Ludwig August Theodor Beck (29 June 1880 – 20 July 1944) was a German general and the Chief of the General Staff of the Oberkommando des Heeres during the early years of the Nazi regime in Germany before World War II.
He was also one of the leaders of failed 20 July plot against Hitler and was designated by fellow conspirators as future Head of State (Regent) after elimination of Hitler. The plot failed, however, and Beck was forced to commit suicide.
Early life and career
Born in Biebrich (now a borough of Wiesbaden, Hesse) in Hessen-Nassau, he was educated in the Prussian military tradition. He served on the Western Front in World War I as a staff officer. After the war he served in various staff and command appointments. Between 1931 and 1932 he led the group of army writers, at the Department of the Army (TruppenAmt) which published the German Army Operations Manual entitled Truppenführung (die TruppenFuhrung). The first section was promulgated in 1933 and the second section in 1934. A modified version is still in use today by the Federal German Army. He was promoted to the rank of Generalleutnant in 1932 and, two years later, he replaced General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord as Chief of the German General Staff.
In Nazi Germany
In September-October 1930, Beck was a leading witness for the defense at the trial in Leipzig of three junior officers, Lieutenants Richard Scheringer, Hans Friedrich Wendt and Hans Ludin, both of whom were charged with membership in the Nazi Party, which at that time was forbidden for members of the Reichswehr. Both officers admitted to Nazi Party membership, and used as their defence the claim that the Nazi Party membership should not be forbidden to Reichswehr personnel. When the three officers were arrested after being caught red-handed distributing Nazi literature at their base, Beck, who was the commanding officer of the 5th Artillery Regiment based in Ulm, which the three Nazi officers belonged to, was highly furious and argued that since the Nazi Party was a force for the good that Reichswehr personnel should not be banned from joining the Nazi Party. At the preliminary hearing, Beck spoke on behalf of the three officers. At the Leipzig trial of Ludin and Scheringer, Beck testified as to the good character of the accused, described the Nazi Party as a positive force in German life, and proclaimed his belief that the Reichswehr ban on Nazi Party membership in his opinion should be rescinded. When Lieutenant Scheringer spoke of a future war in which the Nazi Party and the Reichswehr were to fight hand in hand as brothers in a "war of liberation" to overthrow the Treaty of Versailles, Beck supported Scheringer by testifying that: "The Reichswehr is told daily that it is an army of leaders. What is a young officer to understand by that?". Historians such as Sir John Wheeler-Bennett have noted that Beck was deliberately distorting Hans von Seeckt's Führerarmee ("Army of leaders" i.e. training soldiers to be leaders when the time came to expand the Army beyond the limits permitted by Versailles) principle by seeking to apply it to politics. During the course of the 1930 Leipzig trial, Beck first met Adolf Hitler who also testified at the trial, and was very favourably impressed.
In 1933, upon witnessing the Nazi Machtergreifung, Beck wrote "I have wished for years for the political revolution, and now my wishes have come true. It is the first ray of hope since 1918." In July 1934, Beck expressed some alarm at Nazi foreign policy involving Germany in a "premature war", after the failed Nazi putsch in Austria, leading Beck to warn that those in "leading positions" must understand that foreign adventures at this time might lead to Germany be forced to make a "humiliating retreat" that might in Beck's view, unfortunately end Nazi Germany. In August 1934, when following the death of President Paul von Hindenburg, and Hitler's assumption of the roles of powers of the Presidency, most notably the position of Commander-in-Chief, Beck wrote that Hitler's move created "favourable conditions" for the Reichswehr.
Beck gained respect with the publication of his tactical manual, Truppenführung. Both Beck and General Werner von Fritsch commanded the 1st Cavalry Division, in Frankfurt an der Oder prior to assuming their command positions. During his time first as Chief of the Truppenamt (1933-1935), and then as Chief of the General Staff (1935-1938), Beck encouraged the development of armoured forces, though not to the extent that advocates of Panzer warfare like Heinz Guderian wanted. In Beck's conception of power politics, it was crucial to have German military power restored to its pre-1919 levels, and from the latter half of 1933, advocated a level of military spending beyond even those considered by Hitler. In Beck's opinion, once Germany was sufficiently rearmed, the Reich should wage a series of wars that would establish Germany as Europe's foremost power, and place all of Central and Eastern Europe into the German sphere of influence.
Beck had no moral objection to the idea of war of aggression to eliminate Czechoslovakia as a state. In 1935, he had a series of meetings with Prince Bernard von Bülow, the State Secretary of the German Foreign Office and the Chief of the Hungarian General Staff to discuss plans "for the division of Czechoslovakia". On 12 November 1937, Beck submitted a memorandum stating that "various facts" show the requirement "for an imminent solution by force" of the problem of Czechoslovakia and that it was desirable to start preparing "the political ground among those powers which stood on our side or who were not against us", and that the "military discussion in either the one case or the other should begin at once".
As Chief of the General Staff, Beck lived in a modest home in the Lichterfelde suburb of Berlin, and worked normally from 9:00 AM to 7:00 PM every day. As General Staff Chief, Beck was widely respected for his intelligence and work ethic, but was often criticized by other officers for being too interested in administrative details. In 1934, Beck wrote a lengthy covering letter to a long report on the British Army armour maneuvers as a way of encouraging interest in armoured warfare. In Beck's view of the General Staff's role, the War Minister served in a mere administrative function, and the Chief of the General Staff should have been able to advise the Reich leadership directly, views that led to conflicts with the War Minister, Field Marshal Werner von Blomberg, who resented Beck's efforts to diminish his powers. In 1936, Beck strongly supported Hitler during the remilitarization of the Rhineland against Blomberg, who feared the French reaction to such a move. By the end of 1937 and the beginning of 1938, Beck had come into increasing conflict with other officers over the place and importance of the General Staff in the German military hierarchy, in which Beck wished to have all of the important decision-making moved into the arms of the General Staff.
Starting in the mid-1930s, Beck created his own intelligence network comprising German military attaches, which he used both to collect information, and to leak information. Besides for military attaches, Beck also recruited civilians for his private intelligence network, of which the most notable volunteer was Carl Goerdeler.
In May 1937, Beck refused an order to draw up orders for executing Fall Otto (Case Otto), the German plan for an invasion of Austria under the grounds that such a move might cause a world war before Germany was ready for such a war. During the Anschluss of February-March 1938, once Beck was convinced that no war would result from a move against Austria, he swiftly drew up the orders for Fall Otto. In Beck's conception of power politics, war was a necessary part of the restoring Germany to Great Power status provided that these wars were limited in scope and Germany possessed sufficient strength and had sufficiently strong allies.
During the Blomberg-Fritsch Crisis of early 1938, Beck saw a chance to reassert the interests and power of the Army against what he regarded as the too-mighty power of the SS. The ending of the crisis in favor of the SS left Beck somewhat disillusioned.
Conflict with Hitler
Beck resented Adolf Hitler for his efforts to curb the army's position of influence. Beck tried very early, as Chief of the General Staff, to deter Hitler from using the grievances of the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, the population of which was mostly ethnic-German, as an excuse for war against the latter state in 1938.
Beck was in full agreement with Hitler's basic aim of waging a war of aggression to destroy Czechoslovakia, but felt that Germany needed more time to rearm before starting such a war. In Beck's assessment, the earliest date Germany could risk a war was 1940, and any war started in 1938 would be a "premature war" that Germany would lose. In the Hossbach Memorandum of 1937, Hitler had expressed his belief that the United Kingdom and France would not intervene in the event of German aggression against Austria and Czechoslovakia, a conviction strengthened by the Anschluss earlier in the year, and they would not stand in his way if he should try again to enlarge the Reich. Beck, however, believed that the French would honor the terms of the Franco-Czechoslovak alliance of 1924, and that, should France go to war with Germany, Britain would then almost certainly enter the war on the Allied side. Since Beck felt very strongly that the Wehrmacht would not be strong enough to win a war against the Allies, and since he was extremely respected by his fellow officers, he tried to convince all to resign en masse to prevent Hitler from carrying out his plans.
While most of the generals felt the idea of starting a war in 1938 was highly risky, none of them would confront Hitler with a refusal to carry out orders, since the majority opinion was that Beck's arguments against war in 1938 were flawed. From May 1938, Beck had bombarded Hitler, Wilhelm Keitel and Walther von Brauchitsch with memoranda opposing Fall Grün (Case Green), the plan for a war with Czechoslovakia. In the first of his memos, on 5 May 1938, Beck argued that the Sino-Japanese War meant Japan would be unable to come to Germany's aid, that the French Army was the best fighting force in Europe, and that Britain was certain to intervene on the side of France should Germany attack Czechoslovakia. In his May memo, Beck argued that Hitler's assumptions about France, made in the Hossbach Memorandum of 1937, were mistaken, and stated his belief that France "wishes for peace or, perhaps more accurately, abhors a new war", but that "in case of a real threat, or what is perceived by the people to be foreign policy pressure, the French nation comes together as if one". In the same memo, Beck stated that Hitler was wrong about France being on the verge of civil war, and that, in the event of a German threat to Czechoslovakia, the French would see such a threat as "a question of honour...for which a strong government will have no difficulty pulling itself together". Beck stated his belief that "The French army is and remains intact and is at the moment the strongest in Europe". Beck ended his memo with the comments that: "The military-economic situation of Germany is bad, worse than in 1917-1918. In its current military, military-political and military-economic condition, Germany cannot expose itself to the risk of a long war". The May Crisis of May 21-22, 1938 further convinced Beck of the dangers of going to war in 1938, and led him to increase his efforts to stop a war that he felt Germany could not win. In November 1938, Beck informed a friend that, from the time of the May Crisis, the only consideration in his mind was "How can I prevent a war?".
On 22 May, 1938, Hitler stated that, though he had deep respect for Beck for his pro-Nazi testimony at the Ulm trial of 1930, his views were too much that of the Reichswehr general, and not enough of a Wehrmacht general. Hitler commented that Beck was "one of the officers still imprisoned in the idea of the hundred-thousand-man army". On 28 May 1938 Beck had a meeting with Hitler, the Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, Admiral Erich Raeder, Hermann Göring, Wilhelm Keitel, and Walther von Brauchitsch, during which Hitler restated the views he had first expressed in the Hossbach Memorandum. In response, Beck drafted another memo on May 29, in which he presented a case that the Czechoslovak Army was not, as Hitler argued, a weak force, and that a limited regional war in Central Europe was a not a realistic possibility. In the same memo of May 29, Beck proclaimed his agreement with Hitler's views about the necessity of acquiring Lebensraum in Eastern Europe, called the existence of Czechoslovakia "intolerable", and concluded that "a way must be found to eliminate it (Czechoslovakia) as a threat to Germany, even, if necessary, by war". However, Beck argued that Germany was not strong enough to fight the general war that would resulted from an attack on Czechoslovakia in 1938, and urged Hitler to avoid a "premature war". In particular, Beck argued that "It is not accurate to judge Germany today as stronger than in 1914", and he presented a detailed military case that more time was needed before the Wehrmacht would be as strong as the Army of 1914. Furthermore, Beck contended that he could not "accept these estimates of the military power of France and England...Germany, whether alone or in alliance with Italy, is not in a position militarily to match England or France".
At first, Beck felt that Hitler's rush to war in 1938 was not caused by the Führer's personality, but was rather caused by Hitler receiving poor military advice, especially from Keitel. As a result, Beck spent much of his time urging a reorganization of the command structure, so that Hitler would receive his advice from the General Staff, and presumably abandon his plans for aggression. In one of his memos opposing war in 1938, Beck commented: "Once again, the comments of the Führer demonstrate the complete inadequacy of the current top military-advisory hierarchy. What is needed is continual, competent advising of the commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht on questions of war leadership and above all on weapons of war, with clear delineation of responsibilities. If steps are not taken soon to produce a change in conditions, which have grown intolerable; if the current anarchy becomes a permanent condition; then the future destiny of the Wehrmacht in peace and war, indeed the destiny of Germany in a future war, must be painted in the blackest of colors". Only in June 1938 did Beck realize that it was Hitler who was behind the drive for war, and, in a memo to Brauchitsch, urge that all of the senior officers threaten a mass collective resignation to force Hitler to abandon his plans for Fall Grün in 1938. Beck ended his appeal to Brauchitsch: "Now at stake are final decisions regarding the fate of the nation. History will burden those leaders with blood guilt if they do not act according to their professional and statesmanly principles and knowledge. Their soldierly loyalty must end at the boundary where their knowledge, conscience, and sense of responsibility forbid the execution of an order. In case their advice and warnings fall on deaf ears in such circumstances, then they have the right and the duty, before the people and history, to resign their offices. If they all act together, then it will be impossible to carry out military action. They will thereby saved the Fatherland from the worst, from total ruin. If a soldier in a position of highest authority in such times see his duties and tasks only within the limits of his military responsibilities, without consciousness of his higher responsibility to the whole people, then he shows a lack of greatness, a lack of comprehension of responsibility. Extraordinary times demand extraordinary actions!".
On July 16, 1938, Beck wrote a memo stating that the Army might have to resolve unspecified "internal political" problems. Beck's campaign for a mass resignation was not aimed at the overthrow of Hitler, but was rather intended to persuade Hitler to abandon his plans for war in 1938, and to purge certain "radical" elements from the Nazi Party, who Beck believed to have a negative influence on Hitler. Together with the Abwehr chief, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, and the German Foreign Office's State Secretary, Baron Ernst von Weizsäcker, Beck was a leader of the "anti-war" group in the German government, which was determined to avoid a war in 1938 that it felt Germany would lose. This group was not necessarily committed to the overthrow of the regime, but was loosely allied to another, more radical group, the "anti-Nazi" fraction centered around Colonel Hans Oster and Hans Bernd Gisevius, which wanted to use the crisis as an excuse for executing a putsch to overthrow the Nazi regime. The divergent aims between these two factions produced considerable tensions.
In a June 1938 Generalstabsreise (General Staff study), Beck concluded that Germany could defeat Czechoslovakia, but that to do so would leave western Germany empty of troops, thus potentially allowing the French to seize the Rhineland with little difficulty. Beck maintained that Czechoslovak defences were very formidable, that Prague could mobilize at least 38 divisions, and that at least 30 German divisions would be needed to break through, requiring at a minimum a three week-long campaign. Beck concluded that Hitler's assumptions about a limited war in 1938 were mistaken, and that he felt "as fateful, the military action against Czechoslovakia, planned on the basis of these military premises, and must explicitly disavow any responsibility of the general staff of the Army for such action". In July 1938, upon being shown Beck's 5 May 1938 memo opposing Fall Grün by von Brauchitsch, Hitler called Beck's arguments "kindische Kräfteberechnungen" ("childish calculations"). In another memo of July, 1938, Beck contended that a war with Czechoslovakia, France and Britain could only end in Germany's defeat, and urged Hitler to postpone his plans for aggression until such a time as Germany was strong enough for such a war. In late July 1938, Erich von Manstein, a leading protégé of Beck's, wrote to his mentor urging him to stay at his post, and place his faith in Hitler. On July 29, 1938 Beck wrote a memo stating the German Army had the duty to prepare for possible wars with foreign enemies and "for an internal conflict which need only take place in Berlin". The July 29th memo is normally considered the start of Becks efforts to overthrow the Nazi regime.
At the beginning of August 1938, Beck wrote a speech for Brauchitsch to read before Hitler stating the Army's opposition to the "premature war" likely to be triggered by Fall Grün, which, however, Brauchitsch chose not to deliver. In August 1938, Beck suggested to General Walther von Brauchitsch that a "house-cleaning" of the Nazi regime was necessary, under which the influence of the SS be reduced, but Hitler would continue as dictator. At an 10 August 1938 summit the leading generals of the Reich, Hitler spent much of the time attacking Beck's arguments against Fall Grün, and won the majority of the generals over. Colonel General Beck resigned alone on 18 August 1938, and left office on August 27th. He was replaced, as head of the General Staff, by General Franz Halder. At Hitler's request, Beck kept his resignation secret, and thus nullified the protest value of his resignation. Hitler promised Beck that if he kept his resignation secret, he would be rewarded with a major field command, and Beck was much disillusioned when he was instead put on the retired list. Beck ceased to have any meaningful influence on German military affairs, and increasingly came to rely upon contacts with the British in the hope that London would successfully exert its influence on Hitler, where he had failed to, through threats and warnings.
His opposition to Hitler brought him in contact with a small number of senior officers intent on deposing the dictator. Some of them, including Carl Goerdeler and Ulrich von Hassell, would take part in the July 20 Plot in 1944.
Beck and his conspirators knew that Germany faced certain and rapid defeat if France and Great Britain came to the Czechs' aid in 1938. Accordingly, they contacted the British Foreign Office, informed Britain of their plot, and asked for a firm British warning to deter Hitler from attacking Czechoslovakia. In September 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, French President Edouard Daladier and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini signed the Munich Agreement, compelling Czechoslovakia to give up the Sudetenland, which put an end to the crisis, and hence Beck's efforts at a putsch.
In the autumn of 1939, Beck was in contact with certain Germany Army officers, politicians, and civil servants, including General Halder, Dr. Hjalmar Schacht, Carl Goerdeler, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, and Colonel Hans Oster about the possibility of staging a putsch to overthrow the Nazi regime. By this time, Beck had come to accept that it was not possible to overthrow the Nazi regime while keeping Hitler in power. In the event of the putsch being successful, Germany was to be governed by a triumvirate of Beck, Goerdeler and Schacht who would negotiate a peace with Britain and France that would allow Germany to keep most of the Nazi conquests made up until that time, including Austria, all of western Poland, and the Reich Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia. In January-February 1940, a series of meetings between Goerdeler, Beck, Hassell and Johannes Popitz produced agreement that when the Nazi regime was overthrown that Beck was to head the Council of Regency that would govern Germany. In 1940-41, Beck spent much time discussing together with Goerdeler, Hassell, and Erwin von Witzleben which of the Hohenzollerns to put on the throne when the Nazi regime was overthrown, and the monarchy restored.
July 20th Plot
In 1943, Beck planned two abortive attempts to kill Hitler by means of a bomb. In May 1944, a memorandum by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel made it clear that his participation in the proposed putsch was based on the precondition that Beck serve as the head of state in the new government. In 1944 he was one of the driving forces of the July 20 Plot with Carl Goerdeler and Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg. It was proposed that Beck would become the head of the provisional government that would assume power in Germany after Hitler had been eliminated. The plot failed, however, and by the next morning, according to the account by Fabian von Schlabrendorff, Beck was in the custody of General Friedrich Fromm, and he offered to commit suicide ("accept the consequences"). He was the only conspirator to not have Execution by firing squad. In severe distress, Beck succeeded only in severely wounding himself, and a sergeant was brought in to administer the coup de grâce.
In 2008 a movie about the plot, Valkyrie, was made with Terence Stamp playing Beck.