SOME HISTORICAL FIGURES JUST DON’T SEEM TO FIT. Their timing is off. They march left when everyone else turns right, and they stand up when everyone else sits down.
Take General Walther von Seydlitz-Kurzbach of the Wehrmacht. Scion of an old Prussian noble family, Seydlitz was a tough guy who didn’t suffer fools gladly, and who usually told them so. He had it in his blood: he was the direct descendant of General Friedrich Wilhelm von Seydlitz, who once angrily told off Frederick the Great when the Prussian king was micromanaging him during the Battle of Zorndorf.
In World War II, Seydlitz was a skilled field commander, distinguishing himself at the Demyansk Pocket and Stalingrad. At the latter, he commanded the oversize LI Corps, which eventually comprised no fewer than nine divisions—one of the largest corps in the war and a virtual army in its own right.
Stalingrad was his turning point. Left to dangle on the end of an untenable supply line, burning through his fuel, ammo, and infantry, facing a Soviet foe who obviously outclassed his own force in numbers and materiel, Seydlitz began to have real doubts about Hitler’s conduct of the war. When the Red Army launched its great counterstroke at Stalingrad, surrounding the German Sixth Army (Seydlitz’s parent command), those doubts crystallized into something closer to rage. Seydlitz demanded a breakout from the encirclement, but Hitler refused. A breakout would look too much like a retreat. Sixth Army would stay where it was, be supplied from the air, and wait to be relieved. But air supply barely made a dent in the army’s requirements, and no relief came. Along with 90,000 of his starving German comrades, Seydlitz marched off into Soviet captivity in February 1943.
Until then, Seydlitz was not an atypical German general, many of whom were grumbling about Hitler by 1943. What he did next, however, stamped him as a loner for the rest of his life. He switched sides, cooperating with his Soviet captors and helping to form a turncoat “League of German Officers.” He wrote pamphlets and made broadcasts calling on German soldiers to desert, or to boot Hitler out of office before he ruined Germany. Seydlitz became an instant outcast. Fellow generals denounced him as a traitor and a coward, and Hitler condemned him to death in absentia. Rumor was that Seydlitz had become a Communist, or perhaps had always been one.
But Seydlitz was no Communist. In fact, his captors tried to get him to join the party, but he refused. His only goal, he said, was to save Germany by hastening the end of the war. His refusal didn’t sit well with Moscow. The Soviets kept him in prison after 1945, and in 1950 Stalin, too, had him condemned to death, a sentence later commuted. He eventually returned to West Germany, where, in the Cold War era, his record of collaboration with the Soviets made him suspect. He lived a quiet life. A West German court nullified his death sentence in 1956 and post-Soviet Russia gave him a posthumous pardon 40 years later. Unlike so many of his fellow generals, he published no memoirs in his lifetime. Perhaps he saw no need to justify himself.
Sure, we can criticize Seydlitz. He liked Hitler just fine when the war was going well, and broke with him only when things went south. As for thinking that he could get Germany a better deal by cooperating with the Soviets—well, that just seems naïve. But let’s give the man his due: he marched to his own drummer, out of step with all the others.
Anyone sentenced to death by both Hitler and Stalin must have something going for him. ✯