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General von Hammerstein & Hitler: An Exchange

In response to:

Can We Judge General von Hammerstein? from the June 10, 2010 issue

To the Editors:

My grandfather, Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, is the subject of Adam Kirsch’s intriguing and engaging review of Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s most recent book, The Silences of Hammerstein [NYR, June 10]. To my deep regret I never knew my grandfather. He died of cancer in 1943. I was born in Japan in 1937 and was raised there until 1948 when my family emigrated to the United States.

What has illuminated him the most to me is his experience in World War I. In 1914 he was thirty-five. With his fine training and ability he was soon appointed to the General Staff. There he was in a position to know what was going on and to closely observe the military leadership. When it was clear to him in 1916 that the war could not be won, it was his conviction that it was the responsibility of the German military command to initiate negotiations for peace. The failure of the leadership in the military and the government of the day, including the Kaiser, to negotiate for peace in his opinion led to the disasters for Germany—and Europe—of 1917 and 1918.

Because the old order had forfeited its right to lead the country in the aftermath of the war, Hammerstein was prepared to grant legitimacy to the new order: to the trade unions, political parties, parliament, and other institutions of the Weimar Republic. For this he was called an opportunist by his caste, including his father-in-law, General Walther von Lüttwitz, who was appointed commander in Berlin in December 1918. The young major served on his staff. When Lüttwitz sought his support for the “Kapp Putsch” against the Weimar government in March 1920, Hammerstein counseled his superior officer against going forward with it. Failing to convince Lüttwitz, he told him he would have no part in it. Lüttwitz was furious.

Hammerstein was a realist in 1916 and he was one once again in 1920. The vast majority of the officer corps stood with Lüttwitz and the “nationalist right.” Neither he nor they ever forgot the stand taken by Hammerstein.

Hammerstein’s appointment in 1930 to the highest military post, Chief of the German Army, was criticized by the nationalist right. After his forced retirement in 1934 at the age of fifty-four, with four young children still at home, he rejected offers of employment from industry because he did not want his name to be tainted. He was approached by the Soviet military attaché to take up an appointment in the Soviet Union. One of his close associates during those years was Colonel Jacob Wuest, the American military attaché in Berlin.

Hammerstein paid a price for his independent ways and self-determination. He was a lonely man in his last years, in spite of those few who, with some risk to themselves, continued to visit him and to seek his counsel. The New York Times of April 23, 1943, reported his death, calling him “a leading anti-Nazi and Commander in Chief of the German Army until Hitler replaced him.”

The reviewer raises a whimsical question about the marriage of my mother, Maria Therese, to my father, John Paasche. He asks, “Could her marriage be seen as a kind of reparation, or at least a statement of defiance?” The answer is yes on both counts. She said she felt a responsibility for the murder of his father, Hans Paasche, and wanted to protect and nourish him. She read the writings of Hans Paasche, who for her was an icon of the Germany she believed in—this was so strong in her that for much of my youth I conflated my father with my grandfather. There was also defiance. Hitler’s laws had already labeled my father a “non-Aryan” when they met. The noted political theorist Professor Carl Schmitt, knowing my father’s family’s background, both personal and political, warned her against this marriage. She did not heed the advice, but never forgot it. Maria Therese and her brothers and sisters, like their father, stood upright, often alone, in a time when it was easy to bend.

Gottfried Paasche
Associate Professor Emeritus
Department of Sociology
York University
Toronto, Canada

To the Editors:

In his review of The Silences of Hammerstein, by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Adam Kirsch contends that General Kurt von Hammerstein, a well-known enemy of Hitler and the policies of the Third Reich, nonetheless came out of retirement in 1939 to “serve under Hitler in an aggressive war of conquest,” and uses this contention as the fulcrum for a generalization about the “moral bankruptcy” of Hammerstein and his “caste and profession.” These contentions are based on a major historical error.

In his celebrated History of the German Resistance, 1933–1945, Peter Hoffmann shows in detail that Hammerstein’s return to active duty was in fact part of a plan, shared with Rudolf Pechel and other anti-Hitler conspirators, to destroy Hitler and avert war. As Hammerstein put it to Pechel, “Just give me some troops and I won’t fail you” (Hoffmann, p. 113). Hammerstein put the plan for a military coup into action, inviting Hitler to his camp in Cologne, with the purpose of arresting him. But Hitler declined the invitation. Before the year was out, Hammerstein was relieved of his command, and his name returned to the retirement list.

Kirsch’s error is significant not only because it is a classic case of amateuristic reviewing but also because it degrades the lessons of history, which derives its unique value not only from the chronicling of castes and trends, but also from the words and actions of exceptions to the rule like Kurt von Hammerstein and his family.

Robert Grudin
Berkeley, California

Adam Kirsch replies:

It is quite true that Peter Hoffmann mentions a putative plan by Kurt von Hammerstein to arrest Hitler in the fall of 1939 (though not in “detail”: the account fills three paragraphs of an eight-hundred-page book). But Robert Grudin seems (amateuristically?) unaware of later historians’ doubts about this plan’s existence or feasibility. As Hans Magnus Enzensberger writes, in the book under review, “It’s a matter of dispute among historians whether such a plan ever existed. Hammerstein himself never said anything about it.”

Indeed, in his own footnotes, Hoffmann quotes another historian, Erich Kosthorst, who “dismisses Hammerstein’s plan as utopian, clearly assuming that the detailed plans and preparations, which were not disclosed, never existed.” And even historians inclined to accept that Hammerstein discussed such a coup—as Rudolf Pechel and Fabian von Schlabrendorff recalled—doubt that it was seriously intended or could have been carried out. According to the historian Theodore Hamerow, “more than luck and a superannuated general would have been needed to overthrow the Nazi regime.” This is, in fact, the best reason to doubt that Hammerstein came out of retirement, and accepted a high place in Hitler’s war plans, solely on the chance that he might have an opportunity to arrest the Führer.

If the German officer corps could not manage to check Hitler in 1933, when his appointment was mooted by Hindenburg, or in 1938, when war with France loomed, or even in 1944, when Germany was faced with imminent catastrophe, it defies reason to think that Hammerstein, acting on his own authority, could have arrested Hitler in September 1939, at a time when he had known only diplomatic and military successes. What is certain is that neither Hammerstein nor any other general refused to serve Hitler in 1939 or made any public gesture of opposition; as Joachim Fest writes in Plotting Hitler’s Death: The Story of the German Resistance, “Nothing so damaged the credibility and reputation of the regime’s opponents in the eyes of their foreign contacts as their failure to take action after September 1.”

My review, I think, made clear that Hammerstein was indeed “an exception to the rule” of German officers; but even Enzensberger, who is mostly sympathetic to Hammerstein, does not try to claim that he was a hero of the resistance.

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