The 1940 Field Marshal Ceremony refers to a promotion ceremony held at the Kroll Opera House in Berlin in which Adolf Hitler promoted twelve generals to the rank of Generalfeldmarschall (“field marshal“) on 19 July 1940. It was the first occasion in World War II that Hitler appointed field marshals due to military achievements.
The prestigious rank of field marshal had been banned after the First World War. As part of German re-armament, the rank was revived. Hitler promoted twelve selected generals to field marshal during the ceremony in Berlin for their role in the swift victory in the Battle of France and to raise morale. The ceremony highlighted the power and prestige of the Wehrmacht; France was considered to have had the strongest army in Europe, yet had been humiliatingly defeated in just six weeks. The ceremony was the first time Hitler appointed field marshals due to military achievements and was celebrated like no other promotion ceremony of the war.
After World War I, the prestigious rank of field marshal was banned in the Weimar Republic, alongside other restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles. After Hitler and the NS Party came to national power in January 1933, they began an expansion of the military; it was part of Hitler’s desire to restore the army’s power and prestige. In 1936, he revived the rank of field marshal. It was the highest and most prestigious military rank in Germany, originally only for the use of the Minister of War and Commander-in-Chief of the Army. The traditional attribute distinguishing a German field marshal was an ornately decorated baton. More tangible benefits included a yearly salary of 36,000 Reichsmarks for life (a Field Marshal was considered to ever remain on active duty) and all earnings being exempt from income tax.
Flushed with enthusiasm by the swift defeat of the French army, considered to have been the strongest in Europe, and the Low Countries in June 1940, Hitler wanted to mark the occasion with a grand promotion ceremony. He also hoped the promotions would strengthen his influence over the traditional German General Staff. The twelve generals chosen for promotion, who all had played an important role in the victory, were (with the position they occupied during the Battle of France):
- Colonel General Walther von Brauchitsch, Commander-in-chief of the Army
- Colonel General Fedor von Bock, Commander of Army Group B
- General of the Aviators Albert Kesselring, Commander of Air Fleet 2
- Colonel General Wilhelm Keitel, Chief of Staff of Hitler’s Armed Forces High Command and de facto Minister for War
- Colonel General Günther von Kluge, Commander of the 4th Army
- Colonel General Wilhelm von Leeb, Commander of Army Group C
- Colonel General Wilhelm List, Commander of the 12th Army
- Colonel General Erhard Milch, Chief Under-Secretary of State in the Reich Aviation Ministry (de facto Air Force High Command)
- Colonel General Walther von Reichenau, Commander of the 6th Army
- Colonel General Gerd von Rundstedt, Commander of Army Group A
- General of the Aviators Hugo Sperrle, Commander of Air Fleet 3
- Colonel General Erwin von Witzleben, Commander of the 1st Army
In particular, all Army Group commanders were promoted Field Marshal. In the case of Kesselring and Sperrle, the rank of Colonel General was bypassed. The commanders-in-chief of Navy and Air Force, Erich Raeder and Hermann Göring respectively, were not promoted Field Marshals because they already held the rank (or its equivalent Grand Admiral respectively). Given that Field Marshal was no longer an as exceptional rank as it was before, Göring, however, to satisfy his thirst for prestige, was promoted to the specially created rank of Reich Marshal. This made made Göring the senior officer of the military, without, however, making him an actual superior of Army and Navy. It was the only award of this rank during the era, and it was abolished after the fall of the regime.
On 19 July 1940, Hitler summoned the generals to a ceremony in Berlin’s Kroll Opera House (which housed the Reichstag after the Reichstag fire). After a speech regarding a peace proposal directed at Britain, Hitler personally rewarded his generals with their expensively decorated batons, and thanked them for their contributions to the victory.
The 1940 Field Marshal Ceremony was the first occasion Hitler appointed field marshals due to military achievements and was celebrated like no other promotion ceremony in Germany. The remaining five years of the war saw an additional twelve promotions, most of which were without ceremony, such as Friedrich Paulus‘s promotion, which was conferred over the radio by Hitler.
All of the generals promoted went on to achieve further success in their careers during the early years of victory which the German military obtained in the Second World War. Brauchitsch, Bock, Kesselring, Keitel, Leeb, List, Reichenau, Rundstedt, and Göring would all play decisive and important roles in the German-led Axis invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Sperrle spent the rest of the war in semi-retirement, based with his unit in France. Milch was transferred to the production department and was responsible for aircraft production until the end of the war. In 1943, after a series of German defeats on the Eastern Front, and the Allied invasion of Italy, the German military lost all initiative. Hitler’s leadership became increasingly disconnected from reality as the war turned against Germany, with the military’s defensive strategies often hindered by his slow decision making and frequent directives to hold untenable positions. His response to the worsening war situation was to unceremoniously sack general after general, a routine which ultimately affected the field marshals promoted at the ceremony. Erwin von Witzleben and Günther von Kluge were both involved in the 20 July Plot to assassinate Hitler. After it became clear that the assassination attempt had failed, Kluge committed suicide by taking cyanide poison on 17 August 1944. Witzleben, who was to become Commander-in-Chief of the Wehrmacht if the attempt had succeeded, was arrested and sentenced to death; the execution was carried out on 8 August 1944.
Hitler Giving Out Batons To New Field Marshals.
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