Zeitzler was almost exclusively a staff officer, serving as chief of staff in a corps, army, and army group. In September 1942, he was selected by Adolf Hitler as Chief of the Army General Staff, replacing Franz Halder. Zeitzler too came to argue with Hitler, and retired in July 1944, complaining of illness. Zeitzler was regarded as an energetic and efficient staff officer, noted for his ability in managing the movement of large mobile formations.
Born in Goßmar in the Province of Brandenburg, Zeitzler came from a family of pastors. At the age of 18 he joined the 4th Thuringian Infantry Regiment of the German Army on March 23, 1914. Five months later Germany was at war. Zeitzler was promoted to lieutenant in December, 1914, and commanded various units, including a pioneer detachment. At the end of the war he was a regimental adjutant.
Zeitzler was chosen as one of the 4,000 officers selected to serve in the Reichswehr, the small German army permitted under the limits of the Treaty of Versailles. He was promoted to captain in January, 1928. In 1929 he began three years of service as a staff officer of the 3rd Division. In February, 1934 he was transferred to the Reichswehrministerium ("Defense Ministry" of the Weimar Republic) and promoted to major. In 1937 he became a staff officer in the operations office for the Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH), the headquarters of the German Army. In April 1939 he took command of Infantry Regiment 60, and was promoted to full colonel in June.
During the invasion of Poland in September 1939, Zeitzler was Chief of Staff to General Siegmund List, commanding the XXII (Motorized) Corps in the 14th Army. In March 1940 he became Chief of Staff to General von Kleist, commanding Panzergruppe A, later redesignated 1st Panzer Army. During the Battle of France. Zeitzler brilliantly organized and managed the panzer drive through the Ardennes. He continued in this post through the successful Invasion of Yugoslavia and Battle of Greece. On May 18, 1941 Zeitzler was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross.
His greatest success came during the Operation Barbarossa, the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union. During the first two months of Barbarossa, 1st Panzer Army plunged east into Soviet territory, then moved south to the Black Sea to cut off Soviet forces in the Battle of Uman, then north to encircle Soviet forces around Kiev, then south again across the Dnieper River, and then further south to cut off Soviet forces near the Sea of Azov. Through all this strenuous campaigning, Zeitzler kept 1st Panzer Army moving smoothly and ensured that supplies arrived. In appreciation of Zeitzler, Kleist commented "The biggest problem in throwing about armies in this way was that of maintaining supplies."
In January 1942, Zeitzler was made Chief of Staff to General Gerd von Rundstedt, OB West (Commander in Chief West), and commander of Army Group D. He played an important role in responding to the British raid on Dieppe on August 19, 1942.
On September 24, 1942, Zeitzler was promoted to General der Infanterie ("General of the Infantry") and simultaneously appointed Chief of the OKH General Staff, replacing Franz Halder. Hitler had been impressed by Zeitzler's optimistic and vigorous reports, and chose him over several higher-ranked and more senior officers. Albert Speer states Hitler wanted a reliable assistant who "doesn't go off and brood on my orders, but energetically sees to carrying them out."
It is probable that Hitler believed Zeitzler would be a more pliable and optimistic OKH chief than Halder. He was known to be a master of logistics, with solid organizational skills. His performance at the head of the General Staff was very respectable, but his drive and initiative was eventually paralyzed by Hitler's increasingly unreasonable demands and irrational orders.
In November 1942, Soviet counterattacks surrounded the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad. Zeitzler recommended that Sixth Army immediately break out and withdraw from Stalingrad to the Don bend, where the broken front could be restored. Hitler instead threw a tantrum, overruled Zeitzler, and personally ordered the Sixth Army to stand fast around Stalingrad, where it was destroyed,
Zeitzler was urged by his Army colleagues to give the breakout order himself, but refused to act in an insubordinate manner to the Commander-in-Chief. In a gesture of solidarity with the starving troops in Stalingrad, Zeitzler reduced his own rations to their level. Hitler was informed of these actions by Martin Bormann. After two weeks and the loss of some 26 pounds, Hitler ordered Zeitzler to stop the diet and return to normal rations.
After the loss of the Sixth army at Stalingrad, Zeitzler was increasingly confrontational with Hitler. He planned the troop movements and general outline for Operation Citadel in July 1943, the final German offensive in the east. This battle ended in a strategic defeat for the Germans, and a series of defensive battles ensued.
Throughout the war Hitler was often unwilling to withdraw forces from exposed and over-extended positions. On five occasions, Zeitzler offered his resignation over Hitler's refusal to allow troops to withdraw, but Hitler would not let him resign. After a number of sharp confrontations with Hitler, he was at the end of his tether. On July 1, 1944, he abruptly left Hitler's Berghof residence. He reported that he could no longer serve due to health problems. Hitler never spoke to him again, and had him dismissed from the Army in January 1945, refusing him the right to wear a uniform.
At the end of the war, Zeitzler was captured by British troops. He was a prisoner of war until the end of February, 1947. He appeared as a witness for the defense during the Nuremberg trials, and worked with the Operational History Section (German) of the Historical Division of the U. S. Army.
Zeitzler died in 1963 in Hohenaschau in Upper Bavaria.Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross on 18 May 1941 as Oberst i.G. and Chef des Generalstabes Panzer-Gruppe 1