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Wilhelm Keitel

Wilhelm Keitel
Bundesarchiv Bild 183-H30220, Wilhelm Keitel.jpg
Keitel as field marshal in 1942
Chief of the Armed Forces High Command
Nazi Germany
In office
4 February 1938 – 8 May 1945
Preceded byWerner von Blomberg
(as Reich Minister of War)
Succeeded byNone (position abolished)
Chief of the Wehrmachtamt
In office
1 October 1935 – 4 February 1938
Preceded byWalter 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 (execution)
Lisa Fontaine (m. 1909)
(born 1887 - died 1959)
RelativesBodewin Keitel (brother)
Military service
Allegiance German Empire (to 1918)
 Weimar Republic (to 1933)
 Nazi Germany
Branch/service German Army
Years of service1901–1945
RankWehrmacht GenFeldmarschall 1942h1.svg Generalfeldmarschall
CommandsOberkommando der Wehrmacht
Battles/warsWorld War I
World War II
AwardsKnight's Cross of the Iron Cross
Criminal conviction
Known forWar crimes of the Wehrmacht
Conviction(s)Crimes against humanity
Crimes against peace
Criminal conspiracy
War crimes
TrialNuremberg trials
Criminal penaltyDeath penalty
VictimsSoviet prisoners of war
Soviet civilians (Jews and Slavs)

Wilhelm Bodewin Johann Gustav Keitel (22 September 1882 – 16 October 1946) was a German field marshal who served as Chief of the Armed Forces High Command in Nazi Germany during World War II. Keitel was well known and reviled as Hitler’s dependable sycophant and habitual "yes-man" among his military colleagues.

Following the war, Keitel was charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg. He was found guilty, principally for issuing a series of criminal orders that led to widespread atrocities such as the execution of Jews and civilians. He 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] Together they had six children, one of whom died in infancy.[3]

During World War I, Keitel served on the Western Front and took part in the fighting in Flanders, where he was severely wounded.[4] After being promoted to captain, Keitel was then posted to the staff of an infantry division in 1915.[5]

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 (English: Troop Office), the post-Versailles disguised German General Staff. Three years later, he returned to field command.[4]

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.[6] 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.[7]

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 War Ministry's Armed Forces Office, which oversaw the army, navy, and air force.[8][9] After assuming office, Keitel was promoted to lieutenant general on 1 January 1936.[10]

On 21 January 1938, Keitel received evidence revealing that the wife of his superior, War Minister Werner von Blomberg, was a former prostitute.[11] 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.[12]

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.[13] As a result of his appointment, Keitel assumed the responsibilities of Germany's War Minister.[14] Soon after his promotion, Keitel convinced Hitler to appoint Walther von Brauchitsch as Commander-in-Chief of the Army, replacing von Fritsch.[15] He became a full general in November 1938.[16]

World War II

Keitel (far left) and other members of the German high command with Adolf Hitler (second from right) at a military briefing, (c. 1940).

Field Marshal Ewald von Kleist labelled Keitel as 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 on his name which translates into English as 'lackey'.[17][18] Hermann Göring's description of Keitel as having "a sergeant's mind inside a field marshal's body" was a feeling commonly expressed among his peers. He had been promoted because of his craven willingness to function as Hitler's mouth-piece.[19] He was predisposed to manipulation because of his limited intellect and nervous disposition; Hitler valued his hard work and obedience.[20] 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, however, Franz Halder told him: "Don't worry, it's only Keitel".[20] German officers consistently bypassed him and went directly to Hitler.[21]

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.[22] 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.[23] Hitler asked for war studies to be completed[24] 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.[25]

Keitel issued a series of criminal orders from April 1941.[26] 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.[27] In September 1941, concerned that some field commanders 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". 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.[28]

Keitel received the Golden Party Badge, for (honorary) Nazi membership on occasion of the German invasion of Czechoslovakia. Keitel claimed to never have been a Nazi Party member at his trial, however, subsequent to his trial, a 1939 application for membership was discovered in the archives.[3]

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 Führer, 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.[29] 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. Around 7,000 people were arrested, many of whom were tortured by the Gestapo, and around 5,000 were executed.[30]

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 and he conducted regular meetings with field commanders to coordinate military operations.[3]

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 Donitz, signed Germany's unconditional surrender on all fronts. This did not please Stalin, so, on 8 May, Dönitz sent Keitel to the Berlin suburb Karlshorst, where he signed the German surrender to the Soviet Union. He then expected to be arrested and shot, but, to his surprise, the Russians let him go. Five days later he was arrested along with the rest of the Flensburg Government, at the request of the U.S.[31]

Role in the Holocaust

Keitel had full knowledge of the Holocaust and its criminal nature during the planning and the subsequent Invasion of Poland; he agreed to its aims in principle.[32] The Nazi plans included mass arrests, population transfers and systematic genocide. He did not contest the regime's assault upon basic human rights or counter the role of the Einsatzgruppen in the murders.[32] The Wehrmacht leadership including Keitel, Walther von Brauchitsch and Franz Halder did not initially share their knowledge of the Holocaust with their subordinate officers. The criminal nature of the regime became obvious but local commanders continued to express shock and protest over the events they were witnessing.[33] Keitel continued to ignore the protests among the officer corps while they became morally numbed to the atrocities.[32] On 13 March 1940, at Gerd von Rundstedt's headquarters in Koblenz, Himmler gave a speech to a wider circle of officers and made it clear that SS actions in Poland were authorised by Hitler himself. The speech ended open discontent and the criticism of a few who dissented from the policy.[33] Having failed to prevent the Holocaust in Poland, the military became an accomplice in war crimes during the remainder of World War II.[32]

Trial and conviction

Wilhelm Keitel's detention report from June 1945
17 Oct 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.[34]

Keitel admitted that he knew many of Hitler's orders were illegal.[35] Not only did Keitel approve the Night and Fog Decree, he also presided over the Nazi "Court of Honour" (which condemned the 20 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.[36] 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.[19]

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, he had reaffirmed it and extended its application. It also noted several instances where he issued illegal orders on his own authority.[34]

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."[37] 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.[38]


Keitel's body after execution

The execution was performed by the American Army Sgt. John C. Woods.[39][40][41] Keitel's 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.[42][43][44] 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.[45] Donald E. Wilkes Jr., a professor of law at the University of Georgia School of Law, 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.[46]


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.[47]

See also



  1. ^ Mitcham & Mueller (2012). Hitler’s Commanders: Officers of the Wehrmacht, the Luftwaffe, the Kriegsmarine, and the Waffen-SS, p. 1.
  2. ^ Walter Goerlitz, "Keitel, Jodl, and Warlimont," in Correlli, ed. (2003). Hitler’s Generals, p. 140.
  3. ^ a b c "Keitel, Wilhelm -".
  4. ^ a b Mitcham & Mueller (2012). Hitler’s Commanders: Officers of the Wehrmacht, the Luftwaffe, the Kriegsmarine, and the Waffen-SS, p. 2.
  5. ^ Walter Goerlitz, "Keitel, Jodl, and Warlimont," in Correlli, ed. (2003). Hitler’s Generals, pp. 140–141.
  6. ^ Mitcham & Mueller (2012). Hitler’s Commanders: Officers of the Wehrmacht, the Luftwaffe, the Kriegsmarine, and the Waffen-SS, pp. 2–3.
  7. ^ Mitcham Jr. 2001, pp. 163–164.
  8. ^ Wheeler-Bennett (1980). Nemesis of Power: The German Army in Politics 1918–1945, pp. 372–74.
  9. ^ Hildebrand (1986). The Third Reich, p. 45.
  10. ^ Mitcham Jr. 2001, p. 164.
  11. ^ Mitcham Jr. 2001, p. 8.
  12. ^ William L. Shirer (1990). Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. Simon and Schuster. p. 313. ISBN 978-0-671-72868-7.
  13. ^ Megargee 2000, pp. 41-44.
  14. ^ Megargee 2000, pp. 44–45.
  15. ^ Megargee 2000, p. 42.
  16. ^ Tucker 2005, p. 691.
  17. ^ Burleigh, Michael, Moral Combat, HarperPress, 2010, London, UK, ISBN 978-0-00-719576-3
  18. ^ Stahel 2009, p. 277.
  19. ^ a b Walker 2006, p. 85.
  20. ^ a b Shepherd 2016, p. 29.
  21. ^ Tucker 2006, p. 691.
  22. ^ Stahel 2009, p. 34.
  23. ^ Stahel 2009, pp. 37-39.
  24. ^ Stahel 2009, p. 85.
  25. ^ Stahel 2009, p. 86.
  26. ^ Heer et al. 2008, p. 17.
  27. ^ Heer et al. 2008, pp. 17-20.
  28. ^ Förster 1998, p. 276.
  29. ^ Speer, Albert (1995). Inside the Third Reich. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. p. 524. ISBN 9781842127353.
  30. ^ Tucker 2005, p. 681.
  31. ^ Guido Knopp, original title: "Hitlers Krieger" ("Hitler's Warriors") 1998, Swedish translation: Ulf Irheden, 2001, Swedish ISBN 91-89442-17-2, page 135 (in Swedish translation), the very last page of the chapter on Keitel
  32. ^ a b c d Browning 2004, p. 20.
  33. ^ a b Browning 2004, p. 79.
  34. ^ a b "The trial of German major war criminals : proceedings of the International Military Tribunal sitting at Nuremberg Germany".
  35. ^ William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (Touchstone Edition) (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990)
  36. ^ Roberts, Andrew (2011). The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War, pp. 510–511.
  37. ^ Conot (2000). Justice at Nuremberg, p. 356.
  38. ^ "The Trial of the Century – and of all time". Part two. By Donald E. Wilkes, Jr., Professor of Law, University of Georgia School of Law.
  39. ^ "Legal News, Legal Search, and Legal Links:".
  40. ^ Kingsbury Smith: The Execution of Nazi War Criminals Archived 21 September 2012 at the Wayback Machine. Eyewitness Report.
  41. ^ TURLEY, Mark. From Nuremberg to Nineveh
  42. ^ Thomas Darnstädt (2005), "Ein Glücksfall der Geschichte", Der Spiegel, 13 September (14), p. 128
  43. ^ Manvell 2011, p. 393.
  44. ^ Overy 2001, p. 205.
  45. ^ Spiegel Online, Nürnberger Prozesse: Der Tod durch den Strick dauerte 15 Minuten (German), 16 January 2007
  46. ^ The Nuremberg Hangings — Not So Smooth Either, 16 January 2007
  47. ^ Historical Division, Headquarters, United States Army, Europe, Foreign Military Studies Branch (1949)


  • Browning, Christopher (2004). The Origins of the Final Solution. University of Nebraska Press and Yad Vashem. ISBN 0-8032-1327-1.
  • Burleigh, Michael (2010). Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II. New York and London: Harper Collins. ISBN 978-0-00-719576-3
  • Conot, Robert E. (2000) [1947]. Justice at Nuremberg. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers. ISBN 978-0-88184-032-2
  • Förster, Jürgen (1998). "Complicity or Entanglement? The Wehrmacht, the War and the Holocaust (pages 266–283)". In Michael Berenbaum & Abraham Peck (ed.). The Holocaust and History The Known, the Unknown, the Disputed and the Reexamiend. Bloomington: Indian University Press. ISBN 978-0-253-33374-2.
  • Heer, Hannes; Manoschek, Walter; Pollak, Alexander; Wodak, Ruth (2008). The Discursive Construction of History: Remembering the Wehrmacht's War of Annihilation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9780230013230.
  • Hildebrand, Klaus (1986). The Third Reich. London & New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-04-9430327
  • Knopp, Guido (2000). Hitlers Krieger. Leipzig: Goldmann Verlag. ISBN 3-442-15045-0
  • Megargee, Geoffrey. War of Annihilation. Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front, 1941, 2006, Rowman & Littelefield, ISBN 0-7425-4481-8
  • Megargee, Geoffrey P. (2000). Inside Hitler's High Command. Lawrence, Kansas: Kansas University Press. ISBN 0-7006-1015-4.
  • Mitcham, Samuel and Gene Mueller (2012). Hitler’s Commanders: Officers of the Wehrmacht, the Luftwaffe, the Kriegsmarine, and the Waffen-SS. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-1-44221-153-7
  • Mitcham Jr., Samuel W. (2001). Hitler's Field Marshals and Their Battles. New York City, New York: Cooper Square Press. ISBN 0-8154-1130-8.
  • Mueller, Gene (1979). The Forgotten Field Marshal: Wilhelm Keitel. Durham, NC: Moore Publishing. ISBN 978-0-87716-105-9
  • Roberts, Andrew (2011). The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War. New York: Harper Perennial. ISBN 978-0-06122-860-5
  • Stahel, David (2009). Operation Barbarossa and Germany's Defeat in the East. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-76847-4.
  • Shepherd, Ben (2016). Hitler's Soldiers: The German Army in the Third Reich. Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300179033.
  • Tucker, Spencer (2005). World War II: A Student Encyclopedia. ABC Clio. ISBN 1-85109-857-7.
  • Walker, Andrew (2006). The Nazi War Trials. CPD Ltd. ISBN 978-1-903047-50-7.
  • Wheeler-Bennett, John W. (1980) [1953]. Nemesis of Power: The German Army in Politics 1918–1945. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0-333-06864-5

Online sources

External links