Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord

Kurt Gebhard Adolf Philipp Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord[1] (26 September 1878 – 24 April 1943) was a German general who served for a period as Commander-in-Chief of the Reichswehr. He is famous for being an ardent opponent of Hitler and the Nazi regime.

Kurt Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord
General von Hammerstein-Equord, 1930
4th Chief of the German Army Command
Weimar Republic
In office
1 November 1930  27 December 1933
PresidentPaul von Hindenburg
Preceded byWilhelm Heye
Succeeded byWerner von Fritsch
6th Chief of the Troop Office
In office
30 September 1929  31 October 1930
Preceded byWerner von Blomberg
Succeeded byWilhelm Adam
Personal details
Born(1878-09-26)26 September 1878
Hinrichshagen, Mecklenburg-Strelitz, German Empire
Died24 April 1943(1943-04-24) (aged 64)
Berlin, Nazi Germany
RelationsWalther von Lüttwitz (father in law)
Smilo Freiherr von Lüttwitz (brother in law)
Military service
Branch/service Imperial German Army
Years of service1898–1934
Rank Generaloberst
CommandsChief of Truppenamt (1929–30)
Battles/warsWorld War I


He was born to a noble family, which had already produced some famous officers, in Hinrichshagen, Mecklenburg-Strelitz, German Empire in 1878.[2] His parents were the head forester (Oberförster) of the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Heino von Hammerstein, and his wife Ida, née Gustedt (also from a noble family). After initial schooling, in 1888 Hammerstein Equord joined the Cadet Corps in Plön at the age of ten years, then the Prussian Cadet Corps Berlin-Lichterfelde (entry 1893) and the 3rd Foot Guards, where he was promoted on 15 March 1898 to lieutenant (Secondelieutenant)[3] thus joining the German Army on 15 March 1898. In 1907 Hammerstein-Equord married Maria von Lüttwitz, the daughter of Walther von Lüttwitz. The future Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher (1882–1934) also served in his unit, and the two men soon became friends. From 1905 to 1907 Hammerstein served in Kassel. From 1907 to 1910 he attended the Prussian Military Academy (Kriegsakademie)[4] and in 1911 he was posted to the deployment section of the Great General Staff. During World War I (1914-1918) he first served as an adjutant of Quartermaster Generals and then as a General Staff officer in various military units (1915 First General Staff Officer of VIII Reserve Corps, 1916 at the General staff, in 1918 as an Ia (Erster Generalstabsoffizier - in charge of operations and tactics[5]) in the General staff of the General command). In 1914 he wrote the first Army reports from the Supreme Headquarters. Also in 1914 he commanded a company in Flanders, where he won the Iron Cross. In 1916 he participated in the Battle of Turtucaia during the Romanian Campaign. In 1917 he won promotion to major.

Time of Weimar Republic

In the Weimar Republic Hammerstein was transferred to the Reichswehr. In 1919 he served under his father-in-law General Walther von Lüttwitz in the General Staff of the Corps Lüttwitz. In 1920 he was promoted to lieutenant colonel. In the same year he refused to participate in the Kapp Putsch, which was supported by Lüttwitz. He joined the group command II in Kassel as Chief of Staff. In 1922 he took a job as a battalion commander in the Munich area. In 1924, he was transferred to the staff of the Military District III in Berlin. After a brief stay in the Group Command I (1929) he was appointed on 1 October 1929 as Major General chief of General Staff of Weimar Republic, the successor organization of the General Staff that was prohibited by the Allies in the Treaty of Versailles. His predecessor was General Werner von Blomberg, who came into conflict with the Reich Government (Weimar Republic) over the chances of a two-front war with France and Poland, which he deemed as favorable. By contrast, Reichswehrminister Wilhelm Groener and Chancellor Heinrich Brüning estimated the aversion of Hammerstein against political extremism and military risks.

Hammerstein worked out first tactical concepts for the army in the Truppenamt. They provided for a sustained defense in an attack until the League of Nations would intervene. In contrast, 1930 was created under his direction the first mobilization plan since 1923, which scheduled the tripling of the seven Infantry Division to 21. In 1930 he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Reichswehr, replacing General Wilhelm Heye. Schleicher (now defense minister) with support from Brüning made Hammerstein to successor. On 1 November 1930, he entered the field with the simultaneous promotion to General of Infantry. He created there a rearmament program of the army. This program wanted the formation of at least 42 divisions.

Hammerstein-Equord had a reputation for independence and indolence, favoring hunting and shooting over the labors of administration. He told his friends that the only thing that hampered his career was "a need for personal comfort". He was an aloof and sarcastic man, renowned for his cutting displays of disregard. Hammerstein-Equord regarded himself as a servant of the German state, not of its political parties. He was extremely hostile to the Nazi Party, as late as 1933 referring to the Nazis as "criminal gang and perverts" (Verbrecherbande und Schweineigel), the latter an allusion to the homosexual tendencies of some SA leaders. He had earned the nickname, "The Red General", for fraternizing with the trade unions. Hammerstein-Equord personally warned Adolf Hitler in December 1932, against trying a coup by illegal means, promising that in that case he would give the order to shoot. He made reassurances to the same effect to the American Ambassador Frederic M. Sackett.

Two of his daughters, Marie-Luise and Helga, were members of the secret service of the German Communist Party KPD since the late 1920s and helped to inform the Soviet Union about the political and military intentions of Hitler which he detailed in a secret speech to leading generals on 3 February 1933.[6]

Hammerstein-Equord was loyal to the Weimar Republic, a close friend of Kurt von Schleicher. He repeatedly warned President Paul von Hindenburg about the dangers of appointing Hitler as chancellor. In response, Hindenburg had assured Hammerstein-Equord, that "he would not even consider making that Austrian corporal to the minister of defense or the chancellor".[7] Scarcely four days later, on 30 January 1933, pursuant to a request by Hindenburg, Hitler formed a cabinet as the German Chancellor and Nazi leader, in coalition with the conservative German National People's Party. Owing to his opposition to Hitler, Hammerstein-Equord was forced to resign from his office on 31 January 1934.

Night of the Long Knives

From 30 June 1934 Hitler continued with large-scale arrests, murders, intimidation and elimination of suspected and known opponents, under the pretext of an imminent coup by SA - Chief Röhm. These actions were not opposed by the Reichswehr as the paramilitary SA — now significantly larger in numbers — was viewed as competition: thus the Army was again the sole armed force for the German nation.

Some prominent opponents like Hammerstein and Papen were not affected by this violent action. According to some authors, this is attributed to a personal request by Hindenburg. In a report conducted by communist agents, however, it is said that Hammerstein "is in these days, the center of Berlin officer circles". Comrades from the Ministry would have protected him, since they had feared at any moment his arrest".[2] General von Witzleben demanded together with the generals Wilhelm von Leeb and Gerd von Rundstedt at General Fritsch, now Chief Command, a court-martial investigation of the murder of Schleicher and Bredow[8] Among those who protested the killing of their comrades were General Hans Oster.[9]

Hammerstein and Field Marshal August von Mackensen first tried to reach Hindenburg personally to stop the purge. Failing in that, they sent him a memorandum handed over to him for a report on 18 July 1934 in a blue file folder and therefore called Blue Book.[10] According to others, it did not reach Hindenburg before his death. On 13 July 1934 Hitler tried to justify in a Reichstag speech the violent actions. The speech was broadcast on the radio. Hitler accused notably Schleicher and Bredow of subversive collaboration with Röhm and conspiracy with other countries for the purpose of a "national-Bolshevik coup". Blomberg defended the claim of Hitler and promised documentation. Hitler finally gave in: In a closed meeting of the peaks of government, party and Reichswehr to another topic Hitler said "studies" have shown that the generals Schleicher and von Bredow were shot "by mistake". However, it was forbidden for all officers to attend the funeral of Schleicher. Hammerstein refused, and at the funeral of Schleicher, Hammerstein was enraged when the SS refused to allow him to attend the service and confiscated the wreaths that the mourners had brought.[11] He was recalled to military service as the commander of Army Group A on 10 September 1939 but retired again on 21 September 1939.

During World War II, Hammerstein-Equord was involved in several plots to overthrow Hitler. He tried repeatedly to lure Hitler into visiting a fortified base under his command along the Siegfried Line of the Western Front. He confided to retired former army chief of staff and leading conspirator Colonel-General Ludwig Beck that "a fatal accident will occur" when the Führer visited his base. But Hitler never accepted Hammerstein-Equord's invitation. He was transferred to command in Wehrkreis (Defense District) VIII in Silesia, then relieved of his command on personal orders by Hitler, for his "negative attitude towards National Socialism". He became active in the German Resistance, working with Carl Friedrich Goerdeler.

Illness, death and legacy

Years before his death, Hammerstein developed a slow-growing mass below his left ear but declined to seek medical advice. In January 1943, however, when he was examined by Prof. Dr. Ferdinand Sauerbruch, an esteemed surgeon, he was informed that he had cancer, which had by then metastasized. Surgery, then the only potentially curative treatment, was thus futile, and Hammerstein was told that he was expected to survive for another six months. Although his medical team admitted that the cancer had advanced beyond any hope of recovery, Hammerstein underwent a course of radiation treatment, a process which had serious side-effects that caused him great discomfort. When his son, Kunrat, was informed that the process was merely palliative, he ordered that the therapy be discontinued.[12]

Hammerstein-Equord spent the final weeks of his life under considerable pain in his house in Dahlem, an affluent quarter of Berlin. In spite of that and although aware that he was being under surveillance by the Gestapo, he continued to voice his criticisms of the regime to the visitors he regularly received. One of them, the art historian Udo von Alvensleben-Wittenmoor, noted in his diary after meeting him in mid-February 1943:

"I am ashamed to have belonged in an army, that witnessed and tolerated all the crimes", is Hammerstein's final conclusion.[13]

After a few weeks, on 16 April, Hammerstein fell into a coma, from which he never recovered. Finally, on Saturday, 24 April 1943, he died quietly in his house.[12][14][15] His family refused an official funeral at Berlin Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery, because this would have meant that his coffin would have been covered by the Reichskriegsflagge with the swastika. Thus, he was buried at the family's graveyard in Steinhorst, Lower Saxony. Hitler ordered the sending of a wreath with a message of condolence, but the wreath was not on display at the funeral because it had been "forgotten" in the Berlin subway by Hammerstein's family.

Heinrich Brüning, leader of the Catholic Center party, who served as German chancellor between 1930 and 1932, called Hammerstein-Equord "the only man who could remove Hitler—a man without nerves".[16] According to the reminiscences of his son Kunrat von Hammerstein, Hammerstein-Equord resigned from the Club of Nobility when they threw out their non-Aryan members in 1934 or 1935, and spoke of "organized mass murder" of the Jews before the summer of 1942. He supplied his daughter Maria-Therese von Hammerstein-Paasche with the names of Jews who were scheduled for deportation or arrest, enabling her to warn or hide them. Two of his sons, Ludwig and Kunrat, took part in a failed plot to kill Hitler and replace the Nazi regime with a new government on 20 July 1944, fleeing Germany in its aftermath. His widow and two younger children were then deported to a concentration camp, and freed only when the Allied Forces liberated the camps in 1945.

Family and children

Helga, third child of Hammerstein, later reported, that her father told everybody, who wanted to hear it:[2]

In fact, many of his children had Jewish acquaintances and supported Jewish people. He did not refuse when some of his children gave files with political-military contents to the KPD.[17][18]

The three oldest children had many contacts to people of Jewish descent or belief.[2] Based on the publications of his children Hammerstein reported during their meals about forthcoming actions against Jewish and other persecuted people, so those could be warned by his children.[2]

Marie Luise von Hammerstein-Equord was a friend to Werner Scholem. First Scholem was a member of the Reichstag (KPD), organizer and redactor. He turned away from the KPD, was mostly under arrest starting in 1933 and was shot 1940 in the KZ Buchenwald. From 1937 until 1951 she was in a second marriage with Ernst-Friedemann Freiherr von Münchhausen, who owned an estate near Weimar. After the war the couple separated; Marie Luise moved 1949 from West-Berlin to East-Berlin, and became a member of the SED, and worked as a lawyer“. She worked mostly for Jewish clients.

Helga von Hammerstein-Equord fell in love at the age of 15 with Leo Roth, left gymnasium at the age of 17, and joined the KPD. From the age of 18 she lived together with him, both worked for the KPD. She made the connections to agent Gert Caden[19] to the KPD. At least till 1937, when Roth was executed as an allegedly traitor in Moscow, Helga worked for the news service of the KPD with the code name "Grete Pelgert".[20][21] She managed to finish her Abitur (high school degree) in 1934 and to achieve as an auditor a degree in chemistry. In 1939 she promoted [was awarded?] at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute to a doctorate in chemistry on synthetic resins.[22] Previously she had married in 1939 the then gardener Walter Rossow. After the war Rossow became a landscape architect, was professor, and finally professor with tenure at several places.[23]

Kunrat von Hammerstein-Equord could not serve any longer at the front as an officer because of a war injury. He did not belong to the military resistance, but was personally acquainted with many of those who were. Because his arrest was feared, he went into hiding in Cologne in September 1944. Later, he was, like his brother Ludwig, charged by the Reichskriminalpolizeiamt-Berlin for desertion, but like his brother he was not taken until the war ended. After the war he published about this period of his diary and from the records of his father.

Ludwig von Hammerstein-Equord could not serve any longer at the front, like his brother Kunrat, from a war injury. He joined the military resistance against Hitler. On 20 July 1944 he experienced the arrest of other members of the resistance in the Bendlerblock. He was able to escape and lived in the underground in Berlin until the war ended. After the war he wrote two biographical accounts about his father.[24][25][26]

Franz Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord first was an industrial merchant. After 20 July 1944 he was a so-called Sippenhäftling (prisoner). He was deported with his mother and sister Hildur. After the war he studied theology and worked later in several Christian, social, and political organisations.

Classification of officers

As Chief of the Army High Command, Hammerstein-Equord oversaw the composition of the German manual on military unit command (Truppenführung), dated 17 October 1933.

He is quoted as originating a classification scheme for officers:

I distinguish four types. There are clever, hardworking, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and hardworking; their place is the General Staff. The next ones are stupid and lazy; they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the mental clarity and strength of nerve necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is both stupid and hardworking; he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always only cause damage.[27]

Decorations and awards


  1. Regarding personal names: Freiherr is a former title (translated as Baron). In Germany since 1919, it forms part of family names. The feminine forms are Freifrau and Freiin.
  2. Hans Magnus Enzensberger: Hammerstein oder Der Eigensinn. Eine deutsche Geschichte. Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp 2008, ISBN 978-3-518-41960-1
  3. Thilo Vogelsang (1966), "Hammerstein-Equord, Kurt Gebhard Adolf Philipp Freiherr von", Neue Deutsche Biographie (NDB) (in German), 7, Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, pp. 596–597; (full text online)
  4. Thilo Vogelsang (1966), "Hammerstein-Equord, Kurt Gebhard Adolf Philipp Freiherr von", Neue Deutsche Biographie (NDB) (in German), 7, Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, pp. 596–597; (full text online)
  5. Compare: Institut für Zeitgeschichte (1991). "8.3: Oberkommandos und Generalkommandos". In Boberach, Heinz (ed.). Reichszentralbehörden, regionale Behörden und wissenschaftliche Hochschulen für die zehn westdeutschen Länder sowie Berlin. Texte und Materialien zur Zeitgeschichte (in German). 3 (reprint ed.). Munich: De Gruyter. p. 441. ISBN 9783110950397. Retrieved 2018-04-10. Unter dem Chef des Stabes standen in der Führungsabteilung der Erste Generalstabsoffizier (Ia), der für die Truppenführung zuständig war [...]
  6. Wirsching, Andreas, "Man kann nur Boden germanisieren". Eine neue Quelle zu Hitlers Rede vor den Spitzen der Reichswehr am 3. Februar 1933, Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte vol.40, no.3, pp.517-550
  7. Fest, Joachim; Bruce Little (1997). Plotting Hitler's Death: The Story of German Resistance. Macmillan. p. 8. ISBN 0-8050-5648-3.
  8. Klaus-Jürgen-Müller: Witzleben – Stülpnagel – Speidel: Offiziere im Widerstand (pdf; 3,2 MB). In: Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand Berlin (Hrsg.): Beiträge zum Widerstand 1933–1945. Heft 7, ISSN 0175-3592
  9. Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung: Dossier Nationalsozialismus.
  10. Die Weltbühne, Vol. 30, No. 27–52, pp. 1601–1603
  11. Wheeler-Bennett, John The Nemesis of Power, London: Macmillan, 1967 page 328.
  12. Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord, Kunrat (1963): Spähtrupp. Stuttgart, West Germany: Henry Goverts, p. 198.
  13. von Alvensleben, Udo (1971): Lauter Abschiede. Tagebuch im Kriege. Berlin: Ullstein, p. 257.
  14. Paasche, Gottfried. "General von Hammerstein & Hitler: An Exchange", The New York Review of Books, June 10, 2010, accessed April 14, 2011.
  15. Dakin, Rose. "My Great-Uncles Tried To Kill Hitler", 'slate.com', January 12, 2009, accessed April 14, 2011
  16. Wheeler-Bennett, John Wheeler (1964). The Nemesis of Power: The German Army in Politics, 1918-1945. Macmillan. p. 441.
  17. Ypsilon (Pseudonym): Pattern for world revolution. Verlag Ziff-Davis, 1947, 479 S.
  18. Andrew Meier: The Lost Spy. An American in Stalin's Secret Service. Verlag W. W. Norton & Co., 2009, 402 S., ISBN 0-393-33535-6
  19. Bundesstiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur: Caden, Gert (eigtl.: Gerd Kaden)
  20. Rainer F. Schmidt: Die Außenpolitik des Dritten Reiches 1933–1939. Verlag Klett-Cotta, 2002, 448 S., ISBN 3-608-94047-2
  21. Gerd Schultze-Rhonhof: 1939. Der Krieg, der viele Väter hatte. Der lange Anlauf zum Zweiten Weltkrieg. Olzog Verlag, 2007, 605 S., ISBN 3-7892-8229-4
  22. Helga von Hammerstein Rossow: Beiträge zur Kenntnis von Kunstharzen als Zusatz zu Viskosespinnlösungen. Promotionsschrift, Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität zu Berlin, 1939.
  23. Walter Rossow: Walter Rossow (1910–1992) (beruflicher Lebenslauf), auf der Website der Hufeisensiedlung
  24. Ludwig von Hammerstein: Kurt Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord 1878–1943. In: Familienblatt des Familienverbandes der Freiherrn von Hammerstein. No. 19, December 1961
  25. Ludwig von Hammerstein: Der 20. Juli 1944. Erinnerungen eines Beteiligten. Vortrag vor dem Europa-Institut der Universität des Saarlandes, Saarbrücken 1994
  26. Peter Pechel, Dennis E. Showalter: Deutsche im Zweiten Weltkrieg. Verlag Schneekluth, 1989, ISBN 3-7951-1092-0
  27. Poller, Horst (2010). Bewältigte Vergangenheit. Das 20. Jahrhundert, erlebt, erlitten, gestaltet [Conquered Past. The 20th century, witnessed, endured, shaped.] (in German). Munich, Germany: Olzog Verlag. p. 140. ISBN 9783789283727.

Further reading

  • Hans Magnus Enzensberger, The Silences of Hammerstein, Seagull Books, 2009
  • Correlli Barnett, editor, Hitler's Generals, Grove Press, 2003
  • Bernard V. Burke, Ambassador Frederic Sackett and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic, 1930-1933, Cambridge University Press, 2003
  • Bruce Condell, David T. Zabecki, editors and translators, On the German Art of War: Truppenführung, Lynne Rienner, 2001
  • Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler's Death: The Story of German Resistance, Owl, 1997
  • Hans Magnus Enzensberger, editor, Hammerstein oder der Eigensinn. Eine deutsche Geschichte. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 2008. ISBN 978-3-518-41960-1
  • Peter Hoffmann, The History of the German Resistance, 1933-1945, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1996
  • Klaus-Jürgen Müller, Das Heer und Hitler: Armee und nationalsozialistisches Regime, 1933–1940, Stuttgart, 1969
  • Louis L. Snyder, Encyclopaedia of the Third Reich, Contemporary Publishing Company, 1998
  • Roderick Stackelberg, The Nazi Germany Sourcebook: An Anthology of Texts, Routledge, 2002
  • J. P. Stern, Hitler: The Führer and the People, University of California Press, 1975
  • Andreas Wirsching, "Man kann nur Boden germanisieren". Eine neue Quelle zu Hitlers Rede vor den Spitzen der Reichswehr am 3. Februar 1933, Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte vol.40, no.3, pp. 517–550
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