Hitler's Commanders: Officers of the Wehrmacht, the Luftwaffe, the Kriegsmarine, and the Waffen-SS

Hitler's Commanders: Officers of the Wehrmacht, the Luftwaffe, the Kriegsmarine, and the Waffen-SS

by Samuel W. Mitcham Jr., Gene Mueller

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Despite huge odds against them, Hitler’s commanders—the elite of the Wehrmacht—almost succeeded in conquering Europe. Now in an expanded edition that includes biographies of the generals of Stalingrad and a new chapter on the panzer commanders, this book offers rare insight into the men who ran Nazi Germany’s war machine. Going beyond common


Despite huge odds against them, Hitler’s commanders—the elite of the Wehrmacht—almost succeeded in conquering Europe. Now in an expanded edition that includes biographies of the generals of Stalingrad and a new chapter on the panzer commanders, this book offers rare insight into the men who ran Nazi Germany’s war machine. Going beyond common stereotypes, Samuel W. Mitcham and Gene Mueller recount the compelling lives of a varied group of army, navy, Luftwaffe, and SS men, including their early life, their military exploits during the war, and their post-war career, if any. Weaving in dramatic stories of tank commanders, fighter pilots in aerial combat, and U-Boat aces, the authors bring the battlefields of World War II to life.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Mitcham and Mueller, retired history professors who both taught at Henderson State University, have put together an encyclopedic collection of brief profiles of the careers of the lesser-known German military men-true Nazis, skeptics, and patriotic soldiers who tried to focus on the battlefield and ignore the horrors that Hitler unleashed on Europe. This new edition adds a chapter on the men who led the panzer (tank) troops. Every branch of the German military eventually confronted what one officer called the "unholy disorder of Hitler's leadership." The Fuehrer constantly micromanaged his commanders' tactics, leaving them hamstrung in pivotal confrontations, like the battle of Stalingrad, one of the most ignominious defeats in military history. Some men followed his dubious commands to the letter; others knew that defying Hitler could cost a man his career if not his life. A sterling introduction for anyone interested in how the men who fought for Hitler ticked.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Michael Perri
In this book, the distinguished historians Samuel W. Mitcham Jr. and Gene Mueller analyze a selection of Nazi Germany’s commanders through a series of concise and insightful biographies. The book describes a surprisingly broad gamut of German officers, especially regarding their competence and loyalty to Nazi ideology. This study contributes to our understanding of the commanders’ individual personalities and processes of decision-making.
Steven Carter
Hitler’s Commanders is an engaging introduction to the leaders of Germany’s war machine during World War II. Mitcham and Mueller, by exploring the lives, personalities, ambitions, and careers of the Third Reich’s military leaders, reveal that these men actually consisted of a diverse group of soldiers rather than just fanatical Nazi robots in lockstep with the Führer. Bringing to light the careers of lower-ranking and lesser-known Wehrmacht officers makes for compelling reading and sheds valuable light on the complexities of the German military command during World War II.

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Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
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Second Edition
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5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

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Officers of the Wehrmacht, the Luftwaffe, the Kriegsmarine, and the Waffen-SS


Copyright © 2012 Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4422-1153-7

Chapter One


Wilhelm Keitel. Alfred Jodl. Bernhard Lossberg. Georg Thomas. Walter Buhle. Wilhelm Burgdorf. Hermann Reinecke. Friedrich "Fritz" Fromm.

Wilhelm Keitel was born on the family estate of Helmscherode in western Brunswick on September 22, 1882. Although he longed to be a farmer, as his ancestors were, the modest 650-acre estate was too small to support two families. Consequently, Keitel joined the 46th Field Artillery Regiment in Wolfenbuettler as a Fahnenjunker (officer-cadet) in 1901. The desire to return to Helmscherode, however, remained with him throughout his life.

Keitel was commissioned second lieutenant on August 18, 1902, entered an instructor's course in the Field Artillery School at Juterbog in 1905, and in 1908 became regimental adjutant. He was promoted to first lieutenant in 1910 and to captain in 1914. (See appendix I for a table of equivalent ranks.)

In 1909, Wilhelm Keitel married Lisa Fontaine, an attractive, intelligent young woman from Wuelfel. Her father, a wealthy estate owner and brewer, initially disliked Wilhelm due to his "Prussian" background but eventually became reconciled to the marriage. Lisa bore Wilhelm three sons and three daughters. Like their father, all three sons became officers in the German Army. Definitely the stronger partner in the marriage, Lisa wanted her husband to advance as high as possible in the ranks of the military. Incidentally, Herr Fontaine was wrong about Keitel's background: he was not Prussian at all, but Hanoverian. This same mistake was made by Adolf Hitler and the Allied prosecutors at Nuremberg later on.

In early summer 1914, Keitel took a well-earned holiday in Switzerland, where he heard the news of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Keitel was hurriedly recalled to his regiment at Wolfenbuettler and was with the 46th Artillery when it was sent to Belgium in August 1914. He saw considerable action and in September was seriously wounded in the right forearm by a shell splinter. After recovering he returned to the 46th, where he became a battery commander. In March 1915, he was appointed to the General Staff and transferred to the XV Reserve Corps. In late 1915 Keitel came to know a Major Werner von Blomberg, and the two men began a friendship that continued throughout both their careers. Keitel finished his service in the Great War as a General Staff officer with the XIX Reserve Corps (1916–1917), the 199th Infantry Division (1917) (both on the Western Front), and the General Staff of the army in Berlin (1917–1918), and as a staff officer with the Marine Corps, fighting in Flanders (1918).

The Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, was a very harsh one. Among other things, it abolished the General Staff and limited the German Army (now dubbed the Reichsheer) to 100,000 men, of whom only 4,000 could be officers. Keitel was accepted into this officer corps of the Weimar Republic and spent three years as an instructor at the Cavalry School at Hanover before joining the staff of the 6th Artillery Regiment at Minden in Westphalia. He was promoted to major in 1923 and from 1925 to 1927 was assigned to the organizational branch of the Truppenamt (Troop Office), as the clandestine General Staff was called. In 1927 he moved to Muenster as commander of the II Battalion, 6th Artillery Regiment. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1929—a significant accomplishment in the Reichsheer, which, like most small armies, was characterized by slow promotions. That same year he returned to the General Staff as chief of the Organizations Department.

An interesting event took place in Keitel's career in late summer 1931, when he took part in a military exchange trip to the Soviet Union. He admired the Russia he saw, noting the vast spaces, abundance of raw materials, the Five Year (economic) Plan, and the disciplined Red Army. Following this trip he continued to work at his arduous task of increasing the size of the German Army in contravention of the Treaty of Versailles.

Although Keitel did his job very well, as even his personal enemy Field Marshal Erich von Manstein later admitted, his abilities were taxed to the limits. The demanding (and illegal) work took its toll both physically and mentally. The nervous Keitel smoked too much and, by 1932, was suffering from arterial embolism and thrombosis and had severe phlebitis in his right leg. He was recovering under the care of Dr. Guhr in the Tara Mountains of Czechoslovakia when Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. Keitel's close friend Werner von Blomberg became minister of defense the same day.

In October 1933, Keitel began a year of troop duty. He served first Infantry Commander III (and one of the two deputy commanders of the 3rd Infantry Division) at Potsdam, Frederick the Great's old garrison town near Berlin. In May 1934, he heard Adolf Hitler speak at the Sportplatz in Berlin and was moved by the Fuehrer's words. That same month Keitel's father died, and Wilhelm inherited Helmscherode. He seriously considered leaving the army to manage the family estate, even though he had just been promoted to major general the month before; however, as he wrote later, "My wife was unable to keep house with my stepmother and sister, and I could not solve the problem." No doubt Lisa wanted him to remain in the army, and he did so.

In July 1934, Keitel was transferred to the 12th Infantry Division in Leibnitz, more than 300 miles from Helmscherode. Because of this distance, he once again seriously considered leaving the service. General Baron Werner von Fritsch, the commander of the army, dissuaded Keitel by offering him a new assignment, which he accepted. On October 1, 1934, Keitel, now stationed at Bremen, assumed command of what was soon to become the 22nd Infantry Division.

Keitel thoroughly enjoyed his new command, organizing units and developing measures necessary to build the division up to full combat strength and effectiveness. (Many of the battalions he helped organize would later be destroyed at Stalingrad.) While he built the 22nd Division he also made frequent visits to Helmscherode and increased the value of his family estate. Then, in August 1935, War Minister von Blomberg offered Keitel the post of chief of the Wehmachtamt (Armed Forces Office). Although Keitel hesitated, his wife urged him to accept the appointment, which he eventually did.

Upon arriving in Berlin, General Keitel put aside his former reluctance and enthusiastically embraced his new role. Working closely with him was Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Jodl, the chief of Division "L" (national defense). The two men developed an intimate professional relationship that lasted until the end of the Third Reich. Keitel labored tirelessly to promote his idea of a unified command structure for all three services and received encouragement from von Blomberg. However, all three branches of the armed forces—the army, the navy, and most especially Goering's Luftwaffe—rejected the idea, and Blomberg quickly abandoned the concept. That result caused Keitel to gravitate to the idea of absolute and unquestioning support of the Fuehrer (the Fuehrer Principle) and subsequent personal loyalty to Hitler. After the war he presented a document at the Nuremberg Trials, wherein he stated that the Fuehrer Principle "applied throughout all areas and it is completely natural that it had a special application in military areas."

Keitel was proud when, in January 1938, his eldest son, Karl-Heinz, a second lieutenant of cavalry, became engaged to Dorothea von Blomberg, one of the war minister's daughters. There was also another wedding: Field Marshal von Blomberg, whose first wife had died several years earlier, married Eva Gruhn, a 24-year-old stenographer with the Reich Egg Marketing Board, in the middle of January. The Blomberg wedding was a small, quiet, civilian affair, with Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering appearing as witnesses. Little did anyone suspect that this simple ceremony would cause the crisis that would culminate in the final act of the Nazi revolution.

Shortly after the Blombergs exchanged vows, a minor police official happened upon the dossier of a Margarethe Gruhn, which he immediately delivered to the office of Count Wolf-Heinrich von Helldorf, the police president of Berlin. When he read it, Helldorf was appalled. Margarethe's past included prostitution and an arrest for posing for pornographic pictures. Helldorf, a former military officer, took the file to Keitel, hoping the chief of the Wehrmachtamt would suggest a proper and quiet procedure for having the matter settled. Were Margarethe Gruhn and Eva Gruhn the same person? Was the sex offender the same woman the war minister had recently married? Keitel did not know and suggested the file be taken to Hermann Goering, who had met the minister's wife. Keitel was apparently unaware that Goering was waiting for just such an opportunity to have Blomberg sacked, so that he could take control of the war ministry himself. Goering went directly to Hitler and exposed the entire incident, which led to Blomberg's dismissal. Events did not work out exactly as Goering planned, however.

Following the ouster of Blomberg, Keitel was ordered to report to Hitler. The Fuehrer shocked Keitel by saying that he, Hitler, had to charge General von Fritsch, the commander-in-chief of the German Army, with the criminal offense of homosexuality under paragraph 175. Although the charges were the result of carefully produced lies by Heinrich Himmler and Goering (with the help of Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler's top man in the Security Service), and even though Fritsch was later acquitted by a military tribunal, the dismissals of Blomberg and Fritsch led to the creation of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (the High Command of the Armed Forces, or OKW) and the total subordination of the German armed forces to the will of Adolf Hitler.

On February 4, 1938, to Hermann Goering's private chagrin, the dictator personally assumed the post of war minister and simultaneously appointed Wilhelm Keitel commander-in-chief of OKW—thus providing himself with his own personal military staff.

Why was Keitel chosen as chief of the High Command of the Armed Forces? Because the Fuehrer needed someone on whom he would rely to carry out his will and to keep his "house" in order—someone who would not question his orders and who would identify with the Fuehrer Principle. Keitel fit that role. He was, as General Walter Warlimont later wrote, "honestly convinced that his appointment required him to identify himself unquestioningly with the wishes and instructions of the Supreme Commander, even though he might not personally agree with this, and to represent them faithfully to all those involved."

Keitel organized the OKW into three subdivisions: the Operations Staff, under Alfred Jodl; the Abwehr (the intelligence/counterintelligence bureau), under Admiral Wilhelm Canaris; and the Economics Staff, directed by Major General Georg Thomas. All three sections were in direct competition with other agencies of the Third Reich. The OKW Operations Staff competed with the general staffs of the three services, but especially with the General Staff of the army; the economics office had rivals in the Todt Organization and the Four Year Plan; and the Abwehr had overlapping responsibilities with the army, air, and naval intelligence staffs; with Joachim von Ribbentrop's Foreign Office; and with Himmler's SD (Sicherheitsdienst, or Security Service), which finally absorbed the Abwehr in 1944.

While the preceding seems incongruous, the problems multiplied during the Nazi era. New organizational groups appeared throughout the history of the Third Reich, intensifying the competition and contributing to an eventual chaos of leadership in which only one individual could make important decisions and resolve crises—and he was named Adolf Hitler.

Crucial to the whole concept of high command was the relationship between the Fuehrer and Keitel, who trusted Hitler and served him very obediently. The OKW transmitted Fuehrer Orders and aided in coordinating the German economy to meet military demands. General Warlimont described the OKW as the "working staff" or even the "military bureau" of Hitler, the politician. Nonetheless, Keitel did exercise some early influence on at least two occasions: he succeeded in getting his own nominee, Walter von Brauchitsch, to replace General Fritsch, and in having his younger brother Bodewin named chief of the Army Personnel Office.

The OKW never performed as Keitel envisioned—that is, as a real command for the armed forces. Hitler literally used Keitel during the Austrian crisis in February 1938, to bully Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg into surrender. When the war began in 1939, the chief of OKW merely performed desk duties. Actual operational planning was carried out by Franz Halder, the General Staff of the army, and Halder's colleagues. Keitel supported Hitler's attack on Poland, as well as the successful German invasions of Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France in 1940. Although the actual plan for the Norwegian campaign (Operation Weser) was drafted by Warlimont, Jodl, and Hitler, the OKW chief created the administrative structure to carry out the operation. This 43-day campaign ended successfully and was the only military operation coordinated solely by the OKW.

Along with the other generals, Keitel applauded Hitler's victory over France in June 1940. Hitler paid tribute to Keitel by promoting him to field marshal on July 19, 1940, and by giving him an endowment of 100,000 Reichsmarks—a gift Keitel never spent because he felt he had not earned it. That same July Keitel took leave for a hunting trip to Pomerania and visited Helmscherode for a few days. Returning to duty in August, he worked on preparations for Operation Sea Lion—the invasion of England (which, however, never took place).

Rather than attack his one remaining enemy, Hitler decided to invade the Soviet Union. Keitel was alarmed and voiced his objections directly to Hitler. The Fuehrer retorted that the conflict was inevitable, and therefore Germany must strike now, while she had the advantage. Keitel then wrote a memorandum outlining his objections. Hitler rebuked the field marshal savagely. Shocked and upset, Keitel suggested that Hitler replace him and appoint an OKW chief whose strategic judgment was more amenable to the Fuehrer. Hitler rejected Keitel's request for a frontline command and sharply criticized him. He shouted that he, the Fuehrer, would decide when to replace his chief of OKW. Keitel turned and left the room without a word. From then on, Keitel submitted to the will of Adolf Hitler, almost without reservation, although he occasionally offered very weak objections to certain of the dictator's notions.

In March 1941, Hitler secretly decided to wage a new kind of warfare, in which all restraints were cast aside. This war would be vicious and aimed at the total eradication of the enemy. Accordingly, Keitel issued Hitler's draconian Commissar Order, which called for the liquidation of Soviet political officers, who always accompanied Red Army troops. Keitel also affixed his signature to a decree of July 1941, and it specified that the Reichsfuehrer-SS (Heinrich Himmler) would politically administer all rearward areas in the East. This order was tantamount to endorsing mass murder.

Although Keitel tried unsuccessfully to soften some of the decrees coming from Hitler, the field marshal continued to obey his orders. Keitel had unbounded faith in Hitler, and the Fuehrer craftily exploited this relationship. A series of decrees aimed at subduing Soviet resistance emanated from Fuehrer Headquarters, including instructions to kill 50 to 100 Communists for every German soldier who died in occupied territory. These orders originated with Adolf Hitler but bore Wilhelm Keitel's signature.

The failure of the German armies to win a quick, decisive victory in Russia caused Hitler to berate his generals and call for even harsher measures. Keitel meekly succumbed to Hitler's outrages and continued to sign infamous orders, such as the Nacht und Nebel (night and fog) decree of December 7, 1941, which directed that "persons endangering German security" were to vanish without a trace, into the night and fog. The responsibility for carrying out this decree was assigned to the SD, and many resistance members and other anti-Nazis were secretly executed under the provisions of this order. In many cases their bodies were never found.

Although on occasion the OKW chief offered quiet objections to Hitler's proposals, he remained extremely loyal and was precisely the type of individual Hitler wanted in his entourage. Unfortunately, Keitel's behavior adversely affected the behavior of his subordinates. Keitel would not defend them and submitted to the will of the Fuehrer on almost every issue. Such irresoluteness led many officers to refer to him as LaKaitel (lackey).

On July 20, 1944, Colonel Count Claus von Stauffenberg planted his briefcase, containing a bomb, under the briefing table at the Wolf's Lair during a Fuehrer conference. At 12:42 p.m. the bomb exploded. The chief of OKW was momentarily stunned, but as soon as he recovered, Keitel rushed to Hitler, shouting, "Mein Fuehrer! Mein Fuehrer! You're still alive!" He then helped Hitler to his feet and embraced him wildly. Keitel supported the dazed Fuehrer as the two left the demolished wooden hut, which had been a briefing room only minutes before.

After the failure of this assassination attempt, Keitel became closer than ever to Hitler, and as Albert Speer observed, Hitler also leaned on Keitel. The OKW marshal showed no mercy in carrying out measures against the attempted coup. He arrested his own signals chief, General Erich Fellgiebel, and ordered the arrests of Colonel General Friedrich Fromm, the commander-in-chief of the Replacement Army, and Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben. Keitel displayed no sympathy for "disloyal" officers, such as Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, upon whom he had never wasted any love.

During the final months of the war, as the Soviets continued their march to Berlin, Keitel issued decrees against enemy "terrorist activities." His accepting without question the need for brutal retaliation against partisans and saboteurs clearly indicated that Keitel had reached the point where he accepted Hitler's orders verbatim. During the Battle of Berlin, Keitel completely lost his grasp of reality. He blamed General Walter Wenck and Field Marshal Ferdinand Schoemer for the fall of the capital, as well as Colonel General Gotthard Heinrici, who retreated to the west without authorization. Keitel failed to realize that Germany had lost the war—no matter what these three officers did or failed to do.


Excerpted from HITLER'S COMMANDERS by SAMUEL W. MITCHAM, JR. GENE MUELLER Copyright © 2012 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD PUBLISHERS, INC.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr., (retired) was professor of history at Henderson State University, Georgia Southern University, and the University of Louisiana at Monroe, and a visiting professor at West Point. Gene Mueller (retired) was professor of history at Lewis & Clark University, Henderson State University, and Texas A&M.

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