Job Wilhelm Georg Erdmann Erwin von Witzleben (4 December 1881 – 8 August 1944) was a German officer, by 1940 in the rank of a Field Marshal (Generalfeldmarschall), and army commander in the Second World War.
A leading conspirator in the 20 July plot, he was designated to become Commander-in-Chief of the Wehrmacht armed forces in a post-Nazi regime.
Erwin von Witzleben was born in Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland) in the Prussian province of Silesia, the son of Georg von Witzleben (1838–1898), Hauptmann in the Prussian Army, and his wife Therese née Brandenburg. The Witzleben dynasty was an Uradel family of old nobility and many officers, descending from Witzleben in Thuringia.
He completed the Prussian Cadet Corps program in Wahlstatt, Silesia and in Lichterfelde near Berlin, and on 22 June 1901 joined the Grenadier Regiment König Wilhelm I No. 7 in Liegnitz, Silesia (now Legnica, Poland) as lieutenant. In 1910, he was promoted to first lieutenant (Oberleutnant).
He was married to Else Kleeberg from Chemnitz, Saxony. The couple had a son and a daughter.
At the beginning of the First World War, Witzleben served as brigade adjutant in the 19th Reserve Infantry Brigade before being promoted to captain (Hauptmann) and company chief in the Reserve Infantry Regiment no. 6 in October 1914.
Later, in the same regiment, he became battalion commander. His unit fought in Verdun, the Champagne[disambiguation needed] region and Flanders, among other places. He was seriously wounded and was awarded the Iron Cross, both first and second classes. Afterwards, he was sent to General Staff training and witnessed the war end as First General Staff Officer of the 121st Division.
In the Reichswehr of the Weimar Republic, Witzleben was promoted to company commander. In 1923, he found himself on the Fourth Division staff in Dresden as a major. In 1928, he became battalion commander in Infantry Regiment No. 6 and retained that position as lieutenant colonel (Oberstleutnant) the following year. After being promoted to full colonel (Oberst) in 1931, he took over as commanding officer of the (Prussian) Infantry Regiment No. 8 in Frankfurt on the Oder.
Early in 1933 came a transfer to the post of Infantry Leader VI in Hanover. He was promoted to major general on 1 February 1934 and moved to Potsdam as the new commander of the Third Infantry Division. He succeeded General Werner von Fritsch as commander of Wehrkreis (Military District) III (Berlin).
In this position, he was promoted to lieutenant general and in the newly established Wehrmacht forces became commanding general of Army Corps III in Berlin in September 1935. In 1936, he was promoted to a General of the Infantry.
Even as early as 1934, Witzleben had come out against the Nazi regime when he and Manstein, Leeb, and Rundstedt demanded an inquiry into Schleicher’s and Bredow’s deaths in the Night of the Long Knives. As a result of this and also his criticism of Hitler’s persecution of Fritsch in the Blomberg–Fritsch Affair, Witzleben was temporarily forced into early retirement.
His “retirement” did not last, however, as Hitler would soon need him in the preparations for the Second World War.
By 1938, Witzleben was a member of the group of plotters around Colonel General Ludwig Beck, Generals Erich Hoepner and Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel, and Abwehr Chief Wilhelm Canaris. These men planned to overthrow Hitler in a military coup d’état which seemed feasible at the time of the 1938 Sudeten Crisis — until the Munich Agreement defused the crisis, temporarily averting war.
Although the Agreement was seen internationally as a victory for Hitler, the Nazi Führer privately resented this interference of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in his plans for war. Witzleben’s command, including the key Berlin Defense District, was to have played a decisive role in the planned coup.
In November 1938, Witzleben had been installed as commander-in-chief of Army Group 2 in Frankfurt. He was also involved in Colonel-General Hammerstein-Equord’s conspiracy plans of 1939. The latter planned to seize Hitler outright in a kind of frontal assault while the former would shut down Nazi party headquarters, but this plan also fell through.
On 7 August 1944, Witzleben was in the first group of accused conspirators to be brought before the Volksgerichtshof. Ravaged by the conditions of his Gestapo arrest, he surprisingly approached the bench giving the Nazi salute, for which he was rebuked by the presiding judge Roland Freisler.
In an attempt to humiliate Witzleben, he was made to appear before the court wearing trousers that were several sizes too big and, additionally, being denied a belt or suspenders, forcing him to continually hitch them up during the farcical pseudo-trial to prevent them from falling down.
Freisler, who was notorious for ranting and belittling defendants in court, at one point in Witzleben’s “trial” bellowed, “You dirty old man, stop fumbling with your trousers!” Later that same day, he sentenced Witzleben to death for his part in the plot. Witzleben’s closing words in court, addressed to Freisler, were:
“ You may hand us over to the executioner, but in three months’ time our disgusted and harried people will bring you to book and drag you alive through the dirt in the streets! ”
Much of the Volksgerichtshof, including scenes of Witzleben’s “trial,” was filmed for the German weekly newsreel Die Deutsche Wochenschau; however, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels decided against releasing the footage, firstly because Freisler’s vituperative, insulting verbiage in the courtroom might draw sympathy for the accused, and secondly because the regime wanted to quell public discussion of the event. The material was classified as secret (Geheime Reichssache).
Witzleben was put to death that same day at Plötzensee Prison in Berlin. By Hitler’s positive orders, he was strangled with piano wire which had been wound around a meat hook, and the execution was filmed. The footage has since been lost.