Walther von Reichenau

Walter von Reichenau
Bundesarchiv Bild 183-B05284, Walter v. Reichenau.jpg
Walter von Reichenau in 1941
Birth nameWalter Karl Ernst August von Reichenau
Born(1884-10-08)8 October 1884
Karlsruhe, Grand Duchy of Baden, German Empire
Died17 January 1942(1942-01-17) (aged 57)
Poltava, Soviet Union
BuriedInvalidenfriedhof, Berlin
Allegiance German Empire
 Weimar Republic
 Nazi Germany
RankField Marshal
Commands held10th Army
6th Army
Battles/warsWorld War I

World War II

AwardsKnight's Cross of the Iron Cross
Iron Cross 1st Class
Iron Cross 2nd Class
SignatureVon Reichenau Unterschrift.jpg

Walter Karl Ernst August von Reichenau (8 October 1884 – 17 January 1942) was a field marshal in the Wehrmacht of Nazi Germany during World War II. A professional soldier and veteran of World War I and the Reichswehr, he was one of twelve officers promoted at the 1940 Field Marshal Ceremony, and the most junior. Although regarded by contemporaries and historians as one of Germany's most competent military officers, it was his early political affiliation with the Nazi political apparatus which was key to his rapid rise, something resented by many older and more senior officers in the Army. This resentment was a factor in his twice being denied promotion to head the Army, despite Hitler's support. An avid sportsman and athlete he was a member of the International Olympic Committee. He is widely cited for his support of genocidal policies on the Eastern front and for his Severity Order, which he issued while in command of the German 6th Army.

Early life and service[]

The son of a Prussian General, Reichenau was born in 1884, in Karlsruhe. He joined the Prussian Army as an artillery officer cadet in 1903. He married into the Silesian aristocracy and then attended the Prussian War Academy, going on to serve as a staff officer to Max Hoffmann in the First World War. Reichenau's early years are described in conflicting terms, as both progressively minded but also brutal, with a history of executing soldiers who were AWOL, even in times of peace. Greatly unconventional, he was an avid outdoors man, spoke English at home and, in contrast to his latter activities in Russia, insisted on supporting World War I Jewish veterans' events in full military uniform, even after Hitler came to power. [1]

Interwar period[]

After the war, he joined the Grenzschutz Ost Freikorps. In 1919 Reichenau joined in the newly established Reichswehr of the Weimar Republic. The officer corps of the new armed forces' was limited to 4,000, and there was to be no German General Staff. Reichenau took a post in the Truppenamt, which was the "underground" equivalent of the General Staff formed by Hans von Seeckt. He was latter introduced to Hitler by his uncle, a diplomat. From 1931 Reichenau was appointed Chief of Staff to the Inspector of Signals at the Ministry of the Reichswehr. Extremely ambitious, he saw the Nazi Party as a revolutionary vessel in which he could propel his career and so broke with the pro-Monarchist politics of the Prussian military caste and became a devoted Nazi.[2]

Reichenau in 1933

As an outspoken ally and advocate of Hitler and the Nazi Party, Reichenau soon ran afoul of cabinet member and eventual Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher, who used his authority to have him transferred out of his prestigious posting in Berlin to the headquarters of the military district of East Prussia, a relative backwater. In Prussia Reichenau served under General Werner von Blomberg, a fellow exile of Schleicher's. Reichenau and Blomberg became political allies within the army and it was Reichenau who introduced Blomberg to Hitler. Blomberg, who had a reputation of being manipulated by Reichenau, was captivated by Hitler and both men soon used their connections with the Nazi party to advance. When Hitler came to power in January 1933, Blomberg became Minister of War. One of his first acts was to promote Reichenau to head the powerful Ministerial Office, acting as liaison officer between the Army and the Nazi Party. He played a leading role in persuading Nazi leaders such as Göring and Himmler that the power of Ernst Röhm and the SA must be broken if the army was to support the Nazi-led government. This led directly to the "Night of the Long Knives" of 30 June 1934.

In 1935 Reichenau was promoted to lieutenant general (Generalleutnant) and was also appointed to command the military forces in Munich. Reichenau was one of Hitler's favorite Generals and his first choice for commander-in-chief of the Heer in 1934, but internal army politics resulted in General Werner von Fritsch getting the post.[3]

Reflecting Reichenau's preference for assignments of political matter, Blomberg sent Reichenau to China in May 1934 to support General Alexander von Falkenhausen's existing military assistance mission. Konstantin von Neurath, the Foreign Minister, and German ambassador to Japan Herbert von Dirksen, raised objections to Reichenau's posting, fearing that the assignment of an officer of his stature could imperil Germany's relationship with Japan.

In 1938, after the Blomberg-Fritsch Affair, in which Fritsch was forced out of the Army command, Reichenau was again Hitler's first choice for head of the Heer, but older leaders such as Gerd von Rundstedt and Ludwig Beck refused to serve under Reichenau, and Hitler again backed down.[4]

World War II[]

In September 1939, Reichenau commanded the 10th Army during the German invasion of Poland and was the first German to cross the Vistula river, which he swam across.[4] After the campaign he was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross for his role as commander of the 10th Army.[5]. During the final two years before the outbreak of WWII, the majority of the German General Staff was so alarmed by the rush to war and so convinced of Germany's insuperable strategic disadvantages that they plotted to overthrow Hitler [6]. When Reichenau learned of Hitler's plans to invade the Low Countries following so quickly on the heels of the Poland campaign, he opined this was "absolutely crazy [völlig wahnsinnig]" and in November 1939 met with leaders of the military-tied German Resistance, not only revealing the invasion plans but going so far as to suggest means by which the Dutch might thwart the invaders[7]. In spite of the efforts of Reichenau and others in the German Resistance and for various reasons, the Allies did not heed the warnings; Reichenau stepped back from his opposition to Hitler. In 1940 he led the 6th Army during the invasion of Belgium and France and later that year Hitler promoted him to field marshal during the 1940 Field Marshal Ceremony.

During the German invasion of the Soviet Union, as commander of the 6th Army, he led his army into the heart of Russia during the summer of 1941. The 6th Army was a part of Army Group South, and captured Kiev, Belgorod, Kharkov and Kursk. During its offensive into the Soviet Union, the German army was confronted with a number of superior tank designs. Reichenau inspected the Soviet tanks he came across, entering each tank and measuring its armour plate. According to general staff officer Paul Jordan, after examining a T-34, Reichenau told his officers "If the Russians ever produce it on an assembly line we will have lost the war."[8]

In November 1941 Hitler relieved Field Marshal von Rundstedt from his command of Army Group South and promoted Reichenau to take his place. At his personal recommendation to Hitler, Friedrich Paulus, a mentee of Reichenau's and former member of his command staff, was promoted to take over his command of the 6th Army.[9] Paulus would later surrender the 6th Army to the Soviets at the Battle of Stalingrad.[10]


Reichenau was a habitual cross-country runner and suffered a stroke after a routine run in cold weather on 14 January 1942.[11] He then sustained severe head injuries when the flight carrying him back to Leipzig for medical attention crashed on landing in Lemberg. Whether he died from his stroke or from injuries sustained in the crash is unknown.[12] He was replaced at Army Group South by Fedor von Bock and given a state funeral.[13][14]

Nazi political activities and war crimes[]

Hitler and Reichenau in September 1941

Generalfeldmarschall Reichenau's uncle was an ardent Nazi and introduced him to Adolf Hitler in April 1932. Reichenau joined the Nazi Party, although doing so was a violation of the army regulations laid down by Seeckt to insulate the army from national politics.[15] Reichenau was an anti-Semite who equated Jewry with Bolshevism and a perceived Asian threat to Europe. Having died in 1942, Reichenau was never convicted of war crimes, but he was part of the German General Staff and High Command of the Armed Forces collectively indicted at Nuremberg.[16] Specifically cited in the indictment was his "Reichenau Order", commonly known as the Severity Order of October 1941, which supported Nazi genocidal policies:[17] The only objection Reichnenau raised to the activities of the Einsatzgruppen in his sector was when they were killing so many Jews, so quickly, that they began to create ammunition shortages in his sector of operations, an issue he addressed by recommending that the SS and SD limit themselves to two bullets per Jew.[12]

Reichenau was in charge of the area of operations in which SS, Einsatzgruppen, and Ukrainian auxiliaries committed the massacre of over 33,000 Jews at Babi Yar. Later that year in August, Reichenau also directly acted to ensure the execution of ninety Jewish children in the 1941 Bila Tserkva massacre, after Helmuth Groscurth petitioned him to avert the killings.[18]