Wilhelm Keitel was one of Adolf Hitler’s leading generals in World War Two. Keitel played an instrumental part in the whole of the war and paid the price for this role when he was sentenced to death at the Nuremberg War Crime Trials.
Keitel was born on September 22nd 1882 near Hanover. His parents were middle-class land owners and it was not surprising that he decided on a career in the army. Keitel joined the army in 1901 when he became a Cadet Officer. He 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 his recovery from this injury, he became a member of the German General Staff in 1915. He stayed in what was the German Army after the war ended and he initially served as a divisional general staff officer. For two years, Keitel also taught at the Hanover Cavalry School.
In 1924, Keitel was transferred to the Reich Defence Ministry where he served in the Troop Office, which was effectively the army’s General Staff. Keitel became head of this department – a post he held when Hitler came to power in January 1933.
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).
Keitel would have been instrumental in the planning for the invasion of Poland in September 1939. The success of this attack, and the success of the attacks on Western Europe in 1940, resulted in Hitler promoting Keitel to field-marshal in 1940.
Keitel rarely stood up to Hitler. He had advised Hitler not to attack Russia in 1941 as he was convinced that ‘Operation Barbarossa’ would be a failure. The overwhelming success of Barbarossa in its initial phase did a great deal to undermine Keitel’s authority in the face of Hitler. Keitel proffered his resignation to Hitler – which was refused. To other senior commanders at OKW, Keitel became nothing more than Hitler’s poodle as he no longer seemed able to stand up to him – if he ever did. He was nicknamed ‘Lakaitel’ which roughly translates as ‘Nodding Ass’.
Keitel’s loyalty to Hitler was shown when he was not one of the senior army figures accused of being associated with the July Bomb Plot of 1944. In fact, he sat on the Army Court of Honour that handed over a number of senior officers to the so-called ‘People’s Court’ under Roland Freisler.
Keitel was also responsible for signing a number of military orders that broke the accepted conventions of warfare. One was that captured French pilots fighting for the Red Army should be shot rather than being treated as POW’s. Keitel also all but allowed Himmler’s SS to do as it wished in Russia. He also signed the ‘Commissar Order’ which instructed German field commanders to shoot captured Communist Party officials in Russia as opposed to them being taken prisoner.
On May 9th, 1945, Keitel signed Nazi Germany’s surrender to the USSR. On May 13th, he was arrested and charged with crimes against humanity and conspiring to commit crimes against peace. Keitel went on trial at the Nuremberg Trials in 1946 where he claimed that he was simply following orders as any good soldier would. The claim was rejected and he was found guilty on all charges and sentenced to death. Keitel was found guilty of criminal offences as opposed to military ones. That is why his request to be shot was rejected and why he was hanged on October 16th 1946 – a punishment fit for a criminal as opposed to a soldier.