Kurt Gebhard Adolf Philipp Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord (September 26, 1878 – April 25, 1943) was a German general who served for a period as Commander-in-Chief of the Reichswehr. He is famous for being an ardent opponent of Hitler and the Nazi regime.
Born to a noble family in Hinrichshagen, Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Germany in 1878, Baron von Hammerstein-Equord joined the German Army on 15 March 1898. In 1907 Hammerstein married Maria von Lüttwitz, the daughter of Walther von Lüttwitz. He was attached to the General Staff during World War I and participated in the Battle of Turtucaia. Hammerstein-Equord was loyal to the Weimar Republic, opposing the Kapp-Lüttwitz putsch in 1920. He served as Chief of Staff of the 3rd Division from 1924, as Chief of Staff of the I Group Command in 1929, and as Head of Troops in the Office Ministry of War from 1929. A close friend of Kurt von Schleicher, he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Reichswehr in 1930, replacing General Wilhelm Heye.
Hammerstein-Equord had a reputation for independence and indolence, favoring hunting and shooting over the labors of administration. He told his friends that the only thing that hampered his career was “a need for personal comfort”. He was an aloof and sarcastic man, renowned for his cutting displays of disregard. Hammerstein-Equord regarded himself as a servant of the German state, not of its political parties. He was extremely hostile to the Nazi Party, referring to the Nazis as “that gang of criminals” and “those filthy pigs”, the latter an allusion to the homosexual tendencies of some SA leaders. He earned the nickname, “The Red General,” for fraternizing with the trade unions. Hammerstein-Equord personally warned Adolf Hitler in December 1932, against trying a coup by illegal means, promising that in that case he would give the order to shoot. He made reassurances to the same effect to the American Ambassador Frederic M. Sackett.
Hammerstein-Equord repeatedly warned President Paul von Hindenburg about the dangers of appointing Hitler as chancellor. In response, Hindenburg had assured Hammerstein-Equord, that “he would not even consider making that Austrian corporal the minister of defense or the chancellor”. Scarcely four days later, on 30 January 1933, pursuant to a request by Hindenburg, Hitler formed a cabinet as the German Chancellor and Nazi leader, in coalition with the conservative German National People’s Party. Owing to his opposition to Hitler, Hammerstein-Equord was forced to resign from his office on 31 January 1934. He was recalled to military service as General Officer Commanding Army Detachment A on 10 September 1939.
During World War II, Hammerstein-Equord was involved in several plots to overthrow Hitler. He tried repeatedly to lure Hitler into visiting a fortified base under his command along the Siegfried Line of the Western Front. He confided to retired former army chief of staff and leading conspirator Colonel-General Ludwig Beck that “a fatal accident will occur” when the Führer visits his base. But Hitler never accepted Hammerstein-Equord’s invitation. He was transferred to command in Wehrkreis (Defense District) VIII in Silesia, then relieved of his command on personal orders by Hitler, for his “negative attitude towards National Socialism”. He became active in the German Resistance, working with Carl Friedrich Goerdeler. Hammerstein-Equord died of cancer in Berlin on April 25, 1943. His family refused an official funeral at Berlin Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery because this would have meant that his coffin would have been covered by the Reichskriegsflagge with the swastika. Thus, he was buried at the family’s graveyard in Steinhorst, Lower Saxony. Hitler ordered the sending of a wreath with a message of condolence, but the wreath was not on display at the funeral because it had been “forgotten” in the Berlin subway by Hammerstein’s family.
Heinrich Brüning, leader of the Catholic Center party, who served as German chancellor between 1930 and 1932, called Hammerstein-Equord “the only man who could remove Hitler — a man without nerves”. According to the reminiscences of his son Kunrat von Hammerstein, Hammerstein-Equord resigned from the Club of Nobility when they threw out their non-Aryan members in 1934 or 1935, and spoke of “organized mass murder” of the Jews before the summer of 1942. He supplied his daughter Maria-Therese von Hammerstein-Paasche with the names of Jews who were scheduled for deportation or arrest, enabling her to warn or hide them. Two of his sons, Ludwig and Kunrat, took part in a failed plot to kill Hitler and replace the Nazi regime with a new government on 20 July 1944, fleeing Germany in its aftermath. His widow and two younger children were then deported to a concentration camp, and freed when the Allied Forces liberated the camps in 1945.
As Chief of the Army High Command, Hammerstein-Equord oversaw the composition of the German manual on military unit command (Truppenführung), dated 17 October 1933. He originated a special classification scheme for his men:
I divide my officers into four classes; the clever, the lazy, the industrious, and the stupid. Most often two of these qualities come together. The officers who are clever and industrious are fitted for the highest staff appointments. Those who are stupid and lazy make up around 90% of every army in the world, and they can be used for routine work. The man who is clever and lazy however is for the very highest command; he has the temperament and nerves to deal with all situations. But whoever is stupid and industrious is a menace and must be removed immediately!