Key point: The German military was very formidable.
With the end of World War I, the German Army had not been defeated in the field. Surrender had come due to depleted resources and war weariness at home. When the proud German soldiers returned to their country from war-torn France and Belgium, they were welcomed as heroes.
The bitter terms of the Versailles Treaty placed the vast majority of blame for the Great War on Germany, sowing the seeds of the Nazi rise to power and the coming of another even more terrible world war. Through the upheaval of the interwar years, the German Army, known as the Heer, survived, and its leaders embarked on a clandestine effort to circumvent the terms of the Versailles Treaty that, among other things, had limited its fighting strength to 100,000 men.
The command structure of the Heer embodied a long tradition of competence and efficiency. On the eve of World War II, Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH) served as the primary organization through which the Army general staff executed its plans. Although the general staff had been recognized as the officer corps with the most effective grasp of strategy and tactics, Hitler diluted its command efficiency and power base, relegating OKH to a distinctly subordinate role. At the top of a new command structure, Hitler installed himself as supreme military commander. He further created another senior military organization, Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW).
Distrust Between the Führer and His Generals
Hitler maintained control of both the OKW and the OKH, and there were dissident elements within the general staff—officers who grudgingly came to recognize that the general staff and OKH had been reduced from executive roles that shaped and influenced strategic German military operations to simply carrying out the orders of the Führer as they were handed down from Hitler to OKW.
Many officers who remained associated with the general staff performed their duties with the understanding that opposition to Hitler had to be kept quiet. From the beginning of the Nazi era, senior officers of the general staff opposed the Führer. In turn, Hitler mistrusted the general staff virtually to a man. That mistrust was well founded.
During the 1930s, those officers who had questioned Hitler’s judgment lost credibility as Germany reclaimed territory forfeited following World War I, reoccupied the Rhineland, annexed Austria and Sudetenland, and then occupied all of Czechoslovakia without firing a shot while Great Britain and France pursued a policy of appeasement. The popularity of the Führer had reached such heights that open opposition was hazardous to an officer’s career and might even subject the dissident to harsh punishment. Despite the inherent risk, some officers were convinced that the most effective form of opposition to Hitler might actually come from within.
One such officer was Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, who led the Abwehr, the Intelligence branch of OKW, beginning in 1935. Canaris’s career is a paradox in that while he was charged with safeguarding the Third Reich against enemy espionage he was also a member of the domestic opposition to the Führer.
Canaris opposed Hitler’s policy of expansion, quietly intervened to save Jews and prisoners of war from execution, persuaded Spanish dictator Francisco Franco not to allow German troops to cross Spanish territory in an attempt to capture the British fortress at Gibraltar, conspired with high-ranking officers of Army Group C on the Eastern Front to assassinate Hitler, and was arrested following the July 20, 1944, attempt to kill the Führer. He eventually paid with his own life on the gallows on April 9, 1945.
“The Führer’s Word is Above All Written Law”
Although a substantial opposition to Hitler existed, senior officers of the Heer witnessed the Führer’s spectacular early successes, and most of them were willing participants in the Nazi plan of conquest. As they became aware of Hitler’s intent to plunge Europe into its second major war in 25 years, some weakly argued that Germany could not possibly be militarily or economically prepared to wage war until 1942. Hitler’s timetable, however, was accelerated. The invasion of Poland took place on September 1, 1939.
These officers had taken a personal oath to Adolf Hitler and believed themselves obligated to perform their duties based on the Führer Principle, which stated, “The Führer’s word is above all written law.” Rooted in Social Darwinism, the Führer Principle was not uniquely Nazi. However, it did find robust application during the 12 years of the Third Reich. Some high-ranking Nazis who stood trial at Nuremburg after the war actually asserted the doctrine in their own defense.
Wilhelm Keitel: Hitler’s Lackey
Following the Blomberg and Frisch scandals in the late 1930s, which removed two of the last impediments to Hitler’s assumption of full control of the German armed forces, the Führer appointed Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel as commander in chief of OKW. Keitel was a career Army officer who had previously served as chief of the Armed Forces Office.
Keitel had been appointed by his former friend, Defense Minister Werner von Blomberg. A veteran of World War I who had been wounded in action and then risen through the ranks of the interwar Reichswehr, he had been alienated from Blomberg, who failed to press Keitel’s idea of a unified command structure for all of the German armed forces. Hitler, however, seemed to be moving toward such a command structure, and Keitel was cooperative.
As the chief of OKW, Keitel structured the organization with an Economics Section under Maj. Gen. Georg Thomas, an Intelligence Section under Canaris, and an Operations Section led by Col. Gen. Alfred Jodl. As time passed, Keitel became devoted to Hitler. He supported the Führer with blind obedience and was quoted at Nuremberg as saying that the Führer Principle was paramount in “all areas and it is completely natural that it had a special application in reference to the military.”
Keitel did attempt to stand up to Hitler as plans for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, were being formulated. He objected that the plan was too ambitious. Hitler was enraged. When Keitel offered to resign, Hitler declined, saying that only he, as supreme commander of the German armed forces, could decide when and if the head of OKW should step aside. From that time on, Keitel was a slavish servant to the Führer, so much so that some officers whispered a joke that he should be referred to as “Lakeitel” or “Lackey.”
Implementing Hitler’s Ruthless Orders
As World War II dragged on, Hitler exploited his relationship with Keitel, issuing orders such as the “Night and Fog” directive of December 1941, mandating that enemies of the Nazi state were to “disappear” without a trace, and decrees for the killing of prisoners and the immediate execution of Communist Party commissars if captured.
Weeks before the invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler declared that the war in the East was to be one of annihilation. Keitel issued the Barbarossa Decree, sanctioning the ruthless suppression of Partisan activities and authorizing units of the Heer to use extreme measures in the process. Further, officers were directed to use harsh measures against the local populations when attacks against German forces occurred if the actual parties could not be located. Officers were given the power to execute hostile persons without trial or formal adherence to any law or legal process.
Heer officers were assured that they were authorized to exercise such authority without fear of prosecution for actions that would normally be violations of German law. Generals and senior commanders who protested summary executions and acts of brutality committed by both Army and Waffen SS (armed SS) personnel were often relieved of duty.
Each of these orders originated with Hitler. However, their implementation rested with Wilhelm Keitel, and the signatures on the actual paper orders belonged to Keitel as well.
While Keitel had considered himself a loyal officer of the Heer, he fatally linked that loyalty to Adolf Hitler. Therefore, he undermined the effectiveness of the Army general staff and OKH. Keitel left an indelible stain on the honor of the Heer and its officer corps. He was hanged as a war criminal.
Controlling the Heer Through the OKW
In the spring of 1940, the German armed forces, or Wehrmacht, moved against the Scandinavian countries of Norway and Denmark. Historically, such an operation would have been planned by the Army general staff and executed through OKH. However, Operation Weserübung (Weser Exercise) was controlled from the outset by OKW. Soon afterward, OKW issued orders to move an entire division of the Heer from Norway to Finland, establishing a new theater of war for the armed forces that was completely outside the control of the general staff or OKH.
When the invasion of the Soviet Union commenced on June 22, 1941, Hitler interfered with operations from the beginning. He accomplished this through orders issued by OKW. Just as he had done in France weeks earlier, ordering his ground troops to halt and allowing thousands of British and French soldiers to escape from Dunkirk, he grew restless as German forces neared the Soviet capital of Moscow.