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. (His full title morphed into Der Fuehrer und Oberste Befehls­haber [Supreme Commander] der Wehr­macht des Gross­deutschen Reichs.) 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 6 ft 1 in 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,” and Field Marshal Erich von Man­stein later piled on, saying Keitel’s abil­i­ties were taxed to the limits.) 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 was given several moni­kers by 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,” a refer­ence to a popu­lar metal toy don­key that always nodded its head up and down from dipping it in a small container of water.

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 on Octo­ber 16, 1946. 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 (not Fuehrer) 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 the square-jawed Chief of the General Staff of the German Armed Forces Field Marshal Wil­helm Bode­win Johann Gustav 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,” the moment every­thing started fresh and new again. 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)

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