German Command and Control

Ralph Zuljan

One of the most important weaknesses inherent in the armed forces of the Third Reich lay in the peculiar military command structure that evolved during the course of the war. At its pinnacle from the beginning was Adolf Hitler as the Führer or "leader." This in fact was not inconsistent with the relationship of the political leadership and the armed forces found in any of the other great powers. However, the Byzantine organization that developed under Hitler's leadership created the complete lack of strategic direction that became a hallmark of Nazi militarism.

As early as 1938, the military command structure of the Third Reich diverged significantly from that of other great powers. It was in that year that Hitler issued a decree abolishing the Ministry of War and replaced it with a military command -- the OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or High Command of the Armed Forces). Its Commander in Chief was Wilhelm Keitel and the Chief of Staff was Alfred Jodl. The OKW was nominally responsible for overseeing the individual military services and ensuring that the requirements of the political leadership were met. In essence, OKW was viewed by Hitler as a military staff responsible for issuing his commands to the individual services.

Each of the traditional services (the army, navy and from 1936 the air force) maintained its own high command throughout the period that the Third Reich existed. These were as follows: OKH (Oberkommando das Heers or High Command of the Army); OKM (Oberkommando das Kriegsmarine or High Command of the Navy); OKL (Oberkommando das Luftwaffe or High Command of the Air Force).

In the case of OKL, the commander in chief was nominally a political appointee as Hermann Göring was first and foremost a Nazi party official and only secondarily the Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe. Göring's interest in air power and his advocacy of an independent air force originated in his experience as a fighter pilot during the Great War and were instrumental in the formation of the Luftwaffe. Göring remained commander in chief from its inception in 1936 to its demise in 1945. For the most part, the Luftwaffe thrived because it had such a politically powerful patron as its leader.

Of course, like Hitler, Göring held numerous offices and had responsibilities that were far greater than those of the Comander in Chief of the OKL. In practice, Göring was uninvolved in the day to day operation of the Luftwaffe. The responsibility for actually commanding the Luftwaffe fell on Göring's deputy and the OKL Chief of Staff. These positions were occupied by career officers and the individuals concerned were generally considered to have done their jobs well.

The OKM was probably the least politically penetrated of the three traditional services throughout the Nazi period. Its commanders in chief were career naval officers. Admiral Raeder held the post up to 1943 and has usually been credited with the creation of the German Navy that fought during the Second World War. He was replaced by Admiral Dönitz in 1943 as a result of disputes with Hitler. However, since Dönitz was a submariner, his appointment as Commander in Chief of the Navy also reflected the realities of the German experience of naval warfare. Both Raeder and Dönitz were capable naval officers. Ultimately, Dönitz was appointed as Hitler's political heir -- shortly before the latter's suicide in 1945 -- which reflected Hitler's confidence in the navy leadership.

In stark contrast to the patronized Luftwaffe, and the apolitical professionalism of the Kriegsmarine, was the situation of the Army. Befitting the geographic position of the Third Reich, the Army was, by far, the largest military service. It was also the historically recognized senior service of the armed forces and it remained, throughout the Nazi period, an organization dominated by traditional and aristocratic officers. Any opposition to Hitler's rule worth mentioning originated in (or was substantially supported by) the army. Conversely, Hitler's rule of the Third Reich before the outbreak of war depended on the tacit support, or at least acquiescence, of the army.

There were numerous political intrigues involving Hitler and the army during the prewar period which reflected the strained relationship. Hitler, for example, took an active part in securing the appointment of the pliable Walter von Brauchitsch to the position of Commander in Chief of the OKH in 1938 -- a position Brauchitsch continued to hold until illness forced his resignation in December 1941. Hitler achieved this through the dissemination of false accusations of homosexuality against Werner von Fritsch, the previous commander in chief (who was widely regarded as willing and capable of "standing up" to Hitler). Likewise, Franz Halder became the Chief of Staff of the OKH in 1938 because Ludwig Beck resigned in protest over Hitler's designs on Czechoslovakia. (Beck would ultimately choose to commit suicide in July 1944 as a result of his involvement in the plot to overthrow Hitler.) Halder, who was never favorably disposed towards Hitler, remained the Chief of Staff until September 1942 nonetheless. (He would ultimately be arrested by the Gestapo in 1944 for his knowledge of the various army plots to overthrow Hitler.) There is no doubt Hitler understood the precarious relationship he had with the German army on the eve of war in 1939.

The litany of OKH opposition to Hitler's plans included the remilitarization of the Rhineland, the anschluss with Austria, the occupation of Czechoslovakia, the invasion of Poland, the invasion of France and the invasion of the Soviet Union. Essentially, if Hitler had a plan that involved military action he could count on the OKH to counsel against it. There can be no better testament to the political power of the German army at the start of World War II than the fact that Hitler tolerated its constant opposition and subversion of his political will. None of the other great powers brooked military commanders who demonstrated such insolence towards the political leadership. It is small wonder that Hitler took every opportunity to reign in the OKH.

Originally published in "World War II" at on February 1, 2000.
Revised edition published in "Articles On War" at on July 1, 2003.

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