Hans Karl von Winterfeldt

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Hans Karl von Winterfeldt.
Hans Carl von Winterfeld – portrait at his tomb in the Invalidenfriedhof Berlin
grave of Hans Karl von Winterfeldt (1757) on the Invalidenfriedhof Berlin

Hans Karl von Winterfeldt (April 4, 1707 – September 8, 1757), Prussian general, was born at Vanselow Castle (now in Siedenbrünzow, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern) in Swedish Pomerania, he was Lord of several estates. His education was imperfect, and in later life he always regretted his want of familiarity with the French language. He entered the cuirassier regiment of his uncle, Major-General von Winterfeld (now the 12th) until 1720, and was promoted cornet after two years service. But he was fortunate enough, by his stature and soldierly bearing, to attract the notice of Frederick William I, who transferred him to the so-called giant regiment of grenadiers as a lieutenant. Before long he became a personal aide-de-camp to the king, and in 1732 he was sent with a party of selected non-commissioned officers to assist in the organization of the Russian army.

While the guest of the Count Marshal Munnich at St. Petersburg, Winterfeldt fell in love with and married his cousin Julie von Maltzahn, who was the marshal's stepdaughter and a maid-of-honor to the grand-duchess Elizabeth. On returning to Prussia he became intimate with the crown prince, afterwards Frederick the Great, whom he accompanied in the Rhine campaign of 1734. This intimacy, in view of his personal relations with the king, made Winterfeldt's position very delicate and difficult, for Frederick William and his son were so far estranged that, as everyone knows, the prince was sent before a court-martial by his father, on the charge of attempting to desert, and was condemned to death. Winterfeldt was the prince's constant friend through all these troubles, and on Frederick II's accession, he was promoted major and appointed aide-de-camp to the new sovereign.

When the first War of the Austrian Succession broke out Winterfeldt was sent on a mission to St. Petersburg, which, however, failed. He then commanded a grenadier battalion with great distinction at the battle of Mollwitz, and won further glory in the celebrated minor combat of Rothschloss, where the Prussian hussars defeated the Austrians (May 17, 1741). One month from this day Winterfeldt was made a colonel, as also was Zieten, the cavalry leader who had actually commanded at Rothschloss, though the latter, as the older in years and service, bitterly resented the rapid promotion of his junior. After this Frederick chiefly employed Winterfeldt as a confidential staff officer to represent his views to the generals, a position in which he needed extraordinary tact and knowledge of men and affairs, and as a matter of course made many enemies.

In the short peace before the outbreak of the second war he was constantly in attendance upon the king, who employed him again, when the war was resumed, in the same capacity as before, and, after he had been instrumental in winning a series of successful minor engagements, promoted him (1745) major-general, to date from January 1743.

For his great services at Hohenfriedberg, Frederick gave him the captaincy of Tatiau, which carried with it a salary of 500 thalers a year. Later on he became Governor of Kolberg in Pomerania. At Battle of Hennersdorf, where the sudden and unexpected invasion of the Austro-Saxons was checked by the vigour of Zieten, Winterfeldt arrived on the field in time to take a decisive share. Once again the rivals had to share their laurels, and Zieten actually wrote to the king in disparagement of Winterfeldt, receiving in reply a full and generous recognition of his own worth and services, coupled with the curt remark that the king intended to employ General von Winterfeldt in any way that he thought fit. During the ten years peace that preceded the next great war, Winterfeldt was in constant attendance upon the king, except when employed on confidential missions in the provinces or abroad. For example he was sent to London for negotiating the Convention of Westminster. In 1756 he was made a lieutenant-general and received the Order of the Black Eagle and the Order Pour le Mérite.

In this year he was feverishly active in collecting information as to the coalition that was secretly preparing to crush Russia, and in preparing for the war, he took a leading part in the discussions which eventuated in Frederick's decision to strike the first blow. He was at Pirna with the king, and advised him against absorbing the Saxon prisoners into his own army. He accompanied Schwerin in the advance on Prague in 1757 and took a conspicuous part in the battle there. After the defeat of Kolin, however, Winterfeldt, whom Frederick seems to have regarded as the only man of character whom he could trust to conduct the more delicate and difficult operations of the retreat, found himself obliged to work in close contact with the king's brother, Prince William, the duke of Brunswick-Bevern, Zieten and others of his enemies.

The operations which followed may be summarized by the phrase everything went wrong; after an angry scene with his brother, the prince of Prussia retired from the army, and when Frederick gave Winterfeldt renewed marks of his confidence, the general animosity reached its height. As it chanced, however, Winterfeldt fell a victim to his own bravery in the skirmish of Moys near Görlitz on 7 September. His wound, the first serious wound he had ever received, proved fatal and he died on 8 September.

The court enmities provoked by his twenty years unbroken intimacy and influence with the king, and the denigration of less gifted or less fortunate soldiers, followed him beyond death. Prince William expressed the bitterness of his hatred in almost his last words, and Prince Henry's memoirs give a wholly incredible portrait of Winterfeldt's arrogance, dishonesty, immorality and incapacity. Frederick, however, was not apt to encourage incompetence in his most trusted officers, and as for the rest, Winterfeldt stood first among the very few to whom the king gave his friendship and his entire confidence. On hearing of Winterfeldt's death, he said, Einen Winterfeldt finde ich nie wieder (I will never ever find again another Winterfeldt.), and a little later, Er war ein guter Mensch, ein Seelenmensch, er war mein Freund (He was a good man, a soulful man; he was my friend.). Winterfeldt's strength was thinking and acting strategically and his main vision was a united German Empire under a Protestant Emperor.

Winterfeldt was buried at his estate of Barschau, whence, a hundred years later, his body was transferred to the Invalidenfriedhof at Berlin. A statue was erected to his memory, which stands on the Wilhelmplatz there, and another was erected in the Bodemuseum on the Museumsinsel. Another forms part of the memorial to Frederick the Great at the boulevard Unter den Linden.

References[edit]

Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.