Berlin, Germany · February 4, 1937

On this date in 1937, in a bold, sweeping decree, Adolf Hitler assumed com­mand of the entire Ger­man armed forces, or Wehr­macht. He abol­ished the Reichs­kriegs­minis­terium (Minis­try of War), in the act liqui­dating the tra­di­tional power of the army gene­ral staff as the ulti­mate con­troller and direc­tor of Ger­many’s armed forces, and created in its place the Ober­kom­mando der Wehr­macht (Supreme High Com­mand of the Armed Forces, or OKW for short), of which he was now its head. Hitler also moved OKW head­quarters to Zos­sen, 30 miles south of Ber­lin. Presi­dent of the Reich­stag (since 1932), Luft­waffe chief (since 1935), and mor­phine addict Hermann Goe­ring had coveted such a posi­tion as Hitler now assumed. (In July 1940 Hitler would kick the be­jeweled, morbidly obese pea­cock upstairs, giving him the title of Reichs­marshall.) Instead Hitler in­serted the mustach­ioed Gen. Wil­helm Kei­tel into the top slot at the OKW pre­cisely because Keitel lacked leader­ship quali­ties and rarely chal­lenged his boss. (Hitler once told his Minis­ter of Propa­ganda, Joseph Goebbels, that Keitel “pos­sessed the brains of a movie usher.”) Field Marshal Keitel (since July 19, 1940) remained head of the OKW through­out the war but piti­fully lacked real prero­gatives of autho­rity, issuing orders to the heads of the army, navy, and air force on behalf of his Fuehrer. Some­what to his credit Keitel opposed the inva­sion of France, the aerial bombard­ment of Bri­tain (Blitz), and Opera­tion Bar­ba­rossa, the inva­sion of the Soviet Union, but he beat a hasty retreat in the face of Hitler’s blistering out­bursts. Not sur­prisingly Keitel acquired several nick­names among his contem­poraries in the armed services, among them “Lackey” (“Lackeitel”), a pun on his last name (Lakei in German is “lackey”), and “the Nodding Jackass.” Kei­tel signed off on orders of dubi­ous legal­ity; for exam­ple, the noto­rious Com­mis­sar Order, which stipu­lated that Soviet poli­tical com­mis­sars were to be shot on sight, and the Night and Fog (Nacht und Nebel) Decree, which called for the forced dis­appear­ance of resist­ance fighters and polit­ical pri­soners. Most famously, per­haps, Keitel put his signa­ture to Ger­many’s uncon­di­tional sur­ren­der docu­ment early on the morning of May 9, 1945. Four days later Kei­tel was taken into Allied cus­tody. He was tried by the Inter­national Mili­tary Tri­bunal in Nurem­berg, sen­tenced to death, and hanged as a war crim­i­nal. Keitel was the second highest-ranking Ger­man sol­dier to be tried at Nurem­berg after Goering, who escaped Keitel’s fate by taking his own life.

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General Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, Head of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht and de Facto War Minister of Nazi Germany, 1937–1945

L–R: Adm. Hans-Georg von Friedeburg, Keitel, and Luftwaffe Colonel-General Hans-Jürgen Stumpff, Berlin, May 8, 1945Keitel signs Germany’s unconditional surrender document, Berlin, May 8/9, 1945

Above: After Hitler’s suicide on April 30, 1945, Reich Presi­dent Karl Doenitz, Hitler’s political heir, surrendered his coun­try twice—on May 7 to the Western allies at Reims, France, and May 8 to the Soviets in Berlin. Leading the Ger­man dele­gation on May 8 to Soviet mili­tary head­quarters in Karls­horst, Berlin, was Chief of the General Staff of the Ger­man Armed Forces Field Marshal Wil­helm Keitel (center in left frame). May 8 is gen­er­ally known in the West as Vic­tory in Europe Day (VE Day). In some Common­wealth coun­tries VE Day is cele­brated on May 7, the day the act of mili­tary surren­der was signed in Reims, France, where­as in post-Soviet states VE Day is cele­brated on May 9 because Kei­tel signed the second sur­ren­der docu­ment (right frame) after mid­night Moscow time. Perhaps owing to Ger­man sensi­bilities May 8 is known as the “Day of Capit­u­lation” (“Tag der Kapit­u­lation”) in that country. Among themselves Germans sometimes call the day Stunde Null, a recognition of their country’s clock being set back to zero.

Hitler’s Lackey, Wilhelm Keitel: End of the Third Reich and His Own