At the age of 16, Henning von Tresckow volunteered for the army and fought in the First World War from 1917 to 1918. He was one of the youngest lieutenants in the army to do so.
Even at such a young age, he showed exemplary courage and was given the Iron Cross in the Second Battle of the Marne.
After the war, Tresckow remained with the ‘Infantry Regiment 9 Potsdam’. In 1919, he was part of the team that quelled the ‘Spartacist’ movement.
In 1920, after resigning from the army, he went to study law and economics. Following this, he took up a job as a stockbroker in a bank.
In 1924, he embarked on a world tour. He visited the neighboring nations Britain and France, and he also went to the eastern United States and Brazil.
Henning von Tresckow had to leave his travels midway and come back to take over his father’s estate in the Neumark region. He stayed there for two years before rejoining the ‘Reichswehr’ in 1926.
In 1934, he joined the ‘War Academy’ to start his General Staff training. Two years later, he graduated as the best student in his class. He was posted to the General Staff’s 1st Department.
Though initially Tresckow had been enthusiastic about the Nazi movement, he eventually became deeply disturbed after seeing the murder of political opponents and the massacre of the Jews. He saw these as personal humiliation.
He became part of the resistance in 1938. He also wanted to resign from the army but was dissuaded by Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben. He then tried to win over senior army officials to come to his side. He was fortunate that his activities never got reported to the Gestapo.
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From 1939 to 1940, Henning von Tresckow served as the second General Staff officer under German commander Erich von Manstein. He is said to have played a key role in the formulation of the Manstein Plan.
The Manstein Plan was initially rejected by the Army High Command. It was Tresckow who used his contacts to get the plan seen by Hitler which was then used successfully to invade France.
After the fall of France during the Second World War when Hitler’s popularity reached its crest, Tresckow had the foresight to say that if the Americans joined the war, Germany would be crushed.
In 1941, Henning von Tresckow was the chief operations officer of the Operation Barbarossa in the Soviet Union. Appalled by the treatment of the prisoners of war and the killing of Jewish women and children, he appealed to his superior, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, to take some action.
He got together with other senior officers of the ‘Army Group Centre’ and at the end of September 1941 sent word to Berlin opposition groups that the ‘Army Group Centre’ was prepared to do anything to put an end to the Nazi regime.
The resistance groups made several attempts on Hitler’s life. One such attempt called Operation Flash was made on March 13, 1943, when Hitler was returning to Rastenburg in Germany from Smolensk.
Henning von Tresckow gave Lieutenant Colonel Heinz Brandt, who was flying with Hitler, a bottle of Cointreau to be given to a friend in Rastenburg. This was actually a bomb designed to detonate during the flight. However, due to the very low temperatures in the baggage section, the bomb did not go off.
On March 21, 1943, Hitler visited a military museum in Berlin for an exhibit organized by the Army Group Centre. Colonel Gersdorff, the tour guide was the suicide bomber. However, Hitler stayed only for two minutes and there wasn’t enough time for the bomb to go off.
Tresckow and his co-conspirators got together to work on another plot named Operation Valkyrie. He took leave during August and September 1943 to fine-tune the plan.
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Henning von Tresckow’s wife Erika and his secretary Countess Margarete von Oven wore gloves and typed out the plans. Tresckow tried to get a posting that would give him closer access to Hitler but failed.
Tresckow’s redrafting of the original plan laid down instructions on not just the assassination attempt on Hitler, but also the overthrow of the Nazi power. It also included the declaration to be made in the event of Hitler’s death.
By the end of 1943, Tresckow was chief of staff of the ‘2nd Army’. He was assigned to the eastern battlefront which made it more difficult for him to have access to Hitler. Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, who later became the chief of staff of the ‘Reserve Army,’ took over.
When the Allied forces landed in Normandy, Stauffenberg sent a message to Tresckow asking whether the assassination would serve any purpose. Tresckow urged him to carry on saying that it was important to kill Hitler as an overt act of resistance and to stop the deaths of thousands of innocent people.
Henning von Tresckow’s opposition to Hitler, however, did not stop him from doing his official duties, some of which he believed were wrong. He signed an order on June 28, 1944, ordering the abduction of Polish and Ukrainian children. This act was classified as genocide during the Nuremberg Trials.
On July 20, 1944, Stauffenberg placed a time bomb in Hitler’s headquarters at Rastenburg. The bomb went off and Hitler was injured; however, he survived. The regime struck back, and Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators were killed. When word reached Tresckow at the Królowy Most front in Bialystok, he decided to commit suicide.
Family & Personal Life
Henning von Tresckow was unlike a regular army person. He was poetic and lyrical, and he would often quote German writers. He was also good at languages and spoke several, including French and English.
Tresckow did not like the regimentation of army life and wore his uniform only when absolutely necessary. During the First World War, Count Siegfried von Eulenberg had predicted that “Tresckow would either become chief of the General Staff or die on the scaffold as a rebel.”
Henning von Tresckow married Erika von Falkenhayn. Like Tresckow, Erika came from a family with a long military tradition. She was the only daughter of Erich von Falkenhayn, who had been the chief of the General Staff from 1914 to 1916.
Tresckow and Erika had two sons and two daughters: Mark, born in 1927; Rüdiger, born in 1928; Uta, born in 1931; and Adelheid, born in 1939.
On July 21, 1944, one day after Operation Valkyrie, Tresckow killed himself. To create an impression that he was killed in an attack, he fired bullets into the air and then pulled a hand grenade under his chin.
In August, when his connections with the Valkyrie plotters came to be known, the Nazis exhumed his body from his family’s burial ground in Wartenberg and took it to the crematorium in Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp.
His wife was arrested but released in October. His daughters were taken to a children’s home in Bad Sachsa. Both his sons were in the military. One of them, Mark, died in service in 1945.