September 5th in German History: The Birth of Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-L08126, Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb.jpg
Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb.

During the Second World War, all branches of the German military committed war crimes to some degree. Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb was a member of the old guard of the Wehrmacht who was fired by Hitler and who claimed to to have been innocent. He was born on September 5th, 1876.

Leeb was born in Landsberg am Lech, in Bavaria, in 1876. In 1895 he joined the Bavarian Army and fought in the Boxer Rebellion. He joined the Bavarian General Staff and in WWI served on the Eastern Front. He fought well in the campaign against Serbia and with Russia. In 1915 he was awarded the Military Order of Max Joseph and was thus made a noble. He stayed in the army after the war and in 1938 was made commander of the 12th Army. He opposed the plan to attack France through Belgium but nevertheless fought in the Battle of France. He was commander of Army Group North during Operation Barbarossa and was tasked with taking Leningrad. During the invasion Leeb’s men looted and burned Russian villages and shot civilians. Further, Leeb voiced little opposition when he learned of the systematic killing of Jewish civilians in conquered areas. Despite initial advances, Leningrad held out against German bombardment and starvation, and on December 15th, 1941, Leeb pulled his forced back without authorization in order to avoid encirclement. In January of 1942 Leeb asked for freedom of action or to be relieved; Hitler relieved him. After the war, Leeb was convicted of war crimes and served three years in prison. He retired to his estate after he was released and died in 1956.

Leeb’s complicity in war crimes is proof that at the highest positions of authority, it is next to impossible to be blameless when atrocities are committed. One has the duty to oppose such actions when one can; simply ignoring them is not enough.

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