Rudolf Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff
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|Rudolf Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff|
Rudolf Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff
|Born||27 March 1905
Lüben, Silesia, German Empire
|Died||27 January 1980
Munich, West Germany
|Buried at||Munich Ostfriedhof
Plot 152—Row 1—Grave 1
|Years of service||1923–45|
|Unit||Abwehr, Army Group Center|
|Battles/wars||World War II, Invasion of Poland, Battle of France, Operation Barbarossa, Eastern Front, Battle of Normandy, Falaise pocket|
|Awards||Iron Cross First Class
Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross
Großes Verdienstkreuz (Great Cross of Merit)
|Other work||Order of St. John, Johanniter-Unfall-Hilfe (1952–63 chairman)|
Rudolf Christoph Freiherr (Baron) von Gersdorff (27 March 1905 – 27 January 1980) was an officer in the German Army. He attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler by suicide bombing in March 1943; the plan failed but he was undetected. That same month, soldiers from his unit discovered the mass graves of the Soviet-perpetrated Katyn massacre.
Rudolf Christoph von Gersdorff was born in the garrison city of Lüben (now Lubin, Poland) in the then-German province of Silesia. He was the second son of Captain (later Major General) Baron Ernst von Gersdorff and his spouse Christine (née Countess von Dohna-Schlodien). In 1934, von Gersdorff married Renata Kracker von Schwartzenfeldt (1913–1942), co-heiress to the rich Silesian industrialist family of von Kramsta, with whom he had one daughter.
Von Gersdorff attended schools in Lüben and joined the Reichswehr as an officer cadet in 1923. He received his initial military education in Breslau at the Kleinburg Barracks, where his forefathers had for generations served in the 1. Schlesisches Leibkürassier Regiment “Großer Kurfürst” (First Silesian Life Guards Cuirassier Regiment “The Great Elector”), later (post-1918) renamed the Reiterregiment 7 (Seventh Cavalry Regiment).
In 1926, von Gersdorff was promoted to second lieutenant, and in 1938 to Rittmeister (cavalry captain). The following year he graduated from the Prussian Military Academy in Berlin. In 1939, von Gersdorff’s unit was deployed in the German invasion of Poland, and he was subsequently in action as a general staff officer in the Battle of France.
In 1941, for Operation Barbarossa, he was transferred to Army Group Center, where he served as intelligence liaison with the Abwehr (German military intelligence). His cousin Fabian von Schlabrendorff had arranged this as a means to bring von Gersdorff into the resistance group active under Colonel Henning von Tresckow.
In April 1943, while he was an Army Group Center intelligence staff officer, von Gersdorff supervised the excavation of the mass graves of the Katyn massacre, which contained the remains of over 4,000 Polish officers shot by the NKVD in 1940.
In 1944, von Gersdorff was transferred to the Atlantic Wall. Later that year he was decorated with the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross for his planning of the escape of the main German force from the Falaise pocket. In 1945, he was promoted to Major General, and was later captured by the Americans; he was released in 1947.
During the war, von Gersdorff was decorated with some of the highest awards bestowed on German soldiers, including the Iron Cross First Class, for his performance of duty under fire and extraordinary bravery.
Conspiracy to assassinate Hitler
After becoming close friends with leading Army Group Center conspirator Colonel (later Major-General) Henning von Tresckow, von Gersdorff agreed to join the conspiracy to kill Adolf Hitler. After von Tresckow’s elaborate plan to assassinate Hitler on 13 March 1943 failed, von Gersdorff declared himself ready to give his life for Germany’s sake in an assassination attempt that would entail his own death.
On 21 March 1943, Hitler visited the Zeughaus Berlin, the old armory on Unter den Linden, to inspect captured Soviet weapons. A group of top Nazi and leading military officials—among them Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, and Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz—were present as well. As an expert, von Gersdorff was to guide Hitler on a tour of the exhibition. Moments after Hitler entered the museum, von Gersdorff set off two ten-minute delayed fuses on explosive devices hidden in his coat pockets. His plan was to throw himself around Hitler in a death embrace that would blow them both up. A detailed plan for a coup d'état had been worked out and was ready to go; but, contrary to expectations, Hitler raced through the museum in less than ten minutes. After he had left the building, von Gersdorff was able to defuse the devices in a public bathroom “at the last second.” After the attempt, von Gersdorff was immediately transferred back to the Eastern Front where he managed to evade suspicion.
Prior to the 20 July plot, von Gersdorff also had hidden the explosives and fuses that another conspirator, Wessel von Freytag-Loringhoven, managed to procure from the Abwehr’s cache of captured British weapons and which Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg was to use in his attempt to kill Hitler. Thanks to the silence of his imprisoned and tortured co-conspirators, von Gersdorff was able to escape arrest and certain execution. As a result, he was one of the few German military anti-Hitler plotters to survive the war (others included Axel Freiherr von dem Bussche-Streithorst and Eberhard von Breitenbuch).
After the war, Von Gersdorff tried to join the Bundeswehr, the armed forces of postwar West Germany. Despite his distinguished record and decorations, his attempts were opposed by Hans Globke, the powerful head of the German Chancellery and confidant of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, and by various former Wehrmacht officers in the Bundeswehr who did not want a “betrayer” in their midst. He thus was prevented from resuming his military career.
Von Gersdorff later dedicated his life to charity in the Order of St. John. He was a founding president of the Johanniter-Unfall-Hilfe, which he chaired from 1952 to 1963. In 1979 he was awarded the Großes Verdienstkreuz (Grand Cross of Merit), one of the eight classes of West Germany’s only state decoration, in recognition of his accomplishments.
A riding accident in 1967 left Von Gersdorff paraplegic for the last twelve years of his life, during which he wrote and published his military memoirs. He died in Munich, Bavaria, in 1980, at the age of 74.
- Moorhouse, Roger. Killing Hitler. Jonathan Cape, London: 2006. ISBN 0-224-07121-1, ISBN 978-0-224-07121-5.
- Fest, Joachim. Plotting Hitler’s Death: The Story of German Resistance. ISBN 0-8050-5648-3.
- Von Schlabrendorff, Fabian. Simon, Hilda, translator. The Secret War Against Hitler (Der Widerstand: Dissent and Resistance in the Third Reich). Westview Press, September 1994. ISBN 0-8133-2190-5.
- Von Gersdorff, Rudolf Christoph Freiherr. Soldat im Untergang (Soldier During the Downfall). Ullstein Taschenbuchverlag, November 1982. ISBN 3-548-34008-3 (ISBN ), ISBN 978-3-548-34008-1 (ISBN ). (German)
- Jacobsen, Hans-Adolf, ed. “Kaltenbrunner-Berichte an Bormann und Hitler über das Attentat vom 20. Juli 1944” (Kaltenbrunner’s Reports to Bormann and Hitler on 20 July 1944 Attempted Assassination) in Spiegelbild einer Verschwörung (Reflections of a Conspiracy). Busse-Seewald Verlag, 1983. ISBN 3-512-00657-4 (ISBN ), ISBN 978-3-512-00657-9 (ISBN ). (German)
- Short biography of von Gersdorff on the website of the Memorial to the German Resistance.
- Adam Basak (1993). Historia pewnej mistyfikacji: zbrodnia katyńska przed Trybunałem Norymberskim. Wydawn. Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego. p. 37. ISBN 978-83-229-0885-3. Retrieved 7 May 2011. (Also available at )
- Roger Moorhouse Killing Hitler (2006), pp.192-193.
- Chronology entry stating that von Gersdorff gave up the chairmanship of Johanniter-Unfall-Hilfe after serving for eleven years, on the organization’s website.
- Chronology entry stating that von Gersdorff was awarded the Großes Bundesverdienstkreuz, on the organization’s website.