This weak and willing puppet handed the army, the instrument of aggression, to the party and directed it in its criminal actions.
This is how Robert H. Jackson, American chief prosecutor at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, described Wilhelm Keitel; during the war the head of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW or supreme command of the Wehrmacht) and generally known as a yes man and lickspittle. Who was this army commander who followed Hitler's orders almost slavishly and how much power did he have? In this article, these questions shall be dealt with.
Early years up to the seizure of power by the Nazis
Wilhelm Bodewin Johann Gustav Keitel was born on September 22, 1882 in Helmscherode in the German federal state of Brunswick, to Carl Keitel and Apollonia Vissering. He came from a characteristic Prussian family where virtue and obedience took high priority. His father was a middle class farmer, an independent landowner, just like many other of their relatives. Wilhelm spent his youth on the family estate. His mother passed away in 1888 shortly after having given birth to his younger brother Bodewin. During the first years, Wilhelm received schooling at home. Later on he attended the Humanistic Gymnasium in GŲttingen. His school records were average.
Wilhelm dreamed of becoming a farmer like his father. This however was not to be as his father wanted to continue running the farm by himself. After his final exams, he therefore enrolled in the German army, in the Niedersšchsischen Feldartillerie-Regiment 46 in the rank of Fahnenjunker (cadet). In prison, during the Nuremberg Trial, he told psychiatrist Leon Goldensohn he had opted for a military career as he could not earn much money in farming. A year after entering service, Keitel was promoted to Leutnant (Lieutenant), in 1908 to Regimentsadjudant (regimental adjutant) and in 1910 to Oberleutnant (2nd Lieutenant). On April 18, 1909 he married Lisa Fontaine, daughter of a real estate owner. The marriage would produce 6 children one of which passed away at a tender age.
Shortly after the outbreak of WW 1, in September 1914, Keitel was injured on his lower left arm by a piece of shrapnel at the front in Belgium. Following his recuperation, he was promoted to Hauptmann and was put in command of an artillery battery. In the same year, he made the acquaintance of Werner von Blomberg, Major, at the time and the future Minister of War. In the spring of 1915 he started training as an officer within the General Staff and subsequently he was appointed Erster Generalstabsoffizier (1st officer of the General Staff) of the 19. Reserve-Division in 1916. This made him one of the youngest staff officers in the German army. Keitel spent a large part of the war behind the front, hence he was spared the misery of the trenches for a large part. In 1918, serving in the Marine Kommando Flanders (navy command Flanders) he took part in the battle for Namur and witnessed the end of the war in Flanders.
Keitel was shocked by the fall of the German Empire and the outbreak of revolution in Germany. He did not realize this was because Germany had lost the war. He was of the opinion that Germany had lost the war as a result of the Socialist revolution, the so-called stab-in-the-back legend. He wrote to his wife: "Thank God we are still young enough to restore what was destroyed in a few days of boundless stupidity."
After the war he once more considered taking over his father's farm. His family however did not agree to this and his wife had no wish to be married to a farmer. Keitel remained active in the strongly depleted German army, now called the Reichswehr. In his own words, he was forced to do so as his wife had lost all of her money because of the hyperinflation that had developed in the Weimer Republic after the war. He found employment for 3 years teaching tactics at the Kavalerieschule in Hannover. Thereafter he became active within the staff of 6. Preussisiches-Artillerie-regiment. In 1923 he was promoted to Major. From 1925 to 1927 he was Gruppenleiter in the Heeres-Organisationsabteilung (T-2) in the Truppenamt, part of the Reichswehrministerium (Department of the Reichswehr) which was in fact a continuation of the Generalstab of WW1. In 1927, he was appointed commander of II. Abteilung of the 6. Preussisches Artillerie-Regiment. His promotion to Oberstleutnant followed in 1929.
Between October 1929 and October 1933 Keitel was active again in the Reichswehrministerium, this time as head of a department. In this capacity he was also involved in the expansion and enlargement of the army, which was strictly forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. To this end he traveled to the Soviet Union where the Reichswehr operated a secret training facility. It is said he was greatly impressed by the organization of the Communist country. His superiors described him as a conscientious and diligent staff officer.