Generalfeldmarschall (English: general field marshal, field marshal general, or field marshal; listen (help·info); abbreviated to Feldmarschall) was a rank in the armies of several German states and the Holy Roman Empire (Reichsgeneralfeldmarschall); in the Habsburg Monarchy, the Austrian Empire and Austria-Hungary, the rank Feldmarschall was used. The rank was the equivalent to Großadmiral (English: Grand admiral) in the Kaiserliche Marine and Kriegsmarine, a five-star rank, comparable to OF-10 in today's NATO naval forces.
The rank existed in the Austrian Empire as Kaiserlicher Feldmarschall ("imperial field marshal") and in the Austro-Hungarian Empire as Kaiserlicher und königlicher Feldmarschall - Császári és királyi tárbornagy ("imperial and royal field marshal"). Both were based on usage in the Holy Roman Empire. The monarch held the rank ex officio, other officers were promoted as required. Between 1914 and 1918, ten men attained this rank, of whom four were members of the reigning Habsburg dynasty.
In the German-Prussian Army and later in the Wehrmacht, the rank of Generalfeldmarschall had several privileges, such as elevation to nobility, equal protocol rank with cabinet ministers, the right of reporting directly to the monarch, and a constant escort.
In 1854, the rank of colonel general (German: Generaloberst) was created in order to promote William, Prince of Prussia (the later William I, German Emperor) to senior rank without breaking the rule that only wartime field commanders could receive the rank of field marshal for a victory in a decisive battle or the capture of a fortification or major town. The equivalent of colonel-general in the German Navy was the rank of Generaladmiral ("general admiral" or "admiral-general").
The exalted nature of the rank was underscored during World War I, when only five German officers (excluding honorary promotions to members of royal families and foreign officers) were designated Generalfeldmarschall: Paul von Hindenburg, August von Mackensen, Karl von Bülow, Hermann von Eichhorn, and Remus von Woyrsch. Only a single naval officer, Henning von Holtzendorff, was designated Grand Admiral. Not even such well-known German commanders as Erich Ludendorff, Erich von Falkenhayn, or Reinhard Scheer received marshal's batons or Grand Admiral rank.
Before World War II Hitler promoted War Minister Werner von Blomberg (20 April 1936) and Aviation Minister Hermann Göring (4 February 1938) to the rank of Generalfeldmarschall. In the Wehrmacht of Nazi Germany during World War II, the rank of Generalfeldmarschall remained the highest military rank until July 1940, when Hermann Göring was promoted to the newly created higher rank of Reichsmarschall. The equivalent of a Generalfeldmarschall in the navy was Großadmiral ("grand admiral").
Unlike Kaiser Wilhelm II, Adolf Hitler distributed the rank more widely, promoting 25 Heer and Luftwaffe officers in total and two Kriegsmarine Grand Admirals. (Another promotion, that of Austrian General Eduard von Böhm-Ermolli, was honorary.) Four weeks after the Heer and Luftwaffe had won the Battle of France, Hitler promoted twelve generals to the rank of field marshal on 19 July 1940: Walther von Brauchitsch, Wilhelm Keitel, Gerd von Rundstedt, Fedor von Bock, Wilhelm von Leeb, Wilhelm List, Günther von Kluge, Erwin von Witzleben and Walter von Reichenau (Heer); and Albert Kesselring, Erhard Milch and Hugo Sperrle (Luftwaffe).
In 1942, three other men were promoted—"Wüstenfuchs" (desert fox) Erwin Rommel (22 June) for the siege of Tobruk, Erich von Manstein (30 June) for the Siege of Sevastopol and Georg von Küchler (30 June) for his success as Oberbefehlshaber der Heeresgruppe Nord ("commander-in-chief of Army Group North").
Hitler promoted Friedrich Paulus—commander of the 6th Army at Stalingrad—to the rank of field marshal via field radio on 30 January 1943, a day before his army's inevitable surrender in order to encourage him to continue to fight until death or commit suicide. In the promotion Hitler noted that no German or Prussian field marshal at that point in history had ever been captured alive. Paulus surrendered the following day anyway, claiming Ich habe nicht die Absicht, mich für diesen bayerischen Gefreiten zu erschießen ("I have no intention of shooting myself for this Bavarian corporal"). A disappointed Hitler commented, "That's the last field marshal I make in this war!" (In fact, he appointed seven more -- two on the very day after Paulus' surrender and the last just five days before his own suicide.)
Generalfeldmarschall was the highest regular general officer rank in the German Wehrmacht, comparable to NATO rank codes OF10, and to the five-star rank in anglophone armed forces. It was equivalent to Großadmiral of the German Kriegsmarine.
Financially the rank of Generalfeldmarschall in Nazi Germany was very rewarding as, apart from a yearly salary, Hitler introduced a tax free fringe benefits for generals in the range of Reichsmark 2,000 to 4,000 per month in 1940. He also bestowed generous presents on his highest officers, with Wilhelm von Leeb receiving RM 250,000 for his 65th birthday from Hitler.
Promotion to the rank did not guarantee Hitler's ongoing favor, however. As the tide of the war turned, Hitler took out his frustrations on his top commanders, relieving most of the Generalfeldmarschalls of duty before the war's conclusion. Bock, Brauchitsch, Leeb, and List were all relieved of their posts in 1942 for perceived failures during Operation Barbarossa and took no further active part in the war. Paul Ludwig Ewald von Kleist, Manstein and Sperrle were similarly retired in 1944 and Rundstedt and Maximilian von Weichs in March 1945. Grand Admiral Erich Raeder was retired in January 1943 following a fierce argument with Hitler over the future of the German surface fleet. Walther Model, one of Hitler's most successful commanders, had nevertheless lost the Fuhrer's confidence by war's end and committed suicide to avoid capture and likely trial as a war criminal. Milch was relieved after conspiring unsuccessfully to have Göring removed from command of the Luftwaffe, and even Göring himself was stripped of his offices and expelled from the Nazi Party in Hitler's last days. Ferdinand Schörner ignominiously abandoned his command to save himself in the war's last days. Kluge, Witzleben and Rommel were either executed or forced to commit suicide for their real or imagined roles in assassination plots against Hitler. By war's end, only Keitel, Kesselring, Robert Ritter von Greim and Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz were still in positions of military responsibility.
The National People's Army of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik or DDR (German Democratic Republic, i.e. East Germany) created the rank of Marshal of the German Democratic Republic on 25 March 1982. A general could be appointed to this rank by the State Council (Staatsrat; the head-of-state council of the GDR) during wartime or for exceptional military achievement; no one ever held the rank, however.
The ranks of Generalfeldmarschall, Generaloberst, Großadmiral and Generaladmiral no longer exist in the new German (until 1990 West German) Armed Forces, the Bundeswehr, which were created in 1956. Currently, the highest military grades in the Bundeswehr are general and admiral.
The Commander-in-Chief of the Bundeswehr is in peacetime, according to Article 65a of the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany (constitution), the civilian Federal Minister of Defence, who holds supreme command authority over all soldiers. In wartime, that supreme command authority is transferred to the Federal Chancellor. The Inspector General of the Bundeswehr is the military chief of defence and heads the Armed Forces Command Staff (German: Führungsstab der Streitkräfte).