The German Armed Forces High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht-OKW), established in 1938, was in theory a unified military command controlling Germany’s Luftwaffe (Air Force), Kriegsmarine (Navy), and Heer (Army). In reality, the establishment of the OKW allowed Adolf Hitler to consolidate power as commander-in-chief of the German. Hitler held command authority while the actual chief of the OKW, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, was never more than an administrator.
Despite its organizational structure, which included the High Command, the military was micromanaged by Hitler.
Suspicious of the military and of its generals in particular, Hitler also employed monetary bribes to guarantee their current and future loyalty.
Despite postwar claims to the contrary (including the “Clean Wehrmacht Myth"), the German military was extremely loyal to Adolf Hitler and was deeply complicit in the crimes of the Third Reich. Although there were some areas of disagreement, the highest-ranking officers tended to side with Hitler for a variety of reasons. This support was critical, for had the military united in opposing Hitler, the history of the war could have been quite different.
Organization of the German Military
The German military had a long tradition of issues with problematic organization, command, and control. During World War I, the Kaiser was the supreme commander of the armed forces, and each force had its own commander as well. Though there was an attempt at unified command, the Chiefs of Staff of each service (Army and Navy) wielded tremendous power and had direct access to the Kaiser, Germany's emperor. The Army had always been the preeminent arm of the German military, and thus had greater influence.
In 1919, the democratic Weimar government created a Reich Ministry of War. This was an attempt to both create a unified military command and place it under civilian control.
The Nazi High Command
With the end of the Weimar Republic came the ultimate dissolution of the Ministry of War, officially abolished by Hitler in 1938 and replaced by the Armed Forces High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht-OKW). In theory, the OKW was also a unified military command, controlling the Luftwaffe (Air Force), Kriegsmarine (Navy), and Heer (Army). However, earlier in 1935, these branches had been granted their own high commands: Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL), Oberkommando der Marine (OKM), and Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH). The OKH was, as the army, the most powerful of these organizations.
The establishment of the OKW allowed Hitler to amass more power as commander-in-chief of the German military and to remove generals he viewed as critical of his plans. Although Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel held the title of “Chief of the OKW,” he was never more than an administrator and figurehead. Hitler held full command authority.
Even more damaging from a military point of view was the disorganized structure and internal struggles in the upper levels of command. For example, the OKH controlled all military forces of all branches on the Eastern Front. The OKW, meanwhile, nominally in command of all branches, was limited to operational control in all other theaters. More problematic but in keeping with Hitler’s intentionally divisive leadership style, each branch commander could (and did) bypass the OKW and speak directly to Hitler, a system not conducive to effective, coordinated military action.
After World War II, many German generals claimed to have opposed Hitler’s plans and policies. They explained their participation in the war in terms of honorable service and obedience to orders. However, these were mostly self-exculpatory attempts to minimize their complicity with the Nazi regime. Nazi generals and admirals had found many common aims with Hitler that drove them to accept his leadership. Most were anti-Communist aristocrats and supported the “crusade against Bolshevism.” Others were either covertly or overtly antisemitic. Still others appreciated the prestige and financial support that Hitler offered the military.
One motivation that has remained relatively unknown is the extent to which Hitler bribed his generals for their loyalty, particularly those he viewed as suspect. The Führer had always been suspicious of the military and generals in particular, some of whom had resisted his earlier efforts at conquest. In 1938, he called the army command “most insecure element of the state.”(1) As a result, he sought to buy the loyalty of senior leaders through monthly tax-exempt payments in addition to official pay. Specific senior officers also received a 250,000 Reichsmark check for “milestone birthdays.” Finally, Hitler even gifted large land and estates, some worth over 1 million Reichsmark.(2) For example, Generaloberst Heinz Guderian was awarded a 2,000 acre estate in occupied Poland, a fact he obscured in his memoirs.
Hitler made it clear that these “gifts” depended on the current (and future) loyalty of the recipient. Hitler’s generals, with very few exceptions, did remain loyal to the end. While the High Command was not named a criminal organization by the Allied occupiers, as was the SS, several of their members were tried in the High Command Trial, the last of the twelve Subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings held under US jurisdiction following the proceedings of the International Military Tribunal. Others were tried individually in postwar trials for their roles in both the Holocaust and other crimes of the Third Reich, including the murder of as many as three million Soviet prisoners of war.
1. Norman J. W. Goda, "Black Marks: Hitler's Bribery of His Senior Officers During World War Ii," The Journal of Modern History 72, no. 2 (2000): 419.
2. Ibid., 413.