Monday, 6 October 2014

Rudolf-Christoph Freiherr (Baron) von Gersdorff

 27 March 1905 – 27 January 1980

General Gersdorff

Rudolf-Christoph von Gersdorff was a German staff officer in the Second World War, who in April 1945 achieved the rank of Major General. He was a prominent member of the German resistance to Nazism.

The son of a general, Gersdorff was from a Silesian family that traced its heritage back for over 1000 years. He held strong religious beliefs, and was deeply opposed to the Nazi regime. He was a career soldier who was married with one daughter. A fine equestrian, he was horse mad all his life.

Gersdorff met the anti-Nazi conspirator Henning von Tresckow in 1940 – before the invasion of France. Gersdorff was immediately impressed with Tresckow, whom he thought radiated ‘powerful authority’. He unhesitatingly accepted Tresckow’s invitation to work with him if the occasion arose.

In April 1941 Gersdorff was posted to Tresckow’s staff at Army Group Centre (for the invasion of Russia) to serve as its intelligence liaison with the Abwehr (military intelligence) – part of the cadre of anti-Nazi officers Tresckow built up around him.

Many years later, Gersdorff wrote ‘In the course of my lifetime I have come to know many important or notable people, but to this day I have never met anyone whose mental calibre and strength of character were comparable to those of Henning von Tresckow.’

Gersdorff took an active hand in opposing Hitler’s ‘Commissar Order’ (by which Hitler ordered the summary execution of political advisers serving with Soviet troops) and, along with Tresckow, sought to have Field Marshal Bock tell Hitler that it would not be obeyed. Bock confined himself to a vague and indirect protest.

In his role as an intelligence officer, Gersdorff obtained the captured British timer fuses and clam bombs used by Tresckow and Schlabrendorff for the ‘cointreau’ bomb placed on Hitler’s aircraft on 13 March 1943.

The following week, on 21 March 1943, ‘Heroes Memorial Day’ – an annual commemoration for fallen soldiers – was to be marked with a ceremony at the glass-roofed Zeughaus (Armoury) in Berlin. Hitler was to attend. Army Group Centre had compiled an exhibition of captured Russian weaponry for the occasion, which Hitler was to inspect.

Tresckow, who had arranged the exhibition, insisted that Army Group Centre’s Intelligence Officer, Colonel Baron Rudolph-Christoph von Gersdorff, attend.

Gersdorff was a committed member of the resistance.

Tresckow summoned Gersdorff, speaking to him with ‘the utmost gravity’ about the situation and the ‘absolute necessity’ of saving Germany from destruction. He asked Gersdorff to assassinate Hitler during the weaponry inspection. Gersdorff would probably be killed. Gersdorff reflected, then agreed. Tresckow took Gersdorff on a long walk, and said: ‘Isn’t it a monstrous thing, that here are two German General Staff officers, conferring together about the best way to kill their commander-in-chief? But it has to be done. It is now the only possible way to save Germany from her downfall. The world has to be set free from the greatest criminal of all time. He must be struck down dead like a mad dog who threatens all mankind.’

Gersdorff flew to Berlin on 20 March 1943, and spent the remainder of the day investigating assassination possibilities. He looked at the whole set up, and slowly realized that there was nowhere to plant a bomb, and the only way would be for him to set off a bomb on his own person.

That evening, lawyer and fellow officer Schlabrendorff delivered clam mines to Gersdorff at his hotel. These were of the same kind as had been used for the Cointreau bomb the previous week. Gersdorff had brought with him two of the ten-minute silent fuses.

Only when he was alone in the evening did the significance of Gersdorff’s plans bear in on him. He did not shut his eyes for the whole night.

During the ceremony, Gersdorff swallowed a Pervitin amphetamine tablet[1] Tresckow had given him.

Hitler (right front) with other German leaders, at the Zeughaus on 21 March 1943

The ceremony started an hour late. Hitler spoke briefly. The Berlin Philharmonic played the first movement of Bruckner’s 7th symphony. Then Gersdorff moved into position for the start of the inspection. When Hitler and his entourage (including Göring, Himmler, Field Marshal Keitel and Admiral Dönitz) walked over to the exhibition, Hitler called on Field Marshal Bock to accompany him. While attention was distracted, Gersdorff, his right arm raised in the Hitler salute, reached into his left pocket (a risky gesture) and squeezed on the fuse, activating it. He had another clam mine in the right pocket of his overcoat, but counted on the detonation of the first bomb setting off the second.

Gersdorff would need to remain close to Hitler after he had activated the fuse. He knew that Hitler had allotted ten minutes to inspect the weapons – the approximate length of the timer.

But Hitler paid almost no attention to the exhibits, walking at an ever-accelerating pace, until he was almost running through the display. Gersdorff struggled to keep up. Hitler showed no interest in Gersdorff’s explanations. Even an old Napoleonic standard, unearthed in a riverbed by German engineers, did not interest the Führer.

The ceremony was broadcast live by radio. Tresckow and Schlabrendorff, at Army Group Centre in Russia, were following the events as they happened. Again, Olbricht stood ready to move troops to key parts of Berlin. Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a party to the plan, spent the time singing motets with friends, all the while eying the telephone.

The radio report indicated that about two minutes after entering the exhibition, Hitler left[2]. The Führer suddenly ducked out of a side door. He went out to Unter den Linden, where he saw a captured Soviet T34 tank. He then spent some time clambering over it. Gersdorff could not accompany him outside. He could do no more.

Gersdorff had a live bomb in his pocket, with the timer well on the way to exploding. He rushed to the nearest toilet, locked himself into a cubicle, fumbled the bomb out of his pocket, and ripped out the fuse.

Another assassination attempt had come to nothing.

Gersdorff made his way to the exclusive Union Club nearby, hoping to have it to himself. He ran into an old acquaintance, the banker Baron Waldemar von Oppenheim, who stunned him by saying ‘I could have murdered Adolf today. He came riding slowly along Unter den Linden in his open car, right in front of my first-floor room in the Hotel Bristol. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to toss a hand grenade across the footpath and into his car.’

The following month, Gersdorff discovered the mass graves of Polish officers shot by the Soviets at Katyn.

From September 1943 he was transferred to the Führer reserve, and later assigned to the staff on the Western front, in preparation for the expected Allied landing.

He played a critical role in extracting German forces from the Falaise pocket after the Allied breakout in Normandy – for which exploit he was conferred with the Knight’s Cross – Germany’s highest decoration for bravery in the Second World War.

Gersdorff continued to be active in the German opposition.

He met Claus von Stauffenberg only once, in early 1944, in Schlabrendorff’s apartment. Tresckow and Freytag-Loringhoven were also present. It was the last time Gersdorff would see Tresckow. He described being tremendously impressed with Stauffenberg’s ‘extraordinary personality’ and ‘boundless willpower’.
After the failure of the July Plot, Gersdorff expected to be arrested at any time  - but the Gestapo never discovered his involvement in the plots.

He survived the war.

Following the German surrender, Gersdorff was held in custody by US forces until November 1947. His wife had committed suicide during the war, leaving Gersdorff to care for their daughter – something he was unable to do while in custody. His role in the resistance came to light with the publication of Schlabrendorff’s account, and Gersdorff was shunned as a traitor by his fellow officers in custody. 

When high-ranking Nazis were released before he was, the US officer in charge told him ‘You see, throughout his military career General Engel has demonstrated that he will always – and only – carry out the orders he has been given. He will put up no resistance to us in civilian life; therefore, he is of no danger to us. But you have shown that, if necessary, you’ll follow your own conscience; and then, perhaps, you will not obey our decrees. Therefore people like you … are dangerous to us. That’s why we need to keep you in custody for a while longer.’ 

Gersdorff replied that under those circumstances, it was an honour for him to remain in captivity.

After his release, Gersdorff’s beloved Silesia was no longer part of Germany, and he could no longer readily visit.

He remarried, divorced, and married again.

He worked for a time in cold war intelligence, assisting Reinhard Gehlen. He then took up a career in publishing.

He was instrumental in restoring the German Order of St John, which had a long history of charitable work and first aid training. 

A riding accident in 1967 left him paralysed.

In 1979 he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit - one of Germany’s highest civilian honours for service to the community.

He wrote an account of his experiences – Soldat im Untergang (Soldier in the Downfall). It is one of the finest inside accounts of the German resistance.

This is an edited extract from my book TREASON: Claus von Stauffenberg and the Plot to Kill Hitler

[1] Known as ‘tank chocolate’, these amphetamines were widely used by German troops in combat throughout the Second World War

[2] Gersdorff naturally felt it was several minutes longer.

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