of the command structure, so that Hitler would receive his advice from the General Staff, and presumably abandon his plans for aggression. In one of his memos opposing war in 1938, Beck commented: "Once again, the comments of the Führer demonstrate the complete inadequacy of the current top military-advisory hierarchy". He advocated the need for a "continual, competent advising of the commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht on questions of war leadership" and predicted that otherwise "the future destiny of the Wehrmacht in peace and war, indeed the destiny of Germany in a future war, must be painted in the blackest of colors".
Only in June 1938 did Beck realize that it was Hitler who was behind the drive for war, and, in a memo to Brauchitsch, urge that all of the senior officers threaten a mass collective resignation to force Hitler to abandon his plans for Fall Grün in 1938. Beck ended his appeal to Brauchitsch with: "If they all act together, then it will be impossible to carry out military action. (...) If a soldier in a position of highest authority in such times see his duties and tasks only within the limits of his military responsibilities, without consciousness of his higher responsibility to the whole people, then he shows a lack of greatness, a lack of comprehension of responsibility. Extraordinary times demand extraordinary actions!"
Beck's campaign for a mass resignation was not aimed at the overthrow of Hitler, but was rather intended to persuade Hitler to abandon his plans for war in 1938, and to purge certain "radical" elements from the Nazi Party, who Beck believed to have a negative influence on Hitler. Together with the Abwehr chief, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, and the German Foreign Office's State Secretary, Baron Ernst von Weizsäcker, Beck was a leader of the "anti-war" group in the German government, which was determined to avoid a war in 1938 that it felt Germany would lose. This group was not necessarily committed to the overthrow of the regime, but was loosely allied to another, more radical group, the "anti-Nazi" fraction centered around Colonel Hans Oster and Hans Bernd Gisevius, which wanted to use the crisis as an excuse for executing a putsch to overthrow the Nazi regime. The divergent aims between these two factions produced considerable tensions.
In a June 1938 General Staff study, Beck concluded that Germany could defeat Czechoslovakia, but that to do so would leave western Germany empty of troops, thus potentially allowing the French to seize the Rhineland with little difficulty. Beck maintained that Czechoslovak defences were very formidable, that Prague could mobilize at least 38 divisions, and that at least 30 German divisions would be needed to break through, requiring at a minimum a three-week-long campaign. Beck concluded that Hitler's assumptions about a limited war in 1938 were mistaken. In July 1938, upon being shown Beck's 5 May 1938 memo opposing Fall Grün by Brauchitsch, Hitler called Beck's arguments "kindische Kräfteberechnungen" ("childish calculations"). In another memo of July 1938, Beck contended that a war with Czechoslovakia, France and Britain could only end in Germany's defeat, and urged Hitler to postpone his plans for aggression until such a time as Germany was strong enough for such a war. In late July 1938, Erich von Manstein, a leading protégé of Beck's, wrote to his mentor urging him to stay at his post, and place his faith in Hitler. On 29 July, Beck wrote a memo stating the German Army had the duty to prepare for possible wars with foreign enemies and "for an internal conflict which need only take place in Berlin". The 29 July memo is normally considered the start of Beck's efforts to overthrow the Nazi regime.
In August 1938, Beck suggested to Brauchitsch that a "house-cleaning" of the Nazi regime was necessary, under which the influence of the SS be reduced, but Hitler would continue as dictator. At a 10 August summit the leading generals of the Reich, Hitler spent much of the time attacking Beck's arguments against Fall Grün, and won the majority of the generals over. Beck resigned alone on 18 August. He was replaced, as head of the General Staff, by General Franz Halder. At Hitler's request, Beck kept his resignation secret, and thus nullified the protest value of his resignation. Hitler promised Beck that if he kept his resignation secret, he would be rewarded with a major field command, and Beck was much disillusioned when he was instead put on the retired list.
In the following years, Beck lived in retirement in his Berlin apartment and ceased to have any meaningful influence on German military affairs. His opposition to Hitler had brought him in contact with a small number of senior officers intent on deposing the dictator, and his home became the headquarters of the small circle of opposition. He increasingly came to rely upon contacts with the British in the hope that London would successfully exert its influence on Hitler through threats and warnings, but he failed.
Beck and his conspirators knew that Germany faced certain and rapid defeat if France and Britain helped Czechoslovakia in 1938. Accordingly, they contacted the British Foreign Office, informed Britain of their plot and asked for a firm British warning to deter Hitler from attacking Czechoslovakia. In September 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini signed the Munich Agreement, handing the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia to Germany. That ended the crisis and hence Beck's efforts at a putsch.
In the autumn of 1939, Beck was in contact with certain Germany Army officers, politicians, and civil servants, including General Halder, Dr. Hjalmar Schacht, Carl Goerdeler, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris and Colonel Hans Oster about the possibility of staging a putsch to overthrow the Nazi regime. By then, Beck had come to accept that it was not possible to overthrow the Nazi regime and to keep Hitler in power. After a successful putsch, Germany was to be governed by a triumvirate of Beck, Goerdeler and Schacht who would negotiate a peace with Britain and France that would allow Germany to keep most of the Nazi conquests made, including Austria, all of western Poland and the Reich Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia.
In the early stages of the war, with Poland overrun but before France and the Low Countries had been attacked, the German Resistance sought the assistance of Pope Pius XII in preparations for a coup to oust Hitler. Josef Müller was despatched on a clandestine mission to Rome. The Vatican considered Müller to be a representative of Beck and agreed to offer the machinery for mediation between the plotters and the Allies.
The Pope, communicating with Britain's Francis d'Arcy Osborne, channelled communications back and forth in secrecy. The British were noncommittal, but the Resistance were encouraged by the talks. In January–February 1940, a series of meetings between Goerdeler, Beck, Ulrich von Hassell and Johannes Popitz produced agreement that when the Nazi regime was overthrown, Beck was to head the Council of Regency, which would govern Germany. In 1940 and 1941, Beck spent much time discussing together with Goerdeler, Hassell and Erwin von Witzleben certain aspects of the new proposed state after the successful overthrowing of the regime.
20 July plot
In 1943, Beck planned two abortive attempts to kill Hitler by means of a bomb. In May 1944, a memorandum by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel made it clear that his participation in the proposed putsch was based on the precondition that Beck serve as the head of state in the new government. In 1944, he was one of the driving forces of the 20 July plot, along with Carl Goerdeler and Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. It was proposed that Beck would become Reichsverweser (regent) and head of the provisional government that would assume power in Germany after Hitler had been eliminated.
The plot failed, however, and by the evening, Beck was in the custody of General Friedrich Fromm. Beck requested permission to keep his private pistol with the intention to commit suicide to avoid torture by the Gestapo. He shot himself in the head, but he succeeded only in severely wounding himself, and one of Fromm's men was brought in to administer the coup de grâce by shooting Beck in the back of the neck. Beck, along with some other conspirators, was buried in secret that night.
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