OKW versus OKH

Ralph Zuljan

On the eve of war in 1939, the OKH remained beyond Adolf Hitler's control. Even with the meek Brauchitsch as Commander in Chief, the traditional independence of the Army generals proved to be impossible to overcome and lengthy arguments over policy and strategy were inevitable to bring about Army compliance. The presumptuous Army generals infuriated Hitler and corporal Hitler's meddling in their business irritated the generals. This frustrating relationship probably caused the generals to toy with a coup and it led Hitler to search for ways to circumvent the OKH. He found a willing alternative in OKW.

OKW was nominally a superior headquarters to OKH but its staff lacked the capability to conduct military operations without support from the independent services. Since its inception in 1938 OKW found itself relegated to irrelevance due to the lack of cooperation from the service branches in realizing its conception of a unified armed forces headquarters. As each of the service chiefs had direct access to Hitler, OKW did not have the capability to assert authority without Hitler's immediate support. This, however proved to be a useful relationship in OKW's particular bureaucratic struggle with OKH.

OKW was the only military headquarters in the Third Reich that had a vested interest in obeying Hitler's orders and Hitler probably recognized in it a potentially useful rival to the independent-minded OKH. By 1940 Hitler used OKW to plan and execute a military operation, the invasion of Norway. This initial effort at circumventing the OKH proved successful enough to form the basis of similar ad hoc arrangements in Finland and North Africa in 1941. The OKW capability to provide an alternative command structure, comparable to OKH, grew with these experiences. The OKH, however, remained substantially more capable of conducting military operations.

Hitler increasingly asserted his claim, as Führer of the Third Reich, to expect obedience from the Army of the Third Reich as the war progressed. During the campaigns against Poland and France this had been relatively benign. However, the campaign against the Soviet Union produced a serious clash between Hitler and OKH. The conflicting visions of the conduct of Operation Barbarossa initially led to a crisis after the conclusion of the Battle of Smolensk: Hitler sought to divert forces from the Moscow axis for an envelopment of the southern flank; the senior generals favored an immediate continuation of the advance to Moscow. The ensuing arguments dragged on for about one month before the Army acquiesced. Ultimately, as the advance on Moscow faltered and a Soviet counteroffensive ensued in December 1941, an even more serious crisis developed. It was at this point that Brauchitsch suffered his heart attack and was forced to resign and Hitler took over as Commander in Chief of the German Army.

Although much has been been written about this move, there was a precedent in the organization of the armed forces of the Third Reich. Göring, after all, had been Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe since 1936 and Hitler's direct command of the Army could be seen as the patronizing of the Army by the Führer himself. In terms of the politics of Nazi Germany, it is likely that Hitler viewed his direct command of the Army as a useful counterbalance to Göring's command of the Luftwaffe. Of course, it was also a victory for Hitler in the struggle to gain some measure of control over OKH. It proved to be a disappointing victory. Although he nominally achieved direct command, opposition within the Army leadership remained and its focal point merely shifted to the Chief of Staff. With Hitler's ascension to Commander in Chief of the Army, the Chief of Staff became the representative of the Army point-of-view.

The pressure of being Chief of Staff of the Army was enormous. Franz Halder filled the post until September 1942 at which time Kurt Zeitzler replaced him. Zeitzler held on until July 1944 when he collapsed from the strain and Heinz Guderian took over. He resigned in March 1945 after a violent argument with Hitler and was replaced by Krebs. With the exception of Krebs, each of these individuals ended up in bitter confrontations with Hitler over issues of strategic direction and control of the Army. Unlike Göring, Hitler took an active role in command.

From a strictly formal perspective, Hitler's status as Führer and Commander in Chief of the Army put the OKW in an untenable position with respect to its relationship to the Army. Commands issued to OKW by Hitler as Führer were ostensibly issued by OKW to Hitler as Commander in Chief of the Army. In practice, the authority structure rapidly devolved into one in which OKH under the leadership of the Chief of Staff became responsible for conducting the war on the Eastern Front while OKW under its Commander in Chief was responsible for conducting the war on all other fronts (including Norway, Finland, North Africa and eventually the Balkans, Italy and western Europe). This division of responsibilities was formally accepted during 1942. However, a great deal of bureaucratic infighting continued as a result of the confused relationship between OKW and OKH.

The division of authority that resulted from having what were in effect two competing Army High Commands gave Hitler a good basis for dominating the Army command system. This encouraged field commanders to develop bilateral relations with Hitler, further weakening the chain-of-command. Furthermore, by isolating the theaters of operations, individual generals were incapable of understanding the overall military situation; only Hitler was positioned to have a comprehension of the correlation of forces on the whole. This prevented the possibility of a military dictatorship developing in the Third Reich (as had developed in Germany during the First World War) but it also made the rationalization of force distribution wholly dependent on the ability of a single individual, Hitler, to develop a correct appreciation of the overall situation -- usually based on reports provided by military commanders who were courting Hitler's favor for their own sphere of influence.

Originally published in "World War II" at Suite101.com on March 1, 2000.
Revised edition published in "Articles On War" at OnWar.com on July 1, 2003.

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