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Born in Biebrich in the Rhineland, he was educated in the conservative Prussian military tradition. After serving on the Western Front in World War I, he rose through the ranks, eventually being appointed to the General Staff in 1933. Two years later, he was made Chief of Staff.
Beck resented Hitler for his efforts to curb the army's position of influence. Though he was hardly a pacifist, he opposed wars of conquest and only supported ideological war, when he believed that the military was fully prepared for it. Beck tried very early as Chief of the General Staff to deter Hitler from annexing the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia in 1938. Hitler was convinced that, since England and France had allowed him to annex Austria during the Anschluss earlier in the year, they would not stand in his way when he would try again to enlarge the Reich. Beck, however, believed that they would defend the country that they had created at the end of World War I and, if necessary, declare war on Germany to protect it. Since he knew that the Wehrmacht would not be strong enough to win a war against England and since he was extremely respected by his fellow officers, he tried to convince all to resign en masse to prevent Hitler from carrying out his plans. When he found out that none of them would go along, he resigned alone in August to be replaced at the head of the General Staff by General Franz Halder. Alternatively it is reported that in August 1938, Hitler relieved him of command. Beck ceased to have any meaningful influence in German military affairs.
His opposition to Hitler brought him in contact with a number of individuals who shared his views. Many of them, including Carl Goerdeler and Ulrich von Hassell as well as himself, would later take part in the July 20 Plot in 1944.
Beck and the conspirators believed that Hitler's power was not as strong as he believed it to be. They thought that a clear threat of war from England to Germany if it chose to invade Czechoslovakia would allow them to brand Hitler as a warmongerer and depose him from office. To that end, they sent some emissaries to the British Foreign Office to convince British diplomats to oppose Hitler as clearly and as strongly as they could. Unfortunately, the prevailing attitude in the Foreign Office at that time was to avoid war by appeasing Hitler instead of calling his bluff as the conspirators would have liked to do. To their dismay, in September 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French President Edouard Daladier signed the Munich Pact which allowed Hitler to annex the Sudetenland.
In 1943, Beck planned two abortive attempts to kill Hitler by means of a bomb. In 1944 he was one of the driving forces of the July 20 Plot with Carl Goerdeler and Colonel Count Claus von Stauffenberg. When the plot failed, Beck committed suicide rather than suffer torture and execution. He tried twice to kill himself before being executed in the early hours of July 21. According to one version of the story, he was so shaken up, that two bullets that he attempted to shoot into his brain missed, so that he finally had to ask a sergeant to help him finish the job.
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