World War II: Colonel General Ludwig Beck

Colonel General Ludwig Beck. Photograph Courtesy of Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive), Bild 183-C13564

Early Career

Born at Biebrich, Germany, Ludwig Beck received a traditional education before entering the German Army in 1898 as a cadet. Rising through the ranks, Beck was recognized as a gifted officer and was tapped for staff service. With the outbreak of World War I, he was assigned to the Western Front where he spent the conflict as a staff officer. With the German defeat in 1918, Beck was retained in the small postwar Reichswehr. Continuing to advance, he later received command of the 5th Artillery Regiment.

Beck's Rise to Prominence

In 1930, while in this assignment, Beck came to the defense of three of his officers who were charged with distributing Nazi propaganda on post. As membership in political parties was forbidden by Reichswehr regulations, the three men faced a court-martial. Angered, Beck passionately spoke on behalf of his men arguing that the Nazis were a force for good in Germany and that officers should be able to join the party. In the course of the trials, Beck met and impressed Adolf Hitler. Over the next two years, he worked to write a new operations manual for the Reichswehr entitled Truppenführung.

The work earned Beck a great deal of respect and he was given command of the 1st Cavalry Division in 1932 along with a promotion to lieutenant general. Eager to see German prestige and power returned to prewar levels, Beck celebrated the Nazi ascent to power in 1933 stating, "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." With Hitler in power, Beck was elevated to lead the Truppenamt (Troop Office) on October 1, 1933.

Beck as Chief of Staff

As the Treaty of Versailles prohibited the Reichswehr from having a General Staff, this office served as a shadow organization that fulfilled a similar function. In this role, Beck worked to rebuild the German military and pushed to develop new armored forces. As German rearmament moved forward, he was officially titled Chief of the General Staff in 1935. Working an average of ten hours a day, Beck was known as an intelligent officer, but one that often became obsessed by administrative details. A political player, he worked to expand his post's power and sought the ability to directly advise the Reich leadership.

Though he believed that Germany should fight a major war or series of war to restore its place as a power in Europe, he felt that these should not occur until the military was fully prepared. Despite this, he strongly backed Hitler's move to reoccupy the Rhineland in 1936. As the 1930s progressed, Beck became increasingly concerned that Hitler would force a conflict before the military was ready. As a result, he initially refused to write plans for the invasion of Austria in May 1937 as he felt it would provoke a war with Britain and France.

Falling Out with Hitler

When the Anschluss failed to cause international protest in March 1938, he quickly developed the needed plans which were dubbed Case Otto. Though Beck foresaw a conflict to eliminate Czechoslovakia and officially advocated for action in the fall of 1937, he retained worries that Germany was not prepared for a major European war. Not believing Germany could win such a contest prior to 1940, he openly began advocating against a war with Czechoslovakia in May 1938. As the army's senior general, he challenged Hitler's belief that France and Britain would allow Germany a free hand.

The relationship between Beck and Hitler rapidly began to deteriorate aided by the latter's preference for the Nazi SS over the Wehrmacht. While Beck lobbied against what he believed would be a premature war, Hitler chastised him stating that he was "one of the officers still imprisoned in the idea of the hundred-thousand-man army" imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. Through the summer Beck continued to work to prevent a conflict while also attempting to reorganize the command structure as he felt it was Hitler's advisors that were pushing for war.

In an effort to increase pressure on the Nazi regime, Beck attempted to organize a mass resignation of senior Wehrmacht officers and issued instructions on July 29 that as well as preparing for foreign wars the army should be ready for "for an internal conflict which need only take place in Berlin." In early August, Beck suggested that several Nazi officials should be removed from power. On the 10th, his arguments against war were relentlessly attacked by Hitler at a meeting of senior generals. Unwilling to continue, Beck, now a colonel general, resigned on August 17.

Beck & Bringing Down Hitler

In exchange for resigning quietly, Hitler had promised Beck a field command but instead had him transferred to the retired list. Working with other anti-war and anti-Hitler officials, such as Carl Goerdeler, Beck and several others began planning to remove Hitler from power. Though they informed the British Foreign Office of their intentions, they were unable to prevent the signing of the Munich Agreement in late September. With the beginning of World War II in September 1939, Beck became a key player in various plots to remove the Nazi regime.

From the fall of 1939 through 1941, Beck worked with other anti-Nazi officials such as Goerdeler, Dr. Hjalmar Schacht, and Ulrich von Hassell in planning a coup to remove Hitler and make peace with Britain and France. In these scenarios, Beck would be the leader of the new German government. As these plans evolved, Beck was involved in two aborted attempts to kill Hitler with bombs in 1943. The following year, he became a key player, along with Goerdeler and Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, in what became known as the July 20 Plot. This plan called for Stauffenberg to kill Hitler with a bomb at the Wolf's Lair headquarters near Rastenburg.

Once Hitler was dead, the conspirators would use the German reserve forces to take control of the country and would form a new provisional government with Beck at its head. On July 20, Stauffenberg detonated the bomb but failed to kill Hitler. With the plot's failure, Beck was arrested by General Friedrich Fromm. Exposed and with no hope of escape, Beck elected to commit suicide later that day rather than face trial. Using a pistol, Beck fired but only managed to critically injure himself. As a result, a sergeant was forced to finish the job by shooting Beck in the back of the neck.

Selected Sources

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Colonel General Ludwig Beck." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, July 31). World War II: Colonel General Ludwig Beck. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Colonel General Ludwig Beck." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).