Any school teacher or parent will give the same advice to a child who is being harassed by a bully: stand up to him, and he will back down.
There may be no bigger, more infamous bully in modern military history than Adolf Hitler, who led Germany into a global war in the late 1930s that left its economy in ruins and its people mired in shame that persists to this day.
Standing up to Hitler was neither wise nor easy. He would brook no dissent from his generals and colonels, no matter how high their rank. The entire army lived in fear of disagreeing with his opinions or military tactics.
For anyone who did dare disagree with him, there were consequences. Serious consequences. Hence his subordinates just didn’t argue with him. They may have entertained subversive thoughts, but speaking those thoughts out loud was something else entirely.
Maybe it was the uniform he wore, or perhaps it was his long and distinguished military service record, or maybe he just caught Hitler on a calm day. But for some reason, when General Dietrich Von Saucken stood up to Hitler – insulted him, really – he didn’t end up dead or in a forced labor camp.
It was in the winter of 1945, and many German military men knew they were losing the war badly, except Hitler, it seemed.
Von Saucken had already pushed his luck with the Nazi leader by announcing that he felt the war was lost and that continuing the fight was “pointless.” For that remark, he was fired but was reinstated four weeks later, because he was a skilled, experienced soldier and Germany was rapidly running out of those.
Von Saucken was East Prussian, a soldier all his life who served his nation throughout World War I and World War II. On that cold, February day in 1945, Hitler called Von Saucken to the war room in his bunker and told him to protect East Prussia from the Russian foe, no matter what the cost. (At the start’s end, the territory of East Prussia was divided up between Russia and Poland.)
To everyone’s alarm, Von Saucken arrived wearing his Cavalry sword, which was forbidden in Hitler’s presence. To Von Saucken, the sword represented all the years he had devoted himself to his country and the Armed Forces. He was not going to abandon his uniform, not even for Adolf Hitler.
Luckily for him, the Nazi leader failed to notice.
Witnesses to this “historic” meeting say that not only did Von Saucken wear things that would usually offend Hitler deeply, but that his tone of voice was also dripping with disdain when he spoke, another offense for which he could have wound up in a forced labor camp, or worse. Men had been executed for far less.
First, he offered Hitler a military salute, not the Nazi salute Hitler demanded of everyone around him. Incredibly, the Nazi leader again seemed not to notice.
When Hitler told Von Saucken that East Prussia must be defended, he added that the general would answer to a local Nazi loyalist, Gauleiter Forster. A Gauleiter was a local leader of a branch of the Nazi party. It was at that moment Von Saucken dropped all pretense of listening to Hitler’s orders.
The idea that he would answer to some low ranking, local, anonymous Nazi infuriated Von Saucken, and he slammed his hand down on the table between them. Only with this gesture, finally, did he get the feared Nazi leader’s full attention.
“I have no intention, Herr Hitler, of taking orders from a Gauleiter,” Von Saucken thundered.
At this point, perhaps the East Prussian general was past the point of caring about the reaction his remarks and tone would provoke in the infamously volatile leader. He recklessly flouted Hitler’s order and compounded his defiance by referring to the leader as “Herr Hitler,” rather than the honorific “Mein Fuhrer,” by which all Germans were supposed to address him.
The entire room sat in stunned silence, waiting to see how Hitler would react. To everyone’s amazement, “Hitler-the-bully” morphed into “Hitler-the-meek” and responded, “Alright, Saucken, have command of it yourself.”
So Von Saucken took command, and stayed with his men until the war’s bitter end a few months later.
He had several chances to leave, but each time he sent wounded men in his stead. This meant that he was, ultimately, captured by the Russians and spent ten years in prison.
When he was released, he was in a wheelchair after the torture and hard labor he had endured. He retired to Bavaria and took up painting.
Von Saucken’s case poses an interesting question: what might have happened had more German officers stood their ground when Hitler ordered something they knew was wrong? Would certain atrocities have been avoided? It’s impossible to know.
But one thing is certain: standing up to bullies is sometimes painful in the short term, but can have a profound effect on one’s life in the long term. And it can sometimes it can alter the course of an entire nation.