Karl Rudolf Gerd von Rundstedt (12 December 1875 – 24 February 1953) was a German Field Marshal (Generalfeldmarschall) during World War II.
Born into a Prussian family with a long military tradition, Rundstedt entered the Imperial German Army in 1892 and rose through the ranks until World War I, in which he served mainly as a staff officer. In the inter-war years, he continued his military career, reaching the rank of Colonel General (Generaloberst) before retiring in 1938.
He was recalled at the beginning of World War II as Commander of Army Group South in the Polish campaign. He commanded Army Group A during the German invasion of France, and was promoted to the rank of Field Marshal during the 1940 Field Marshal Ceremony.
In the Russian Campaign, he commanded Army Group South, responsible for the largest encirclement in history, the Battle of Kiev. He was dismissed by Adolf Hitler in December 1941, following the German retreat from Rostov, but was recalled in 1942 and appointed Commander in Chief in the West.
He was dismissed again after the German defeat in Normandy in July 1944, but was again recalled as Commander in Chief in the West in September, holding this post until his final dismissal by Hitler in March 1945. Rundstedt was aware of the various plots to depose Hitler, but refused to support them. After the war, he was charged with war crimes, but did not face trial due to his age and poor health. He was released in 1949, and died in Hanover in 1953.
Gerd von Rundstedt was born in Aschersleben, north of Halle in Prussian Saxony (now in Saxony-Anhalt). He was the eldest son of Gerd Arnold Konrad von Rundstedt, a cavalry officer who served in the Franco-Prussian War. The Rundstedts are a very old Junker family, traceable to the 12th century and classed as members of the Uradel, or old nobility, although they held no titles and were not wealthy. Virtually all the Rundstedt men since the time of Frederick the Great had served in the Prussian Army. Rundstedt’s mother, Adelheid Fischer, was of Huguenot (French Protestant) descent.
He was the eldest of four brothers, all of whom became Army officers. Rundstedt’s education followed the path ordained for Prussian military families: the junior cadet college at Diez, near Koblenz, then the military academy at Lichterfelde in Berlin.
Unable to meet the cost of joining a cavalry regiment, Rundstedt joined the 83rd Infantry Regiment in March 1892 as a cadet officer (Portepee Fähnrich). The regiment was based at Kassel in Hesse-Kassel, which he came to regard as his home town and where he maintained a home until 1945.
He undertook further training at the military college (Kriegsschule) at Hannover, before being commissioned as a Lieutenant in June 1893. He made a good impression on his superiors, since he was academically gifted, spoke French and English, was a fine horseman and a talented draftsman, and had excellent manners. This marked him out for promotion as a staff officer rather than as a field commander, thus determining the path of his career.
In 1896 he was made regimental adjutant, and in 1903 he was sent to the prestigious War Academy (Kriegsakademie) in Berlin for a three-year staff officer training course. At the end of his course Rundstedt was described as “an outstandingly able officer… well suited for the General Staff.” By this time he had met and courted a Kassel girl of good family, Luise von Goetz (always known as “Bila”). They were married in January 1902 and their only child, Hans Gerd von Rundstedt, was born in January 1903. Gerd and Bila were married for 50 years and he missed her acutely during his long absences from home.
Rundstedt joined the General Staff, the command centre of the German Army, as a senior lieutenant (Oberleutnant) in April 1907. In October 1910, promoted to Captain, he joined the staff of XI Corps, based at Kassel. He held other staff posts until July 1914, when he was sent as Chief of Operations to the 22nd Reserve Infantry Division. This division was part of XI Corps, which in turn was part of General Alexander von Kluck’s First Army. In 1914 this Army was deployed along the Belgian border, in preparation for the invasion of Belgium and France which would follow on the outbreak of war, in accordance with the German plan for victory in the west known as the Schlieffen Plan.
Rundstedt served as 22nd Division’s chief of staff during the invasion of Belgium, but he saw no action since his Division was held in reserve during the initial advance. In December 1914, suffering from a lung ailment, he was promoted to Major and transferred to the military government of Antwerp. In April 1915, his health recovered, he was posted as chief of staff to the 86th Infantry Division, which was serving as part of General Max von Gallwitz’s forces on the eastern front.
In September he was once again given an administrative post, as part of the military government of German-occupied Poland, based in Warsaw. He stayed in this post until November 1916, until he was promoted by being made chief of staff to an Army Corps, XXV Reserve Corps, which was fighting in the Carpathians. Here he saw much action against the Russians. In October 1917 he was appointed chief of staff to LIII Corps, in northern Poland. The following month, however, the October Revolution led to the collapse of the Russian armies and the end of the war on the eastern front.
In August 1918 Rundstedt was transferred to the west, as chief of staff to XV Corps in Alsace, under General Felix Graf von Bothmer. Here he remained until the end of the war in November. Bothmer described him as “a wholly excellent staff officer and amiable comrade.” He was awarded the Iron Cross, first class, and was recommended for the Pour le Mérite, but did not receive it. He thus ended World War I, although still a Major, with a high reputation as a staff officer.
Rundstedt was now a free man after four years in custody, but it brought him little joy. He was 73, frail and in poor health. He had no home, no money and no income. The family home in Kassel had been requisitioned by the Americans, and the Rundstedt estate in Saxony-Anhalt was in the Soviet Zone and had been confiscated. His wife was living in Solz, but this was in the American Zone, where he could not travel because the Americans (who were displeased by the British decision to release him) still regarded him as a Class 1 war criminal under the denazification laws then in force.
Likewise, his money, in a bank account in Kassel, was frozen because of his classification, which also denied him a military pension. The British had assured him that he would not be arrested or extradited if he stayed in the British Zone, but the Americans had made no such guarantee. “It is an awful situation for me and my poor wife,” he wrote to Liddell Hart. “I would like to end this life as soon as possible.”
Meanwhile, Rundstedt was in a hospital in Hannover with nowhere to live, and the new SPD administration in Lower Saxony had no interest in helping ex-Field Marshals of Third Reich at a time when there was an acute housing shortage across Germany.
He and Bila were temporarily housed in an old people’s home near Celle. It was not until August 1951 that Rundstedt was finally granted a military pension by the new German federal government. At the same time his daughter-in-law, Ditha, was able to rent an apartment in Hannover, where the Rundstedts moved. This was to be his last home.
In the last years of his life Rundstedt became a subject of increasing interest, and he was interviewed by various writers and historians, although he tired easily and his memory was fading.
His former chief of staff, Günther Blumentritt, visited him frequently, and began work on a highly sympathetic biography, which appeared in 1952 (though not in Germany). In 1951 he was portrayed sympathetically by Leo G. Carroll in film about Rommel, The Desert Fox, for which he was paid DM3,000 by 20th Century Fox. In January 1952 Bila suffered a stroke which left her partially paralyzed, and Rundstedt himself could hardly walk.
Blumentritt and Liddell Hart raised money to provide nursing care for the invalid couple, whose main pleasure in life was by then visits from their grandchildren. Bila died on 4 October 1952. After her death Rundstedt felt he had little left to live for, and declined rapidly. He died at home of heart failure on 24 February 1953.