Walter von Reichenau, the son of a Prussian general, was born in Germany on August 16t, 1884. He joined the German Army when he was eighteen and, in 1904, became an officer in the 1st Guards Field Artillery Regiment.
In May 1914, he entered the War Academy in Berlin where he underwent General Staff training. On the outbreak of the First World War he was sent to the Western Front. During the conflict he won the Iron Cross and, by 1918, had reached the rank of captain.
After the war, Reichenau was a General Staff officer with the Wehrkries VI (1920-22) before serving as commander of the 8th Machine Gun Company. He was promoted to major in 1923 and joined the Wehrkries III in Berlin. This was followed by a period as commander of the 5th Signal Battalion at Stuttgart (1927-29) and Chief of Staff to the Inspector of Signals at the Reichswehr Ministry (1929-31).
In February 1931, Reichenau was named Chief of Staff of Wehrkries I in East Prussia, where he served under General Werner von Blomberg. Reichenau's uncle, Friedrich von Reichenau, was an ardent supporter of the Nazi Party and, in 1932, he introduced his nephew to Adolf Hitler. Reichenau was immediately converted and soon afterwards he arranged for Blomberg to meet Hitler.
When Hitler gained power in January 1933, Werner von Blomberg became Minister of War and Reichenau was appointed head of the Ministerial Office of the Reichswehr Ministry. Reichenau now became chief liaison officer between the German Army and the Nazi Party. Reichenau and Blomberg worked together to force Kurt Hammerstein-Equord, a committed anit-Nazi, to retire as Commander-in-Chief of the Army. Blomberg persuaded Adolf Hitler to appoint Reichenau to the post but after a group of senior army officers complained, President Paul von Hindenburg vetoed the selection and General Werner von Fritsch was chosen instead.
In 1933, Werner von Blomberg and Reichenau became increasingly concerned about the growing power of the Sturm Abteilung (SA). Its leader, Ernst Roehm, was given a seat on the National Defence Council and began to demand more say over military matters. On October 2, 1933, Roehm sent a letter to Reichenau that said: "I regard the Reichswehr now only as a training school for the German people. The conduct of war, and therefore of mobilization as well, in the future is the task of the SA.
Senior officers in the German Army were angry about the growth in power of the SA and Reichenau began to fear the possibility of a military coup against Hitler. If this happened Reichenau's career would be over. He therefore conspired with Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler against Roehm and the SA. Himmler asked Reinhard Heydrich to assemble a dossier on Roehm. Heydrich, who also feared him, manufactured evidence that suggested that Roehm had been paid 12 million marks by the French to overthrow Hitler.
Hitler liked Roehm and initially refused to believe the dossier provided by Heydrich. Roehm had been one of his first supporters and, without his ability to obtain army funds in the early days of the movement, it is unlikely that the Nazis would have ever become established. The SA under Roehm's leadership had also played a vital role in destroying the opposition during the elections of 1932 and 1933.
However, Adolf Hitler had his own reasons for wanting Roehm removed. Industrialists, who had provided the funds for the Nazi victory, were unhappy with Roehm's socialistic views on the economy and his claims that the real revolution had still to take place. Many people in the party also disapproved of the fact that Roehm and many other leaders of the SA were homosexuals.
On June 29, 1934. Hitler, accompanied by the Schutz Staffeinel (SS), arrived at Wiesse, where he personally arrested Ernst Roehm. During the next 24 hours, 200 other senior SA officers were arrested on the way to Wiesse. Many were shot as soon as they were captured but Hitler decided to pardon Roehm because of his past services to the movement. However, after much pressure from Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler, Hitler agreed that Roehm should die. At first Hitler insisted that Roehm should be allowed to commit suicide but, when he refused, he was killed by two SS men.
The purge of the SA was kept secret until it was announced by Hitler on July 13. It was during this speech that Hitler gave the purge its name: Night of the Long Knives (a phrase from a popular Nazi song). Hitler claimed that 61 had been executed while 13 had been shot resisting arrest, and three had committed suicide. Others have argued that as many as 400 people were killed during the purge. In his speech Hitler explained why he had not relied on the courts to deal with the conspirators: "In this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I become the supreme judge of the German people. I gave the order to shoot the ringleaders in this treason."
In August 1935, Reichenau was promoted to lieutenant general and was appointed commander of Wehrkries VII in Munich. The following year he was appointed general of artillery and, in 1938, Adolf Hitler wanted to appoint him as Commander-in-Chief of the Army. Leading figures in the German Army complained and Gerd von Rundstedt, Franz Halder and Ludwig Beck all refused to serve under him. Hitler was forced to change his mind and, on February 4, 1938, General Heinrich von Brauchitsch was appointed instead. Reichenau now replaced Brauchitsch as Commander-in-Chief of Army Corps 4.
In September 1939, Reichenau commanded the 10th Army for the invasion of Poland. The following year he led the 6th Army during the Western Offensive in Belgium and France. On July 19, 1940, Hitler promoted him to field marshal.
Reichenau, a strong opponent of an invasion of the Soviet Union, also took part in Operation Barbarossa during the summer of 1941. Leading the 6th Army his troops managed to capture Kiev, Belgorod, Kharkov and Kursk. Reichenau encouraged his soldiers to commit atrocities against the Jews in the territory under his control. On one occasion he told his men: "We have to exact a harsh but just retribution on the Jewish subhumans."
In September 1941, Reichenau wrote to Adolf Hitler suggested that they should start recruiting Ukrainians and White Russians to fight against the Red Army. Hitler rejected the idea and told Reichenau to stop interfering in political strategy. Later that month Reichenau wrote to Hitler again on this subject warning of the dangers of large-scale partisan warfare in the Soviet Union.
In November 1941, Hitler decided to replace Field Marshal Heinrich von Brauchitsch as Commander-in-Chief of the Army. Reichenau's name was suggested but Hitler rejected the idea saying that he was "too political".
The campaign in the Soviet Union came to a halt during the winter of 1941. Field Marshal R, commander of Army Group South, asked permission to retreat to the Mius River. When Hitler rejected the idea, Rundstedt resigned. On November 30, Hitler replaced Rundstedt with Gerd von Rundstedt. The following day Reichenau ordered a withdrawal to the Mius River and then sent a note telling Hitler what he had done.
In an attempt to keep fit, Reichenau used to go on a daily cross-country run. On January 12, 1942, he ran several miles in temperatures well below minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit. When he returned, he complained of feeling unwell and, later that day, he had a severe heart attack. After being unconscious for five days, it was decided to fly him back to Germany. Walter von Reichenau died on January 17, 1942, when the plane carrying him to Leipzig crash-landed.