Wilhelm Keitel

Last updated

Wilhelm Keitel
Bundesarchiv Bild 183-H30220, Wilhelm Keitel.jpg
Keitel as field marshal in 1942
Chief of Armed Forces High Command
In office
4 February 1938 8 May 1945
Preceded by Werner von Blomberg
(as Reich Minister of War)
Succeeded byNone (position abolished)
Head of Armed Forces Office in Reich Ministry of War
In office
1 October 1935 4 February 1938
Preceded by Walter von Reichenau
Succeeded byNone (position abolished)
Personal details
Wilhelm Bodewin Johann Gustav Keitel

(1882-09-22)22 September 1882
Helmscherode, Duchy of Brunswick, German Empire
Died16 October 1946(1946-10-16) (aged 64)
Nuremberg, Allied-occupied Germany
Cause of deathExecution
Lisa Fontaine
m. 1909)
Relatives Bodewin Keitel (brother)
Signature Wilhelm Keitel signature.svg
Military service
AllegianceFlag of the German Empire.svg  German Empire
Flag of Germany (3-2 aspect ratio).svg  Weimar Republic
Flag of Germany (1935-1945).svg  Nazi Germany
Branch/service German Army
Years of service1901–1945
Rank Wehrmacht GenFeldmarschall 1942h1.svg Generalfeldmarschall
Commands Oberkommando der Wehrmacht
Battles/wars World War I
World War II
Awards Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross
Criminal conviction
Known for War crimes of the Wehrmacht
Conviction(s) Crimes against humanity
Crimes against peace
Criminal conspiracy
War crimes
Trial Nuremberg trials
Criminal penalty Death penalty

Wilhelm Bodewin Johann Gustav Keitel (22 September 1882 – 16 October 1946) was a German field marshal and war criminal during the Nazi era who served as Chief of the Armed Forces High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, OKW) during World War II. In this capacity, Keitel signed a number of criminal orders and directives that led to a war of unprecedented brutality and criminality.


Keitel's rise to the Wehrmacht high command began with his appointment as the head of the Armed Forces Office at the Reich Ministry of War in 1935. After Hitler took command of the Wehrmacht in 1938, he replaced the ministry with the OKW, with Keitel as its chief. Keitel was reviled among his military colleagues as Hitler's habitual "yes-man".

After the war, Keitel was indicted by the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg as one of the "major war criminals". He was found guilty on all counts of the indictment: crimes against humanity, crimes against peace, criminal conspiracy, and war crimes. Keitel was sentenced to death and executed by hanging in 1946.

Early life and pre-Wehrmacht career

Keitel was born in the village of Helmscherode near Gandersheim in the Duchy of Brunswick, Germany. The eldest son of Carl Keitel (1854–1934), a middle-class landowner, and his wife Apollonia Vissering (1855–1888), he planned to take over his family's estates after completing his education at a gymnasium but this foundered on his father's resistance. Instead, he embarked on a military career in 1901, becoming an officer cadet of the Prussian Army. As a commoner, he did not join the cavalry, but a field artillery regiment in Wolfenbüttel, serving as adjutant from 1908. [1] On 18 April 1909, Keitel married Lisa Fontaine, a wealthy landowner's daughter at Wülfel near Hanover. [2]

During World War I, Keitel served on the Western Front and took part in the fighting in Flanders, where he was severely wounded. [3] After being promoted to captain, Keitel was then posted to the staff of an infantry division in 1915. [4] After the war, Keitel was retained in the newly created Reichswehr of the Weimar Republic and played a part in organizing the paramilitary Freikorps units on the Polish border. In 1924, Keitel was transferred to the Ministry of the Reichswehr in Berlin, serving with the Truppenamt ('Troop Office'), the post-Versailles disguised German General Staff. Three years later, he returned to field command. [3]

Now a lieutenant-colonel, Keitel was again assigned to the Ministry of War in 1929 and was soon promoted to Head of the Organizational Department ("T-2"), a post he held until Adolf Hitler took power in 1933. Playing a vital role in the German re-armament, he traveled at least once to the Soviet Union to inspect secret Reichswehr training camps. In the autumn of 1932, he suffered a heart attack and double pneumonia. [5] Shortly after his recovery, in October 1933, Keitel was appointed as deputy commander of the 3rd Infantry Division; in 1934, he was given command of the 22nd Infantry Division at Bremen. [6]

Rise to the Wehrmacht High Command

In 1935, at the recommendation of General Werner von Fritsch, Keitel was promoted to the rank of major general and appointed chief of the Reich Ministry of War's Armed Forces Office (Wehrmachtsamt), which oversaw the army, navy, and air force. [7] [8] After assuming office, Keitel was promoted to lieutenant general on 1 January 1936. [9]

On 21 January 1938, Keitel received evidence revealing that the wife of his superior, War Minister Werner von Blomberg, was a former prostitute. [10] Upon reviewing this information, Keitel suggested that the dossier be forwarded to Hitler's deputy, Hermann Göring, who used it to bring about Blomberg's resignation. [11]

Hitler took command of the Wehrmacht in 1938 and replaced the War Ministry with the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht), with Keitel as its chief. [12] As a result of his appointment, Keitel assumed the responsibilities of Germany's War Minister. [13] Soon after his promotion, Keitel convinced Hitler to appoint Walther von Brauchitsch as Commander-in-Chief of the Army, replacing von Fritsch. [14] He became a full general in November 1938. [15]

World War II

Keitel (far left) and other members of the German high command with Adolf Hitler at a military briefing, (c. 1940). Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1971-070-61, Hitler mit Generalen bei Lagebesprechung.jpg
Keitel (far left) and other members of the German high command with Adolf Hitler at a military briefing, (c. 1940).

Field Marshal Ewald von Kleist labelled Keitel nothing more than a "stupid follower of Hitler" because of his servile "yes man" attitude with regard to Hitler. His sycophancy was well known in the army, and he acquired the nickname 'Lakeitel', a pun derived from Lakai ("lackey") and his surname. [16] [17] Hermann Göring's description of Keitel as having "a sergeant's mind inside a field marshal's body" was a feeling often expressed by his peers. He had been promoted because of his willingness to function as Hitler's mouthpiece. [18]

Keitel was predisposed to manipulation because of his limited intellect and nervous disposition; Hitler valued his hard work and obedience. [19] On one occasion, Burkhart Müller-Hillebrand  [ de ] asked who Keitel was: upon finding out he became horrified at his own failure to salute his superior. Franz Halder, however, told him: "Don't worry, it's only Keitel". [19] German officers consistently bypassed him and went directly to Hitler. [15]

After Germany defeated France in the Battle of France in six weeks, Keitel described Hitler as “the greatest warlord of all time”. [20]

The planning for Operation Barbarossa, the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union, was begun tentatively by Halder with the redeployment of the 18th Army into an offensive position against the Soviet Union. [21] On 31 July 1940, Hitler held a major conference that included Keitel, Halder, Alfred Jodl, Erich Raeder, Brauchitsch and Hans Jeschonnek which further discussed the invasion. The participants did not object to the invasion. [22] Hitler asked for war studies to be completed [23] and Georg Thomas was given the task of completing two studies on economic matters. The first study by Thomas detailed serious problems with fuelling and rubber supplies. Keitel bluntly dismissed the problems, telling Thomas that Hitler would not want to see it. This influenced Thomas' second study which offered a glowing recommendation for the invasion based upon fabricated economic benefits. [24]

Keitel played an important role after the failed 20 July plot in 1944. He sat on the Army "court of honour" that handed over many officers who were involved, including Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben, to Roland Freisler's notorious People's Court. Around 7,000 people were arrested, many of whom were tortured by the Gestapo, and around 5,000 were executed. [25]

Keitel, signing the ratified surrender terms for the German Army in Berlin, 8/9 May 1945 Wilhelm Keitel Kapitulation.jpg
Keitel, signing the ratified surrender terms for the German Army in Berlin, 8/9 May 1945

In April and May 1945, during the Battle of Berlin, Keitel called for counterattacks to drive back the Soviet forces and relieve Berlin. However, there were insufficient German forces to carry out such counterattacks. After Hitler's suicide on 30 April, Keitel stayed on as a member of the short-lived Flensburg government under Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz. Upon arriving in Flensburg, Albert Speer, the Minister of Armaments and War Production, said that Keitel grovelled to Dönitz in the same way as he had done to Hitler. On 7 May 1945, Alfred Jodl, on behalf of Dönitz, signed Germany's unconditional surrender on all fronts. Joseph Stalin considered this an affront, so a second signing was arranged at the Berlin suburb of Karlshorst 8 May. There, Keitel signed the German surrender to the Soviet Union. Five days later he was arrested along with the rest of the Flensburg Government, at the request of the U.S. [26]

Role in crimes of the Wehrmacht and the Holocaust

Keitel had full knowledge of the criminal nature of the planning and the subsequent Invasion of Poland, agreeing to its aims in principle. [27] The Nazi plans included mass arrests, population transfers and mass murder. Keitel did not contest the regime's assault upon basic human rights or counter the role of the Einsatzgruppen in the murders. [27] The criminal nature of the invasion was now obvious; local commanders continued to express shock and protest over the events they were witnessing. [28] Keitel continued to ignore the protests among the officer corps while they became morally numbed to the atrocities. [27]

Keitel issued a series of criminal orders from April 1941. [29] The orders went beyond established codes of conduct for the military and broadly allowed the execution of Jews, civilians and non-combatants for any reason. Those carrying out the murders were exempted from court-martial or later being tried for war crimes. The orders were signed by Keitel, however, other members of the OKW and the OKH, including Halder, wrote or changed the wording of his orders. Commanders in the field interpreted and carried out the orders. [30]

In the summer and autumn of 1941, German military lawyers unsuccessfully argued that Soviet prisoners of war should be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention. Keitel rebuffed them, writing: "These doubts correspond to military ideas about wars of chivalry. Our job is to suppress a way of life." [31] In September 1941, concerned that some field commanders on the Eastern Front did not exhibit sufficient harshness in implementing the May 1941 order on the "Guidelines for the Conduct of the Troops in Russia", Keitel issued a new order, writing: "[The] struggle against Bolshevism demands ruthless and energetic action especially also against the Jews, the main carriers of Bolshevism". [32] Also in September, Keitel issued an order to all commanders, not just those in the occupied Soviet Union, instructing them to use "unusual severity" to stamp out resistance. In this context, the guideline stated that execution of 50 to 100 "Communists" was an appropriate response to a loss of a German soldier. [32] Such orders and directives further radicalised the army's occupational policies and enmeshed it in the genocide of the Jews. [33]

Plaque commemorating French victims at the Hinzert concentration camp, using the expressions "Nacht und Nebel" and "NN-Deported." The inscription translates to: "No hate, but also no forgetting." KZ-Hinzert-Plakette-Nacht-und-Nebel.jpg
Plaque commemorating French victims at the Hinzert concentration camp, using the expressions "Nacht und Nebel" and "NN-Deported." The inscription translates to: "No hate, but also no forgetting."

In December 1941, Hitler instructed the OKW to subject, with the exception of Denmark, Western Europe (which was under military occupation) to the Night and Fog Decree. [34] Signed by Keitel, [35] the decree made it possible for foreign nationals to be transferred to Germany for trial by special courts, or simply handed to the Gestapo for deportation to concentration camps. The OKW further imposed a blackout on any information concerning the fate of the accused. At the same time, Keitel increased pressure on Otto von Stülpnagel, the military commander in France, for a more ruthless reprisal policy in the country. [34] In October 1942, Keitel signed the Commando Order that authorized the killing of enemy special operations troops even when captured in uniform. [36]

In the spring and summer of 1942, as the deportations of the Jews to extermination camps progressed, the military initially protested when it came to the Jews that laboured for the benefit of the Wehrmacht. The army lost control over the matter when the SS assumed command of all Jewish forced labour in July 1942. Keitel formally endorsed the state of affairs in September, reiterating for the armed forces that "evacuation of the Jews must be carried out thoroughly and its consequences endured, despite any trouble it may cause over the next three or four months". [37]

Trial, conviction, and execution

Wilhelm Keitel's detention report from June 1945 KeitelDetentionReport.jpg
Wilhelm Keitel's detention report from June 1945
17 October 1946 Newsreel of Nuremberg Trials Sentencing

After the war, Keitel faced the International Military Tribunal (IMT), which indicted him on all four counts before it: conspiracy to commit crimes against peace, planning, initiating and waging wars of aggression, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Most of the case against him was based on his signature being present on dozens of orders that called for soldiers and political prisoners to be killed or 'disappeared'. [38] In court, Keitel admitted that he knew many of Hitler's orders were illegal. [39] His defence relied almost entirely on the argument he was merely following orders in conformity to "the leader principle" ( Führerprinzip ) and his personal oath of loyalty to Hitler. [18]

The IMT rejected this defence and convicted him on all charges. Although the tribunal's charter allowed "superior orders" to be considered a mitigating factor, it found Keitel's crimes were so egregious that "there is nothing in mitigation". In its judgment against him, the IMT wrote, "Superior orders, even to a soldier, cannot be considered in mitigation where crimes as shocking and extensive have been committed consciously, ruthlessly and without military excuse or justification." It was also pointed out that while he claimed the Commando Order, which ordered Allied commandos to be shot without trial, was illegal,[ dubious ] he had reaffirmed it and extended its application. It also noted several instances where he issued illegal orders on his own authority. [38]

In his statement before the Tribunal, Keitel said: "As these atrocities developed, one from the other, step by step, and without any foreknowledge of the consequences, destiny took its tragic course, with its fateful consequences." [40] To underscore the criminal rather than military nature of Keitel's acts, the Allies denied his request to be shot by firing squad. Instead, he was executed at Nuremberg Prison by hanging. [41]

Keitel's body after execution Dead wilhelmkeitel.jpg
Keitel's body after execution

Keitel was executed by American Army Sergeant John C. Woods. [42] His last words were: "I call on God Almighty to have mercy on the German people. More than 2 million German soldiers went to their death for the fatherland before me. I follow now my sons – all for Germany." [43] The trap door was small, causing head injuries to Keitel and several other condemned men as they dropped. [44] Many of the executed Nazis fell from the gallows with insufficient force to snap their necks, resulting in a suffocating death struggle that in Keitel's case lasted 24 minutes. [42] The corpses of Keitel and the other nine executed men were, like Hermann Göring's, cremated at Ostfriedhof (Munich) and the ashes were scattered in the river Isar. [39]


Before his execution, Keitel published his memoirs which were titled in English as In the Service of the Reich. It was later re-edited as The Memoirs of Field-Marshal Keitel by Walter Görlitz ISBN   978-0-8154-1072-0. Another work by Keitel later published in English was named Questionnaire on the Ardennes offensive. [45]

See also

Related Research Articles

<i>Oberkommando des Heeres</i> Supreme High Command of the German Army during World War II

The Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH) was the High Command of the German Army during the Era of Nazi Germany. It was founded in 1935 as a part of Adolf Hitler's re-militarisation of Germany. From 1938 OKH was, together with OKL and OKM, formally subordinated to the OKW, with the exception of the Waffen-SS. During the war, OKH had the responsibility of strategic planning of Armies and Army Groups, while the General Staff of the OKH managed operational matters. Each German Army also had an Armeeoberkommando, Army Command, or AOK. Until the German defeat at Moscow in December 1941, OKH and its staff was de facto the most important unit within the German war planning. OKW then took over this function for theatres other than the German-Soviet front. OKH commander held the title Oberbefehlshaber des Heeres. Following the Battle of Moscow, after OKH commander Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch was excused, Hitler appointed himself as Commander-in-Chief of the Army.

Alfred Jodl German general

Alfred Josef Ferdinand Jodl was a German Generaloberst who served as the Chief of the Operations Staff of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, the German Armed Forces High Command, throughout World War II.

<i>Oberkommando der Wehrmacht</i> High Command of the Wehrmacht (armed forces) of Nazi Germany during World War II

The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht was the High Command of the Wehrmacht of Nazi Germany. Created in 1938, the OKW replaced the Reich War Ministry and had nominal oversight over the German Army, the Kriegsmarine (navy), and the Luftwaffe.

Hermann Hoth German military commander

Hermann Hoth was a German army commander and war criminal during World War II. He fought in the Battle of France and as a panzer commander on the Eastern Front. Hoth commanded the 3rd Panzer Group during Operation Barbarossa in 1941, and the 4th Panzer Army during the Wehrmacht's 1942 summer offensive.

Sepp Dietrich German SS commander

Josef "Sepp" Dietrich was a German politician and SS commander during the Nazi era. He joined the Nazi Party in 1928 and was elected to the Reichstag of the Weimar Republic in 1930. Prior to 1929, Dietrich was Adolf Hitler's chauffeur and bodyguard. He received rapid promotions in the SS after his participation in the extrajudicial executions of political opponents during the 1934 purge known as the Night of the Long Knives.

Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb Nazi field marshal

Wilhelm Josef Franz Ritter von Leeb was a German field marshal and war criminal in World War II. Leeb was a highly decorated officer in World War I and was awarded the Military Order of Max Joseph which granted him the title of nobility. In the Invasion of France, he commanded Army Group C, responsible for the breakthrough of the Maginot Line.

Werner von Blomberg German General Staff officer and field marshal

Werner Eduard Fritz von Blomberg was a German General Staff officer, who, after serving at the Western Front during World War I, was appointed chief of the Troop Office during the Weimar Republic and Minister of War and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of Nazi Germany and the first general to be promoted to Generalfeldmarschall in 1936. His political opponent Hermann Göring confronted him with criminal records among allegations of pornographic activities of his newly wed wife and forced him to resign on 27 January 1938.

Walther von Reichenau German general

Walter Karl Ernst August von Reichenau was a field marshal in the Wehrmacht of Nazi Germany during World War II. Reichenau commanded the 6th Army, during the invasions of Belgium and France. During Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, he continued to command the 6th Army as part of Army Group South as it captured Ukraine and advanced deep into Russia.

Erich Hoepner German general

Erich Hoepner was a German general during World War II. An early proponent of mechanisation and armoured warfare, he was a Wehrmacht army corps commander at the beginning of the war, leading his troops during the invasion of Poland and the Battle of France.

The 4th Panzer Army was a German panzer formation during World War II. As a key armoured component of the Wehrmacht, the army took part in the crucial battles of the German-Soviet war of 1941–45, including Operation Barbarossa, the Battle of Moscow, the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Kursk, and the 1943 Battle of Kiev.

Hermann Reinecke German general

Herman Reinecke was a German general and war criminal during the Nazi era. As head of the General Office of the Armed Forces in the OKW during World War II, he was responsible for the creation and implementation of the POW policy that resulted in the deaths of approx. 3.3 million Soviet prisoners of war. Reinecke was tried, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment at the High Command Trial.

German Army (1935–1945) 1935–1945 land warfare branch of the German military

The German Army was the land forces component of the Wehrmacht, the regular German Armed Forces, from 1935 until it ceased to exist in 1945 and then formally dissolved in August 1946. During World War II, a total of about 13.6 million soldiers served in the German Army. Army personnel were made up of volunteers and conscripts.

<i>Wehrmachtbericht</i> propaganda report about the Nazi military situation during World War II

Wehrmachtbericht was the daily Wehrmacht High Command mass-media communiqué and a key component of Nazi propaganda during World War II. Produced by the Propaganda Department of the OKW, it covered Germany's military situation and was broadcast daily on the Reich Broadcasting Corporation of Nazi Germany. All broadcasts were authorized by the Reich Ministry of Propaganda under Joseph Goebbels. Despite the latter's attempts to temper excessive optimism, they often exaggerated the success of the German army, leading historian Aristotle Kallis to describe their tone as "triumphalist".

<i>Wehrmacht</i> Unified armed forces of Germany from 1935 to 1945

The Wehrmacht was the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany from 1935 to 1945. It consisted of the Heer (army), the Kriegsmarine (navy) and the Luftwaffe. The designation "Wehrmacht" replaced the previously-used term Reichswehr, and was the manifestation of the Nazi regime's efforts to rearm Germany to a greater extent than the Treaty of Versailles permitted.

1940 Field Marshal Ceremony

The 1940 Field Marshal Ceremony refers to a promotion ceremony held at the Kroll Opera House in Berlin in which Adolf Hitler promoted twelve generals to the rank of Generalfeldmarschall on 19 July 1940. It was the first occasion in World War II that Hitler appointed field marshals due to military achievements.

Myth of the clean Wehrmacht post World War II myth

The myth of the clean Wehrmacht is the fictitious notion that the regular German armed forces were not involved in the Holocaust or other war crimes during World War II. The myth denies the culpability of the German military command in the planning and preparation of war crimes. Even where the perpetration of war crimes and the waging of a war of extermination, particularly in the Soviet Union—where the Nazis viewed the population as "subhumans" ruled by "Jewish Bolshevik" conspirators—has been acknowledged, they are ascribed to the "Party soldiers", the Schutzstaffel (SS), and not the regular German military.

Geoffrey P. Megargee (1959-2020) is an American historian and author who specialises in World War II military history and the history of the Holocaust. He serves as the project director and editor-in-chief for the Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933–1945 produced by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Megargee's work on the German High Command won the 2001 Distinguished Book Award from the Society for Military History.

Ernst Klink was a German military historian who specialised in Nazi Germany and World War II. He was a long-term employee at the Military History Research Office (MGFA). As a contributor to the seminal work Germany and the Second World War from MGFA, Klink was the first to identify the independent planning by the German Army High Command for Operation Barbarossa.

201st Security Division (Wehrmacht) German Army rear-security division of World War II

The 201st Security Division, originally the 201st Security Brigade, was a German Army rear-area security division of World War II. The unit was deployed in German-occupied areas of the Soviet Union, and was responsible for large-scale war crimes and atrocities including the deaths of thousands of Soviet civilians. It was disbanded in January 1945

The 221st Security Division was a rear-area security division in the Wehrmacht during World War II. Commanded by General Johann Pflugbeil, the unit was deployed in German-occupied areas of the Soviet Union, in the Army Group Centre Rear Area, for security and Bandenbekämpfung ("anti-bandit") duties. It was responsible for large-scale war crimes and atrocities including the deaths of thousands of Soviet civilians.