Before Operation Barbarossa began in 1941, the Wehrmacht determined that Soviet prisoners taken during the upcoming campaign were to be withdrawn from the protection of international and customary law. Orders issued to subordinate commands suspended the German military penal code and the Hague Convention, the international agreement that governed the treatment of prisoners. Although the Soviets had not signed the Geneva Convention regarding POWs, the Germans had. Article 82 of the convention obliged signatories to treat all prisoners, from any state, according to the dictates of humanity.
In March 1941, Hitler issued what has come to be known as the 'Commissar Order,' which clearly spelled out the future nature of the war in Russia. The coming conflict was to be 'one of ideologies and racial differences and will have to be waged with unprecedented, unmerciful, and unrelenting hardness.' It also instructed Hitler's subordinates to execute commissars and exonerated his soldiers of any future excess. 'Any German soldier who breaks international law will be pardoned,' the Führer stated. 'Russia did not take part in the Hague Convention and, therefore, has no rights under it.'
At a subsequent gathering to explain the application of this order to senior army officers, General Edwin Reinecke, the Reich officer responsible for the treatment of POWs, told his audience: 'The war between Germany and Russia is not a war between two states or two armies, but between two ideologies — namely, the National Socialist and the Bolshevist ideology. The Red Army [soldier] must be looked upon not as a soldier in the sense of the word applying to our western opponents, but as an ideological enemy. He must be regarded as the archenemy of National Socialism and must be treated accordingly.' Reinecke continued with the admonishment that this must be made plain to every officer taking part in the operation,'since they were apparently still entertaining ideas which belonged to the Ice Age and not to the present age of National Socialism.' Under the direction of the Commissar Order, immediately after capture all Soviet political officers should be killed and that thereafter, under a'special selection program of the SD [Sicherheitsdienst, the Nazi Party's security service], all those prisoners who could be identified as thoroughly bolshevized or as active representatives of the Bolshevist ideology' should also be killed.
Here's what the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg had to say about Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel before they hung him
M. DE VABRES:
Keitel is indicted on all four counts. He was Chief of Staff to the then Minister of War von Blomberg from 1935 to 4th February, 1938; on that day Hitler took command of the armed forces, making Keitel Chief of the High Command of the Armed Forces. Keitel did not have command authority over the three Wehrmacht branches which enjoyed direct access to the Supreme Commander. OKW was in effect Hitler's military staff.
Crimes against Peace
Keitel attended the Schuschnigg conference in February, 1938 with two other generals. Their presence, he admitted, was a " military demonstration," but since he had been appointed OKW Chief just one week before he had not known why he had been summoned. Hitler and Keitel then continued to put pressure on Austria with false rumours, broadcasts and troop manoueuvres. Keitel made the military and other arrangements and Jodl's diary noted " the effect is quick and strong." When Schuschnigg called his plebiscite, Keitel that night "briefed Hitler and his generals, and Hitler issued " Case Otto " which Keitel initialled.
On 21st April, 1938, Hitler and Keitel considered making use of a possible "incident," such as the assassination of the German Minister at Prague, to preface the attack on Czechoslovakia, Keitel signed many directives and memoranda on " Fall Gruen," including the directive of
30th May, containing Hitler's statement: "It is my unalterable decision to smash Czechoslovakia by military action in the near future." After Munich, Keitel initialled Hitler's directive for the attack on Czechoslovakia, and issued two supplements. The second supplement said the attack should appear to the outside world as " merely an act of pacification ,and not a warlike undertaking." The OKW Chief attended Hitler's negotiations with Hacha when the latter surrendered.
Keitel was present on 23rd May, 1939, when Hitler announced his decision " to attack Poland at the first suitable opportunity." Already he had signed the directive requiring the Wehrmacht to submit its " Fall Weiss " timetable to OKW by 1st May.
The invasion of Norway and Denmark he discussed on 12th December 1939, with Hitler, Jodl and Raeder. By directive of 27th January, 1940, the Norway plans were placed under Keitel's " direct and personal guidance." Hitler had said on 23rd May, 1939, he would ignore the neutrality of Belgium and the Netherlands, and Keitel signed orders for these attacks on 15th October, 20th November, and 28th November, 1939. Orders postponing this attack 17 times until Spring, 1940, all were signed by Keitel or Jodl.
Formal planning for attacking Greece and Yugoslavia had begun in November, 1940. On 18th March, 1941, Keitel heard Hitler tell Raeder complete occupation of Greece was a prerequisite to settlement, and also heard Hitler decree on 27th March that the destruction of Yugoslavia should take place with " unmerciful harshness."
Keitel testified that he opposed the invasion of the Soviet Union for military reasons, and also because it would constitute a violation of the non-aggression Pact. Nevertheless he initialled " Case Barbarossa," signed by Hitler on 18th December, 1940, and attended the OKW discussion with Hitler on 3rd February, 1941. Keitel's supplement of 13th March established the relationship between the military and political officers. He issued his timetable for the invasion on 6th June, 1941, and was present at the briefing of 14th June when the generals gave their final reports before attack. He appointed Jodl and Warlimont as OKW representatives to Rosenberg on matters concerning the Eastern Territories. On 16th June he directed all army units to carry out the economic directives issued by Goering in the so-called " Green Folder," for the exploitation of Russian territory, food and raw materials.
War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity
On 4th August, 1942, Keitel issued a directive that paratroopers were to be turned over to the SD. On 18th October Hitler issued the Commando Order which was carried out in several instances. After the landing in Normandy, Keitel reaffirmed the order, and later extended it to Allied missions fighting with partisans. He admits he did not believe the order was legal but claims he could not stop Hitler from decreeing it.
When, on 8th September, 1941, OKW issued its ruthless regulations for the treatment of Soviet POW's, Canaris wrote to Keitel that under international law the SD should have nothing to do with this matter. On this memorandum in Keitel's handwriting, dated 23rd September and initialled by him, is the statement: " The objections arise from the military concept of chivalrous warfare. This is the destruction of an ideology. Therefore I approve and back the measures." Keitel testified that he really agreed with Canaris and argued with Hitler, but lost. The OKW Chief directed the military authorities to cooperate with the Einsatzstab Rosenberg in looting cultural property in occupied territories.
Lahousen testified that Keitel told him on 12th September, 1939, while aboard Hitler's headquarters train, that the Polish intelligentsia, nobility and Jews were to be liquidated. On 20th October, Hitler told Keitel the intelligentsia would be prevented from forming a ruling class, the standard of living would remain low, and Poland would be used only for labour forces. Keitel does not remember the Lahousen conversation, but admits there was such a policy and that he had protested without effect to Hitler about it.
On 16th September, 1941, Keitel ordered that attacks on soldiers in the East should be met by putting to death 50 to 100 Communists for one German soldier, with the comment that human life was less than nothing in the East. On 1st October he ordered military commanders always to have hostages to execute when German soldiers were attacked. When Terboven, the Reich Commissioner in Norway, wrote Hitler that Keitel's suggestion that workmen's relatives be held responsible for sabotage, could work only if firing squads were authorised, Keitel wrote on this memorandum in the margin: " Yes, that is the best."
On 12th May, 1941, five weeks before the invasion of the Soviet Union the OKW urged upon Hitler a directive of the OKH that political commissars be liquidated by the Army. Keitel admitted the directive was passed on to field commanders. And on 13th May Keitel signed an order that civilians suspected of offences against troops should be shot without trial, and that prosecution of German soldiers for offences against civilians was unnecessary. On 27th July all copies of this directive were ordered destroyed without affecting its validity. Four days previously he signed another order that legal punishment was inadequate and troops should use terrorism.
On 7th December, 1941, as already discussed in this opinion, the so-called " Nacht und Nebel " decree, over Keitel's signature, provided that in occupied territories civilians who had been accused of crimes of resistance against the army of occupation would be tried only if a death sentence was likely; otherwise they would be handed to the Gestapo for transportation to Germany.
Keitel directed that Russian POW's be used in German war industry. On 8th September, 1942, he ordered French, Dutch and Belgian citizens to work on the construction of the Atlantic Wall. He was present on 4th January, 1944, when Hitler directed Sauckel to obtain four million new workers from occupied territories.
In the face of these documents Keitel does not deny his connection with these acts. Rather, his defence relies on the fact that he is a soldier, and on the doctrine of " superior orders," prohibited by Article 8 of the Charter as a defence.
There is nothing in mitigation. Superior orders, even to a soldier, cannot be considered in mitigation where crimes as shocking and extensive have been committed consciously, ruthlessly and without military excuse or justification.
The Tribunal finds Keitel guilty on all four counts.