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Guenther von Kluge


Scholars agree that the failure of the anti-Hitler conspirators to enlist the active support of a single field marshal with an army at his disposal severely impaired their goal to overthrow the Nazi regime. Senior officers like Guderian, Rundstedt, Manstein, Halder, and Brauchitsch, might have tipped the scales in the conspirators' favor, but they refused. Kluge, on the other hand, appeared to hold out more promise.

After his schooling at the Military Academy, Kluge served on the General Staff from 1910 to 1918. During the inter-war period, he rose quickly through the ranks to colonel in 1930, major-general in 1933 and lieutenant-general the following year. After 1936, Kluge was given command of an army corps. His interest in mobile warfare soon won Hitler's esteem and assured Kluge's continued ascendance.

Kluge disliked Hitler's gangsterlike Nazi entourage and was appalled at the persecution of the Jews. He was among those many officers of the General Staff who feared Hitler's warmongering would lead Germany to disaster. But like others, Kluge soon succumbed to Hitler's spell as the Teflon fuehrer won one spectacular victory after another. When it came to Poland, Kluge had for years bitterly resented the Versailles Treaty's compensation of West Prussia to Poland and believed Germany was entitled to reclaim its eastern territories.

In the September 1939 campaign against Poland, Kluge proved to be an outstanding strategist on the battlefield, racing ahead with his army to reach the Vistula before Britain and France had even declared war. In this first of adventures he exhibited "a flair for innovation" and won Hitler's admiration. (Lamb, 396). Yet Kluge noted with horror the slaughter of Jews which was being perpertrated by Reinhard Heydrich's security forces that followed on the heels of the Wehrmacht.

Having heard in early October the shocking news that Hitler intended to wage war against the West at the earliest opportunity, Kluge pondered whether to join the conspirators in their second bid for a coup attempt. But he quickly rejected their appeal on account of Hitler's immense popularity at that stage with the German people and troops. The October 1939 coup attempt was aborted by Army Chief of Staff General Franz Halder who believed Hitler was on to something when the latter threatened to "destroy the spirit of Zossen" (the headquarters of the General Staff).

During the campaign against France and the Low Countries, Kluge again distinguished himself in the field of battle for his bold and innovative use of the panzer divisions. He developed a close professional and personal relationship with General Erwin Rommel who served under him and contributed immensely to his victories. On July 19, 1940, Hitler awarded Kluge the field marshal's baton and selected him to help in the invasion of Russia. He was assigned to Army Group Center commanded by Field Marshal Feodor von Bock.

Like so many other senior officers in his theater of operations, Kluge failed to dissuade Hitler from diverting the bulk of Army Group Center's panzer forces northward and southward towards Leningrad and the eastern Ukraine. Like Bock, he was shocked that Hitler expected Army Group Center to conquer Moscow with a seriously depleted panzer force. As half-frozen exhausted German infantry forces ground to a halt before Moscow, Hitler angrily rejected Kluge's pleas to authorize a limited retreat to allow the Wehrmacht to recuperate. Hitler's lack of compassion for the troops and his inability to understand that Moscow could not be taken under such conditions, caused Kluge to develop serious doubts about Hitler's sanity.

In June 1942, Kluge's commanding officer, Bock, was temporarily stricken with illness. Hitler therefore appointed Kluge to suucceed him as Commander-in-Chief of Army Group Center. At Army Group Center headquarters in Smolensk, Kluge developed a close friendship with his Chief of Staff Colonel Henning von Tresckow - an officer of outstanding professional ability who by that time had become the leader of the conspiracy and had recruited many officers into the plot.

Tresckow wasted no time convincing his senior ranking officer that they were dealing with a maddened tyrant who had committed unspeakable evils against humanity and who's war would lead to the total destruction of Germany. The aristocratic circle of young officers on Tresckow's staff, outraged by the brutality of Hitler's war of genocide in Russia, had been won over long before. The Army Group Center conspirators persuaded Kluge that Germany's only hope of survival was Hitler's physical elimination. Tresckow even arranged for Germany's most influential anti-nazi politician Dr. Carl Goerdeler to be secretly flown to Smolensk to help enlist Kluge. But Kluge had a serious character flaw vis a vis the conspirators - the inability to stick to his guns.

Kluge agreed to Tresckow's plan to lure Hitler into visiting Army Group Center headquarters in Smolensk where the conspirators planned to kill him. But when he discovered that the scenario involved shooting the fuehrer as he lunched with the officers, Kluge forbid it claiming that it would be shameful for German officers to dispose of Hitler in this manner. By contrast, when Tresckow approached his young fellow anti-nazi staff officers with the same suggestion, thirty-five of them immediately volunteered to form the shooting party. But because Kluge had vetoed the measure, the Army Group Center conspirators missed the best chance they had of killing Hitler when he visited their headquarters on March 13, 1943. It was not the last time Kluge would fail the plotters.

On June 29, 1944, Hitler fired Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt as Commander-in-Chief West and appointed Kluge in his place. Kluge now had under his command all the German armies in France and was therefore in a position to give the conspirators the pivotal support they needed to start a coup. But ever the waiverer, and ever susceptible to Hitler's hypnotic influence, after spending a few days at Hitler's Berchtesgaden retreat, he returned to France convinced that the fuehrer alone could save Germany and that Rommel and Rundstedt were overly pessimistic.

As soon as Kluge arrived at Rommel's headquarters at La Roche-Guyon, an angry row erupted with Rommel demanding that Kluge visit the western front himself. Upon his return, Kluge was again won back into the conspirator's camp and on July 12 agreed with Rommel that the war was lost and that Hitler must sue for peace or be overthrown. On July 16, military governor for Paris and co-conspirator General Karl Heinrich von Stuelpnagel informed Rommel and Kluge that Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, who had just been elevated into Hitler's inner circle, would assassinate Hitler within days and a Beck-Goerdeler government would be formed to negotiate peace. Kluge in his typical manner promised to help only if they succeeded in killing Hitler. Rommel, however, promised to cooperate regardless of whether his commanding officer, Kluge, went along with the plot.

Tragically for the conspirators, Rommel was seriously wounded the next day, leaving them to depend on Kluge for support. On July 19, Kluge visited Stuelpnagel in Paris and was told that the asssassination and coup would take place the next day. Kluge promised to honor Rommel's commitment. According to General Blumentritt, another conspirator close to Stuelpnagel, when Kluge heard the news of the explosion at Rastenberg, he stated: "If the Fuhrer is dead, we ought to get in touch with the other side at once." (Lamb, 407).

Despite the failure of the July 20th coup in Berlin, Stuelpnagel did his part and had the entire Gestapo and SS contingent in Paris arrested by Wehrmacht units. When Kluge learnt of Hitler's survival, it was futile to expect any support from his quarter. But Stuelpnagel and his aide Colonel Caesar von Hofacker (also Stauffenberg's cousin) were not prepared to give up, and they drove to Kluge's headquarters. Hofacker implored Kluge that he had all the armies in France at his disposal and could lead a mass uprising. At the very least he could surrender all German forces under his command to the Allies and thereby save thousands of German lives, and help the Anglo-Saxon powers reach Berlin before the Russians get there. But the Commander-in-Chief remained silent. When Stuelpnagel persisted, Kluge threatened him with arrest.

As the Normandy front unraveled, Kluge desperately tried to convince Hitler to withdraw the western armies back to the Rhine and hold the line there, but Hitler refused to yield an inch of territory. On August 15, as British and American armies cut deep into the forces of Army Group West, Kluge decided after all to contemplate surrender and left his headquarters all day. But at fuehrer headquarters, an American radio transmission was intercepted asking for Kluge's whereabouts.

Hitler immediately suspected Kluge of attempting to negotiate an armistice and called it the worst day of his life. Dr. Udo Esche, Kluge's son-in-law (who provided the cyanide capsule with which the field marshal later commited suicide) told Allied interrogators that Kluge had contemplated surrender and "went to the front line but was unable to get in touch with the Allied commanders."

George Pfann, secretary to General Patton, later revealed that Patton had also vanished the same day and that the American general had tried to make contact with a German emissary who had not appeared at the appointed place. Montgomery's Chief of Intelligence also confirmed that Kluge was reported missing and that he warned his general that they might receive a message from Kluge at any moment. (ibid.).

When asked by fuehrer headquarters about his being out of touch for an entire day, Kluge replied that his radio car had been damaged by enemy fire. A suspicious and livid Hitler rebuffed Kluge's story and sacked him immediately, replacing him with a fanatical Nazi - Field Marshal Walter Model. Kluge then decided to return to Germany. While driving through Valmy he committed suicide, certain that he had somehow been implicated in the July 20th plot.

Sources: Joric Center