On the outbreak of the First World War Witzleben he was appointed Adjutant of the 19th Reserve Brigade. He served on the Western Front where he won the Iron Cross. In April 1917, Witzleben assumed command of a battalion in the 6th Infantry. The following year he became General Staff Officer to the 108th Infantry Division.
Witzleben remained in the army and in January 1921 was given command of the 8th Machine Gun Company. He was on the General Staff of the Wehrkries IV (1922-25), 12th Cavalry Regiment (1925-26) and Infantry Command III (1926-28). W became Chief of Staff of Wehrkries IV (1929-31) and commander of the 8th Infantry Regiment (1931-33).
In 1934 Witzleben was promoted to major general and appointed commander of Wehrkries III, replacing General Werner von Fitsch, who was named Commander in Chief of the Army.
An opponent of Adolf Hitler and his government in Nazi Germany, Witzleben joined with Erich von Manstein, Wilhelm Leeb and Gerd von Rundstedt to demand a military inquiry into the death of Kurt von Schleicher following the Night of the Long Knives. However, the Defence Minister, Werner von Blomberg, refused to allow it to take place.
Witzleben was furious when his friend, General Werner von Fitsch, was dismissed as Commander in Chief of the Army on a trumped up charge of homosexuality. He was now a staunch anti-Nazi who began considering the possibility of a military coup against Hitler. The Gestapo became aware of his criticisms of Hitler and in 1938 he was forced to take early retirement. Witzleben plotted with anti-Nazis such as Ludwig Beck, Franz Halder, Wilhelm Canaris, Hans Oster, Wolf von Helldorf, Kurt Hammerstein-Equord and Erich Hoepner and they considered the possibility of a military coup.
On the outbreak of the Second World War Witzleben was recalled to the German Army. In the invasion of France Witzleben commanded the 1st Army. His troops broke through the Maginot Line in June, 1940 and then occupied Alsace-Lorraine. As a result of this action Witzleben was promoted to the rank of field marshal.
Witzleben remained in France and after the failure of the Operation Barbarossa he once again began plotting against Adolf Hitler. The Gestapo was informed that he was once again being critical of the government and in 1942 Witzleben was called back to Germany and retired.
In January, 1942, a group of men that included Erwin von Witzleben, General Friedrich Olbricht, Colonel-General Ludwig Beck, Colonel-General Erich Hoepner, Colonel Albrecht Metz von Quirnheim, General-Major Henning von Tresckow, General-Major Hans Oster, General-Major Helmuth Stieff, Fabian Schlabrendorff, Wilhelm Leuschner, Ulrich Hassell, Hans Dohnanyi, Carl Goerdeler, Carl Langbehn, Julius Leber, Peter von Wartenburg, Johannes Popitz and Jakob Kaiser, decided to overthrow Adolf Hitler. The conspiracy was called Operation Valkyrie.
In October 1943, Lieutenant-Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, joined the group. While serving in Africa, Stauffenberg was wounded in the face, in both hands, and in the knee by fire from a low-flying Allied plane. According to one source: "He feared that he might lose his eyesight completely, but he kept one eye and lost his right hand, half the left hand, and part of his leg." After he recovered it was decided that it would be impossible to serve on the front line and in October, 1943, he was appointed as Chief of Staff in the General Army Office.
Claus von Stauffenberg volunteered to carry out the assassination himself. But before he took action he wanted to make sure he agreed with the type of government that would come into being. Conservatives such as Carl Goerdeler and Johannes Popitz wanted Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben to become the new Chancellor. However, socialists in the group, such as Julius Leber and Wilhelm Leuschner, argued this would therefore become a military dictatorship. At a meeting on 15th May 1944, they had a strong disagreement over the future of a post-Hitler Germany.
On 20th July, 1944, Claus von Stauffenberg and Werner von Haeften left Berlin to meet with Hitler at the Wolf' Lair. After a two-hour flight from Berlin, they landed at Rastenburg at 10.15. Stauffenberg had a briefing with Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, Chief of Armed Forces High Commandat, at 11.30, with the meeting with Hitler due to take place at 12.30. As soon as the meeting was over, Stauffenberg, met up with Haeften, who was carrying the two bombs in his briefcase. They then went into the toilet to set the time-fuses in the bombs. They only had time to prepare one bomb when they were interrupted by a junior officer who told them that the meeting with Hitler was about to start. Stauffenberg then made the fatal decision to place one of the bombs in his briefcase. "Had the second device, even without the charge being set, been placed in Stauffenberg's bag alone with the first, it would have been detonated by the explosion, more than doubling the effect. Almost certainly, in such an event, no one would have survived."
When he entered the wooden briefing hut, twenty-four senior officers were in assembled around a huge map table on two heavy oak supports. Stauffenberg had to elbow his way forward a little in order to get near enough to the table and he had to place the briefcase so that it was in no one's way. Despite all his efforts, however, he could only get to the right-hand corner of the table. After a few minutes, Stauffenberg excused himself, saying that he had to take a telephone call from Berlin. There was continual coming and going during the briefing conferences and this did not raise any suspicions.
Stauffenberg and Haeften went straight to a building about 200 hundred yards away consisting of bunkers and reinforced huts. Shortly afterwards, according to eyewitnesses: "A deafening crack shattered the midday quiet, and a bluish-yellow flame rocketed skyward... and a dark plume of smoke rose and hung in the air over the wreckage of the briefing barracks. Shards of glass, wood, and fiberboard swirled about, and scorched pieces of paper and insulation rained down."
Stauffenberg and Haeften observed a body covered with Hitler's cloak being carried out of the briefing hut on a stretcher and assumed he had been killed. They got into a car but luckily the alarm had not yet been given when they reached Guard Post 1. The Lieutenant in charge, who had heard the blast, stopped the car and asked to see their papers. Stauffenberg who was given immediate respect with his mutilations suffered on the front-line and his aristocratic commanding exterior; said he must go to the airfield at once. After a short pause the Lieutenant let them go.
According to eyewitness testimony and a subsequent investigation by the Gestapo, Stauffenberg's briefcase containing the bomb had been moved farther under the conference table in the last seconds before the explosion in order to provide additional room for the participants around the table. Consequently, the table acted as a partial shield, protecting Hitler from the full force of the blast, sparing him from serious injury of death. The stenographer Heinz Berger, died that afternoon, and three others, General Rudolf Schmundt, General Günther Korten, and Colonel Heinz Brandt did not recover from their wounds. Hitler's right arm was badly injured but he survived.
On hearing this General Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel arrested as planned 1,200 SS and Gestapo men in Paris and cut off all communication from France to Germany. The original plan was for Erwin von Witzleben, Ludwig Beck, and Erich Fromm to take control of the German Army. However, General Erich Fellgiebel, sent a message to General Friedrich Olbricht to say that Hitler had survived the blast. The most calamitous flaw in Operation Valkyrie was the failure to consider the possibility that Hitler might survive the bomb attack. Olbricht told Hans Gisevius, they decided it was best to wait and to do nothing, to behave "routinely" and to follow their everyday habits. Major Albrecht Metz von Quirnheim long closely involved in the plot, had already begun the action with a cabled message to regional military commanders, beginning with the words: "The Führer, Adolf Hitler, is dead."
Witzleben spent the next two years at his country estate. He kept in touch with anti-Nazis and in 1944 became involved in the July Plot. After Claus von Stauffenberg planted the bomb the conspirators thought that Hitler had been killed and Witzleben was installed as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces and Erich Hoepner as Commander of the Home Army.
On 21st July, 1944 Witzleben was arrested and during his trial on 7th August he was humiliated by being forced to appear in court without his belt and false teeth. Witzleben was sentenced to death on the same day. Witzleben gave these closing words in court, addressed to Freisler: "You can turn us over to the executioner. In three months the outraged and tormented people will call you to account and drag you through the filth in the streets alive."
Erwin von Witzleben was executed on 8th August, 1944, by being hung by piano wire from a meat hook.
I will crush and destroy the criminals who have dared to oppose themselves to Providence and to me. These traitors to their own people deserve ignominious death, and this is what they shall have. This time the full price will be paid by all those who are involved, and by their families, and by all those who have helped them. This nest of vipers who have tried to sabotage the grandeur of my Germany will be exterminated once and for all.
To create order, I have appointed Himmler Commander of the Reserve Army. I am convinced that with the disappearance of this very small clique of traitors and conspirators we are finally creating in the homeland the atmosphere which the fighters at the front need.
It is unthinkable that at the front, hundreds of thousands, no millions, of good men should be giving their all while a small gang of ambitious and miserable creatures here at home tries perpetually to sabotage them. This time we are going to settle accounts with them in the way we National Socialists are used to doing.
Imagine a room with a low ceiling and whitewashed walls. Below the ceiling a rail was fixed. From it hung six big hooks, like those butchers use to hang their meat. In one corner stood a movie camera. Reflectors cast a dazzling, blinding light. At the wall there was a small table with a bottle of cognac and glasses for the witnesses of the execution. The hangman wore a permanent leer, and made jokes unceasingly. The camera worked uninterruptedly, for Hitler wanted to see and hear how his enemies died. He had the executioner come to him, and had personally arranged the details of the procedure. "I want them to be hanged, hung up like carcasses of meat." Those were his words.
Field Marshal Witzleben freely admitted his part in the assassination attempt. He and the others were found guilty the next day and sentenced to hang that afternoon. Hitler had ordered that they be hung like cattle. "I want to see them hanging like carcasses in a slaughterhouse!" he commanded. The entire event was filmed by the Reich Film Corporation. Witzleben was first. Despite his poor showing at the trial, Witzleben met his death with courage and with as much dignity as was possible under the circumstances. A thin wire noose was placed around his neck, and the other end was secured to a meat hook. The executioner and his assistant then picked up the sixty-four-year-old soldier and dropped him so that his entire weight fell on his neck. They then pulled off his trousers so that he hung naked and twisted in agony as he slowly strangled. It took him almost five minutes to die, but he never once cried out. The other seven condemned men were executed in the same manner within an hour. They were followed over the next eight months by hundreds of others.