Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb
Wilhelm von Leeb
Leeb in 1940
Wilhelm Josef Franz Leeb
5 September 1876
|Died||29 April 1956 (aged 79)|
|Criminal charge||War crimes|
|Trial||High Command Trial|
|Years of service||1895–1938 |
|Commands held||Army Group North|
Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb (5 September 1876 – 29 April 1956) was a German field marshal and World War II war criminal. During Operation Barbarossa—the invasion of the Soviet Union—Leeb commanded Army Group North, which advanced through the Baltic States towards Leningrad, eventually laying siege to the city. Units under Leeb’s command committed atrocities against the civilian population and closely cooperated with the SS Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing squads primarily tasked with the murder of the Jewish population as part of the Holocaust.
Leeb was a beneficiary of Adolf Hitler's corruption scheme for senior Wehrmacht officers, receiving regular, extra-legal, secret payments throughout the war, and one-time gifts of 250,000 Reichsmark in 1941 and of an estate valued at 638,000 Reichsmark in 1943. Following the war, Leeb was tried in the High Command Trial as part of the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials. He was found guilty and sentenced to three years' imprisonment.
World War I
Leeb was born in 1876 in Landsberg am Lech as Wilhelm Josef Franz Leeb. He joined the Bavarian Army in 1895 and served in China during the Boxer Rebellion. Between 1907 and 1913, he attended the Bavarian War Academy and served on the General Staff. At the outbreak of World War I, Leeb rejoined the Bavarian Army. He served on the Eastern Front, where he distinguished himself at the battle of Gorlice-Tarnow, the capture of the fortress Przemyśl and the campaign in Serbia. In 1915, he was awarded the Military Order of Max Joseph, the receipt of which conferred a title of nobility; Leeb's surname changed to "Ritter von Leeb". After the war, Leeb remained in the Reichswehr, the army of the Weimar Republic. Before the rise of Adolf Hitler to power, Leeb commanded the military district covering Bavaria.
World War II
In July 1938 Leeb was given command of the 12th Army, which took part in the seizure of the Sudetenland. At the start of the war, the 63 years old Leeb was the second oldest general after Gerd von Rundstedt, who was 64 years old. In the summer of 1939, Leeb was given command of Army Group C and promoted to Generaloberst on 1 November 1939. He opposed the plans for the 1940 offensive through the neutral Low Countries writing, "The whole world will turn against Germany, which for the second time within 25 years assaults neutral Belgium! Germany, whose government solemnly vouched for and promised the preservation of and respect for this neutrality only a few weeks ago". During that battle, his troops broke through the Maginot Line. Leeb was promoted to the rank of Field Marshal during the 1940 Field Marshal Ceremony and was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross.
Invasion of the Soviet Union
During Operation Barbarossa—the planned invasion of the Soviet Union—Leeb was given command of Army Group North to invade the Baltic states and to capture Leningrad. Leeb was one of more than 200 senior officers who on 30 March 1941 attended a speech in which Hitler laid out his plans for an ideological war of annihilation (Vernichtungskrieg) against the Soviet Union.
In June 1941, Army Group North, composed of the Panzer Group 4, the 16th Army and the 18th Army, overwhelmed Soviet border defences and rapidly advanced through the Baltic states, capturing Kaunas and Riga by 1 July that year. As commander of the army group, Leeb had jurisdiction over the area of military operations and over the Army Group North Rear Area. In late June and early July 1941, Franz von Roques, the Rear Area commander, informed Leeb of the massacres of Jews by Einsatzgruppe A, Lithuanian auxiliaries and the men of the 16th Army outside of Kaunas. Leeb noted in his diary afterwards that all he could do was to "keep one’s distance" and that the two men agreed it might be "more humane" to sterilize the Jewish men. Leeb approved of the killing of Jewish men, claiming their supposed crimes during the Soviet occupation of Lithuania justified this, but that the killing of women and children might have been excessive.
In early July, General Rudolf Schmundt, Hitler's aide responsible for the disbursing payments from Konto 5 fund, visited the headquarters of Army Group North. He told Leeb's staff the pogroms and the murder of the Jews by the Einsatzgruppe A were a "necessary cleaning up operation" and that "soldiers should not concern themselves with political matters". Leeb received 250,000 Reichsmark from the fund in September 1941 for his birthday. In the same month, Franz Walter Stahlecker, the commander of Einsatzgruppe A, in a report to Berlin praised Army Group North for its exemplary co-operation with his men in murdering Jews in the Baltic states.
Advance on Leningrad
Soviet resistance stiffened significantly as the army group crossed the Latvia–Russia border in early July 1941. At the same time, Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH, German Army High Command) ordered that Panzer Group 3 was no longer to support Army Group North and was to focus solely on Army Group Centre, leaving Leeb to pursue his objectives—Novgorod, Pskov and Luga, as well as Estonia—without the support of an additional Panzer group. Leeb did not protest, presumably because he believed in the superiority of the German forces and that resistance by the Red Army would not affect his operations. In contrast to these expectations, marshy terrain around Lake Ilmen and fierce Red Army counter-attacks prevented a quick advance.
By early August, Army Group North was seriously over-extended, having advanced on a widening front and dispersed its forces on several axes of advance. Leeb estimated he needed 35 divisions for all of his tasks, while he only had 26. The attack resumed on 10 August but immediately encountered strong opposition around Luga. Elsewhere, Leeb's forces were able to take Kingisepp and Narva on 17 August. The army group reached Chudovo on 20 August, severing the rail link between Leningrad and Moscow. Tallinn fell on 28 August.
Units under Leeb's command engaged in widespread plunder of foodstuffs as they advanced. Excessive looting prompted Leeb to issue orders in an attempt to limit looting and destruction of property because they would impede the exploitation of the conquered lands. Leeb's order of 16 August 1941 stated, "the start-up work of the economic authorities is being rendered impossible by the senseless 'organisations' of the troops".
The last rail connection to Leningrad was cut on 30 August, when the German forces reached the River Neva. In early September, Leeb was confident Leningrad was about to fall. Having received reports on the evacuation of civilians and industrial goods, Leeb and the OKH believed the Red Army was preparing to abandon the city. Consequently, on 5 September, he received new orders, including the destruction of the Red Army forces around the city. By 15 September, Panzer Group 4 was to be transferred to Army Group Centre so it could participate in a renewed offensive towards Moscow. The expected surrender did not materialise although the renewed German offensive cut off the city by 8 September. Lacking sufficient strength for major operations, Leeb had to accept the army group might not be able to take the city, although hard fighting continued along his front throughout October and November.
Since September, the headquarters of the army group and OKH had pondered the fate of the city and what to do with the starving Russian population. Leeb ordered the artillery to fire at any civilians trying to escape from the encircled city so they would be killed out of view of the frontline infantry. In mid-November, the army group's war diary noted the artillery was preventing civilians from approaching the German lines. These operations led the command to ponder whether the shooting of unarmed civilians would lead to the "loss of inner balance". Senior officers were also concerned about "false" compassion that might affect the fighting qualities of their men. Forces under Leeb's command killed Romani people, handed others over to the units of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) and participated in the killing of mentally disabled people. In December 1941, with the express consent of 18th Army commander Georg von Küchler, SD personnel shot 240 patients in a psychiatric facility.
Relieved of command
On 15 December 1941, in the midst of the crisis of the Battle of Moscow, Leeb pulled back his forces on the northern wing to a line behind the Volkhov River without prior authorisation from OKH. Leeb gained approval for the measure the following day in a personal meeting with Hitler in the Wolfsschanze.
On 15 January 1942, Leeb asked Hitler to give him freedom of action or relieve him of his command; Hitler chose the latter and Küchler assumed command of Army Group North. Hitler never employed Leeb again, although his gratitude lasted until Hitler died in April 1945. After Leeb joined the Führerreserve in 1942, he turned to Hans Heinrich Lammers, indicating that in addition to his estate at Solln near Munich, he wanted an estate in the countryside. Hitler promptly presented him with one at Seestetten near Passau; according to Gauleiter (regional Nazi Party leader) Paul Giesler, it was worth an estimated minimum of 660,000 Reichsmarks.
Trial and conviction
Leeb was tried by the United States military tribunal in Nuremberg in the High Command Trial. Leeb's defence attorney Hans Laternser acted as the de-facto lead defence counsel, often representing other parties in matters of procedure. He defended the overall "decency" of the German officer corps who, in Laternser's interpretation, had displayed respect for the laws of war.
The defence attributed the actions of the German military vis-a-vis civilians, hostages and partisans to battle conditions and military necessity. Addressing the criminal orders Leeb and other defendants had passed on, Laternser claimed Leeb was a humane soldier who had neither seen nor transmitted such orders and had no opportunity to countermand them. He claimed Leeb knew nothing of the activities of the Einsatzgruppen in his area of command and had had no jurisdiction to stop them even if he had known.
As the most senior officer of those on trial, Leeb presented a closing statement on behalf of the defendants. He stated the accused never compromised their soldierly principles and presented them as victims of history, saying, "No soldier in all the world has ever yet had to fight under such a load and tragedy". His statement presaged the narrative of victimisation prevalent in West Germany in the 1950s/60s.
Leeb was found guilty on one of four charges; he was convicted of transmitting the Barbarossa Jurisdiction Order and its criminal application by subordinate units. He was sentenced to time served and released after trial.  The sentence was lighter than those of other convicted defendants; the judgement stated, "[n]o criminal order has been introduced [into evidence] that bears his signature or stamp of his approval".
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