Wilhelm Keitel

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Wilhelm Keitel (1882-1946) was a Field Marshal in the German military forces of World War II, who headed the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), essentially the military secretariat for Adolf Hitler rather than a true combined services headquarters. Despite his high rank, he was often described as a clerk in a marshal's uniform; he was nicknamed "Lakeitel", or "Lackey". The Americans at Nuremberg felt he "would make a fine first sergeant whose life was governed by soldierly obedience." [1]

Early career

Joining the Imperial Army as a cadet in 1901, married in 1909 and when World War One started in 1914, Keitel was serving with the 46th Artillery Regiment. In September 1914, Keitel was seriously wounded in the forearm by a shell fragment. After recovery, he went to the general staff, and stayed in the Army as an instructor and divisional staff officer.[2]

In 1924, Keitel was transferred to the Reich Defence Ministry where he served in the Truppenamt, the de facto general staff of the Black Reichswehr. He was in this position when Hitler came to power.

In 1935, such was Keitel’s reputation, that he was promoted to head of the newly created Armed Forces Office. In 1937, Keitel became a full general. In 1938, he became head of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (OKW).

Prewar militarization

Chief of the Armed Forces Department in the Reichs Ministry of War (Wehrmachtsamt in Reichskriegsministerum), 1 October 1935 to 4 February 1938. 3019-PS).

At the second meeting of the Working Committee of the Councillors for Reich Defense on 22 May 1933, Colonel Keitel emphasized that the supreme-consideration guiding the work of the committee was to be secrecy. "No document" he said, "ought to be lost, since otherwise it may fall into the hands of the enemy's intelligence service. Orally transmitted matters are not provable; they can be denied by us in Geneva." [3]

The fact that Keitel was a member of the Nazi conspiracy in good standing is apparent from his statement that he held the Golden Party Badge, and that consequently the Party considered him a member as from the autumn of 1944, when the law against military personnel being members of the Party was changed (1944 RGBl. I, 317). His political convictions were those of National Socialism, and he was a loyal follower of Hitler (1954-PS) .


Documents suggest he knew of the plans for use of the Einsatzgruppe, if not the extermination camps. He told intelligence chief Wilhelm Canaris on 12 September, "The matter [of the executions of Polish elites] had already been decided by the Fuehrer; the commander of the Army had been informed that if the Wehrmacht refused to be involved, it had to accept the pressure of the SS and the Gestapo. Therefore, in each military district, civilian commanders would be appointed who would carry the responsibility for ethnic extermination.".[4]

He did advise Hitler against the initial invasion of Russia, and lost status when there were initial victories.

His signature is on violations of the military laws of war, such as the Commando and Commissar Orders. On 16 December 1942, he issued a general order stating "This war no longer has anything to do with knightly conduct or with the agreements of the Geneva Convention.[5]

Not only was he not suspected in the 1944 assassination attempt against Hitler, he, Gerd von Rundstedt and Heinz Guderian made up a "Court of Honor" that dismissed complicit military officers, making them eligible to be tried by the Peoples' Court under Roland Freisler.

Debriefings and trial

At the four-power Nuremberg tribunal, after hearing the Auschwitz testimony of Rudolf Hoess, he told psychologist G.M. Gilbert, "But you see, I brought it very clearly that as far as the generals were concerned, if we had known what criminal acts Hitler was planning and executing as we know now, we would have refused to go along."[6] Keitel was in no way intellectually curious, as opposed to his operations officer, Alfred Jodl, and it is just plausible he did not know the details of genocide.


  1. Airey Neave (1979), At Trial at Nuremberg, Little, Brown, p. 190
  2. Wilhelm Keitel, History Learning Site
  3. "William Keitel", Jewish Virtual Library
  4. Saul Friedlander (2007), The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945, HarperCollins p. xix
  5. Neave, pp. 193-194
  6. G.M. Gilbert (1947), Nuremberg Diary, Farrar, Strauss, p. 266