Wilhelm Keitel

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Wilhelm Keitel

German Field Marshal General Wilhelm Keitel (1882-1946), Adolf Hitler's senior military advisor during World War II, was the individual who personally conducted the armistice agreement with the French. He was eventually convicted for crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg Trials and subsequently hung as a war criminal in late 1946.

Wilhelm Bodewin Johann Gustave Keitel was born on September 22, 1882 in the village of Helmschrode, which was located in Harz Mountains portion of the Braunschweig province of Germany. He was born into a family with a long and rich military history. In his early years, Keitel wasn't much of a student, but he did enjoy hunting and farming. He joined the German army in 1901 as a member of the artillery corps. Gradually, he rose through the ranks of the officers, and was generally considered to be a good soldier. A year after he joined the army, he was made a second lieutenant. It would be another eight years before he received a promotion to the rank of first lieutenant. Keitel married Lisa Fontaine, the daughter of a well-to-do brewer on April 18, 1909. In Memoirs of Field-Marshal Keitel, Walter Gorlitz, editor, noted that "she [Keitel's wife] was probably the stronger and certainly the more ambitious partner of the marriage." Gorlitz added that Keitel "was just an average officer, whose only secret ambition was to be a farmer." The Keitels had three sons and two daughters.

During World War I, Keitel served as an artillery and General Staff Officer in the Ministry of War. By this time, he had been promoted to a captain. He was severely wounded during the war, but managed to successfully recover from his injuries. Family papers shed light on Keitel's views regarding the first world war. According to Gorlitz, "he was duty-bound to hope piously for a German victory, but at the same time deep down there was a dejected conviction that, in fact, all they could do now was grimly hold on." Gorlitz elaborated further and commented "How similar was his attitude to the Second World War!" Eventually, Keitel was well and able enough to join the Freikorps in 1919 after the war had ended and Germany was defeated.

Rising Through the Ranks

In 1920, Keitel was named as the instructor of the Reichswehr Cavalry School. He held this post for the next two years. A promotion to the rank of major, in 1923, led to his tenure at the Reichswehr Ministry. Keitel was a member of the Reichswehr Ministry from 1925 to 1927. Two years later, he was made a lieutenant colonel. Also in 1929, Keitel was named as head of the Army Organization Department. He held this post for the next five years.

The year 1931 saw Keitel promoted again. This time, he had achieved the rank of colonel. It was around this time that Keitel first met Adolf Hitler, although he later claimed they didn't meet until 1938. As noted by Gorlitz, in a family letter dated July 1933, Keitel's wife shared her husband's impressions of Hitler. She wrote, "He has spoken at length with Hitler, he has been up to his cottage, and is full of enthusiasm about him. His eyes were fabulous, and how the man could speak!"

Keitel's next promotion was to the rank of major general. This promotion occurred in 1934. Also around this time, Keitel was made responsible for commanding the 4th Infantry Division, which had its headquarters in Bremen.

Hitler's Chief of Staff

Keitel was named Chief of the Wehrmacht Armed Forces Office of the Ministry of War in late 1935. This department, which Keitel was in charge of for the next three years, served to form the basis for the creation of the Wehrmacht High Command. As a result of this, Keitel gained access to Hitler as a member of Hitler's inner circle. During his tenure as the head of the Wehrmacht Armed Forces Office of the Ministry of War, Keitel was promoted to the rank of artillery general.

On February 4, 1938, Keitel was named as the Chief of Staff of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces. He succeeded General Werner von Blomberg, although Keitel's new position, unlike the position held by von Blomberg, was mostly administrative and lacked genuine authority. In this role as the German government's most senior ranking military official, Keitel gained increased access to Hitler as a member of the Cabinet for Defense of the Reich. Keitel then became Hitler's militaristic chief of staff. Keitel's unwavering loyalty to the Reich was rewarded with a promotion to the rank of colonel general on November 10, 1938.


As Hitler's favorite general, Keitel not only earned the trust and respect of the Führer [Hitler], but he also earned the intense distrust and abhorrence of the rest of the General Staff who derided and dismissed Keitel as a "lakaitel, " which was an army term for lackey. It was Keitel who had coined the phrase the "greatest military commander-in-chief of all time" in regards to Hitler and his so-called military genius.

While Keitel had a hand in all of the strategic military plans and policies in Germany's Third Reich, he was limited in his authority to influence them because he lacked the authority to command. Thus, his post was mostly of a ministerial function, although he was able to implement the decrees by virtue of his position in the government and by the necessity of having his signature on the commands issued by the National Socialist (Nazi) government in Germany.

Keitel was responsible for not only signing and authorizing various Nazi edicts, but he was also in charge of implementing them as well. He was responsible for enforcing Hitler's order to execute large numbers of the Polish population, and he was also responsible for rationalizing the work of the Einstazgruppen Special Action SS Groups, who systematically mass executed the Russian civilian population. Keitel also implemented the "terror fliers policy" which authorized shooting down American and English fighter planes and executing the crews. He was also responsible for enforcing the "Nacht und Nebel" (Night and Fog) decrees which permitted the covert arrest of any person who was thought of as posing a threat to the national security of Germany, including military POWs, who were executed without a trial or court martial. (These "Night and Fog" decrees had a major negative impact on his defense during the Nuremberg Trials.)

His favored status in Hitler's cabinet was evidenced by the fact that Keitel joined the Führer on a number of Hitler's most important missions in 1938, including a trip to Rome, the Munich Conference, and a meeting with the English Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. As a result, historians have noted that Keitel became a rather mindless and obedient servant of the Führer. Keitel also sought to suppress others who dissented and objected to Hitler's policies and practices in the General Staff. This led not only to a severe breakdown in the communication between the members of the General Staff, but also a disintegration of the decision-making process.

Keitel was partly responsible for the German army smashing through the Maginot Line, because he had helped to persuade Hitler to concentrate the efforts of the army on the Western Front. He also tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade Hitler not to launch an aerial assault on Britain during the summer of 1940.

The crowning glory of Keitel's military career occurred in June, 1940 when France was defeated by the Germans. A tremendous indication of his closeness to the Führer was evidenced in the fact that Keitel was the individual who was allowed to read the armistice agreement which highlighted the capitulation of the nation of France to the Germans and detailed the terms for peace. This historic moment took place in a railway car on the edge of the Compiegne Forest and served as a rather potent indicator of the highly venerated status of Keitel as not only the spokesperson on all militaristic matters, but as a trusted and honored advisor of Hitler.

As a result of the capitulation of France, Keitel was promoted to the rank of Field Marshal in July, 1940. In October of that same year, Keitel assumed the control of the Axis-African command. The following year saw him take command of the Russian Front as well.

His role as the Chief of Staff of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces and as an intermediary between the Wehrmacht and the German government, gave Keitel the authority to be the person who signed the unconditional surrender of Germany on May 8, 1945. This was also furthered by the fact that Hitler had committed suicide not long before the capitulation of Germany at the hands of the Allied powers.

Keitel was arrested five days after he signed the unconditional surrender of Germany. In his memoirs, he described himself in a preliminary interrogation in August 1945: "At the bottom of my heart I was a loyal shield-bearer for Adolf Hitler." Gorlitz added, "For Keitel, Hitler-both the man and the Führer-was always an enigma."

Keitel was imprisoned before being brought before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in 1946. He was found guilty of crimes against humanity and was charged with being directly responsible for the planning of war at the highest levels. Keitel maintained that he was only following orders and requested to be shot as a soldier. His request was denied and he was hung at Nuremberg Prison on October 16, 1946.

Further Reading

Encyclopedia of the Third Reich, Macmillan, 1991, p. 493.

Harper Encyclopedia of Military Biographies, Harper Collins, 1992, p. 397.

Keitel, Wilhelm, Memoirs of Field Marshal Keitel, edited by Walter Gorlitz and translated from German by David Irving, William Kimber and Company, Limited, 1966.

"Nuremberg Trials, " http://www.mtsu.edu/baustin/trials3.html (March 23, 1998).