Wilhelm Keitel: Biography
Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel served as commander of all German armed forces during World War II. He was fully subservient to Hitler and allowed the latter to control all military strategy. In addition, he signed a series of criminal orders. He was tried and convicted at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg for war crimes and crimes against humanity and sentenced to death.
Although technically the commander-in-chief of all German military forces, Keitel wielded little power and was disdained by many of his fellow generals for allowing Hitler to take virtual control of the German army.
Keitel issued a number of infamous directives, including the Commissar Order, which authorized the extra-legal murder of Soviet commissars on sight, and the Night and Fog Decree, which stipulated that resistance members and saboteurs arrested in western Europe be brought to Germany for trial by special courts.
The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg convicted Keitel on all counts and sentenced him to death.
Early Life and World War I
Wilhelm Keitel was born near Bad Gandersheim in what is today the state of Lower Saxony, Germany, on September 22, 1882. In 1901, he joined the Prussian army as an artillery officer. During World War I, Keitel served on the western front as a battery commander and then staff officer. He was seriously wounded in Flanders in 1914.
Following World War I, the terms of the Treaty of Versailles reduced the German army (the Reichswehr) to 100,000 men. Keitel, then a colonel, served in the Truppenamt (troop office), an agency which concealed the existence of the proscribed Army General Staff. In this capacity, he was responsible for secretly planning, reorganizing, and eventually enlarging the German army in violation of the Treaty of Versailles.
In 1935, on advice from Commander-in-Chief General Werner von Fritsch, Keitel was promoted to Major General and in 1937 to Colonel General. In 1938, Keitel was appointed head of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht; OKW), that agency which replaced the German War Ministry and which bore responsibility over the army, navy, and air force.
However, Adolf Hitler quickly assumed supreme command of all German armed forces, thus almost immediately superseding Keitel's authority. While a stronger personality might have challenged Hitler, Keitel was fiercely loyal and became little more than a conduit for Hitler's policies.
Ever the yes-man, Keitel publicly supported Hitler, even when, as with the invasions of France and the Soviet Union, he housed private reservations. After the invasion of Poland, he had received a “bonus” of 100,000 Reichsmarks for his loyalty. Keitel's behavior earned him contempt in army circles. Among his colleagues, he was privately known as “Lackeitel,” (“Lackey Keitel”), a play on words of the German word “Lakei” (“lackey”).
After Hitler's suicide in Berlin on April 30, 1945, Keitel joined the short-lived “Flensburg Cabinet” which formed under Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz in the last weeks of the war. It was Keitel whom Dönitz authorized to sign a document of surrender to Soviet forces in Berlin, following General Alfred Jodl's signing of unconditional surrender documents for all German forces on May 7.
On May 13, 1945, Keitel was arrested with the rest of the Flensburg Cabinet. Even though his role as the head of the Supreme Command of the German Armed Forces was largely symbolic, Keitel was complicit in the mass atrocities and war crimes committed in the name of the Third Reich, including the genocide of European Jewry.
Keitel had signed many decrees that contravened international law. These included the infamous “Criminal Orders:”
- The Jurisdiction Order removing the threat of prosecution for German crimes committed against in the East
- The Guidelines for the Troops demanding “ruthless” action against Jews
- The Commissar Order requiring the immediate execution of all Soviet political officers upon capture.
Keitel also signed the infamous “Night and Fog Decree,” resulting in the murder of thousands of resistance fighters, and the Commando Order which ordered the extra-legal killing of Allied special operations troops, even when these were captured in uniform.
As chief of the OKW, Keitel was also ultimately responsible for the cooperation between the Einsatzgruppen and the military in the murder of Jews and other civilians in the Soviet Union and for the brutal treatment of Soviet prisoners of war. He was also complicit in the use of civilian forced labor.
Trial and Execution
- Count 1: Conspiracy to Commit Crimes Against Peace (for planning and executing the war)
- Count 2: Planning, Initiating, and Waging Wars of Aggression (also, for his role as senior commander during the war)
- Count 3: War Crimes (for his military war crimes—Criminal Orders, Night and Fog Decree, Commando Order, and so on.)
- Count 4: Crimes Against Humanity (for some of the same orders above and also for his role in approving the murder of Jews and other civilians, as well as the use of slave labor).
Keitel's defense of superior orders was dismissed by the Tribunal, which found him guilty on all counts. He was hanged on October 16, 1946. Defiant to the end, his last words were: “I call on God Almighty to have mercy on the German people. More than two million German soldiers went to their death for the Fatherland before me. I follow now my sons—all for Germany.”
Series: German Military and the Holocaust
Critical Thinking Questions
- Explore how challenges to ethical behavior and leadership played out in the context of the Holocaust. How do these challenges confront us today?
- How were various professions involved in implementing Nazi policies and ideology? What lessons can be considered for contemporary professionals?
- What pressures and motivations may have affected Keitel's choices before and during the war?