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Wilhelm Keitel was a Nazi German field marshal

Wilhelm Bodewin Johann Gustav Keitel September 22, 1882-October 16, 1946
Wilhelm Bodewin Johann Gustav Keitel September 22, 1882-October 16, 1946

Wilhelm Bodewin Johann Gustav Keitel (September 22, 1882-October 16, 1946) was a Nazi German field marshal (Generalfeldmarschall) and a senior military leader during World War II.

Early life and career

Keitel was born in Helmscherode, Brunswick, German Empire, the son of Carl Keitel, a middle-class landowner, and his wife Apollonia Vissering. After completing his education in Göttingen, he embarked on a military career in 1901, becoming a Fahnenjunker (Cadet Officer), joining the 6th Lower-Saxon Field Artillery Regiment. He married Lisa Fontaine, a wealthy landowner's daughter, in 1909. Together they had six children, one of whom died in infancy. During World War I Keitel served on the Western front with the Field Artillery Regiment No. 46. In September 1914, during the fighting in Flanders, he was seriously wounded in his right forearm by a shell fragment.

Keitel recovered, and thereafter was posted to the German General Staff in early 1915. After World War I ended, he stayed in the newly created Reichswehr, and played a part in organizing Freikorps frontier guard units on the Polish border. Keitel also served as a divisional general staff officer, and later taught at the Hanover Cavalry School for two years.

In late 1924, Keitel was transferred to the Ministry of Defence (Reichswehrministerium), serving with the Troop Office (Truppenamt), the post-Versailles disguised General Staff. He was soon promoted to the head of the organizational department, a post he retained after the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. In 1935, based on a recommendation by Werner von Fritsch he became Nazi Germany's chief of the newly-created Armed Forces Office (Wehrmachtamt).

OKW and World War II

Keitel, signing the ratified surrender terms for the German Army in Berlin, 8/9 May 1945
Keitel, signing the ratified surrender terms for the German Army in Berlin, 8/9 May 1945

In 1937, Keitel received a promotion to general, and in the following year, in the wake of the Blomberg-Fritsch Affair and the replacement of the Ministry of War (Reichskriegsministerium) with the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht), he assumed the position of Chief of the OKW. In 1940, following the conclusion of the French campaign, he was promoted to General Field Marshal (Generalfeldmarschall), along with a number of Adolf Hitler's other generals.

During World War II, Keitel proved to be weak and cautious: he advised Hitler against invading France and opposed Operation Barbarossa. Both times he backed down in the face of Hitler and tendered his resignation: the Führer refused to accept it. In 1942 he again stood up to Hitler in defence of the actions of Field Marshal Wilhelm List, whose army was struggling to extricate themselves from inconclusive and bloody fighting in the Caucasus. Keitel's defence of List was his last act of defiance to Hitler, for after that he never again challenged one of Hitler's orders and was referred to by his colleagues as "Lakaitel" ("Lackey-tel" or "Little Lackey") and as the "nodding donkey". He signed numerous orders of dubious legality under the laws of war, the most infamous being the notorious Commissar Order, and unquestionably allowed Heinrich Himmler a free hand with his racial controls and ensuing terror in captured Russian territory. Another was the order to have any of the French pilots fighting for the Normandie-Niemen fighter regiment in the USSR executed instead of their being treated as prisoners of war. Keitel was also instrumental in foiling the attempted coup of the July 20 Plot in 1944, which attempted to assassinate Hitler. Keitel then sat on the following Army Court of Honour that handed many officers, including Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben, over to Roland Freisler's notorious People's Court.

Keitel, Official in Colour
Keitel, Official in Colour

In April and May of 1945, during the Battle for Berlin, Keitel urged various German generals to attack the Soviet forces and relieve Berlin. But, so late in the war, none of the generals urged by Keitel commanded forces capable of saving the German capital - not Gotthard Heinrici's Army Group Vistula, not Felix Steiner's Army Detachment Steiner, not Walther Wenck's 12th Army, nor Theodor Busse's 9th Army.

After the suicide deaths of German dictator Adolf Hitler on 30 April and Joseph Goebbels on 1 May, Keitel became a member of the short-lived Flensburg government controlled by German President (Reichspräsident) Karl Dönitz.

On May 8, 1945, Dönitz authorized Keitel to sign the second instrument of unconditional surrender in Berlin. On the previous day, Alfred Jodl had signed an instrument of unconditional surrender in Rheims, France.

Trial and execution

Four days after the surrender, Keitel was arrested. He soon faced the International Military Tribunal (IMT), which charged him with a number of offences:

  • Conspiracy to commit crimes against peace;
  • Planning, initiating and waging wars of aggression;
  • War crimes; and,
  • Crimes against humanity.

The IMT rejected Keitel's defense that he was following orders in conformity to "the leadership principle" (Führerprinzip) and found him guilty on all charges. 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 by hanging. Keitel's last words were: "I call on God Almighty to have mercy on the German people. More than two million German soldiers went to their death for the fatherland before me. I follow now my sons - all for Germany (Alles für Deutschland)." Due to the drop of the hanging not being long enough to break his neck immediately, Keitel died of strangulation 27 minutes after he was dropped down the hatch.


  • Keitel was portrayed by actor Dieter Mann in the 2004 film Downfall.
  • As a military officer, Keitel was prohibited by law from joining the NSDAP. After Keitel's initial successes on the Russian Front, he was given a "Golden" (Honorary) NSDAP membership badge by Adolf Hitler, who was seeking to link military successes to political successes. In 1944, German laws were changed and military officers were encouraged to seek NSDAP membership. Keitel claimed he did so as a formality at the Nuremberg Trials, but never received formal party membership. Keitel was one of only two people to receive honorary party membership status.
  • When moving to the United States after World War II, some of Keitel's family changed their last name to Keetle so as to not be associated with his crimes. Many of his descendants still go by this last name.
  • Keitel was reproduced as a 1:6th (12 inch) action figure in 2006 by the Dragon in Dream Corporation.

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