Wilhelm Keitel (Sept. 22, 1882 - Oct. 16, 1946) was the chief of the German high command before and during the Second World War. Loyal to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party beyond reason or sense, the career military man signed the German surrender to the Soviet Union in 1945, was arrested and tried at Nuremberg, and hanged in October, 1946.

Early career

Keitel was born into a comfortable family in Helmscherode, in Brunswick (or Braunschweig), in central Germany, in 1882. The Keitels were landowners and the young Wilhelm had a privileged upbringing, fancying hunting and horsemanship much more than his studies. His family was strongly nationalist, ardently loyal to the Kaiser, so it's not surprising that military life appealed to Keitel as a youth.

The Germany army was organized on ethno-geographic lines, and in 1901 Keitel joined up to become part of a battery of Brunswickers in the 46th Prussian Field Artillery Regiment. Coming from the gentry, he was an officer cadet, charged with administrative tasks rather than combat duties.

Keitel showed a talent for organization and shortly became a staff officer, a regimental captain responsible for matters related to mobilization, such as logistics and supply. He learned his military ethic from his fellow Prussian officers, widely considered some of the best military men in the world and the backbone of the German army, though he never went to staff school.

When the First World War broke out, Keitel went into action with his regiment, but by September, 1914, he had been wounded by shrapnel and knocked out of the line. In March, 1915, he rejoined the general staff and ultimately was the lead staff officer of a reserve infantry division and then of marines in Flanders.

When the war ended, he joined the "Freikorps," a paramilitary organization of ex-soldiers who craved the structure of military life but no longer had an army to provide it. They were barely one step above bandits and many of them (though not Keitel) ended up joining the Nazis' stormtroopers when the party came to prominence a few years later.

When the German army reformed after the Treaty of Versailles, Keitel was one of the 100,000 men selected. During the 1920s he continued to serve as a staff officer (the general staff itself had been disbanded by the treaty but the military retained a "troop office" that served most of the same functions), rose to the rank of colonel, and became an instructor who worked with the Soviet Red Army on joint tests of equipment and doctrine. In 1930, he joined the staff at the Ministry of War in Berlin.

Before the war

The exact progression of Keitel's thinking over the next couple of years isn't clear. It seems that when Hitler became chancellor of Germany in January, 1933, Keitel regarded the new man with disdain. Hitler was an upstart Austrian, a former corporal, an ideologue and a demagogue, none of which appealed to a stiff-necked army officer with Prussian sensibilities. But within a few years, Keitel had clearly fallen under Hitler's spell.

In the early going, those Prussian sensibilities compelled his continued loyalty to the new boss, however distasteful he might have been, and anyway Keitel was friends with the new war minister, Werner von Blomberg. Keitel was promoted to major general in October, 1933, and a year later he became commander of the 22nd Infantry Division.

Keitel's new command was secret, because the division wasn't supposed to exist. By 1934, Hitler was expanding the German army far beyond the Versailles-ordered 100,000-man limit and Keitel was complicit in that expansion -- a complicity that arguably marked his guilt on the first charge of his eventual Nuremberg indictment, that of conspiring to wage aggressive war.

He stayed silent after the Night of the Long Knives, when the SS killed Party members Hitler suspected of disloyalty. The Fuehrer also ordered the murders of two retired generals, Kurt von Schleicher (an organizer of the Freikorps and a former minister of defence who had even served as chancellor during the chaotic years of the German establishment's efforts to find alternatives to the Nazis) and Ferdinand von Bredow (who had joined Schleicher in trying to limit Hitler's quickly growing power).

History has not recorded that Keitel raised any objections, though the killings ultimately led to rebellion among other Wehrmacht officers. Quite the opposite, in fact: by this time, Keitel was an open and public admirer of Hitler.

This not only helped him stay alive as Hitler purged the military's senior ranks of anyone whose loyalty was suspect, it helped him leapfrog to the command of the German Wehrmachtsamt, a staff organization that had jurisdiction over the Wehrmacht, the Kriegsmarine, and the Luftwaffe. Only Hermann Goering's unwillingness to cede overall command of the Luftwaffe prevented the entire German military from being consolidated under the control of one body, which Keitel might well have headed.

By 1938, Keitel was a full general and chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, the successor to the Wehrmachtsamt that commanded all of Germany's land forces.

The Second World War

Keitel was a cautious commander, almost to the point of weakness. He actively supported the annexation of Austria and the seizure of Czechoslovakia and planned (with the great tank strategist Heinz Guderian) the invasion of Poland, and essentially backed the invasions of Denmark, Holland, Luxembourg, and Belgium, but his nerve faltered when Hitler's eye landed on France.

Keitel, by now a field marshal, never based his objection on an argument that invading France would be wrong or even that it wasn't necessary -- only that he didn't believe his Wehrmacht was ready for the task. He naysaid the plan to send tanks through the Ardennes forest, a move that turned out to be the key to the invasion's success.

Virtually every account of the Second World War mentions that Hitler's early successes came despite the constant complaints and objections of his senior generals. Most of the time, those complaints came from Keitel. Time after time, however, Hitler proved Keitel wrong, and when the German army rolled into Paris, Keitel hailed the Fuehrer as "the greatest general of all time."

What that meant, of course, was that Keitel abandoned his instincts right when they might have done Germany the most good. He resisted Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's plan to invade the Soviet Union, but his objections weakened when Hitler reminded him of the Wehrmacht's experiences in Western Europe. The invasion went ahead.

A first, it was an enormous success: The Germans rolled through the Baltic states, White Russia, the Ukraine, and most of industrial west Russia, right up to the gates of Moscow. They reached the Volga River north and south of Stalingrad and pushed the Red Army back until only a few hundred yards of the city remained in Soviet hands.

And that was the Third Reich's high-water mark and the end of Keitel's usefulness as a general. He had become a pure sycophant to Hitler, who enforced the Fuehrer's dictates no matter how militarily foolish. When the Sixth Army became encircled at Stalingrad, for example, he did nothing to dissuade Hitler from his insane insistence that it neither attempt to break out nor surrender.

British war historian Antony Beevor describes Keitel as "pompous, vain, stupid, brutal and obsequious to his Fuehrer." Keitel himself, in an autobiography published after his death, insisted he had no choice in dogged loyalty to Hitler: "Why did the generals who have been so ready to term me a complaisant and incompetent yes-man fail to secure my removal? Was that all that difficult? No, that wasn't it; the truth was that nobody would have been ready to replace me, because each one knew that he would end up just as much a wreck as I."

By the time the tide of the war turned, Keitel was indisputably a war criminal and guilty of crimes against humanity. He signed the orders from Hitler authorizing the summary execution of Communist commissars, the transporation of captured Jews to death camps, and the absolution of individual German soldiers for anything they might do to civilians in the conquered territory. In March, 1942, he signed the so-called Reprisal Order, which included the lines: "One must bear in mind that in the countries affected, human life has absolutely no value...the troops are, therefore, authorized and ordered to take any measures without restriction, even against women and children."

In 1944, as the Soviets forced the German army back toward Berlin and the Allies began retaking France, the seeds of rebellion in the German officer corps bloomed, with Hitler nearly killed in an assassination attempt on July 20.

The effort was mounted by senior officers, led by Count Claus von Stauffenberg, who planted a bomb in Hitler's briefing room at a military headquarters in East Prussia. Hitler survived, but it took hours before he proved it in a radio speech -- meanwhile, coup leaders were issuing orders to their troops, trying to consolidate power. Keitel countermanded every one of them, causing the units that had received them to freeze with indecision.

All the coup leaders were executed, with Keitel sitting on the military court of honour that condemned them.

The end of the war

Keitel stayed at Hitler's side even as the Soviets took Berlin block by block and was in the bunker under the Reich Chancellery when Hitler shot himself. Some accounts have it that Keitel was disappointed in Hitler's suicide, believing he should have willingly stood trial and defended himself and the Reich. That's what Keitel ultimately did, though German tradition was that no losing commander lived to face his enemies; when Hitler promoted Friedrich von Paulus to field marshal in the hours before Paulus's Sixth Army surrendered at Stalingrad, the implication was clear.

In the event, two weeks after Hitler's suicide and on orders from the new Reich president, navy commander Karl Doenitz, Keitel arranged the Reich's surrender. On May 8, 1945, he flew to Soviet headquarters at Tempelhof airport just south of Berlin, and faced Soviet Marshal G.K. Zhukov, British Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, U.S. General Carl Spaatz, and French General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny.

According to Beevor, "Keitel tried to look imperious, glancing almost contemptuously from time to time at Zhukov and sitting very straight in his chair, with clenched fists."

The Allies signed the instruments of unconditional surrender, and then Zhukov ordered Keitel to come to the Allies' table to sign them himself, which he slowly and deliberately did and then, with Zhukov's permission, spun on his heel and stalked out.

With the surrender executed, Keitel and his senior aides fled from the Red Army and its expected reprisals, but were arrested by the western Allies in Holstein on May 13.


Keitel was indicted on all four counts explored by the Nuremberg tribunal: Conspiracy to commit crimes against peace; planning, initiating and waging wars of aggression; war crimes; and crimes against humanity.

He mounted the standard German officer's defence, that he was following orders from Hitler and had had no choice. The defence was not totally void of merit, inasmuch as many Soviet commanders (at least) were guilty of essentially the same things for which Keitel was being tried. Soviet reprisals against German soldiers and civilians were beyond savage, and under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the Soviets had invaded Poland from the east at the same time as the Germans struck from the west.

The difference was that the Soviets were on the winning side. In any case, evils committed by the Soviets after the German example could not have absolved Keitel of his guilt, given the facts before the tribunal. Even so, the tribunal rejected the only-following-orders defence categorically and Keitel was convicted on all four counts and sentenced to die.

He was executed, with other Nazi leaders, a little after midnight on Oct. 16, 1946. As a field marshal, he asked to be executed by firing squad, but was hanged like all the rest. He went to the gallows in the Nuremberg prison's gymnasium second, after former foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and before SS General Ernst Kaltenbrunner. Goering, who would have been first, had killed himself.

According to some accounts, the condemned men were not dropped far enough to break their necks, but instead strangled at the ends of their ropes. This is unproven; if it is true, it reflects poorly on the Allies and the American executioner, but not many people will shed tears.

It was the practice, when dealing with the corpses of senior German leaders after the war, to cremate them and scatter the ashes, lest a burial ground become a shrine for neo-Nazis. Keitel's remains, like those of the others executed with him, were taken to East Munich's Ostfriedhof cemetery for cremation (some accounts have the bodies cremated at Dachau, but this is plainly false) and the ashes scattered in the nearby Isar River.

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