Kleist was born in August 1881 and served as a cavalry officer with a Hussar’s regiment during World War One. Despite the severe military restrictions placed on Weimar Germany by the Treaty of Versailles, Kleist managed to stay in the ‘Reichswehr’ where he held a number of administrative and training positions. Kleist gained a reputation for efficiency and rose in rank. By April 1934, he was a lieutenant general and commanded the 2nd Cavalry Division based in Breslau. By 1936, Kleist commanded the VIII Corps, also based in Breslau, which gave him command of two infantry divisions and two frontier zone commands. He remained in command on VIII Corps until 1938 with the rank of general. By the time he left VIII Corps it had grown in size to three infantry divisions along with its two frontier commands – a sign of the military expansion that Hitler had promised for Nazi Germany.
In February 1938, the German Army experienced what was essentially a purge of its senior officers – or those Hitler did not trust. This started with the trumped up charges against both Blomberg and Fritsch. Kleist was another victim of this purge as he was thought to be a supporter of Fritsch.
However, by the autumn of 1939, the value of Kleist was recognised when he was given command of a Panzer corps in Army Group North for the attack on Poland. Kleist’s performance in this campaign was such that he was given command of a Panzergruppe for the attack on the West in May 1940.
After the war Kleist was interviewed by the military historian Liddell Hart. In this interview Kleist described the sheer scale of the attack:
“If this Panzer group had advanced on a single road its tail would have stretched right back to Koenigsberg in East Prussia, when its head was at Trier.”
In 1941, Kleist was handed the command of 1st Panzergruppe, which consisted of five Panzer divisions. The 1st Panzergruppe was the spearhead of Rundstedt’s Army Group South. The overwhelming initial success of ‘Operation Barbarossa’, which had relied to a great extent on the success of its Panzer units, did a great deal to bolster Hitler’s confidence in his Panzer force. Therefore, it came as a major blow to Hitler when the Army launched what was to be a failed attack on the Caucasus in 1942. While Army Group A cut through vast areas of the Caucasus, it failed to take the strategically vital oil fields.
The Battle of Stalingrad bled the German Army of a complete army group with 90,000 men taken prisoners-of-war. Coupled with the loss of huge amounts of equipment, the defeat at Stalingrad had major consequences for the German Army. Many military historians view this battle as the turning point in Hitler’s eastern campaign. However, despite his constant meddling in plans and giving out orders that could not be met without potentially disastrous consequences, Hitler blamed his generals as opposed to himself. One of those blamed was Kleist and in 1944, he was removed from his command for ordering a retreat of his forces – in direct violation of Hitler’s orders that the German Army should not retreat.
Kleist was very much a patriotic military man who had no love for the Nazis and blamed Hitler for the fate that befell the German Army in Russia. There is evidence that Kleist was one of a number of senior German Army officers who plotted against Hitler. The Gestapo knew about his activities and he was arrested and taken into custody. The rapidly approaching end of the war probably saved Kleist.
From 1945 to 1954 he was held as a prisoner-of-war. In 1945 Kleist was arrested by the Americans who sent him to Yugoslavia in 1946 to answer war crimes charges - Kleist had led the attack against Yugoslavia and Greece in 1941. In 1948, the Soviet Union had Kleist extradited to the USSR where he was once again required to answer charges relating to war crimes. Kleist was found guilty and sentenced to ten years captivity. He died in a Russian jail in November 1954. Kleist was the highest-ranking German officer to die in a Soviet prison – in 1943 he had been promoted to field marshal.