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Karl Dönitz
Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1976-127-06A, Karl Dönitz - crop.jpg
Dönitz as Grand Admiral in 1943
President of the German Reich
In office
30 April 1945 – 23 May 1945
Preceded byAdolf Hitler
(as Führer)
Succeeded byTheodor Heuss
(1949; President of West Germany)
Wilhelm Pieck
(1949; President of East Germany)
Richard von Weizsäcker
(1990; President of United Germany)
Supreme Commander of the Navy
In office
30 January 1943 – 1 May 1945
DeputyEberhard Godt
Preceded byErich Raeder
Succeeded byHans-Georg von Friedeburg
Minister of War
In office
30 April 1945 – 23 May 1945
ChancellorJoseph Goebbels
Preceded byWilhelm Keitel (as Chief OKW)
Personal details
Born(1891-09-16)16 September 1891
Grünau, Brandenburg, Prussia, German Empire
Died24 December 1980(1980-12-24) (aged 89)
Aumühle, Schleswig-Holstein, West Germany
Political partyNazi Party
(1944–1945; as honorary member)[1][Note 1]
Ingeborg Weber (m. 1916)
CabinetGoebbels cabinet
Flensburg Government
Military service
Nickname(s)Der Löwe (The Lion)[2]
Onkel Karl[2]
Years of service
  • 1910–1918
  • 1920–1945
RankGrand Admiral
AwardsKnight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves
^1 Formally titled "Leading Minister" or "Chief Minister" (Leitender Minister).

Karl Dönitz (sometimes spelled Doenitz German: [ˈdøːnɪts] (About this soundlisten); 16 September 1891 – 24 December 1980) was a German admiral during the Nazi era who briefly succeeded Adolf Hitler as the German head of state in 1945. As Supreme Commander of the Navy since 1943, he played a major role in the naval history of World War II. He was convicted of war crimes following the war.

He began his career in the Imperial German Navy before World War I. In 1918, he was commanding UB-68 when she was sunk by British forces. Dönitz was taken prisoner. While in a prisoner of war camp, he formulated what he later called Rudeltaktik ("pack tactic", commonly called "wolfpack").

At the start of World War II, he was the senior submarine officer in the Kriegsmarine, known as Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote (BdU). In January 1943, Dönitz achieved the rank of Großadmiral (grand admiral) and replaced Grand Admiral Erich Raeder as Commander-in-Chief of the Navy. Dönitz was the main enemy of Allied naval forces in the Battle of the Atlantic. From 1939–1943 the U-boats fought effectively but lost the initiative from May 1943. Dönitz ordered his submarines into battle until 1945 to relieve the pressure on other branches of the Wehrmacht (Nazi German Armed Force). 648 U-boats were lost—429 with no survivors. A further 215 were lost on their first patrol.[3] Around 30,000 of the 40,000 men to serve on U-boats perished.[3]

On 30 April 1945, after the death of Adolf Hitler and in accordance with Hitler's last will and testament, Dönitz was named Hitler's successor as head of state, with the title of President of Germany and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. On 7 May 1945, he ordered Alfred Jodl, Chief of Operations Staff of the OKW, to sign the German instruments of surrender in Reims, France.[4] Dönitz remained as head of the Flensburg Government, as it became known, until it was dissolved by the Allied powers on 23 May.

Dönitz was a dedicated Nazi and supporter of Hitler and he held anti-Semitic beliefs. Following the war, Dönitz was indicted as a major war criminal at the Nuremberg Trials on three counts: conspiracy to commit crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity; planning, initiating, and waging wars of aggression; and crimes against the laws of war. He was found not guilty of committing crimes against humanity, but guilty of committing crimes against peace and war crimes against the laws of war. He was sentenced to ten years' imprisonment; after his release, he lived in a village near Hamburg until his death in 1980.

Early life and career

Oberleutnant zur See Karl Dönitz as Watch Officer of U-39
Oberleutnant zur See Karl Dönitz as Watch Officer of U-39

Dönitz was born in Grünau near Berlin, Germany, to Anna Beyer and Emil Dönitz, an engineer, in 1891. Karl had an older brother. In 1910, Dönitz enlisted in the Kaiserliche Marine ("Imperial Navy").[5]

On 27 September 1913, Dönitz was commissioned as a Leutnant zur See (acting sub-lieutenant). When World War I began, he served on the light cruiser SMS Breslau in the Mediterranean Sea.[5] In August 1914, the Breslau and the battlecruiser SMS Goeben were sold to the Ottoman Navy; the ships were renamed the Midilli and the Yavuz Sultan Selim, respectively. They began operating out of Constantinople, under Rear Admiral Wilhelm Souchon, engaging Russian forces in the Black Sea.[6] On 22 March 1916, Dönitz was promoted to Oberleutnant zur See. He requested a transfer to the submarine forces, which became effective on 1 October 1916. He attended the submariner's school at Flensburg–Mürwik and passed out on 3 January 1917.[7][full citation needed] He served as watch officer on U-39, and from February 1917 onward as commander of UC-25. On 2 July 1918, he became commander of UB-68, operating in the Mediterranean.[8] On 4 October, after suffering technical difficulties, Dönitz was forced to surface and scuttled his boat. He was captured by the British and remained a prisoner of war until 1919, in 1920 he returned to Germany.[9]

On 27 May 1916, Dönitz married a nurse named Ingeborg Weber (1894–1962), the daughter of German general Erich Weber (1860–1933). They had three children whom they raised as Protestant Christians: daughter Ursula (1917–1990) and sons Klaus (1920–1944) and Peter (1922–1943). Both of Dönitz's sons were killed during the Second World War.[10] Peter was killed on 19 May 1943 when U-954 was sunk in the North Atlantic with all hands.[11]

Hitler had issued a policy stating that if a senior officer such as Dönitz lost a son in battle and had other sons in the military, the latter could withdraw from combat and return to civilian life.[12] After his death Klaus was forbidden to have any combat role and was allowed to leave the military to begin studying to become a naval doctor. He returned to sea and was killed on 13 May 1944; he had persuaded his friends to let him go on the torpedo boat S-141 for a raid on Selsey on his 24th birthday. The boat was sunk by the French destroyer La Combattante.[12]

Interwar period

He continued his naval career in the naval arm of the Weimar Republic's armed forces. On 10 January 1921, he became a Kapitänleutnant (lieutenant) in the new German navy (Vorläufige Reichsmarine). Dönitz commanded torpedo boats, becoming a Korvettenkapitän (lieutenant-commander) on 1 November 1928. On 1 September 1933, he became a Fregattenkapitän (commander) and, in 1934, was put in command of the cruiser Emden, the ship on which cadets and midshipmen took a year-long world cruise as training.[9]

In 1935, the Reichsmarine was renamed Kriegsmarine by the Nazis. Germany was prohibited by the Treaty of Versailles from having submarines. On 1 September 1935, he was promoted to Kapitän zur See (naval captain). The Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935 allowed submarines and he was placed in command of the U-boat flotilla Weddigen, which comprised three boats; U-7; U-8 and; U-9.[9]

Dönitz opposed Raeder's views that surface ships should be given priority in the Kriegsmarine during the war,[13] but in 1935 Dönitz doubted the U-boats suitability in a naval trade war on account of their slow speed.[14] This phenomenal contrast with Dönitz's wartime policy is explained in the 1935 Anglo-German Naval Agreement. The accord was viewed by the navy with optimism. Dönitz remarked, "Britain, in the circumstances, could not possibly be included in the number of potential enemies."[15] Dönitz's statement was partially factual. Britain was not foreseen as an immediate enemy, but the navy still held onto a cadre of imperial officers, which along with its Nazi-instigated intake, understood war would be certain in the distant future, perhaps not until the mid–1940s.[15]

Dönitz came to recognise the need for more of these vessels. Only 26 were in commission or under construction that summer. In the time before his command he perfected the group tactics that first appealed to him in 1917. At this time Dönitz first expressed his procurement policies. His preference for the submarine fleet was in the production of large numbers of small craft. In contrast to other warships, the fighting power of the U-boat in his opinion did not fluctuate in relation to its size for the torpedo not the gun was the machine's main weapon. Dönitz had a tendency to be critical of larger submarines and listed a number of disadvantages in producing them.[16] Dönitz recommended the Type VII submarine. The boat was reliable and had a range of 6,200 miles. Modifications lengthened this to 8,700 miles.[17]

Dönitz revived Hermann Bauer's idea of grouping several submarines together into a Rudeltaktik ("pack tactic", commonly called "wolfpack") to overwhelm a merchant convoy's escorts. Implementation of wolfpacks had been difficult in World War I owing to the limitations of available radios. In the interwar years, Germany had developed ultrahigh frequency transmitters, while the Enigma cipher machine was believed to have made communications secure.[18] A 1922 paper written by Kapitäinleutnant Wessner of the Wehrabteilung (Defence Ministry) pointed to the success of surface attacks at night and the need to coordinate operations with multiple boats to defeat the escorts.[19] Dönitz knew of the paper and improved the ideas suggested by Wassner.[20][full citation needed] This tactic had the added advantage that a submarine on the surface was undetectable by Asdic. Dönitz claimed after the war he would not allow his service to be intimidated by British disclosures about Asdic and the course of the war had proven him right.[21] In reality, Dönitz harboured fears stretching back to 1937 that the new technology would render the U-boat impotent.[22]

In 1939 he expressed his belief that he could win the war with 300 vessels.[23] The Nazi leadership's rearmament priorities were fundamentally geared to land and aerial warfare. From 1933–36, the navy was granted only 13 percent of total armament expenditure.[24] The production of U-boats, despite the existing Z Plan, remained low. In 1935 shipyards produced 14 submarines, 21 in 1936, one 1937. In 1938 nine were commissioned and in 1939 18 U-boats were built.[22]

World War II

On 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Britain and France declared war on Germany, and World War II began. On Sunday 3rd September, Dönitz chaired a conference at Wilhelmshaven. At 11:15 am the British Admiralty sent out a signal "Total Germany". B-Dienst intercepted the message and it was promptly reported to Dönitz. Dönitz paced around the room and his staff purportedly heard him repeatedly say, "My God! So it's war with England again!"[23]

Dönitz abandoned the conference to return within the hour a far more composed man. He announced to his officers, "we know our enemy. We have today the weapon and a leadership that can face up to this enemy. The war will last a long time; but if each does his duty we will win."[23] Commodore Donitz had only 57 boats; of those, 27 were capable of reaching the Atlantic ocean from their German bases. A building program was started but the numbers did not rise until the autumn of 1941.[25]

Donitz and Raeder accepted the death of the Z Plan upon the outbreak of war. The U-boat programme would be the only portion of it to survive. Both men lobbied Hitler to increase the planned production of submarines to at least 29.[26] The immediate obstacle to the proposals was Hermann Göring, head of the Four Year Plan, commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe and future successor to Hitler. Göring would not acquiesce and in March 1940 Raeder was forced to drop the figure from 29 to 25, but even that plan proved illusory. In the first half of 1940, two boats were delivered, increased to six in the final half of the year. In 1941 the deliveries increased to 13 to June, and then 20 to December. It was not until late 1941 the number of vessels began to increase quickly.[26]

Commander of the submarine fleet

Dönitz observing the arrival of U-94 at St. Nazaire in June 1941
Dönitz observing the arrival of U-94 at St. Nazaire in June 1941

On 1 October 1939, Dönitz became a Konteradmiral (rear admiral) and "Commander of the Submarines" (Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote, BdU).[27][full citation needed] From September–December 1939 U-boats sank 221 ships for 755, 237 gross tons, at the cost of nine U-Boats.[28] Only 47 merchant ships were sunk in the North Atlantic, a tonnage of 249,195.[28] In May 1940, 101 ships were sunk—but only nine in the Atlantic—followed by 140 in June; 53 of them in the Atlantic for a total of 585,496 grt that month. The first six months in 1940 cost Dönitz 15 U-Boats.[28]

Germany's defeat of Norway gave the U-boats new bases much nearer to their main area of operations off the Western Approaches. The U-boats operated in groups or 'wolf packs' which were coordinated by radio from land.[25] With the fall of France, Germany acquired U-boat bases at Lorient, Brest, St Nazaire, and La Pallice/La Rochelle and Bordeaux. This extended the range of Type VIIs.[29] A headquarter was established near Lorient, with a communication centre at the Château de Pignerolle at Saint-Barthélemy-d'Anjou.

The establishment of German bases on the French Atlantic coast allowed for the prospect of aerial support. Göring proved an insurmountable problem in effecting cooperation between the navy and the Luftwaffe. In early 1941, while Göring was on leave, Dönitz approached Hitler and secured from him a single bomber/maritime patrol unit for navy. Göring succeeded in overturning this decision and both Dönitz and Raeder were forced to settle for a specialist maritime air command under Luftwaffe control. Poorly supplied, Fliegerführer Atlantik achieved modest success in 1941, but thereafter failed to have an impact as British counter-measures evolved.

The admiral remained sceptical of Operation Sea Lion and expected a long war.[30] The destruction of seaborne trade became German strategy against Britain after the defeat of the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain. Dönitz concentrated groups of U-boats against the convoys and had them attack on the surface at night.[25] Merchant shipping losses were increased by a number of factors; by German warships in the north and central Atlantic; by the attacks of German long-range bombers; by German air attacks against British harbors. In addition the Germans were helped by Italian submarines which in early 1941 actually surpassed the number of German U-boats.[31]

Dönitz was involved in the daily operations of his boats and all the major operational level decisions. His assistant, Eberhard Godt, was left to manage daily operations as the war continued.[32] At the height of the battle in mid-1943 some 2,000 signals were sent from the 110 U-Boats at sea.[33] Radio traffic compromised his ciphers by giving the Allies more messages to work with. Furthermore, replies from the boats enabled the Allies to use direction finding (HF/DF, called "Huff-Duff") to locate a U-boat using its radio, track it and attack it.[34] These techniques failed to avert heavy losses in the June 1940–May 1941 period, known to U-Boat crews as the "First Happy Time."[35] In June 1941, 68 ships were sunk in the North Atlantic (318,740 grt) at a cost of four U-Boats, but the German submarines would not eclipse that number for the remainder of the year. Just 10 transports were sunk in November and December 1941.[28]

On 7 May 1941, the Royal Navy captured the German Arctic meteorological vessel München and took its Enigma machine intact, this allowed the Royal Navy to decode U-boat radio communications in June 1941.[31] Two days later the capture of U-110 was an intelligence coup for the British. The settings for high-level "officer-only" signals, "short-signals" (Kurzsignale) and codes standardising messages to defeat HF/DF fixes by sheer speed were found.[36] Only the Hydra settings for May were missing. The papers were the only stores destroyed by the crew.[36] The capture on 28 June of another weather ship, Lauenburg, enabled British decryption operations to read radio traffic in July 1941. Beginning in August 1941, Bletchley Park operatives could decrypt signals between Dönitz and his U-boats at sea without any restriction.[31] The capture of the U-110 allowed the Admiralty to identify individual boats, their commanders, operational readiness, damage reports, location, type, speed, endurance from working up in the Baltic to Atlantic patrols.[36]

On 1 February 1942, the Germans had introduced the M4 cipher machine, which secured communications until it was cracked in December 1942. Even so, the U-boats achieved their best success against the convoys in March 1943, due to an increase in U-boat numbers, and the protection of the shipping lines was in jeopardy. Due to the cracked M4 and the use of radar, the allies began to send air and surface reinforcements to convoys under threat. The shipping lines were secured, which came as a great surprise to Dönitz.[37]

Dönitz and his Italian counterpart Admiral Angelo Parona in 1941
Dönitz and his Italian counterpart Admiral Angelo Parona in 1941

Following Hitler's declaration of war on the United States on 11 December 1941, Dönitz implemented Operation Drumbeat (Unternehmen Paukenschlag).[38] From January to July 1942 Dönitz was able to attack un-escorted ships off the United States East Coast and in the Caribbean Sea. U-boats sank more ships and tonnage than at any other time in the war. A convoy system was introduced to protect the shipping and Dönitz shifted his U-boats back to the North Atlantic.[37] The period, known in the U-Boat arm, represented one of the greatest naval disasters of all time, and largest defeat suffered by American sea power.[39] The success was achieved with only five U-Boats[40] which sank 397 ships in waters protected by the United States Navy with an additional 23 sunk at the Panama Sea Frontier.[39] By the time improved American air and naval defences had driven German submarines from American shores, 5,000 Allied sailors had been killed for negligible losses in U-Boats.[39] Dönitz maintained his demands for the concentration of all his crews in the Atlantic. As the military situation in North Africa and on the Eastern Front Hitler diverted a number of submarines to the Battle of the Mediterranean.[41]

Commander-in-chief and Grand Admiral

From left to right: Kluge, Himmler, Dönitz (with his grand admiral's baton) and Keitel at Hans Hube's funeral, 1944
From left to right: Kluge, Himmler, Dönitz (with his grand admiral's baton) and Keitel at Hans Hube's funeral, 1944

On 30 January 1943, Dönitz replaced Erich Raeder as Commander-in-Chief of the Navy (Oberbefehlshaber der Kriegsmarine) and Großadmiral (grand admiral) of the Naval High Command (Oberkommando der Marine). His deputy, Eberhard Godt, took over the operational command of the U-boat force.

Dönitz was able to convince Hitler not to pay off all of the remaining ships of the surface fleet. However, the Kriegsmarine continued to lose what few capital ships it had. In September, the battleship Tirpitz was put out of action for months by a British midget submarine, and was sunk a year later by RAF bombers at anchor in Norway. In December, he ordered the battleship Scharnhorst (under Konteradmiral Erich Bey) to attack Soviet-bound convoys, after reconsidering her success in the early years of the war with sister ship Gneisenau, but she was sunk in the resulting encounter with superior British forces led by the battleship HMS Duke of York. When the Soviets regained the shore of the Baltic in August 1944, the German navy became deeply committed to supply and evacuation. [42]

During 1943, the war in the Atlantic turned against the Germans, but Dönitz continued to push for increased U-boat construction and believed that further technological developments would tip the war once more in Germany's favour, briefing the Führer to that effect. These efforts ended in failure, as the new Type XXI U-boats were crippled by mechanical problems. At the end of the war, the German submarine fleet still mainly comprised obsolete Type VII and IX U-boats which were no longer effective.[43] The Schnorchel (snorkel) and Type XXI boats appeared late in the war because of Dönitz's personal indifference, at times even hostility, to new technology he perceived as disruptive to the production process.

President of Germany

Adolf Hitler meets with Dönitz in the Führerbunker (1945)
Adolf Hitler meets with Dönitz in the Führerbunker (1945)

In the final days of the war, after Hitler had taken refuge in the Führerbunker beneath the Reich Chancellery garden in Berlin, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring was considered the obvious successor to Hitler, followed by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. Göring, however, infuriated Hitler by radioing him in Berlin asking for permission to assume leadership of the Reich. Himmler also tried to seize power by entering into negotiations with Count Bernadotte. On 28 April 1945, the BBC reported Himmler had offered surrender to the western Allies and that the offer had been declined.[44]

From mid-April 1945, Dönitz and elements of what remained of the Reich government moved into the buildings of the Stadtheide Barracks in Plön. In his last will and testament, dated 29 April 1945, Hitler named Dönitz his successor as Staatsoberhaupt (Head of State), with the titles of Reichspräsident (President) and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. The same document named Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels as Head of Government with the title of Reichskanzler (Chancellor). Furthermore, Hitler declared both Göring and Himmler traitors and expelled them from the party.[45]

On 1 May, the day after Hitler's own suicide, Goebbels committed suicide.[46] Dönitz thus became the sole representative of the crumbling German Reich. He appointed Finance Minister Count Ludwig Schwerin von Krosigk as "Leading Minister" (Krosigk had declined to accept the title of Chancellor), and they attempted to form a government.

On 1 May, Dönitz announced that Hitler had fallen and had appointed him as his successor. On 2 May, the new government of the Reich fled to Flensburg-Mürwik before the approaching British troops. That night, Dönitz made a nationwide radio address in which he announced Hitler's death and said the war would continue in the East "to save Germany from destruction by the advancing Bolshevik enemy". However, Dönitz knew that Germany's position was untenable and the Wehrmacht was no longer capable of offering meaningful resistance. During his brief period in office, he devoted most of his effort to ensuring the loyalty of the German armed forces and trying to ensure German troops would surrender to the British or Americans and not the Soviets. He feared vengeful Soviet reprisals, and hoped to strike a deal with the Western Allies. In the end, Dönitz's tactics were moderately successful, enabling about 1.8 million German soldiers to escape Soviet capture.[47] His authority was effectively limited to a narrow band of territory running from the Austrian border through Berlin to the Danish border, and even that had been cut in two by the American advance to join with Soviet forces at Torgau on the Elbe.

Flensburg government

Karl Dönitz (centre, in long, dark coat) followed by Albert Speer (bareheaded) and Alfred Jodl (on Speer's right) during the arrest of the Flensburg government by British troops
Karl Dönitz (centre, in long, dark coat) followed by Albert Speer (bareheaded) and Alfred Jodl (on Speer's right) during the arrest of the Flensburg government by British troops

On 4 May, Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg, representing Dönitz, surrendered all German forces in the Netherlands, Denmark, and northwestern Germany under Dönitz's command to Field Marshal Sir Bernard Law Montgomery at Lüneburg Heath just southeast of Hamburg, signalling the end of World War II in northwestern Europe.

A day later, Dönitz sent Friedeburg to US General Dwight D. Eisenhower's headquarters in Rheims, France, to negotiate a surrender to the Allies. The Chief of Staff of OKW, Generaloberst (Colonel-General) Alfred Jodl, arrived a day later. Dönitz had instructed them to draw out the negotiations for as long as possible so that German troops and refugees could surrender to the Western powers, but when Eisenhower let it be known he would not tolerate their stalling, Dönitz authorised Jodl to sign the instrument of unconditional surrender at 1:30 on the morning of 7 May. Just over an hour later, Jodl signed the documents. The surrender documents included the phrase, "All forces under German control to cease active operations at 23:01 hours Central European Time on 8 May 1945." At Stalin's insistence, on 8 May, shortly before midnight, (Generalfeldmarschall) Wilhelm Keitel repeated the signing in Berlin at Marshal Georgiy Zhukov's headquarters, with General Carl Spaatz of the USAAF present as Eisenhower's representative. At the time specified, World War II in Europe ended.

On 23 May, the Dönitz government was dissolved when Dönitz was arrested by an RAF Regiment task force.[48] The Großadmiral's Kriegsmarine flag, which was removed from his headquarters, can be seen at the RAF Regiment Heritage Centre at RAF Honington. Generaloberst Jodl, Reichsminister Speer and other members were also handed over to troops of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry at Flensburg. His ceremonial baton, awarded to him by Hitler, can be seen in the regimental museum of the KSLI in Shrewsbury Castle.

Nazism and antisemitism

Dönitz was a dedicated Nazi and a passionate supporter of Hitler,[49] something he tried to obscure after the war.[50] Raeder described him as "a picture-book Nazi and confirmed anti-Semite".[51] Several naval officers described him as "closely tied to Hitler and Nazi ideology."[50] On one occasion, he spoke of Hitler's humanity.[50] Another event, in which he spoke to Hitler Youth in what was defined as an "inappropriate way," earned him the nickname of "Hitler Youth Dönitz."[50] He refused to help Albert Speer stop the scorched earth policy dictated by Hitler[50] and is also noted to have declared, "In comparison to Hitler we are all pipsqueaks. Anyone who believes he can do better than the Führer is stupid."[50]

Dönitz contributed to the spread of Nazism within the Kriegsmarine. He insisted that officers share his political views and, as head of the Kriegsmarine, formally joined the Nazi Party in 1944. He was awarded the Golden Party Badge for his loyalty to the party later that year. Dönitz's influence over naval officers contributed to none joining the attempts to kill Hitler.[52]

Dönitz was an antisemitic who believed that Germany needed to fight the "poison of Jewry".[53] Several anti-Semitic statements by Dönitz are known.[50] When Sweden closed its international waters to Germany, he blamed this action on their fear and dependence on "international Jewish capital."[50] In August 1944, he declared, "I would rather eat dirt than see my grandchildren grow up in the filthy, poisonous atmosphere of Jewry."[50]

On German Heroes' Day (12 March) of 1944, Dönitz declared that, without Adolf Hitler, Germany would be beset by "the poison of Jewry," and the country destroyed for lack of the "uncompromising ideology" of National Socialism. "What would have become of our country today, if the Fuehrer had not united us under National Socialism? Divided along party lines, beset with the spreading poison of Jewry and vulnerable to it, because we lacked the defense of our present uncompromising ideology, we would have long since succumbed under the burden of this war and delivered ourselves to the enemy who would have mercilessly destroyed us." [53]

At the Nuremberg trials, Dönitz claimed the statement about the "poison of Jewry" was regarding "the endurance, the power to endure, of the people, as it was composed, could be better preserved than if there were Jewish elements in the nation." [54] He claimed, "I could imagine that it would be very difficult for the population in the towns to hold out under the strain of heavy bombing attacks if such an influence were allowed to work."

Author Eric Zillmer argues that, from an ideological standpoint, Dönitz was anti-Marxist and antisemitic.[55]

After the war Dönitz tried to hide his knowledge of the Holocaust. He was present at the October 1943 Posen Conference where Himmler described the mass murder of Jews with the intent of making the audience complicit in this crime.[52] Later, during the Nuremberg trials, Dönitz claimed to know nothing about the extermination of Jews and declared that nobody among "my men thought about violence against Jews".[Note 2] Dönitz also falsely told Leon Goldensohn, an American psychiatrist at Nuremberg, "I never had any idea of the goings-on as far as Jews were concerned. Hitler said each man should take care of his business and mine was U-boats and the Navy."[56]

Nuremberg war crimes trials

Dönitz's detention report, 1945
Dönitz's detention report, 1945

Following the war, Dönitz was held as a prisoner of war by the Allies. He was indicted as a major war criminal at the Nuremberg Trials on three counts. One: conspiracy to commit crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Two: planning, initiating, and waging wars of aggression. Three: crimes against the laws of war. Dönitz was found not guilty on count one of the indictment, but guilty on counts two and three.[57]

During the trial, army psychologist Gustave Gilbert was allowed to examine Nazi leaders on trial for war crimes. Among other tests, a German version of the Wechsler–Bellevue IQ test was administered. Dönitz and Hermann Göring scored 138, which made them equally the third-highest among the Nazi leaders tested.[58]

At the trial, Dönitz was charged with waging unrestricted submarine warfare against neutral shipping, permitting Hitler's Commando Order of 18 October 1942 to remain in full force when he became commander-in-chief of the Navy, and to that extent responsibility for that crime. His defence was that the order excluded men captured in naval warfare, and that the order had not been acted upon by any men under his command. Added to that was his knowledge of 12,000 involuntary foreign workers working in the shipyards, and doing nothing to stop it.[59][60]

On 25 February 1945, Hitler asked Dönitz whether the Geneva Convention should be denounced. Hitler's motives were twofold. The first was that reprisals could be taken against Western Allied prisoners of war; second, it would deter German forces from surrendering to the Western Allies, as was happening on the Eastern Front where the convention was in abeyance. Instead of arguing the conventions should never be denounced, Dönitz suggested it was not expedient to do so, so the court found against him on this issue; but as the convention was not denounced by Germany, and British prisoners in camps under Dönitz's jurisdiction were treated strictly according to the Convention, the Court considered these mitigating circumstances.[61]

Among the war-crimes charges, Dönitz was accused of waging unrestricted submarine warfare for issuing War Order No. 154 in 1939, and another similar order after the Laconia incident in 1942, not to rescue survivors from ships attacked by submarine. By issuing these two orders, he was found guilty of causing Germany to be in breach of the Second London Naval Treaty of 1936. However, as evidence of similar conduct by the Allies was presented at his trial, his sentence was not assessed on the grounds of this breach of international law.[62][63]

On the specific war crimes charge of ordering unrestricted submarine warfare, Dönitz was found "[not] guilty for his conduct of submarine warfare against British armed merchant ships", because they were often armed and equipped with radios which they used to notify the admiralty of attack. As stated by the judges: "Dönitz is charged with waging unrestricted submarine warfare contrary to the Naval Protocol of 1936 to which Germany acceded, and which reaffirmed the rules of submarine warfare laid down in the London Naval Agreement of 1930 ... The order of Dönitz to sink neutral ships without warning when found within these zones was, therefore, in the opinion of the Tribunal, violation of the Protocol ... The orders, then, prove Dönitz is guilty of a violation of the Protocol ... The sentence of Dönitz is not assessed on the ground of his breaches of the international law of submarine warfare."[64]

His sentence on unrestricted submarine warfare was not assessed, because of similar actions by the Allies. In particular, the British Admiralty, on 8 May 1940, had ordered all vessels in the Skagerrak sunk on sight, and Admiral Chester Nimitz, wartime commander-in-chief of the US Pacific Fleet, stated the US Navy had waged unrestricted submarine warfare in the Pacific from the day the US officially entered the war. Thus, Dönitz was found guilty of waging unrestricted submarine warfare against unarmed neutral shipping by ordering all ships in designated areas in international waters to be sunk without warning.

Dönitz was imprisoned for 10 years in Spandau Prison in what was then West Berlin.[65] During his period in prison he was unrepentant, and maintained that he had done nothing wrong. He also rejected Speer's attempts to persuade him to end his devotion to Hitler and accept responsibility for the wrongs the German Government had committed.[52] Over 100 senior Allied officers also sent letters to Dönitz conveying their disappointment over the fairness and verdict of his trial.[66]

Later years

Dönitz was released on 1 October 1956 and retired to the small village of Aumühle in Schleswig-Holstein in northern West Germany. There, he worked on two books. His memoirs, Zehn Jahre, Zwanzig Tage (Memoirs: Ten Years and Twenty Days), were released in Germany in 1958 and became available in an English translation the following year. This book recounted Dönitz's experiences as U-boat commander (10 years) and President of Germany (20 days). In it, Dönitz explains the Nazi regime as a product of its time, but argues he was not a politician and thus not morally responsible for many of the regime's crimes. He likewise criticizes dictatorship as a fundamentally flawed form of government and blames it for many of the Nazi era's failings.[67] Historian Alan P. Rems has written that his memoirs are unconvincing and "unimpeded by a meaningful Nuremberg verdict, Dönitz fashioned a legend that could be embraced by the most unregenerate Nazis as well as credulous Allied officers who accepted his sanitized version of history and showered Dönitz with letters of support as a wronged brother-in-arms".[52]

Dönitz's second book, Mein wechselvolles Leben (My Ever-Changing Life) is less known, perhaps because it deals with the events of his life before 1934. This book was first published in 1968, and a new edition was released in 1998 with the revised title Mein soldatisches Leben (My Martial Life).[68] In 1973, he appeared in the Thames Television production The World at War, in one of his few television appearances.

Dönitz was unrepentant regarding his role in World War II, saying that he had acted at all times out of duty to his nation.[69] He lived out the rest of his life in relative obscurity in Aumühle, occasionally corresponding with collectors of German naval history, and died there of a heart attack on 24 December 1980. As the last German officer with the rank of Großadmiral (grand admiral), he was honoured by many former servicemen and foreign naval officers who came to pay their respects at his funeral on 6 January 1981. He was buried in Waldfriedhof Cemetery in Aumühle without military honours, and service members were not allowed to wear uniforms to the funeral.[70] Also in attendance were over 100 holders of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross.[71]

Summary of career


Kaiserliche Marine
1 April 1910: Seekadett (Officer Cadet)[72]
15 April 1911: Fähnrich zur See (Midshipman)[72]
27 September 1913: Leutnant zur See (Acting Sub-Lieutenant)[72]
22 March 1916: Oberleutnant zur See (Sub-Lieutenant)[72]
10 January 1921: Kapitänleutnant (Lieutenant), with date of rank on 1 January 1921[73]
1 November 1928: Korvettenkapitän (Corvette Captain – Lieutenant Commander)[73]
1 October 1933: Fregattenkapitän (Frigate Captain – Commander)[74]
1 October 1935: Kapitän zur See (Captain at Sea – Captain)[74]
28 January 1939: Kommodore (Commodore)[74]
1 October 1939: Konteradmiral (Rear Admiral)[74]
1 September 1940: Vizeadmiral (Vice Admiral)[74]
14 March 1942: Admiral (Admiral)[74]
30 January 1943: Großadmiral (Grand Admiral)[74]

Decorations and awards

This article incorporates information from the equivalent articles on the Italian Wikipedia and the German Wikipedia.

See also


Informational notes

  1. ^ Dönitz, speaking in 1946: "On 30 January 1944 I received from the Führer, as a decoration, the Golden Party Badge; and I assume that I thereby became an honorary member of the Party." The Avalon Project at Yale Law School. Archived 12 June 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ "What would have become of our country today, if the Fuehrer had not united us under National Socialism? Divided along party lines, beset with the spreading poison of Jewry and vulnerable to it, because we lacked the defense of our present uncompromising ideology, we would have long since succumbed under the burden of this war and delivered ourselves to the enemy who would have mercilessly destroyed us." The Avalon Project at Yale Law School Archived 23 December 2007 at the Wayback Machine


  1. ^ Grier 2007, p. 256, Footnote 8, Chapter 10.
  2. ^ a b Haarr 2012, p. 493.
  3. ^ a b Niestlé 1998, p. 4.
  4. ^ Hamilton 1996, pp. 285, 286.
  5. ^ a b Zabecki 2014, p. 354.
  6. ^ Theodor Kraus, Karl Doenitz, Die Kreuzerfahrten der Goeben uns Breslau, Ullstein, Berlin, 1933
  7. ^ Terraine 1989, pp. 162–164.
  8. ^ Terraine 1989, pp. 164–165.
  9. ^ a b c Williamson 2007, p. 10.
  10. ^ Miller 2000, p. 145.
  11. ^ Blair 1998, pp. 283, 338, 569.
  12. ^ a b Blair 1998, p. 569.
  13. ^ Terraine 1989, pp. 345–348.
  14. ^ Terraine 1989, pp. 186–188.
  15. ^ a b Terraine 1989, p. 187.
  16. ^ Terraine 1989, pp. 196–197.
  17. ^ Terraine 1989, pp. 197–198.
  18. ^ Rohwer 2015, p. 3–4, 257–262.
  19. ^ Westwood 2005, pp. 55–56.
  20. ^ Haslop 2013, p. 51.
  21. ^ Terraine 1989, p. 188.
  22. ^ a b Westwood 2005, pp. 53–54.
  23. ^ a b c Terraine 1989, p. 215.
  24. ^ Overy 2002, p. 182.
  25. ^ a b c Tucker 2005, p. 142.
  26. ^ a b Terraine 1989, p. 220–221.
  27. ^ Roskill 1976, p. 615.
  28. ^ a b c d Terraine 1989, p. 767.
  29. ^ Terraine 1989, p. 770.
  30. ^ Terraine 1989, p. 260.
  31. ^ a b c Tucker 2005, p. 143.
  32. ^ Stern 2003, p. 137.
  33. ^ Boog et al. 2001, p. 343.
  34. ^ Stern 2003, p. 171.
  35. ^ Stern 2003, p. 112.
  36. ^ a b c Terraine 1989, p. 326.
  37. ^ a b Tucker 2005, p. 145.
  38. ^ Gannon 1990, p. pp 308, 339.
  39. ^ a b c Gannon 1990, p. 389.
  40. ^ Gannon 1990, p. 77.
  41. ^ Boog et al. 2001, p. 380.
  42. ^ Dönitz 1997, pp. 398–400.
  43. ^ Blair 1998, p. 695.
  44. ^ Kershaw 2008, pp. 943–946.
  45. ^ Steinweis, Rogers & Grier 2003, p. 182.
  46. ^ Beevor 2002, pp. 380–381.
  47. ^ Kershaw 2008, p. 962.
  48. ^ Oliver, Kingsley M. The RAF Regiment at War 1942–1946. Great Britain 2002: Pen & Sword. p. 118.
  49. ^ Terraine 1989, p. 519.
  50. ^ a b c d e f g h i Steinweis, Rogers & Grier 2003, pp. 186–188.
  51. ^ Wette 2006, p. 154.
  52. ^ a b c d Rems, Alan P. (December 2015). "Götterdämmerung German Admirals on Trial". Naval History Magazine. 26 (6). Retrieved 18 August 2019.
  53. ^ a b Harris 1999, p. 289.
  54. ^ Steinweis, Rogers & Grier 2003, p. 187.
  55. ^ Zillmer 1995, p. 141.
  56. ^ Goldensohn 2004.
  57. ^ Zabecki 2007, pp. 14–17, 95–96.
  58. ^ Zabecki 2007, pp. 99–100.
  59. ^ Walker 2006, pp. 100-102.
  60. ^ Zabecki 2007, pp. 56–63.
  61. ^ McDonald 2000, pp. 729–730.
  62. ^ Moore & Turner 1995, p. 54.
  63. ^ Zabecki 2007, pp. 52–54.
  64. ^ Ronzitti 1988, p. 359.
  65. ^ Walker 2006, p. 145.
  66. ^ Blair 1998, pp. 704–705.
  67. ^ Dönitz p. 477
  68. ^ Meinolf Reitz, Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz und die deutsche Kriegsmarine (2006), p. 37
  69. ^ Cowley & Parker 2005, p. 139.
  70. ^ DAMON STETSON (26 December 1980). "Doenitz Dies; Gave Up for Nazis :Admiral Doenitz Is Dead; Surrendered for the Nazis". New York Times.
  71. ^ Times, John Vinocur, Special To The New York (7 January 1981). "WAR VETERANS COME TO BURY, AND TO PRAISE, DOENITZ". The New York Times.
  72. ^ a b c d e f g Busch & Röll 2003, p. 26.
  73. ^ a b c d Busch & Röll 2003, p. 27.
  74. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Busch & Röll 2003, p. 28.
  75. ^ a b Thomas 1997, p. 123.
  76. ^ a b Scherzer 2007, p. 275.
  77. ^ Fellgiebel 2000, p. 162.
  78. ^ Fellgiebel 2000, p. 68.


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External links

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