Wilhelm Bodewin Johann Gustav Keitel (22 September 1882 – 16 October 1946) was a German field marshal (Generalfeldmarschall). As head of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (Supreme Command of the Armed Forces) and de facto war minister under Adolf Hitler, he was one of Germany’s most senior military leaders during World War II. At the Allied court at Nuremberg he was tried, sentenced to death and hanged as a war criminal. He was the highest-ranking German soldier to be tried at Nuremberg.
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Keitel was born in the village of Helmscherode near Gandersheim in the Duchy of Brunswick, the eldest son of Carl Keitel (1854–1934), a middle class landowner, and his wife Apollonia Vissering (1855–1888). After he completed his education at gymnasium in Göttingen, his plan to take over his family’s estates 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 the mounted 46th Lower-Saxon Field Artillery Regiment in Wolfenbüttel, serving as adjutant from 1908.
On 18 April 1909, Keitel married Lisa Fontaine, a wealthy landowner’s daughter at Wülfel near Hanover. Together they had six children, one of whom died in infancy. His eldest son, Karl-Heinz Keitel went on to serve as a divisional commander in the Waffen-SS.
During World War I, Keitel served on the Western Front with his artillery regiment and took part in the fighting in Flanders, where he was severely wounded in his right forearm by a shell fragment. Elevated to the rank of a captain, Keitel quickly recovered, and in 1915 posted to the General Staff of the 19th Reserve Infantry Division. He later went on to fight in the First Battle of the Marne, the Battle of Verdun, and in the Battle of Passchendaele, being awarded the Iron Cross 2nd and 1st Class.
After the war, Keitel stayed in the newly created Reichswehr of the Weimar Republic, an army limited to only 100,000 soldiers, and played a part in organizing the paramilitary Freikorps frontier guard units on the Polish border. He also served as a divisional General Staff officer of the 6th Prussian Artillery Regiment, and later taught at the Hanover Cavalry School for two years, from 1923 with the rank of major. In late 1924, Keitel was transferred to the German Ministry of War in Berlin, serving with the “Troop Office”, the post-Versailles disguised German General Staff. Three years later, he returned to the 6th Prussian Artillery Regiment as commander of the 2nd Department.
As lieutenant-colonel, he was again assigned to the Ministry of War in 1929 and soon promoted to Head of the Organizational Department (“T-2”), a post he would hold until Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party took national 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 from a heart attack, and double pneumonia, followed by a longer stay at a sanatorium. Shortly after his recovery, Keitel began a tour of duty in October 1933 as a deputy commander of the 3rd Infantry Division. Following the death of his father in the spring of 1934, he submitted his resignation so he could tend to his family’s estate but was persuaded to retract it upon being given command of the 22nd Infantry Division at Bremen.
Rise to the Wehrmacht High Command
In 1935, at the recommendation of General Werner von Fritsch, Wilhelm Keitel was promoted to the rank of major general and appointed chief of the War Ministry’s Armed Forces Office (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht), which oversaw the army, navy, and air force. After assuming office, Keitel was promoted to lieutenant general on 1 January 1936 and later to the rank of full general (Generaloberst) in 1937.
On 21 January 1938, Keitel received evidence revealing that the wife of his superior, War Minister Werner von Blomberg, was a former prostitute. 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. Following Blomberg’s dismissal, the War Ministry was replaced by the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht), with Keitel as its chief. As a result of his new appointment, Keitel assumed all the powers and responsibilities of Germany’s War Minister, and was accordingly given a seat in Hitler’s Cabinet. Soon after his promotion, he convinced Hitler to appoint his close friend, Walther von Brauchitsch, as Commander-in-Chief of the Army. For a brief period in October 1938, Keitel became Military Governor of the Sudetenland, but left this post in February 1939 to once again assume command over OKW where he would remain until the end of the war.
Despite his designation as Commander-In-Chief of the Armed Forces Supreme Command, Keitel lacked independent command authority, merely acting as Hitler’s agent and issuing orders on his behalf. Meanwhile, Göring still retained relative control over the Luftwaffe through the Reich Air Ministry, but Admiral Erich Raeder was unable to convince Hitler to give him autonomy over the navy.
World War II
During World War II, Keitel was one of the primary planners of the Wehrmacht campaigns and operations on the Western and the Eastern fronts. He advised Hitler against invading France and opposed Operation Barbarossa. Failing to sway Hitler, he tendered his resignation each time. Hitler refused to accept the resignations. In 1940, after the French campaign, he was promoted to field marshal during the 1940 Field Marshal Ceremony along with several other generals. Unusual for a non-field commander, Keitel was awarded the Knight’s Cross for arranging the armistice with France. Keitel realized the Germans would be unable to win the Battle of Britain, as the British had the backing of the almost unlimited resources of the United States.
He advised Hitler not to attack the Soviet Union in 1941, as he was convinced that “Operation Barbarossa” would be a failure. The overwhelming success of Barbarossa in its initial phase did a great deal to undermine Keitel’s authority in the face of Hitler. He was the author of the infamous 13 May 1941 Barbarossa decree, which condemned captured prisoners and ensured a high level of brutality by German soldiers against Soviet civilians.
In 1942, he confronted Hitler in defense of Field Marshal Wilhelm List, whose Army Group A was stalled in the Battle of the Caucasus. Hitler spurned Keitel’s pleading and fired List. Keitel’s defense of List was his last act of defiance to Hitler; he never again challenged Hitler’s orders. For example, during a strategy briefing late in the war, Luftwaffe intelligence discovered that 80,000 Soviet fighter aircraft were ready to be deployed to the front. Reichsmarschall Göring, Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe, told Hitler that they were simply dummies; the Red Air Force could not possibly have that many aircraft. Count Johann von Kielmansegg later described it:
“There was a disagreement around Hitler’s map table and Keitel got wind of it, he was in the same room at the back, but somehow he got wind of it and I heard him say, without knowing what the issue was: “You’re quite right, My Führer.” I can hear him now.”
He signed numerous orders of dubious legality under the laws of war. The most infamous were the 6 June 1941 Commissar Order (which stipulated that Soviet political commissars were to be shot on sight) and the 7 December 1941 Night and Fog Decree (which called for the forced disappearance of resistance fighters and other political prisoners in Germany’s occupied territories). Another was the order that French pilots of the Normandie-Niemen squadron be executed rather than be made prisoners of war.
According to Albert Speer’s memoirs, nearly all of the field marshals and generals viewed him with scorn and disdain for succumbing to Hitler’s influence and transforming himself from an “honorable, solidly respectable general” into a powerless yes-man with all the wrong instincts, whose only job was to allow Hitler to take control of the army. General Ludwig Beck complained that he was incapable of giving Hitler the reality of the situations and was an extremely poor tactician whose decisions were motivated more by ensuring his own survival rather than that of the troops. Marshal Paul Ludwig Ewald von Kleist labeled him as nothing more than a “stupid follower of Hitler”, and most commanders went out of their way to ignore his orders, although von Kleist did admit that, had Hitler chosen a more competent commander (such as himself), he would have lasted only two weeks. His sycophancy was well known in the army, and he acquired the nickname ‘Lakeitel’, a pun on his name (in German, the word ‘Lakai’ means ‘lackey’). Keitel accepted Hitler’s directive for Operation Citadel in 1943, despite strong opposition from several field officers who argued that neither the troops nor the new tanks on which Hitler staked his hopes for victory were ready.
Keitel played an important role after the failed 20 July plot in 1944. As Hitler related after the explosion, Keitel rushed to Hitler’s side exclaiming, “Mein Fuehrer, you’re alive, you’re alive!” Hitler goes on to say, “Keitel was almost killed himself, He will show no mercy,” when it came to seeking vengeance. Keitel then 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. Soon, Keitel was named by Hitler to be his deputy supreme commander of the German Armed Forces, with broad powers in terms of arming, equipping and disciplining soldiers. The Volkssturm, the civilian militia force of Germany, was also attached to the military; thus Keitel had jurisdiction over it even though its commander was Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda. Keitel, during this time, visited German troops and auxiliary civilian forces on front lines throughout Germany, mingling with them to boost their morale, and he conducted regular meetings with field commanders to coordinate their respective military operations.
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 attacks. 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 said he found Keitel to be grovelling to Dönitz in the same way he had grovelled to Hitler.
On 8 May 1945, Dönitz authorised Keitel to sign an unconditional surrender in Berlin. Although Germany had surrendered to the Allies a day earlier, Stalin insisted on a second surrender ceremony in Berlin.
As a military officer, Keitel was prohibited by law from joining the NSDAP (Nazi Party). However, after the Wehrmacht’s rapid early successes on the Russian Front, he was given a “Golden” (Honorary) NSDAP membership badge by Hitler, who was seeking to link military successes to political successes. In 1944, German laws were changed and military officers were encouraged to seek NSDAP membership. At the Nuremberg Trials, Keitel claimed he did so as a formality, but never received formal party membership. He was one of only two people to receive honorary party membership status (Hjalmar Schacht, President of the Reichsbank, was the other).
Trial and Execution
After the surrender, Keitel was arrested along with the rest of the Flensburg government. He soon 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.
Keitel admitted that he knew many of Hitler’s orders were illegal. For instance, he described the Night and Fog Decree, which ordered the disappearance of resistance fighters in the occupied territories, as “the worst of all” the orders he had been given. Not only did Keitel approve the Night and Fog Decree, he also presided over the Nazi “Court of Honour” (which condemned the July Plotters), signed the Commissar Order, encouraged the lynching of downed Allied aircrews by civilians, and sanctioned extreme measures against partisan fighters in the East. His defence relied almost entirely on the argument that he was merely following orders in conformity to “the leader principle” (Führerprinzip) and his personal oath of loyalty to Hitler.
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 that 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, he had reaffirmed it and extended its application. It also noted several instances where he issued illegal orders on his own authority. On 2 October 1945, Keitel wrote a letter to Associate Trial Counsel for the United States, Colonel John Harlan Amen, in which he penned:
In carrying out these thankless and difficult tasks I had to fulfill my duty under the hardest exigencies of war, often acting against the inner voice of my conscience and against my own convictions. The fulfillment of urgent tasks assigned by Hitler demanded complete self-abnegation.
Before the court he openly admitted his guilt in an “awful war,” saying, “I made mistakes and was not able to stop what should have been stopped. That is my guilt!” He then went on to wish the Germans hope and a new future in the community of nations. Describing the situation further, Keitel also remarked, “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.”
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 by hanging. Keitel’s 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.”
The execution was performed by the American Army Sgt. John C. Woods. His body, as those of the other nine executed men and the corpse of Hermann Göring, was cremated at Ostfriedhof (Munich) and the ashes were scattered in the river Isar. The facial blood stains seen in the photo of Keitel’s corpse were due to the trapdoor being too small, causing him and several others of the condemned to suffer head injuries through hitting the trapdoor during the drop. Donald E. Wilkes Jr., a professor of law at the University of Georgia Law School, noted that many of the executed Nazis fell from the gallows with insufficient force to snap their necks, resulting in a macabre, suffocating death struggle that in Keitel’s case lasted 24 minutes.
Keitel’s youngest son, Hans-Georg Keitel, was badly wounded in the thigh during the 1940 campaign in France. He died on 18 July 1941 in a field hospital after being mortally wounded the day before by a Soviet aircraft attack. Hans was buried in the family plot in Bad Gandersheim. Another son, Major Ernst-Wilhelm Keitel, was captured by the Soviets at the end of World War II. He was released in January 1956, and returned home to Germany.
Wilhelm Keitel wrote his memoirs in the six weeks before he was hanged. Before his execution, Keitel published Mein Leben: Pflichterfüllung bis zum Untergang: Hitlers Feldmarschall und Chef des Oberkommandos der Wehrmacht in Selbstzeugnissen, otherwise known in English as In the Service of the Reich, and was later re-edited as The Memoirs of Field-Marshal Keitel: Chief of the German High Command, 1938–1945″ edited by Walter Görlitz from a translation by David Irving as the author in 1965. Another work by Keitel later published in English was Questionnaire on the Ardennes offensive.