The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (German: [ˈoːbɐkɔˌmando deːɐ̯ ˈveːɐ̯ˌmaxt] (listen); OKW, German: [oːkaːˈveː] (listen), transl. High Command of the Armed Forces) was the High Command of the Wehrmacht (armed forces) of Nazi Germany. Created in 1938, the OKW replaced the Reich War Ministry and had nominal oversight over the Heer (army), the Kriegsmarine (navy), and the Luftwaffe (air force).
Rivalry with the armed services branch commands, mainly with the Army High Command (the OKH), prevented the OKW from becoming a unified German General Staff in an effective chain of command. It did help coordinate operations between the three services. During the war, the OKW, subordinate to Adolf Hitler as Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht, acquired more and more operational powers. By 1942, OKW had responsibility for all theatres except for the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union. However, Hitler manipulated the system in order to prevent any one command from taking a dominant role in decision making. This "divide and conquer" method helped put most military decisions in Hitler's own hands, which at times included even those affecting engagements at the battalion level.
The OKW was established by decree of 4 February 1938 in the aftermath of the Blomberg-Fritsch Affair, which had led to the dismissal of the head of the Reich War Ministry and Commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht, Generalfeldmarschall Werner von Blomberg. Hitler took the chance to get rid of his critics within the armed forces. The Ministry was dissolved and replaced with the OKW led by General Wilhelm Keitel in the rank of a Reich Minister, with Alfred Jodl as Chief of the Operations Staff. Nevertheless, all Supreme Commanders of the armed service branches, like OKH Chief General Walther von Brauchitsch, had direct access to Hitler and were able to circumvent Keitel's command. The appointments made to the OKW and the motive behind the reorganization are commonly thought to be Hitler's desire to consolidate power and authority around his position as Führer and Reich Chancellor (Führer und Reichskanzler), to the detriment of the military leadership of the Wehrmacht. Furthermore, Hitler did not want to create a tri-service joint command, or appointment of a single joint Chief of Staff, as he feared it would break his image of having the "Midas touch" concerning military strategy.
By June 1938, the OKW comprised four departments:
- Wehrmacht-Führungsamt (WFA, renamed Wehrmachtführungsstab (Wfst) in August 1940) – operational orders. Chief: Colonel-General Alfred Jodl, 1 September 1939 – 8 May 1945
- Abteilung Landesverteidigungsführungsamt (WFA/L) a subdepartment through which all details of operational planning were worked out, and from which all operational orders were communicated to the OKW. Chief: Major General Walter Warlimont, 1 September 1939 – 6 September 1944; Major General Horst Freiherr Treusch von Buttlar-Brandenfels, 6 September 1944 – 30 November 1944; General August Winter, 1 December 1944 – 23 April 1945
- Wehrmacht Propaganda Troops: its function was to produce and disseminate propaganda materials aimed at the German troops and the population. Commanded by General Hasso von Wedel (1 September 1939 – 8 May 1945), the department oversaw the numerous propaganda companies (Propagandakompanie) of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS, attached to the fighting troops. At its peak in 1942, the propaganda troops included 15,000 men. Among the propaganda materials produced was the Wehrmachtbericht, the official news communiqué about the military situation of Germany, and was intended for both domestic and foreign consumption.
- Heeresstab – army staff. Chief: General Walther Buhle, 15 February 1942 – 8 May 1945
- Inspekteur der Wehrmachtnachrichtenverbände – Chief of Staff, Wehrmacht signal corps
- Amt Ausland/Abwehr – foreign intelligence.[a]
- Zentralabteilung – central department. Chief: Major General Hans Oster, 1 September 1939 – January 1944
- Abteilung Ausland – foreign. Chief: Admiral Leopold Bürkner, 15 June 1938 -
- Abteilung I, Nachrichtenbeschaffung – intelligence. Chief: Colonel Hans Piepenbrock, 1 September 1939 – March 1943; Colonel Georg Hansen, March 1943 – February 1944
- Abteilung II, Sonderdienst – special service. Chief: Colonel Erwin von Lahousen, 1 September 1939 – July 1943; Colonel Wessel Freytag von Loringhoven, July 1943 – June 1944
- Abteilung III, Abwehr – counter-intelligence. Chief: Colonel Franz Eccard von Bentivegni, 1 March 1941 -
- Auslands(telegramm)prüfstelle – foreign communications
- Wirtschafts und Rüstungsamt – supply matters[b]
- Amtsgruppe Allgemeine Wehrmachtsangelegenheiten – miscellaneous matters.
The WFA replaced the Wehrmachtsamt (Armed Forces Office) which had existed between 1935 and 1938 within the Reich War Ministry, headed by General Wilhelm Keitel. Hitler promoted Keitel to Chief of the OKW (Chef des OKW), i.e. Chief of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces. As head of the WFA, Keitel appointed Max von Viebahn although after two months he was removed from command, and this post was not refilled until the promotion of Alfred Jodl. To replace Jodl at Abteilung Landesverteidigungsführungsamt (WFA/L), Walther Warlimont was appointed.[c] In December 1941 further changes took place with Abteilung Landesverteidigungsführungsamt (WFA/L) being merged into the Wehrmacht-Führungsamt and losing its role as a subordinate organization. These changes were largely cosmetic however as key staff remained in post and continued to fulfill the same duties.
The OKW directed the operations of the German Armed Forces during World War II. The OKW was almost always represented at daily situation conferences (Lagevorträge) by Jodl, Keitel, and the officer serving as Hitler's adjutant. During these conferences situation reports prepared by the head of WFA/L would be delivered to Hitler and then discussed. Following these discussions, Hitler would issue further operational orders. These orders were then relayed back to WFA/L by Jodl along with the minutes of the meeting. These would then be converted into orders for issuance to the appropriate commanders.
- Chief of the OKW
||Chief of the OKW
||Time in office
|4 February 1938||8 May 1945||7 years, 93 days|
|13 May 1945||23 May 1945||10 days|
- Chief of Operations Staff
||Chief of Operations Staff
||Time in office
|1 September 1939||8 May 1945||5 years, 249 days|
Officially, the OKW served as the military general staff for the Third Reich, coordinating the efforts of the Army, Navy, and Air Force (Heer, Kriegsmarine, and Luftwaffe). In practice, the OKW acted as Hitler's personal military staff, translating his ideas into military orders, and issuing them to the three services while having little control over them. However, as the war progressed the OKW found itself exercising increasing amounts of direct command authority over military units, particularly in the West. This created a situation such that by 1942 the OKW held the de facto command of Western forces while the Army High Command (Oberkommando des Heeres, OKH) exercised de facto command of the Eastern Front. It was not until 28 April 1945 (two days before his suicide) that Hitler placed OKH under OKW, giving OKW command of forces on the Eastern Front.
Setting different parts of the Nazi bureaucracy to compete for his favor in areas where their administration overlapped was a standard tactic employed by Hitler to reinforce his authority; and just as in other areas of government, there was a rivalry between the OKW and the OKH. Since most German operations during World War II were Army controlled (with Luftwaffe support), the OKH demanded control over German military forces. Nevertheless, Hitler decided against the OKH and in favor of the OKW overseeing operations in many land theaters. As the war progressed, more and more influence moved from the OKH to the OKW, with Norway being the first "OKW war theater". More and more areas came under complete control of the OKW. Finally only the Eastern Front remained the domain of the OKH. However, as the Eastern Front was by far the primary battlefield of the German military, the OKH was still influential, particularly when on 19 December 1941 Hitler himself succeeded Walther von Brauchitsch as commander-in-chief of the OKH (Oberbefehlshaber des Heeres) during the Battle of Moscow.
The OKW ran military operations on the Western front, in North Africa, and in Italy. In the west, operations were further split between the OKW and Oberbefehlshaber West (OBW, Commander in Chief West), who was Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt (succeeded by Field Marshal Günther von Kluge).
There was even more fragmentation since the Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe operations had their own commands (Oberkommando der Marine (OKM) and Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL)) which, while theoretically subordinate, were largely independent from the OKW or the OBW.
During the entire period of the war, the OKW was led by Keitel, who reported directly to Hitler, from whom most operational orders actually originated as Oberster Befehlshaber der Wehrmacht (Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces). Albrecht von Hagen, a member of the failed assassination attempt on Hitler on 20 July 1944, was stationed here to be responsible for the courier service between military posts in Berlin and Hitler's secret military headquarters known as the Wolf's Lair.
International Military Tribunal
During the Nuremberg Trials, the OKW was indicted but acquitted of being a criminal organization because of Article 9 of the charter of the international military tribunal.
In the opinion of the Tribunal, the General Staff and High Command is neither an "organisation" nor a "group"
Although the Tribunal is of the opinion that the term "group" in Article 9 must mean something more than this collection of military officers, it has heard much evidence as to the participation of these officers in planning and waging aggressive war, and in committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. This evidence is, as to many of them, clear and convincing.
They have been responsible in large measure for the miseries and suffering that have fallen on millions of men, women and children. They have been a disgrace to the honourable profession of arms. Without their military guidance the aggressive ambitions of Hitler and his fellow Nazis would have been academic and sterile. Although they were not a group falling within the words of the Charter they were certainly a ruthless military caste. The contemporary German militarism flourished briefly with its recent ally, National Socialism, as well as or better than it had in the generations of the past.
Many of these men have made a mockery of the soldier's oath of obedience to military orders. When it suits their defence they say they had to obey; when confronted with Hitler's brutal crimes, which are shown to have been within their general knowledge, they say they disobeyed. The truth is they actively participated in all these crimes, or sat silent and acquiescent, witnessing the commission of crimes on a scale larger and more shocking than the world has ever had the misfortune to know. This must be said.
Wilhelm Keitel and Alfred Jodl were both convicted and sentenced to death by hanging.
During the subsequent High Command Trial in 1947-48, fourteen Wehrmacht officers were charged with war crimes, especially for the Commissar Order to shoot Red Army political commissars in German-occupied countries, the killing of POWs and participation in the Holocaust. Eleven defendants received prison sentences ranging from three years including time served to lifetime imprisonment, two were acquitted on all counts, and one committed suicide during the trial.
- ^ Also known by title Amtsgruppe Auslandsnachrichten und Abwehr
- ^ Also known by title Wehrwirtschaftsstab.
- ^ Warlimont being replaced in September 1944 due to ill health by General August Winter.