Berndt von Kleist (1896-1976)

By Christopher Mills

I believe the first mention I found of Colonel Berndt von Kleist (1896-1976) was in the Wikipedia article on Henning von Tresckow. 1 Tresckow was one of the senior German generals involved in the July 20, 1944 plot 2 against Adolf Hitler, although his role in the plot is frequently overshadowed by that of the younger and more photogenic Claus von Stauffenberg.

Tresckow and Kleist
Henning von Tresckow at left, Berndt von Kleist in center, unknown soldier at right, circa 1940

My normal impulse would be to do the research and write a Wikipedia article on Berndt, but there are too many unanswered questions which make me feel such an article would be incomplete and frustrating. Even though Berndt was apparently a major player in the July 20th plot I have no idea how he survived the aftermath of the failed plot. Some of the other plotters who survived covered their tracks well enough that they were not given a quick trial and summarily executed, but most who survived seemed to have spent the rest of the war under some form of arrest, either in a jail cell or a concentration camp.

Another issue I have with this research is that there is precious little published in English on Berndt von Kleist. I can puzzle through some of the German with what little I know and with the help of translation programs, but someone who actually knows German could make a lot more progress than I can. I have listed some sites in German among the references, my apologies are rendered if I have garbled any of the content in my attempts to translate and understand it.

In any event, this is what I have found out about Berndt. As one would expect from his surname, he came from the old Prussian noble family of Von Kleist. 3 He was born in Potsdam, Germany, on 30 April 1896. 4 His full name appears to have been Berndt Leopold Conrad von Kleist. Alternate spellings list his first name as Bernd instead of Berndt, in German Bernd is a common short form of the name Bernhard. His father was Friedrich Wilhelm Leopold von Kleist (5 June 1858 (Potsdam) - 5 December 1917 (Stolp/Slupsk)) and his mother was Elisabeth Agathe Katharina von Puttkamer (12 December 1872 (Karstnitz/Karznica) - ????). 4 His siblings were Friedrich Carl Ewald Anselm Curt von Kleist (born 27 November 1894), Joachim Gotthard Leopold Ludwig von Kleist (born 22 March 1905) and Charlotte Betty Margarethe von Kleist (dates unknown). His paternal grandparents were Christian Ewald Leopold von Kleist (25 March 1827 (Stolp) - 29 December 1910 (Potsdam)) and Ottilie Wilhelmine Betty von Knoblauch (12 August 1834 - ????). 4 Berndt's father and grandfather were both generals in the Prussian Army, as a number of von Kleists have been.

The genealogical references I have found for Berndt list him as a cadet in Lichterfelde, which is now a district of Berlin. 4 The Prussian military academy was moved to Lichterfelde in 1882. Given his lineage, Berndt was obviously being groomed for a military career.

If I am reading my sources correctly Berndt graduated to active service in August 1914, just at the time World War I was getting started. 5 He was posted to the 1st Foot Guards Regiment, an elite unit originally formed in 1806 as part of the Prussian Army (it was disbanded after WWI but was reconstituted as the 9th Infantry Regiment of Potsdam). His brother Friedrich Carl also served in the 1. Garde-Regiment zu Fuß.

Berndt is listed as receiving a promotion to Leutnant on 28 January 1915, which is equivalent to a Second Lieutenant in U.S. military jargon (the German Oberleutnant is equivalent to a U.S. First Lieutenant). 5 He was wounded so severely at one of the Battles of Ypres in Belgium that his left leg was amputated. He appeared in the 1917 German Army Seniority List but not in the 1918 list -- most likely he was given a medical discharge after the horrendous injury he suffered at Ypres. 5

Warlike pursuits over for the time being, Berndt married Anna Luise von Puttkamer (born 31 July 1900 in Versin/Wierszyno) in her home town of Versin on 1 November 1921. They had at least one daughter, Ulrike von Kleist (born 26 September 1929 in Kassel). 6

Between 1918 and 1934 Berndt rejoined the Germany Army, known at this time as the Reichswehr (the Army was renamed yet again in 1935, becoming the Wehrmacht, the name it would have until the end of WWII). Berndt was listed with the rank of Hauptmann (Captain). 7

By the time Henning von Tresckow recruited him into the plot to kill Hitler, Berndt had risen to the rank of Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant Colonel), which is the rank he is mentioned as having in the Wikipedia article on von Tresckow 1. Berndt was promoted again in October 1943, this time to the rank of Oberst, the equivalent of a full Colonel. 7

This is what Peter Hoffman wrote about von Kleist in his book The History of the German Resistance, 1933-1945:

"A most important member of this group was Army Group Centre's supply officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Berndt von Kleist who, like Tresckow, came from the 1st Prussian Regiment of Foot Guards. Schlabrendorff described him as the essence of nobility and integrity and this was the background to his political attitude. He had lost a leg in the First World War but was now serving again. He did inestimable service by maintaining contact with Goerdeler and other conspirators in Berlin; his personality and far-seeing judgment exercised a decisive influence throughout the circle." 8

Fabian von Schlabrendorff, another one of the July 20th conspirators, had this to say about von Kleist:

"Among the many such officers who became important in the history of our circle Colonel Berndt von Kleist stood in the first rank. He had been severely wounded and had lost a leg in the First World War but was now serving again. He had brilliant military discernment. On one occasion I asked him what he thought of the chances of the German campaign against Russia. He answered:"

"The German Army in fighting Russia will be like an elephant attacking an army of ants. The elephant will kill thousands, even millions of ants, but he will in the end be overcome by their numbers and be eaten to the bone." 9

As I said before, I have no idea how von Kleist survived the failed coup attempt against Hitler. That he did survive is confirmed by a typewritten memo from von Schlabrendorff to U.S. General William Donovan (head of the O.S.S.) identifying German officers who had willingly followed Hitler and contrasting them with officers who had plotted against him. This is how von Schlabrendorff characterized the following officers:

"Of those from this last group [outspoken enemies of Hitler] who are still alive, I mention:"

"General Thomas
General Speidel
General of the Armd Force von Funck
General of the Infantry Hossbach
General of the Armd Force Geyer von Schweppenburg
General of the Infantry von Falkenhausen
General Freiherr von Gersdorff
Colonel Berndt von Kleist"

"The group of the determined enemies of Hitler within the General Staff does not come into the category of war criminals, I'd say. Permit me to propose to you that you give them an opportunity to put down their opinion on the destruction of the General Staff and the useless fight of the General Staff against Hitler. A particularly good judgment have:"

"Colonel Berndt von Kleist
General Freiherr von Gersdorff
General Speidel
General von Falkenhausen" 10

Berndt von Kleist was still alive in 1965, as he corresponded with von Schlabrendorff for a book the latter was writing. Von Kleist died on 16 December 1976 in Bünde, Germany. 6

References

1. Wikipedia article on Henning von Tresckow (accessed 28 July 2011)
2. Wikipedia article on July 20, 1944 plot against Hitler(accessed 28 July 2011)
3. Brief Wikipedia article on Von Kleist family (accessed 28 July 2011)
4. Von Kleist family genealogy site (in German), article written by Ewald Freiherr von Kleist, Schloss Buonas, Risch-Rotkreuz, Zug, Switzerland (accessed 28 July 2011)
5. Gentleman's Military Interest Club, various postings, (accessed 28 July 2011)
6. Bennecke Family Tree (in German) (accessed 28 July 2011)
7. German Armor Archive (in German) (accessed 28 July 2011)
8. Peter Hoffman, The History of the German Resistance 1933-1945, 3rd Edition, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-7735-1531-3 (pages 265-266) (Google Books online copy accessed 28 July 2011)
9. Gero Gaevernitz (editor), They Almost Killed Hitler, Kessinger Publishing, 2005, ISBN 9781419160110 (pages 31-32) (Google Books online copy accessed 28 July 2011)
10. Fabian von Schlabrendorff, Relationship of the German General Staff with Hitler, Memorandum to General Donovan composed 24 October 1945 (online copy at Cornell University Law School Library website accessed 28 July 2011)


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