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Wilhelm Josef Franz Ritter von Leeb (5 September 1876 – 29 April 1956) was a German
field marshal Field marshal (or field-marshal, abbreviated as FM) is the most senior military rank, ordinarily senior to the general officer ranks. Usually, it is the highest rank in an army and as such few persons are appointed to it. It is considered a ...
and war criminal in
World War II World War II or the Second World War, often abbreviated as WWII or WW2, was a world war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. It involved the vast majority of the world's countries—including all of the great powers—forming two opposing ...
. Leeb was a highly decorated officer in World War I and was awarded the
Military Order of Max Joseph The Military Order of Max Joseph (german: Militär-Max-Joseph-Orden) was the highest military order of the Kingdom of Bavaria. It was founded on 1 January 1806 by Maximilian I Joseph of Bavaria, the first king of Bavaria. The order came in t ...
which granted him the title of nobility. During the
Battle of France The Battle of France (french: bataille de France) (10 May – 25 June 1940), also known as the Western Campaign ('), the French Campaign (german: Frankreichfeldzug, ) and the Fall of France, was the German invasion of France during the Second Worl ...
, he commanded Army Group C, responsible for the breakthrough of the
Maginot Line The Maginot Line (french: Ligne Maginot, ), named after the French Minister of War André Maginot, is a line of concrete fortifications, obstacles and weapon installations built by France in the 1930s to deter invasion by Germany and force th ...
. During
Operation Barbarossa Operation Barbarossa (german: link=no, Unternehmen Barbarossa; ) was the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany and many of its Axis allies, starting on Sunday, 22 June 1941, during the Second World War. The operation, code-named afte ...
—the invasion of the
Soviet Union The Soviet Union,. officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. (USSR),. was a List of former transcontinental countries#Since 1700, transcontinental country that spanned much of Eurasia from 1922 to 1991. A flagship communist state, ...
—Leeb commanded
Army Group North Army Group North (german: Heeresgruppe Nord) was a German strategic formation, commanding a grouping of field armies during World War II. The German Army Group was subordinated to the ''Oberkommando des Heeres'' (OKH), the German army high comm ...
, which advanced through the
Baltic States The Baltic states, et, Balti riigid or the Baltic countries is a geopolitical term, which currently is used to group three countries: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. All three countries are members of NATO, the European Union, the Eurozon ...
towards Leningrad (present day St. Petersburg), eventually laying siege to the city. Units under Leeb’s command committed war crimes against the civilian population and closely cooperated with the SS ''
Einsatzgruppen (, ; also ' task forces') were (SS) paramilitary death squads of Nazi Germany that were responsible for mass murder, primarily by shooting, during World War II (1939–1945) in German-occupied Europe. The had an integral role in the impl ...
'', death squads primarily tasked with the murder of the Jewish population as part of the
Holocaust The Holocaust, also known as the Shoah, was the genocide of European Jews during World War II. Between 1941 and 1945, Nazi Germany and its collaborators systematically murdered some six million Jews across German-occupied Europe ...
. Leeb was a beneficiary of
Adolf Hitler Adolf Hitler (; 20 April 188930 April 1945) was an Austrian-born German politician who was dictator of Germany from 1933 until his death in 1945. He rose to power as the leader of the Nazi Party, becoming the chancellor in 1933 and then ...
's bribery scheme for senior Wehrmacht officers, receiving secret, extra-legal 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 convicted of transmitting the Barbarossa Decree and its criminal application by subordinate units and sentenced to three years' imprisonment time served.


Early life

Leeb was born in 1876 in Landsberg am Lech as Wilhelm Josef Franz Leeb into a
Roman Catholic Roman or Romans most often refers to: *Rome, the capital city of Italy * Ancient Rome, Roman civilization from 8th century BC to 5th century AD * Roman people, the people of ancient Rome *''Epistle to the Romans'', shortened to ''Romans'', a lett ...
family. Wilhelm joined the
Bavarian Army The Bavarian Army was the army of the Electorate (1682–1806) and then Kingdom (1806–1919) of Bavaria. It existed from 1682 as the standing army of Bavaria until the merger of the military sovereignty (''Wehrhoheit'') of Bavaria into that of ...
in 1895 and served in China during the
Boxer Rebellion The Boxer Rebellion, also known as the Boxer Uprising, the Boxer Insurrection, or the Yihetuan Movement, was an anti-foreign, anti-colonial, and anti-Christian uprising in China between 1899 and 1901, towards the end of the Qing dynasty, ...
. Between 1907 and 1913, he attended the Bavarian War Academy and served on the General Staff.


World War I and interwar period

At the outbreak of
World War I World War I (28 July 1914 11 November 1918), often abbreviated as WWI, was List of wars and anthropogenic disasters by death toll, one of the deadliest global conflicts in history. Belligerents included much of Europe, the Russian Empire, ...
, Leeb rejoined the Bavarian Army. He served on the Eastern Front, where he distinguished himself in the Gorlice–Tarnów Offensive, the capture of the fortress
Przemyśl Przemyśl (; yi, פשעמישל, Pshemishl; uk, Перемишль, Peremyshl; german: Premissel) is a city in southeastern Poland with 58,721 inhabitants, as of December 2021. In 1999, it became part of the Subcarpathian Voivodeship; it was pr ...
and the campaign in Serbia. In 1915, he was awarded the
Military Order of Max Joseph The Military Order of Max Joseph (german: Militär-Max-Joseph-Orden) was the highest military order of the Kingdom of Bavaria. It was founded on 1 January 1806 by Maximilian I Joseph of Bavaria, the first king of Bavaria. The order came in t ...
, the receipt of which conferred a title of nobility. Leeb's surname changed to "
Ritter Ritter (German for "knight") is a designation used as a title of nobility in German-speaking areas. Traditionally it denotes the second-lowest rank within the nobility, standing above " Edler" and below "Freiherr" (Baron). As with most titles a ...
von Leeb". After the war, Leeb remained in the ''
Reichswehr ''Reichswehr'' () was the official name of the German armed forces during the Weimar Republic and the first years of the Third Reich. After Germany was defeated in World War I, the Imperial German Army () was dissolved in order to be reshaped ...
'', the army of the
Weimar Republic The Weimar Republic (german: link=no, Weimarer Republik ), officially named the German Reich, was the government of Germany from 1918 to 1933, during which it was a constitutional federal republic for the first time in history; hence it is al ...
. Before the rise of
Adolf Hitler Adolf Hitler (; 20 April 188930 April 1945) was an Austrian-born German politician who was dictator of Germany from 1933 until his death in 1945. He rose to power as the leader of the Nazi Party, becoming the chancellor in 1933 and then ...
to power, Leeb commanded the military district covering Bavaria. In July 1938, Leeb was given command of the 12th Army, which took part in the occupation of the Sudetenland.


World War II

At the start of
World War II World War II or the Second World War, often abbreviated as WWII or WW2, was a world war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. It involved the vast majority of the world's countries—including all of the great powers—forming two opposing ...
, the 63-year-old Ritter von Leeb was the second-oldest general, after
Gerd von Rundstedt Karl Rudolf Gerd von Rundstedt (12 December 1875 – 24 February 1953) was a German field marshal in the '' Heer'' (Army) of Nazi Germany during World War II. Born into a Prussian family with a long military tradition, Rundstedt entered th ...
, who was 64. In the summer of 1939, Leeb was given command of Army Group C and promoted to ''
Generaloberst A ("colonel general") was the second-highest general officer rank in the German '' Reichswehr'' and ''Wehrmacht'', the Austro-Hungarian Common Army, the East German National People's Army and in their respective police services. The rank was ...
'' on 1 November 1939. He opposed the plans for the 1940 offensive through the neutral Low Countries and wrote, "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 the battle, his troops broke through the
Maginot Line The Maginot Line (french: Ligne Maginot, ), named after the French Minister of War André Maginot, is a line of concrete fortifications, obstacles and weapon installations built by France in the 1930s to deter invasion by Germany and force th ...
. Leeb was promoted to the rank of ''
Generalfeldmarschall ''Generalfeldmarschall'' (from Old High German ''marahscalc'', "marshal, stable master, groom"; en, general field marshal, field marshal general, or field marshal; ; often abbreviated to ''Feldmarschall'') was a rank in the armies of several ...
'' during the
1940 Field Marshal Ceremony 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 oc ...
and was awarded the
Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross The Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross (german: Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes), or simply the Knight's Cross (), and its variants, were the highest awards in the military and paramilitary forces of Nazi Germany during World War II. The Knight' ...
.


Invasion of the Soviet Union

During
Operation Barbarossa Operation Barbarossa (german: link=no, Unternehmen Barbarossa; ) was the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany and many of its Axis allies, starting on Sunday, 22 June 1941, during the Second World War. The operation, code-named afte ...
, the planned invasion of the
Soviet Union The Soviet Union,. officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. (USSR),. was a List of former transcontinental countries#Since 1700, transcontinental country that spanned much of Eurasia from 1922 to 1991. A flagship communist state, ...
, Leeb was given command of
Army Group North Army Group North (german: Heeresgruppe Nord) was a German strategic formation, commanding a grouping of field armies during World War II. The German Army Group was subordinated to the ''Oberkommando des Heeres'' (OKH), the German army high comm ...
to invade the
Baltic states The Baltic states, et, Balti riigid or the Baltic countries is a geopolitical term, which currently is used to group three countries: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. All three countries are members of NATO, the European Union, the Eurozon ...
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.


Baltic states

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 by capturing
Kaunas Kaunas (; ; also see other names) is the second-largest city in Lithuania after Vilnius and an important centre of Lithuanian economic, academic, and cultural life. Kaunas was the largest city and the centre of a county in the Duchy of Trak ...
and
Riga Riga (; lv, Rīga , liv, Rīgõ) is the capital and largest city of Latvia and is home to 605,802 inhabitants which is a third of Latvia's population. The city lies on the Gulf of Riga at the mouth of the Daugava river where it meets the Ba ...
by 1 July. 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 both men agreed it might be "more humane" to sterilise the Jewish men. Leeb approved of the killing of Jewish men and claimed their crimes during the Soviet occupation of Lithuania justified it 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 secret extra-legal payments from the ''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. 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 Latvian–Russian border in early July 1941. At the same time, ''
Oberkommando des Heeres The (; abbreviated OKH) was the high command of the Army of Nazi Germany. It was founded in 1935 as part of Adolf Hitler's rearmament of Germany. OKH was ''de facto'' the most important unit within the German war planning until the defeat at ...
'' (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 Army Group Centre (german: Heeresgruppe Mitte) was the name of two distinct strategic German Army Groups that fought on the Eastern Front in World War II. The first Army Group Centre was created on 22 June 1941, as one of three German Army fo ...
, leaving Leeb to pursue his objectives,
Novgorod Veliky Novgorod ( rus, links=no, Великий Новгород, t=Great Newtown, p=vʲɪˈlʲikʲɪj ˈnovɡərət), also known as just Novgorod (), is the largest city and administrative centre of Novgorod Oblast, Russia. It is one of the ol ...
,
Pskov Pskov ( rus, Псков, a=pskov-ru.ogg, p=pskof; see also names in other languages) is a city in northwestern Russia and the administrative center of Pskov Oblast, located about east of the Estonian border, on the Velikaya River. Populatio ...
and Luga, as well as
Estonia Estonia, formally the Republic of Estonia, is a country by the Baltic Sea in Northern Europe. It is bordered to the north by the Gulf of Finland across from Finland, to the west by the sea across from Sweden, to the south by Latvia, and to ...
, 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 The Workers' and Peasants' Red Army ( Russian: Рабо́че-крестья́нская Кра́сная армия),) often shortened to the Red Army, was the army and air force of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and, afte ...
would not affect his operations. In contrast to those expectations, the marshy terrain around
Lake Ilmen Lake Ilmen ( rus, И́льмень, p=ˈilʲmʲɪnʲ) is a large lake in the Novgorod Oblast of Russia. A historically important lake, it formed a vital part of the medieval trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks. The city of Novgorod - wh ...
and fierce Red Army counterattacks prevented a quick advance. By early August, Army Group North was seriously overextended, having advanced on a widening front and dispersed its forces on several axes of advance. Leeb estimated that he needed 35 divisions for all of his tasks, but 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 Kingisepp (russian: Ки́нгисепп or ), formerly Yamburg (), Yam (), and Yama (; Votic: ), is an ancient town and the administrative center of Kingiseppsky District of Leningrad Oblast, Russia, located along the Luga River southwest ...
and
Narva Narva, russian: Нарва is a municipality and city in Estonia. It is located in Ida-Viru county, at the eastern extreme point of Estonia, on the west bank of the Narva river which forms the Estonia–Russia international border. With 5 ...
on 17 August. The army group reached Chudovo on 20 August, severing the rail link between Leningrad and Moscow.
Tallinn Tallinn () is the most populous and capital city of Estonia. Situated on a bay in north Estonia, on the shore of the Gulf of Finland of the Baltic Sea, Tallinn has a population of 437,811 (as of 2022) and administratively lies in the Harju ' ...
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 that "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, but 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 Soviet population. Leeb ordered the artillery to fire at any civilians trying to escape from the encircled city so that 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. The 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 The Romani (also spelled Romany or Rromani , ), colloquially known as the Roma, are an Indo-Aryan ethnic group, traditionally nomadic itinerants. They live in Europe and Anatolia, and have diaspora populations located worldwide, with s ...
, 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 The Volkhov (russian: Во́лхов) is a river in Novgorodsky and Chudovsky Districts of Novgorod Oblast and Kirishsky and Volkhovsky Districts of Leningrad Oblast in northwestern Russia. It connects Lake Ilmen and Lake Ladoga and forms ...
without prior authorisation from OKH. Leeb gained approval for the measure the following day in a personal meeting with Hitler in the ''
Wolfsschanze The ''Wolf's Lair'' (german: Wolfsschanze; pl, Wilczy Szaniec) served as Adolf Hitler's first Eastern Front military headquarters in World War II. The headquarters was located in the Masurian woods, near the small village of Görlitz in Ost ...
''. On 15 January 1942, Leeb asked Hitler to give him freedom of action or to relieve him of his command. Hitler chose the latter, and Küchler assumed command of Army Group North. Hitler never employed Leeb again, but Hitler's gratitude lasted until he killed himself in April 1945. After Leeb joined the '' Führerreserve'' in 1942, Leeb turned to Hans Heinrich Lammers and indicated that in addition to his estate at Solln on the outskirts of Munich, he wanted an estate in the countryside. Hitler promptly presented him with one at Seestetten, near
Passau Passau (; bar, label=Central Bavarian, Båssa) is a city in Lower Bavaria, Germany, also known as the Dreiflüssestadt ("City of Three Rivers") as the river Danube is joined by the Inn from the south and the Ilz from the north. Passau's po ...
. According to ''
Gauleiter A ''Gauleiter'' () was a regional leader of the Nazi Party (NSDAP) who served as the head of a '' Gau'' or ''Reichsgau''. ''Gauleiter'' was the third-highest rank in the Nazi political leadership, subordinate only to '' Reichsleiter'' and to t ...
'' (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 Military justice (also military law) is the legal system (bodies of law and procedure) that governs the conduct of the active-duty personnel of the armed forces of a country. In some nation-states, civil law and military law are distinct bod ...
in
Nuremberg Nuremberg ( ; german: link=no, Nürnberg ; in the local East Franconian dialect: ''Nämberch'' ) is the second-largest city of the German state of Bavaria after its capital Munich, and its 518,370 (2019) inhabitants make it the 14th-largest c ...
in the High Command Trial. Leeb's defence attorney Hans Laternser acted as the de facto lead defence counsel and often represented other parties in matters of procedure. He defended the overall "decency" of the German officer corps and interpreted that it had displayed respect for the laws of war. The defence attributed the actions of the German military against civilians, hostages and partisans to battle conditions and military necessity. Addressing the criminal orders that Leeb and other defendants had passed on, Laternser claimed that Leeb was a humane soldier who had neither seen nor transmitted such orders and had no opportunity to countermand them. He claimed that Leeb knew nothing of the activities of the ''Einsatzgruppen'' in his area of command and anyway had no jurisdiction to stop them. 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: "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 West Germany is the colloquial term used to indicate the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG; german: Bundesrepublik Deutschland , BRD) between its formation on 23 May 1949 and the German reunification through the accession of East Germany on 3 O ...
in the 1950s and the 1960s. Leeb was found guilty on one of four charges; he was convicted of transmitting the Barbarossa Decree and its criminal application by subordinate units. He was sentenced to time served and was released after trial. The sentence was lighter than those of other convicted defendants. The judgement stated, "No criminal order has been introduced nto evidencethat bears his signature or stamp of his approval". After Leeb was released, he returned to his estate in Hohenschwangau,
Bavaria Bavaria ( ; ), officially the Free State of Bavaria (german: Freistaat Bayern, link=no ), is a state in the south-east of Germany. With an area of , Bavaria is the largest German state by land area, comprising roughly a fifth of the total lan ...
. He died of a heart attack in 1956 in
Füssen Füssen is a town in Bavaria, Germany, in the district of Ostallgäu, situated one kilometre from the Austrian border. The town is known for violin manufacturing and as the closest transportation hub for the Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau ca ...
and was buried in the Solln Waldfriedhof.


References


Citations


Bibliography

* * Originally published as: * * * * * * * * * * * * *


External links


High Command Trial, Judgment of 27 October 1948
* {{DEFAULTSORT:Leeb, Wilhelm Ritter Von 1876 births 1956 deaths German Army World War II field marshals German military personnel of the Boxer Rebellion Recipients of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross German people convicted of crimes against humanity People convicted by the United States Nuremberg Military Tribunals Recipients of the Military Order of Max Joseph People from Landsberg am Lech Military personnel from Bavaria