These three German generals were all born in the 19th century. The first named in the title was probably the greatest tank commander the world has seen; certainly the professional-Greek columnist columnist Taki insists he was. Keitel ran a risk the other two avoided: he became a leading member of the National Socialist Party and was in fact an organiser within it. As a not particularly inventive or successful serving soldier this was unwise, and he must have regretted his Nazism when accused of massive war crime at the Nuremberg Trials. Neither Guderian nor von Rundstedt were admirers of Nazi excesses or Hitler. Rundstedt famously said (in Paris) “I refuse to go to Berlin to talk to that Bavarian corporal . . .”
Heinz Guderian was born in 1888. He is universally acknowledged as the main proponent of the Blitzkrieg tactic – advancing at a great rate across country in tanks, followed by infantry mounted in trucks, and preceeded by machine gunners in motorbike sidecars as offensive scouts.
The Blizkrieg first amazed (and frightened) the world in the invasion of Poland in 1939, and one year later in France. Guderian became commander-in-chief of Panzer forces and forged on with his successful form of warfare, until he was summarily dismissed by Adolf Hitler because he disagreed (and said so) with the order to stand fast in the 41-42 Soviet counter-offensive outside Moscow.
He was back in the saddle again in 1944, forgiven by Hitler and made Chief of Staff to the German High Command. He wished to have nothing to do with the July Conspiracy (q.v.) in 1944. Many of his erstwhile colleagues were successfully accused of complicity in the bomb plot against the Fuehrer, which led to the execution of most of The Leader’s best commanders, including Rommel (q.v.), who was forced to take poison.
In March 1945, Guderian was dismissed as he was busy advocating peace with the allies. Curiously, he was not shot. Heinz Guderian survived Hitler and the War, and died peacefully enough in 1954.
Wilhelm B.J.G. Keitel
was born in 1882, some six years before Guderian. He rose to become a German Field-Marshal, mainly because of unswerving loyalty to Hitler and the Nazi Party. He was Chief-of-Staff of the High Command of all German armed forces from 1938 to 1945. With this rank he handled the armistice negotiations with France in 1940. Students will remember that this conference with a defeated enemy took place in the same railway carriage used in 1918 to arrange the armistice with defeated Germany at the end of the First War. This might have been a whim of Keitel’s rather than Hitler’s, but the latter found it so funny he was photographed performing a little dance of joy outside the ancient railway carriage.
By 1945 however, it was Keitel who had to ratify Germany’s unconditional surrender. He was among those accused in the War Crimes Tribunal at Nuremberg. He remained steadfast to his view that a soldier of whatever rank (and he was a Field-Marshal) must obey the orders of a superior, and that as a professional officer he had done nothing (but his duty) during the War, but he was found guilty of employing excessive repression measures in occupied countries, and was hanged. He was sixty-four. Several representatives of the victorious Powers recorded their disapproval.
Karl Rudolf Gerd von Rundstedt was born in 1875 into a military family. Hitler hated aristocrats and never trusted them, which is why Rundstedt was astounded when summoned back into uniform (from retirement) in 1939.
He was given an Army Corps to command in both the Polish and French campaigns, and succeeded, though he disliked having to meet with the Nazi leaders at war committees. It is recorded that he never became a member of the Nazi Party, and invariably made a military salute when it was necessary, refusing to extend his right arm (‘I have arthritis’ he explained).
In 1941 he was in command of Army Group South in the invasion of the Soviet Union, but under sufference because he considered the invasion unviable. Later he was dismissed by Hitler with the excuse that he had ‘disobeyed orders’. The offence was that he had withdrawn his forces from Rostov so as to improve his chances of resisting a Soviet counter-offensive.
From 1942 to 1945 von Rundstedt commanded the forces occupying France, basing himself in Paris, a city he did a great deal to save when Nazi leaders wanted to raze it to the ground. As a Field-Marshal he launched the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes in 1944. He was relieved of his command in March, 1945. Approached by Colonel von Stauffenberg (q.v.) to join in the July Conspiracy of 1944, he had excused himself on account of age, and the fact that though he found Hitler disagreeable, he was after all his commander-in-chief.
Von Rundstedt was ‘caught’ by the Americans, many of whom admired him, did not appear in the War Crimes Tribunal and died at the age of seventy-eight in 1953.