Wilhelm Keitel, the son of a landowner, was born in Helmscherode on 22nd September 1882. He joined the German Army and in 1902 became a second lieutenant in the 46th Field Artillery.
Keitel had reached the rank of captain by the outbreak of the First World War. In September 1914 Keitel was seriously wounded by a shell splinter. After returning to duty he became a battery commander before being appointed to the General Staff in March 1915. He also served as an officer with XIX Reserve Corps (1916-17) and the 199th Infantry Division (1917) before returning to the General Staff in Berlin in December 1917.
After the war Keitel was a member of the right-wing terrorist Freikorps group and served on the frontier with Poland in 1919. He remained in the army and spent three years as an instructor at the School of Cavalry at Hanover (1920-23). This was followed by a spell with the 6th Artillery Regiment.
Assigned to the Troop Office he was promoted to lieutenant colonel in February 1929. Later that year he became head of the Organizations Department. In this role he was involved in secret preparations to triple the size of the German Army.
In January 1933, Adolf Hitler gained power and immediately Keitel's old friend, Werner von Blomberg, was appointed Minister of Defence. Soon afterwards Blomberg introduced him to Hitler. Keitel was impressed and became a devoted supporter of the new leader.
In February 1938 Keitel became Commander-in-Chief of the High Command of the Armed Forces (OKW). He now arranged to have his friend, Heinrich von Brauchitsch, appointed as Commander-in-Chief of the Army.
During the Second World War Keitel, Alfred Jodl and Walther Warlimont were the most important figures in the OKW. He was a loyal supporter of Hitler's policies and after the invasion of Poland he issued orders to the Schutz Staffeinel (SS) and the Gestapo to exterminate the country's Jews.
Keitel advised against the Western Offensive and Operation Barbarossa but quickly backed down when Hitler responded aggressively. Both times he tried to resign but Hitler refused him permission to go.
In May 1941 Keitel signed the Commissar Order which instructed German field commanders to execute Communist Party officials immediately they were captured. In July 1941 he signed another order giving Heinrich Himmler the power to implement his racial program in the Soviet Union.
In September 1942 Keitel and Alfred Jodl defended Field Marshal Siegmund List against the criticisms of Adolf Hitler. This resulted in Jodl being sacked and for many months afterwards Hitler refused to shake hands with Keitel. This was the last time that Keitel was to challenge Hitler's military decisions. He was now referred to by other officers as "Lakaitel" (the nodding ass).
Over the next two years Keitel issued orders for the execution of striking workers, the extermination of Jews and the killing of captured partisans. He also suggested that German civilians should be encouraged to lynch captured Allied airman.
After the war Keitel was arrested and tried at Nuremberg as a major war criminal. In court his main defence was that he was merely obeying orders claiming that he was "never permitted to make decisions". Found guilty he was executed on 16th October, 1946. His autobiography, In Service of the Reich, was published after his death.
When Blomberg married a prostitute in January 1938, however, Keitel did nothing to protect him; on the contrary, when the incriminating evidence fell into his hands he did not destroy it, as he could have done, but rather forwarded it to Hermann Goering, who coveted Blomberg's job, as Keitel must have known. It was
Goering who engineered Blomberg's fall from power on January 24, 1938. In fact, Telford Taylor later wrote, Keitel "actually betrayed Blomberg, whether by design or ineptitude."
On January 27 Hitler took final leave of Blomberg at the Chancellery. The departing field marshal recommended that Hitler assume the post of Minister of War himself. Hitler did not reply to this suggestion, but asked who would be suitable to direct the Armed Forces staff under himself. Blomberg had no idea. Hitler then asked who was in charge of Blomberg's staff. Keitel, Blomberg answered, but there was no question of using him, because "he's nothing but the man who runs my office."
"That's exactly the man I am looking for!" Hitler exclaimed. He set up an appointment with Keitel for that very afternoon.
In Keitel, Hitler found exactly the type of officer he was seeking: someone who would carry out his commands to the letter and without question, a yes-man who would be content to be merely a glorified executive officer, without independent command prerogatives.
Hitler's entourage certainly bore a measure of the blame for his growing belief in his superhuman abilities. Early in the game, Field Marshal Blomberg, Hitler's first and last Minister of War, had been overfond of praising Hitler's surpassing strategic genius. Even a more restrained and modest personality than Hitler ever was would have been in danger of losing all standards of self-criticism under such a constant torrent of applause.
In keeping with his character. Hitler gladly sought advice from persons who saw the situation more optimistically
and delusively than he himself. Keitel was often one of those. When the majority of the officers would greet Hitler's decisions with marked silence, Keitel would frequently feel called upon to speak up in favour of the measure. Constantly in Hitler's presence, he had completely succumbed to his influence. From an honorable, solidly respectable general he had developed in the course of years into a servile flatterer with all the wrong instincts. Basically, Keitel hated his own weakness; but the hopelessness of any dispute with Hitler had ultimately brought him to the point of not even trying to form his own opinion. If, however, he had offered resistance and stubbornly insisted on a view of his own, he would merely have been replaced by another Keitel.
This war no longer has anything to do with knightly conduct or with the agreements of the Geneva Convention. If this war is not fought with the greatest brutality against the bands both in the East and in the Balkans then in the foreseeable future the strength at our disposal will not be sufficient to be able to master this plague. The troops are therefore empowered and are in duty bound in this war to use without mitigation even against women and children any means that will lead to success. Consideration of any kind are a crime against the German people and the soldier at the front.
The failure of Field-Marshal List in the Low Caucasus not only led to his dismissal, but to a serious personal crisis in Hitler's headquarters late in September, 1942. Sometime earlier List had received the order to push on over the Low Caucasus towards the Black Sea, using all suitable routes. When he did not succeed in reaching his goal. Hitler once more became utterly impatient and sent Jodl to List's headquarters. On his return Jodi reported to Hitler that List had acted exactly in conformity to Hitler's orders, but that the Russian resistance was equally strong everywhere, supported by a most difficult terrain. Hitler, however, kept on reproaching List with having split up his forces instead of breaking through with concentrated power, while Jodi pointed to the fact that Hitler by his own orders had induced List to advance on a widely stretched front.
This argument of Jodl's was followed by an unusual outburst of Hitler's. He was so taken aback by the recital of his own previous orders - which he now denied - that Jodl, and Keitel with him, fell in disgrace for a long time to come. Further consequences were that Hitler completely changed his daily customs. From that time on he stayed away from the common meals which he had taken twice a day with his entourage. Henceforth he hardly left his hut in daytime, not even for the daily reports on the military situation, which from now on had to be delivered to him in his own hut in the presence of a narrowly restricted circle. He refused ostentatiously to shake hands with any general of the O.K.W., and gave orders that Jodi was to be replaced by another officer.
Why did the generals who have been so ready to term me a complaisant and incompetent yes-man fail to secure my removal? Was that all that difficult? No, that wasn't it; the truth was that nobody would have been ready to replace me, because each one knew that he would end up just as much a wreck as I.
It is tragic to have to realize that the best I had to give us a soldier, obedience, and loyalty, was exploited for purposes which could not be recognized at the time, and that I did not see that there is a limit set even for a soldier's performance to his duty. That is my fate.