Meet General Dietrich von Saucken.
This German General served in numerous battles of World War I and World War II, being decorated many times. He had a reputation for trying to save as many of his men as possible.
Few officers in the German Wehrmacht personified the aristocratic Prussian Junker-officer as did von Saucken. The monocle wearing general came from a long lineage of Prussian nobility dating back to the fourteenth century. He was one of the few high ranking members of the Wehrmacht who was neither intimidated by Hitler’s insane ravings nor hypnotized by his charisma when he – like many others- was summoned to the Fuehrer’s headquarters to explain why he had made a clever tactical withdrawal instead of ordering his troops to stay put and be massacred by vastly superior Russian forces.
Born 1892 in East Prussia as the son of a judge, von Saucken entered the Imperial Army in 1910 and served in the cavalry regiment “Kaiser Wilhelm I” as a Lieutenant. During WW I he was wounded seven times and finished the war with the rank of Captain. Between the wars he continued to serve with the Reichwehr in various cavalry detachments.
Dietrich von Sauken fought in Poland in 1939 with the cavalry (1st Cavalry Brigade). From fall 1940, he commanded the 4th Rifle Brigade (Schutzenbrigade 4) of 4th Panzer Division. He took the command of the division in December 1941. He was promoted to Major General in 1 January, 1942, but unfortunately he was wounded in the next day, a large chunk of his left eyebrow and forehead having to be removed. He came back to service in August 1942 to a post in training schools, was promoted to Lieutenant General in 1943.
In late 1944 he was G.O.C. Group von Sauken north of Minsk organising counterattacks to stop the Great Russian ‘Bagration’ Offensive. He commanded a Panzer Group on the Oder in 1945, and a Corps in East Prussia and South Poland consisting of the Grossdeutschland and Hermann Goring Divisions. In February 1945 von Sauken successfully smashed a way through the Russians, who had surrounded his command when the Vistula front collapsed, and led his Corps back to the Oder and safety near Steinau.
In February 1945, after 35 years’ loyal and distinguished service, he was sacked for insisting it was pointless to continue the War.
A month later he was reinstated as he was too good a general to do without.
Hitler summoned von Saucken to his bunker, gave him his orders – to defend Prussia against Russia.
Nervous glances were being exchanged by Hitler’s minions. Hitler didn’t appear to notice von Saucken had already openly displayed contempt for him.
He had strolled in casually, wearing his cavalry sword (forbidden in Hitler’s presence), and had given him a slightly apathetic military salute, instead of the Nazi salute which had been compulsory for all officers in Hitler’s presence since the previous year.
von Saucken was eyeing his boss with open loathing. Hitler casually threw in “and you will be reporting to Gauleiter Forster” – the local Nazi party leader.
This was not going to work with von Saucken. A Prussian general taking orders from some party functionary?
von Saucken gave Hitler a withering look. The facial equivalent of “get lost, corporal“. Hitler didn’t notice, he was staring at his maps on the table.
Dietrich von Saucken leaned over the table and slammed his hand down on it. That got Hitler’s attention.
von Saucken looked him in the eye and said “I have no intention, Herr Hitler, of taking orders from a gauleiter!”
I imagine one must have been able to hear a pin drop. Fegelein was shot for less than that. von Saucken had openly rebelled – refusing a direct order from Hitler and belittling him by addressing him as Herr Hitler and not, as regulations demanded, mein Führer.
There was silence for a while. Hitler said quietly “Alright Saucken, have command of it yourself“.
He waved the general away. von Saucken made a faint pretence of a bow (and again no Nazi salute), turned his back on Hitler and left, never to see him again.
What amazes me most about this story is that Hitler, the man who men feared to disobey or insult, simply caved in when confronted by a better man. And in front of his staff too. If more men had been like von Saucken then a whining talentless lazy brat like Hitler could have been stopped before he ruined his country.
von Saucken commanded his men with distinction to the very last day of the War. He was told to leave Prussia by ship during the evacuation, but carried on fighting, sending back injured men instead.
Just before the very end, a plane was sent for him to escape on so he could avoid Russian captivity. He refused to leave his men, and sent the plane back with injured soldiers on it instead.
On the 8th of May, the official end of the War in Europe, he was given his final military decoration, and was the final German to be decorated in the War.
Predictably, the Russians treated him vilely. He would have known that would happen when he refused to abandon his men. The physical tortures the Russians inflicted on him left him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
After ten years’ captivity, Dietrich von Saucken was repatriated and retired to Bavaria, where he took up painting.
He was a conservative, and probably somewhat nationalistic. He wasn’t a resistance fighter, he had no known involvement with the von Stauffenberg plotters, so he won’t be on any German stamps.
He represented the very best of the traditional German cavalryman, and that if the rest of the German armed forces had been made of men like Dietrich von Saucken, there would have been no war crimes, no crimes against humanity, probably no Second World War at all.