Hoepner was born in Frankfurt an der Oder, Brandenburg. He joined the German Army as an officer cadet in 1905, was commissioned as a Lieutenant in 1906 and served as a cavalry officer during World War I, reaching the rank of Rittmeister.
He remained in the Reichswehr in the Weimar Republic and reached the rank of General in 1936. Hoepner was an early advocate of armoured warfare and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-general and given command of the XVI Panzer Corps in 1938.
Hoepner, often called “Der Alte Reiter” (the old cavalryman), led forces in the invasions of Poland (1939) and France (1940), receiving the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. He was promoted to the rank of colonel-general in 1941 and given command of the Fourth Panzer Group for the invasion of the Soviet Union.
Hoepner pulled back his forces in the face of the massive Russian counteroffensive at Moscow in January 1942 and was relieved of his command by Hitler, dismissed from the Wehrmacht and stripped of his decorations and pension rights. He then launched a successful legal action against the government for the restoration of his pension.
While Hoepner was opposed to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, he was also an early opponent of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, and he participated in several conspiracies to overthrow Hitler. In the September 1938, attempt, at the time of the Munich Conference, Hoepner’s forces were assigned the task of suppressing the SS following the planned capture and intended shooting of Hitler in the act of “resisting arrest”; the plot collapsed, due to the capitulation by Chamberlain (which completely undercut the basis for the coup), and Hoepner’s role went undiscovered.
Hoepner played an active part in the earliest conspiracies against Hitler. Like other conservative resisters, Hoepner thought Hitler’s strategic decisions would lead to the ruin of Germany, which was the motivation in the September 1938 plot, in which Hoepner was supposed to use his armored division to impose the surrendering of Hitler’s personal guard, the SS Leibstandarte, and another in October–November 1939, after war had already begun - both involving the very top levels of the Abwehr and the High Command, the Oberkommando des Heeres, or OKH. Following the Fall of France, the fears that Hitler’s expansionist policies would bring ruin upon Germany appeared to have been wrong, and Hoepner, like most opposition generals, even on the OKH, became less critical of Hitler. It was only after Operation Barbarossa had stalled at the gates of Moscow and his humiliating sacking by Hitler, that Hoepner became active again. During his command on the Eastern Front, Hoepner pursued a policy of scorched earth, demanding “ruthless and complete destruction of the enemy” from his soldiers.
As a commander of the Fourth Panzer Army, he wrote on May 2, 1941: The war against the Soviet Union is the old struggle of the Germans against the Slavs, the warding off of the Jewish Bolshevism. No mercy should be shown towards the carriers of the present Russian Bolshevist system
The commander of the Einsatzgruppe A, Dr Stehlecker, spoke highly of Hoepner and described his relations with him as very close, yes, almost cordial. Hoepner also wrote that Operation Barbarossa represented the defense of European culture against Moscovite-Asiatic inundation, and the repulse of Jewish Bolshevism, adding that destruction of Russia must be conducted with unprecented severity)
Hoepner at the Volksgerichtshof
On 5 December 1941, Hoepner refused to comply with Hitler’s categorical ‘Halt Order’ and ordered a retreat of his forces as they were just before Moscow. In January 1942, he was dismissed from service with the loss of all pension rights. He subsequently instituted a lawsuit against the Reich over his pension rights and won.
Hoepner was a participant in the 20 July Plot in 1944 and was present at the Bendlerblock (Headquarters of the Army) with General Friedrich Olbricht, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, Colonel Albrecht Mertz von Quirnheim and Lieutenant Werner von Haeften. Following the failure of their coup attempt, he had a private conversation with General Friedrich Fromm and was not shot by firing squad with the others in the courtyard.
Having already been dismissed from the Wehrmacht in 1942, he was arrested that night and then tortured by the Gestapo, given a summary trial by the Volksgerichtshof and sentenced to death. Like other defendants including Erwin von Witzleben, Hoepner was made to wear ill fitting clothes and was not allowed to have his dentales as a humiliation in his trial. Although judge Roland Freisler continued to brutally verbally attack Hoepner, even Freisler objected to Hoepner being made to dress in such a way. Hoepner was hanged on 8 August, in Berlin’s Plötzensee Prison.
Just as an aside: Dr Stehlecker, commanding the Eisengruppen A is probably not my idea of a great character witness.