Walter von Reichenau was probably the most exceptional of Hitler’s field marshals. Except for his pale blue eyes, he looked like a typical Prussian: he had a stern, cold and forbidding appearance, augmented by an ever-present monocle. He was also brutally ambitious. Walter Goerlitz called him “a man devoid of all sentiment, at times, indeed, a cold-blooded, brutal man.” On the other hand, he was very innovative, independently minded, and accessible to the troops, with whom he was quite popular. He enjoyed automobile racing, swimming and boxing, and loved tennis; as a result, he was nicknamed “the Sports General.”
The son of a Prussian lieutenant general and a Silesian mother, he was born in Karlsruhe on August 16, 1884. He joined the army as a Fahnenjunker in the 1st Prussian Guards Field Artillery Regiment in 1903 and received his commission on August 18, 1904. He went to Argentina with his father in 1908 and, as a member of the German Olympic Committee, visited the United States in 1913. His experiences in foreign countries would give him a sophisticated worldview and a more realistic understanding of international affairs than the vast majority of German officers. Throughout his career, he was an enthusiastic advocate of sending young officers overseas and requiring them to learn foreign languages. (Reichenau himself was fluent in English; later, he and his wife only spoke English at home.)
Reichenau was promoted to first lieutenant in 1912 and entered the War Academy for General Staff training in May 1914. His class never graduated, however, because Germany mobilized in August, when he was sent to the Western Front as regiment adjutant of the 1st Guards Reserve Field Artillery. He was promoted to captain on November 28, 1914, and served as a General Staff officer with the 47th Reserve Division, the VI Corps, and 7th Cavalry Division, fighting on both the Eastern and Western Fronts. He emerged from the conflict as a captain. During the “war after the war,” he fought the Poles in Upper Silesia as Ia of the 7th Cavalry Division. Here he met and married Countess Alexandrine von Maltzan, the daughter of a landed, noble (and rich) Silesian family. Apparently Reichenau, who was a “lady’s man” his whole life, never even considered being faithful to her.
Reichenau’s marriage was a definite step up for him socially, although his own family was not without wealth. After retiring from the army, his father became one of the largest and most successful furniture manufacturers in Germany. His factory, which had been converted into a munitions plant, was destroyed by an Allied air attack in 1945.
Reichenau’s rise in the Reichsheer was steady. He was a General Staff officer with Wehrkreis VI in Muenster (1920–22), after which he commanded the 8th (Machine Gun) Company of the 18th Infantry Regiment at Paderborn, Westphalia (1922–23). After finishing his troop duty, he was promoted to major (1923) and joined the staff of Wehrkreis III in Berlin (1923–26). He took his first trip to England in the summer of 1926. When he returned, he was assigned to the staff of Group Command One in Berlin, before being named commander of the 5th Signal Battalion at Stuttgart on November 1, 1927. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel on April 1, 1929.
Following his promotion, Reichenau spent several months in England, where he continued studying English and where he developed a high regard for the British. When he returned to Germany in the fall of 1929, he was named chief of staff in the Signals Inspectorate in the Defense Ministry, a position he held until February 1, 1931, when he was named chief of staff of Wehrkreis I in Koenigsberg, East Prussia. He was promoted to colonel on February 1, 1932. Reichenau’s transfer to Koenigsberg was seen as professional exile within the army. He had been shipped here by General Kurt von Schleicher, a political soldier and a master intriguer who would maneuver himself into the chancellorship in late 1932, only to be replaced by Hitler Fifty-seven days later.
In 1932, Walter’s uncle, Friedrich von Reichenau, a retired diplomat, president of the German Overseas League, and a fervent Nazi, introduced him to Adolf Hitler. They had a private meeting for an hour or more and Walter jumped on the Nazi bandwagon. Unlike Friedrich, however, his nephew’s decision had little or nothing to do with his admiration of Hitler; rather, he looked upon Nazism as a tool to be used against Communism and to advance his own career and the interests of the army.
Reichenau introduced his commander, Werner von Blomberg, to Hitler. Blomberg, who was much more easily influenced and of a more romantic nature than Reichenau, was soon completely under Hitler’s sway. Reichenau’s gamble in linking himself with the Nazis paid off on January 30, 1933, the day Hitler took power and Blomberg was named minister of defense. Reichenau was promoted to major general on February 1, 1933, and was named head of the Ministerial Office in the Defense Ministry. Soon he was known as the chief liaison officer between the Nazis and the army.
Reichenau tried to arrange a sort of treaty of cooperation between the armed forces and the storm troopers (or SA). After Ernst Roehm, the chief of the SA, refused to cooperate, Reichenau played a major role in the “Night of the Long Knives,” in which the Brownshirts were suppressed. Roehm and Reichenau’s mortal enemy, Kurt von Schleicher, was among those murdered in late June and early July 1934. Reichenau then played an unsavory part in the cover-up of the murders of Schleicher and his wife. Shortly thereafter, in August 1934, Reichenau wrote the Oath of Allegiance that every soldier in the army had to take in 1934, when he swore allegiance to Adolf Hitler.
To date, Reichenau had advanced fairly rapidly, but, since he had never commanded anything larger than a battalion, he lacked command experience. With his influence with Hitler and Blomberg, he had no trouble getting a command. Typically, he skipped the divisional level altogether and asked for a corps-level assignment. On August 1, 1935, he was promoted to lieutenant general and on October 1, 1935, assumed command of Wehrkreis VII in Munich. Replaced as head of the Ministerial Office by Wilhelm Keitel, Reichenau was promoted to general of artillery on October 1, 1936.
During the Blomberg-Fritsch crisis of early 1938, Reichenau did not lift a finger to help his former mentor. “I had really expected different treatment from him,” Blomberg later complained. But Reichenau acted only in his own self-interest. Years later, when the Blombergs and Reichenaus happened to dine at the same restaurant at the same time, they ignored each other: in fact, Reichenau never spoke to Blomberg again, even though Blomberg had recommended him to succeed Fritsch as commander-in-chief of the army.
Becoming commander-in-chief was indeed Reichenau’s next ambition and Hitler was leaning toward appointing him. His candidacy was only derailed when von Rundstedt and von Leeb interceded and informed Hitler that the army would “never” accept Reichenau, and Ludwig Beck (chief of the General Staff) and his deputy, Franz Halder, both announced that they would not serve under him. Even the usually spineless Wilhelm Keitel, the newly promoted commander-in-chief of the OKW, informed the Fuehrer that the army would not stand for Reichenau. Hitler vacillated a few days, but on February 4, 1938, he appointed Walter von Brauchitsch instead. As a consolation prize, Reichenau succeeded Brauchitsch as commander-in-chief of Army Group Four, headquartered in Leipzig. This non-territorial command controlled all of the Reich’s panzer, light and motorized divisions.
As early as the 1920s and throughout the 1930s, Reichenau was a powerful supporter of Heinz Guderian and the concept of the blitzkrieg. He translated several of B. H. Liddell Hart’s works on armored warfare into German and ordered the Krupp Works to begin manufacturing panzers as early as 1933. He also shielded Guderian and the Panzerwaffe from Beck, Otto von Stuelpnagel, and other conservative generals, who wanted to break up the first panzer divisions and to use the tanks solely as infantry support vehicles. Reichenau, however, had an instinctive feeling as to how to use motorized forces, and he was very good at it.
Reichenau’s headquarters was redesignated the Tenth Army in August 1939 and formed the main German strike force in the invasion of Poland. The general himself was the first German soldier to cross the Vistula. He swam it. Reichenau was promoted to colonel general on October 1, 1939. His command was redesignated the Sixth Army in late 1939 and he led it with great success in Belgium and France. He was promoted to field marshal on July 19, 1940.
In Russia, Reichenau cooperated with the Einsatzgruppe and only clashed with the SS once—not because they were committing mass murder, but because they were using too much ammunition. He then issued a murderous order, which the Nazis considered a model guide on how to deal with the Jews. He officially called upon them to limit their ammunition expenditure to two bullets per Jew.
By early October the Soviets had lost 2,500,000 men, 22,000 guns, 18,000 tanks, and 14,000 airplanes since the beginning of Operation Barbarossa. Hitler’s strategic objectives had bee n largely achieved and the OKH was already discussing plans to withdraw and demobilize about 80 divisions from the Soviet Union after it surrendered. A wave of optimism swept through the General Staff at Zossen, where the general feeling was that one more major victory would finish off the Soviets.
At the front, however, the troops were not feeling nearly so optimistic. “The billet is full of lice,” one German soldier wrote. “Socks which we put out to dry were white with lice eggs. We’ve caught fleas—absolute prize specimens …. What a country, what a war, where there’s no pleasure in success, no pride, no satisfaction; only a feeling of suppressed fury now and then ….” The soldiers felt a deep sense of foreboding, as if they were advancing deeper into another world, a strange and dangerous world, from which many of them would not return. They were right.
Walter von Reichenau, the commander-in-chief of Army Group South, went on his usual six-mile cross-country run on January 15, 1942, in temperatures well below –20 degrees Fahrenheit. He looked ill later when he appeared in the headquarters mess for lunch. He ate a little, signed a few papers, and got up to leave. Before he reached the door, he collapsed with a severe heart attack. He never regained consciousness. When Hitler heard the news, he ordered that Reichenau be flown back to Germany for treatment by a famous heart surgeon. His airplane crashed en route, but Reichenau’s biographer, Walter Goerlitz, states that he died of a cerebral hemorrhage, rather than injuries suffered in the crash. In any case, he was pronounced dead on arrival in Leipzig on the evening of January 17, 1942. He was buried in the Invalidhof, the German national cemetery in Berlin. His grave has since been destroyed.
Reichenau’s daughter reportedly emigrated to the United States after the war. Her location and that of her family is a secret.