During 1938 and 1939 Beck and other senior officers were hatching plots to remove Hitler from power if he provoked a new war with Britain and France over Czechoslovakia or Poland, a war they were convinced Germany would lose. Rundstedt was aware of these plots, and Beck tried to recruit him to the plotters’ ranks, knowing of his disdain for the Nazi regime. But Rundstedt stuck firmly to his position that officers should not be involved in politics, no matter how grave the issues at stake. On the other hand, he did not report these approaches to Hitler or the Gestapo, then or later. From a purely military point of view, Rundstedt was apprehensive about Hitler’s plans to attack Czechoslovakia, since he believed that Britain and France would intervene and Germany would be defeated.
Brauchitsch lacked the courage to oppose Hitler directly, but agreed to Beck’s request for a meeting of senior commanders. At the meeting widespread opposition to Hitler’s plans to coerce Czechoslovakia over the Sudetenland issue was expressed. Beck urged the officers to oppose Hitler’s plans openly, but Rundstedt, while agreeing about the dangers of war before Germany was fully re-armed, would not support him, but declared himself unwilling to provoke a new crisis between Hitler and the Army. He advised Brauchitsch not to confront Hitler, apparently afraid that Brauchitsch would be dismissed and replaced by Reichenau
In November 1938, shortly after his Division had taken part in the bloodless occupation of the Sudetenland, Rundstedt retired from the Army with the rank of Colonel-General (Generaloberst), second only to the rank of Field Marshal. It was suggested that Hitler had forced him out, either because of his opposition to the plan to invade Czechoslovakia or because of his support for Fritsch, but this seems not be the case: he had in fact asked permission to retire some time earlier .
Just short of his 63rd birthday, he was not in good health and missed his family – he was now a grandfather. Moreover, despite their recent confrontations, he remained on good terms with Hitler, who made him honorary colonel of his old regiment on his retirement. Rundstedt also agreed that in the event of war he would return to active service.
Rundstedt’s retirement did not last long. By early 1939 Hitler had decided to force a confrontation with Poland over the Polish Corridor, and planning for a war with Poland began. In May, Hitler approved Rundstedt’s appointment as commander of Army Group South, to invade Poland from Silesia and Slovakia. His chief of staff was General Erich von Manstein, his chief of operations Colonel Günther Blumentritt. His principal field commanders would be (from west to east as they entered Poland) General Johannes Blaskowitz (8th Army), Reichenau (10th Army), and General Wilhelm List (14 Army).
Rundstedt’s armies advanced rapidly into southern Poland, capturing Kraków on 6 September, but Reichenau’s over-ambitious attempt to take Warsaw by storm on 9 September was repelled. Soon after, Blaskowitz’s exposed northern flank was attacked by the Polish Poznań Army, leading to the major engagement of the Polish campaign, the Battle of the Bzura. Rundstedt and Manstein travelled to Blaskowitz’s headquarters to take charge, and by 11 September the Poles had been contained in a pocket around Kutno. By 18 September the Poznan Army had been destroyed, and Warsaw was besieged. Reichenau’s forces took Lublin on 11 September, while List’s army was advancing to the east towards Lvov, where they eventually linked up with Soviet forces advancing from the east under the terms of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Warsaw surrendered on 28 September, and by 6 October fighting in southern Poland had ceased.
From the first days of the invasion, there had been incidents of German troops shooting Polish soldiers after they had surrendered, and killing civilians, especially Polish Jews. Some of these incidents were the work of units of the SS-VT, forerunner of the Waffen-SS, but some involved regular Army units. Rundstedt’s biographer says: “There is certainly no evidence that Rundstedt ever condoned, let alone encouraged, these acts.” Rundstedt told Reichenau that such actions did not have his authorisation. In fact, both Rundstedt and Blaskowitz complained to the Chief of Staff, General Franz Halder, about the Army Command’s apparent tolerance of such incidents. Nevertheless, as commander of Army Group South, Rundstedt was legally responsible for the behaviour of his troops, and these incidents later formed part of the charges of war crimes against him.
Behind the Army came SS Einsatzgruppen (task forces) commanded by Theodor Eicke, who began systematically executing Jews and members of the Polish educated classes. One Einsatzgruppe commanded by Udo von Woyrsch operated in 14th Army’s area. At Dynów Woyrsch’s men herded the town’s Jews into the synagogue then burned it down. By 20 September, over 500 Jews had been killed. In 1939, this was still too much for most German Army officers to stand. After complaints from numerous officers, Rundstedt banned Woyrsch’s units from the area, but after his departure his order was rescinded. On 20 October Rundstedt resigned his command and was transferred to the western front.
On the western Front in 1940 during a hiatus, a group of senior officers who were plotting against Hitler’s war plans, led by Halder, renewed their efforts, convinced that an attack in the west would lead to a war which Germany would lose. Brauchitsch agreed with Halder’s fears, but continued to vacillate about opposing Hitler – he asked Reichenau and Rundstedt to remonstrate with Hitler, but they refused.
On 13 March (1940), Himmler came to Koblenz to give the generals, including Rundstedt, an ideological lecture, in the course of which he made it clear that the atrocities against civilians which some of them had witnessed in Poland had been carried out on his orders, and with the approval of Hitler. “I do nothing that the Führer does not know,” he said
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