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 Com­mand of the Armed Forces), of which he was now its head. He 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 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.

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 refer to the day as “Stunde Null,” a recognition of their country’s clock being set back to “zero hour.” German President Richard von Weizsaecker, addressing the German parliament on the 40th anniversary of Germany’s defeat, won widespread respect when he said: “The 8th of May was a day of liberation. It freed us all from the system of National Socialist tyranny.” Weizsaecker, who died at the age of 94 on January 31, 2015, was the second important public figure in postwar Germany to characterize May 8, 1945, as something other than a disaster for Germany. (The first high-level figure was German Chancellor Helmut Kohl several weeks earlier but the media and the public took little notice of his remarks.)

Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel Signs Third Reich Death Certificate (and His Own)