Großadmiral Karl Dönitz, later Reichspräsident of the Flensburg government
30 April 1945 – 23 May 1945
Lutz Graf Schwerin von Krosigk (as Leading Minister)
|Preceded by||Adolf Hitler
Führer und Reichskanzler
|Succeeded by||Allied military occupation 1945-1949
Theodor Heuss (West Germany)
Wilhelm Pieck (East Germany)
|Born||16 September 1891
|Died||24 December 1980 (aged 89)
Aumühle, West Germany
|Political party||None |
|Nickname(s)||Der Löwe (The Lion)|
|Allegiance|| German Empire (to 1918)
Weimar Republic (to 1933)
Nazi Germany (to 1945)
|Service/branch|| Kaiserliche Marine
|Years of service||1910-1945|
|Commands||UC-25 (February-September 1918)
UB-68 (September-October 1918)
Torpedo Boats (1920s)
1. Unterseebootsflottille (1935-1936)
Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht (April-May 1945)
|Battles/wars||World War I|
|Awards||U-boat War Badge with Diamonds
World War I U-Boat War Badge
1939 Clasp to the 1914 Iron Cross 1st Class
Knights Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves
Karl Dönitz (German pronunciation: [ˈdøːnɪts] ( listen); 16 September 1891 – 24 December 1980) was a German naval Commander who served in the Imperial German Navy during World War I, commanded the German submarine fleet during World War II, and eventually was given control of the entire German Navy (Kriegsmarine).
In the final days of the war, Dönitz was named by Adolf Hitler as his successor, and after the Führer committed suicide, the admiral assumed the office of President (Reichspräsident) of Nazi Germany's Flensburg government. He held this position for about 20 days, until the final surrender to the Allies. After the war, Dönitz was convicted of war crimes at the Nuremberg Trials and served ten years in prison.
Dönitz was born in Grünau in Berlin, Germany to Anna Beyer and Emil Dönitz, an engineer. Karl had an older brother, Friedrich. In 1910, Dönitz enlisted in the Imperial German Navy (Kaiserliche Marine). He became a sea-cadet (Seekadett) on 4 April. On 15 April 1911, he became a midshipman (Fähnrich zur See), the rank given to those who had served for one year as officer's apprentice and had passed their first examination.
On 27 September 1913, Dönitz was commissioned as an Acting Navy Second Lieutenant (Leutnant zur See). When World War I began, he served on the light cruiser SMS Breslau in the Mediterranean Sea. In August 1914, Breslau and the battlecruiser SMS Goeben were sold to the Ottoman navy; the ships were retitled the Midilli and the Yavuz Sultan Selim, respectively. They began operating out of Constantinople (now Istanbul), under Rear Admiral Wilhelm Souchon, engaging Russian forces in the Black Sea. On 22 March 1916, Dönitz was promoted to Navy First Lieutenant (Oberleutnant zur See). When Midilli put into dock for repairs, he was temporarily assigned as airfield commander at the Dardanelles. From there, he requested a transfer to the submarine forces, which became effective in October 1916. He served as watch officer on U-39, and from February 1918 onward as commander of UC-25. On 5 September 1918, he became commander of UB-68, operating in the Mediterranean. On 4 October, this boat was sunk by British forces and Dönitz was taken prisoner on the island of Malta.
The war ended in 1918, but Dönitz remained in a British camp as a prisoner of war until his release in July 1919. He returned to Germany in 1920.
During the Interwar Period, Dönitz continued his naval career in the naval arm of the Weimar Republic's Armed Forces (Reichswehr). On 10 January 1921, he became a Lieutenant (Kapitänleutnant) in the new German Navy (Vorläufige Reichsmarine). Dönitz commanded torpedo boats by 1928, becoming a Lieutenant-Commander (Korvettenkapitän) on 1 November of that same year.
On 1 September 1933, Dönitz became a full Commander (Fregattenkapitän) and, in 1934, was put in command of the cruiser Emden. Emden was the ship on which cadets and midshipmen took a year-long world cruise in preparation for a future officer's commission.
Throughout 1935 and 1936, Dönitz had misgivings regarding submarines due to German overestimation of the capabilities of British ASDIC. In reality, ASDIC could detect only ten percent of submarines during exercises. In the words of Alan Hotham, British Director of Naval Intelligence, ASDIC was a "huge bluff".
German doctrine at the time, based on the work of American Naval Captain Alfred Mahan and shared by all major navies, called for the submarines to be integrated with the surface fleet and employed against enemy warships. By November 1937, Dönitz became convinced that a major campaign against merchant shipping was practical and began pressing for the conversion of the German fleet almost entirely to U-boats. He advocated a strategy of attacking only merchant ships, targets relatively safe to attack. He pointed out destroying Britain's fleet of oil tankers would starve the Royal Navy of supplies needed to run their ships, which would be just as effective as sinking them. He thought a German fleet of 300 of the newer Type VII U-boats could knock Britain out of the war.
Dönitz revived the World War I idea of grouping several submarines together into a "wolf pack" to overwhelm a merchant convoy's defensive escorts. Implementation of wolf packs had been difficult in World War I owing to the limitations of available radios. In the interwar years, Germany had developed ultra-high frequency transmitters which it was hoped would make their radio communication unjammable, while the Enigma cipher machine was believed to have made communications secure. Dönitz also adopted and claimed credit for Wilhelm Marschall's 1922 idea of attacking convoys using surface or very near surface night attacks. This tactic had the added advantage of making a submarine undetectable by sonar.
At the time, many, including Erich Raeder, felt such talk marked Dönitz as a weakling. Dönitz was alone among senior naval officers, including some former submariners, in believing in a new submarine war on trade. He and Raeder constantly argued over funding priorities within the Navy, while at the same time competing with Hitler's friends, such as Hermann Göring, who received greater attention.
Since the surface strength of the Kriegsmarine was much less than that of the British Royal Navy, Raeder believed any war with Britain in the near future would doom it to uselessness, once remarking all the Germans could hope to do was die valiantly. Raeder based his hopes on war being delayed until the German Navy's extensive "Z Plan", which would have expanded Germany's surface fleet to where it could effectively contend with the Royal Navy, was implemented. The "Z Plan", however, was not scheduled to be completed until 1945.
Dönitz, in contrast, had no such fatalism and set about intensely training his crews in the new tactics. The marked inferiority of the German surface fleet would leave submarine warfare as Germany's only naval option once war broke out.
On 28 January 1939, Dönitz was promoted to Commodore (Kommodore) and Commander of Submarines (Führer der Unterseeboote).
In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany, and World War II began. The Kriegsmarine was caught unprepared for war, having anticipated that the war's outbreak would be in 1945, not 1939. The Z Plan was tailored for this assumption, calling for a balanced fleet with a greatly increased number of surface capital ships, including several aircraft carriers. At the time the war began, Dönitz's force included only 57 U-boats, many of them short-range, and only 22 oceangoing Type VIIs. He made do with what he had, while being harassed by Raeder and with Hitler calling on him to dedicate boats to military actions against the British fleet directly. These operations had mixed success; the aircraft carrier Courageous and battleship Royal Oak were sunk, and battleships Nelson and Barham damaged, at a cost of some U-boats, diminishing the small quantity available even further. Together with surface raiders, merchant shipping lines were also attacked by U-boats.
On 1 October 1939, Dönitz became a Rear Admiral (Konteradmiral) and "Commander of the Submarines" (Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote, BdU, the German equivalent of ComSubPac or ComSubLant); on 1 September the following year, he was made a Vice Admiral (Vizeadmiral).
By 1941, the delivery of new Type VIIs had improved to the point where operations were having a real effect on the British wartime economy. Although production of merchant ships shot up in response, improved torpedoes, better U-boats, and much better operational planning led to increasing numbers of "kills". On 11 December 1941, following Adolf Hitler's declaration of war on the United States, Dönitz immediately planned for implementation of Operation Drumbeat (Unternehmen Paukenschlag). This targeted shipping along the East Coast of the United States. Carried out the next month, with only nine U-boats (all the larger Type IX), it had dramatic and far-reaching results. The U.S. Navy was entirely unprepared for antisubmarine warfare, despite having had two years of British experience to draw from, and committed every imaginable mistake. Shipping losses, which had appeared to be coming under control as the Royal Navy and Royal Canadian Navy gradually adapted to the new challenge, skyrocketed.
On at least two occasions, Allied success against U-boat operations led Dönitz to investigate possible reasons. Among those considered were espionage and Allied interception and decoding of German Navy communications (the naval version of the Enigma cipher machine). Both investigations into communications security came to the conclusion espionage was more likely, or else the Allied successes had been accidental. Nevertheless, Dönitz ordered his U-boat fleet to use an improved version of the Enigma machine (one with four or five rotors, which was even more secure), the M4, for communications within the fleet, on 1 February 1942. The German Navy (Kriegsmarine) was the only branch to use the improved version; the rest of the German armed forces (Wehrmacht) continued to use their then-current three-rotor versions of the Enigma machine. The new system was termed "Triton" ("Shark" to the Allies). For a time, this change in encryption between submarines caused considerable difficulty for Allied codebreakers; it took ten months before Shark traffic could be read (see also Ultra codebreaking and Cryptanalysis of the Enigma).
By the end of 1942, the production of Type VII U-boats had increased to the point where Dönitz was finally able to conduct mass attacks by groups of submarines, a tactic he called "Rudel" (group or pack) and became known as "wolfpack" in English. Allied shipping losses shot up tremendously, and there was serious concern for a while about the state of British fuel supplies.
During 1943, the war in the Atlantic turned against the Germans, but Dönitz continued to push for increased U-boat construction and entertained the notion that further technological developments would tip the war once more in Germany's favor while briefing the Führer. At the end of the war, the German submarine fleet was by far the most advanced in the world, and late-war examples, such as the Type XXI U-boat, served as models for Soviet and American construction after the war. These, the Schnorchel 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. His opposition to the larger Type IX was not unique; Admiral Thomas C. Hart, who commanded the United States Asiatic Fleet in the Philippines at the outbreak of the Pacific War, opposed fleet boats as "too luxurious".
Dönitz was deeply involved in the daily operations of his boats, often contacting them up to seventy times a day with questions such as their position, fuel supply, and other "minutiae". This incessant questioning hastened the compromise of 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 (often with aircraft able to sink it with impunity).
Dönitz wore on his uniform both the special grade of the U-Boat War Badge with diamonds, and his U-Boat War badge from World War I, along with his WWI Iron Cross 1st Class with WWII clasp.
On 30 January 1943, Dönitz replaced Erich Raeder as Commander-in-Chief of the Navy (Oberbefehlshaber der Kriegsmarine) and Grand Admiral (Großadmiral) of the Naval High Command (Oberkommando der Marine). His deputy, Eberhard Godt, took over the operational command of the U-boat force. It was Dönitz who was able to convince Hitler not to scrap the remaining ships of the surface fleet. Despite hoping to continue to use them as a fleet in being, the Kriegsmarine continued losing what few capital ships it had. In September, the battleship Tirpitz was put out of action for months by a British midget submarine. In December, he ordered the battlecruiser Scharnhorst (under Konteradmiral Erich Bey) to attack Soviet-bound convoys, but she was sunk in the resulting encounter with superior British forces led by the battleship HMS Duke of York.
On 30 April 1945, Hitler committed suicide. In his last testament, Hitler expelled both Hermann Göring and Heinrich Himmler from the Nazi Party. Hitler decided not to designate one man to succeed him as Führer but to revert to an older constitutional arrangement. He designated Dönitz his successor as Staatsoberhaupt (Head of State), with the title of Reichspräsident (President) and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels became Head of Government with the title of Reichskanzler (Chancellor). However, on 1 May, Goebbels committed suicide, the day after Hitler's death. Hitler believed the leaders of the German Army (Wehrmacht Heer), Air Force (Luftwaffe), and SS (Schutzstaffel) had betrayed him. So, because the German Navy had been too small to affect the war in a major way, the leader of the navy became the only possible successor by default. On 1 May, following Goebbels's suicide, Dönitz became the sole representative of the crumbling German Reich. He appointed Count Ludwig Schwerin von Krosigk as Reichskanzler and they attempted to form a government.
That night, Dönitz made a nationwide radio address in which he spoke of Hitler's "hero's death" and announced that the war would continue "to save Germany from destruction by the advancing Bolshevik enemy." However, even then Dönitz knew that Germany's position was untenable. During his brief period in office, Dönitz devoted most of his efforts 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 against Nazi party members and high-ranking officers like himself, and hoped to strike a deal with the western Allies.
The rapidly advancing Allied forces limited the Dönitz government's jurisdiction to an area around Flensburg near the Danish border, where Dönitz's headquarters were located, along with Mürwik. Accordingly his administration was referred to as the Flensburg government. The following is Dönitz's description of his new government:
|“||These considerations (the bare survival of the German people) which all pointed to the need for the creation of some sort of central government, took shape and form when I was joined by Graf Schwerin-Krosigk. In addition to discharging his duties as Foreign Minister and Minister of Finance, he formed the temporary government we needed and presided over the activities of its cabinet. Although he was restricted in his choice to those men who were in northern Germany, he nevertheless succeeded in forming a workmanlike cabinet of experts.
The picture of the military situation as a whole showed clearly that the war was lost. As there was also no possibility of effecting any improvement in Germany's overall position by political means, the only conclusion to which I, as Head of the State, could come was that the war must be brought to an end as quickly as possible, in order to prevent further bloodshed.
—Karl Dönitz, Ten Years and Twenty Days
Late on 1 May, Himmler attempted to make a place for himself in the Flensburg government. The following is Dönitz's description of his showdown with Himmler:
|“||At about midnight he arrived, accompanied by six armed SS officers, and was received by my aide-de-camp, Walter Luedde-Neurath. I offered Himmler a chair and I myself sat down behind my writing desk, upon which lay, hidden by some papers, a pistol with the safety catch off. I had never done anything of this sort in my life before, but I did not know what the outcome of this meeting might be.
I handed Himmler the telegram containing my appointment. "Please read this," I said. I watched him closely. As he read, an expression of astonishment, indeed of consternation, spread over his face. All hope seemed to collapse within him. He went very pale. Finally he stood up and bowed. "Allow me," he said, "to become the second man in your state." I replied that that was out of the question and that there was no way in which I could make any use of his services.
Thus advised, he left me at about one o'clock in the morning. The showdown had taken place without force, and I felt relieved.
—Karl Dönitz, as quoted in The Decline and Fall of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan
On 4 May, German forces in the Netherlands, Denmark, and northwestern Germany under Dönitz's command surrendered to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery at the Lüneburg Heath, just southeast of Hamburg, signaling the end of World War II in northwestern Europe.
A day later, Dönitz sent Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg, his successor as the commander in chief of the German Navy, to U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower's headquarters in Rheims, France, to negotiate a surrender to the Allies. The Chief of Staff of OKW, Colonel-General (Generaloberst) 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. However, when Eisenhower let it be known he would not tolerate the Germans' stalling, Dönitz authorised Jodl to sign the instrument of unconditional surrender at 1:30 a.m. on the morning of May 7. 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, General Field Marshal (Generalfeldmarschall) Wilhelm Keitel repeated the signing in Berlin at Marshal Georgiy Zhukov's headquarters, with General Carl Spaatz of the USAAF as Eisenhower's representative. At the time specified, World War II in Europe ended.
In May 1916 Dönitz married Ingeborg Weber, the daughter of a German general. They had three children, Ursula, born in 1917, Klaus, born in 1920, and Peter, born in 1922. Both of Dönitz's sons died during World War II. His younger son, Peter, was a watch officer on U-954 and was killed on 19 May 1943, when his boat was sunk in the North Atlantic with the loss of its entire crew. After this loss, the older brother, Klaus, was allowed to leave combat duty and began studying to be a naval doctor. Klaus was killed on 13 May 1944 in an action against his orders. Klaus convinced his friends to let him go on the torpedo boat S-141 for a raid on HMS Selsey off the coast of England on his twenty-fourth birthday. The boat was destroyed and Klaus died, even though six others were rescued. Karl Dönitz's daughter Ursula married the U-boat commander and Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross recipient Günther Hessler in 1937.
Despite his postwar claims, Dönitz was seen as supportive of Nazism during the war. Several naval officers described him as "closely tied to Hitler and Nazi ideology." On one occasion, he went as far as to boast about Hitler's humanity. Another event, in which he spoke to Hitler Youth in what was defined as an "inappropriate way", earned him the nickname of "Hitler Boy Dönitz." He refused to assist Albert Speer in stopping a scorched earth policy dictated by Hitler and is also noted as saying, "in comparison to Hitler we are all pip-squeaks. Anyone who believes he can do better than the Führer is stupid."
There are several antisemitic statements on the part of Dönitz known to historians. When Sweden closed its international waters to Germany, he blamed this action on their fear and dependence on "international Jewish capital." In August 1944, he declared, "I would rather eat dirt than see my grandchildren grow up in the filthy, poisonous atmosphere of Jewry."
On German Heroes' Day (12 March) 1944, Dönitz declared, without Adolf Hitler, Germany would be beset by "poison of Jewry," the country destroyed for lack of National Socialism which, as Dönitz declared, gave defiance of an uncompromising ideology. At the Nuremberg Trials, Dönitz claimed the statement about "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." Initially 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 was allowed to work."
Ideologically, Dönitz was antisemitic. Later, during the Nuremberg Trials, Dönitz claimed to know nothing about the extermination of Jews and declared nobody among "his men" thought about violence against Jews.
Dönitz 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". To Goldensohn, Dönitz also spoke of his support for Admiral Bernhard Rogge, who was of Jewish descent, when the Nazi Party began to persecute the admiral.
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: (1) conspiracy to commit crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity; (2) Planning, initiating and waging wars of aggression; and (3) crimes against the laws of war. Dönitz was found not guilty on count (1) of the indictment, but guilty on counts (2), and (3). Dönitz was imprisoned for ten years in Spandau Prison in what was then West Berlin.
During the trial, Gustave Gilbert, an American Army psychologist, was allowed to examine the Nazi leaders who were tried at Nuremberg for war crimes. Among other tests, a German version of the Wechsler-Bellevue IQ test was administered. Dönitz scored 138, the third highest among the Nazi leaders tested.
Dönitz disputed the righteousness of his trial at Nuremberg, commenting on count (2) that "One of the ‘accusations' that made me guilty during this trial was that I met and planned the course of the war with Hitler; now I ask them in heaven's name, how could an admiral do otherwise with his country's head of state in a time of war?")
At the trial Dönitz's war crimes were assessed as:
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.
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 but the judges found that "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."
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 that all vessels in the Skagerrak should be sunk on sight; and the statement by Admiral Chester Nimitz, wartime commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, that the U.S. Navy had waged unrestricted submarine warfare in the Pacific from the day the U.S. entered the war. Thus although Dönitz's 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, no additional prison time was added to his sentence for this crime.
Dönitz was released on 1 October 1956, and he 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), appeared in Germany in 1958 and became available in an English translation the following year. This book recounted Dönitz's experiences as U-boat commander (ten years) and President of Germany (twenty 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 much of the regime's crimes. He likewise criticizes dictatorship as a fundamentally flawed form of government and blames it for much of the Nazi era's failings.
Admiral 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 Life as a Soldier).
Late in his life, Dönitz made every attempt to answer correspondence and autograph postcards for others. Unlike Albert Speer, Dönitz was unrepentant regarding his role in World War II since he firmly believed that no one will respect anyone who compromises with his belief or duty towards his nation in any way, whether his betrayal was small or big. Of this conviction, Dönitz writes (commenting on Himmler's peace negotiations):
The betrayer of military secrets is a pariah, despised by every man and every nation. Even the enemy whom he serves has no respect for him, but merely uses him. Any nation which is not uncompromisingly unanimous in its condemnation of this type of treachery is undermining the very foundations of its own state, whatever its form of government may be.
Dönitz lived out the rest of his life in relative obscurity in Aumühle, occasionally corresponding with American 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 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. However, he had only received the pension pay of a captain because the West German government ruled all of his advances in rank after that had been due to Hitler. He was buried in Waldfriedhof Cemetery in Aumühle without military honors, and soldiers were not allowed to wear uniforms to the funeral.
Karl Dönitz has been portrayed by the following actors in film, television and theater productions;
Karl Dönitz (September 16, 1891 – December 24, 1980) was a German naval leader who commanded the German Navy (Kriegsmarine) during the second half of World War II. He became a Großadmiral and served as Commander of Submarines and later was Commander-in-Chief of the German Navy. Under his command, the U-boat fleet fought the Battle of the Atlantic. He ended the war as a prisoner-of-war of the British. After the war, Dönitz was charged and convicted of "crimes against peace" and "war crimes" at the Nuremberg Trials and served ten years. He died of a heart attack on Christmas Eve, 1980.