Karl Dönitz

From New World Encyclopedia

Karl Dönitz
Karl Dönitz
4th President of Germany
Term of office April 30, 1945 – May 23, 1945
Preceded by Adolf Hitler
Führer und Reichskanzler
Succeeded by Theodor Heuss (FRG)
Wilhelm Pieck (GDR)
Date of birth September 16 1891
Place of birth Grünau, near Berlin
Date of death December 24 1980 (aged 89)
Place of death Aumühle, near Hamburg
Political party None

Karl Dönitz (IPA pronunciation: [ˈdøːnɪts]) (September 16, 1891 – December 24, 1980) was a German naval leader, who was in command of the Kriegsmarine during World War II and was President of Germany for 23 days, after Adolf Hitler's suicide.

After the war, he was charged and convicted of "crimes against peace" and "war crimes" and served ten years. By ordering the unrestricted submarine warfare conducted by Germany in the North Atlantic, he caused 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 the international law. On his repatriation, he moved to a small village near Hamburg. During his later years, he wrote two autobiographies covering different periods in his life.

Dönitz's contribution to submarine warfare was a breakthrough to navies throughout the world. He was a great admirer of U-boats and was a superior commander. His tactics and maneuvers continue to be imitated to this day.

Early life and career

Dönitz was born in Grünau, near Berlin, to Emil Dönitz and Anna Beyer. His father was an engineer. Karl had an older brother, Friedrich. In 1910, Dönitz enlisted in the Imperial German Navy becoming a sea-cadet (Seekadett) on April 4. On April 15, 1911, he became a midshipman, the rank given to those who had served for one year as officer's apprentice and had passed their first examination.

On September 27, 1913, Dönitz was commissioned as an Acting Sub-Lieutenant. When World War I began, he served on the light cruiser SMS Breslau in the Mediterranean Sea. In August 1914, Breslau and the battle cruiser SMS Goeben were sold to the Ottoman navy and began operating out of Istanbul, under Rear Admiral Souchon, engaging Russian forces in the Black Sea. On March 22, 1916, Dönitz was promoted to sub-lieutenant. When the Breslau/Midilli put into dock for repairs, he was temporarily assigned as airfield commander at the Dardanelles. From there, he requested his 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 September 5, 1918, he became commander of UC-68, operating in the Mediterranean. On October 4, 1918, this boat was sunk by British forces and Dönitz was taken prisoner.

He remained a prisoner of war in a British prison camp until his release in July 1919, and returned to Germany in 1920. Dönitz continued his naval career and became a Lieutenant on January 10, 1921, in the new Vorläufige Reichsmarine, the naval arm of the Weimar Republic’s Armed Forces. He commanded torpedo boats by 1928, becoming a lieutenant-commander on November 1, of that year.

In September 1933, Dönitz became a full 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 in preparation for a future officer's commission. The ship returned to Germany at Wilhelmshaven in July 1935, and in September, Dönitz was promoted to Captain in the new Kriegsmarine. He wrote about the cruise in his autobiography. Dönitz was placed in command of the 1st U-boat flotilla Weddigen, which comprised three U-boats: U-7, U-8, and U-9.

Role in World War II

When the war started in 1939, Dönitz had recently been promoted to Commodore, and leader of submarines. The German Navy was unprepared for war, having anticipated the war to begin in 1945. When the war did start, Dönitz's U-boat force included only 57 boats, many of them short-range.

In October 1939, Dönitz became a Rear Admiral and commander of submarines; then in September the following year, he was made a Vice Admiral. By 1941, the delivery of new Type VII U-boats had improved to the point where operations were having a real effect on the British wartime economy. On December 11, 1941, following Hitler's declaration of war on the United States, Dönitz immediately planned for Operation Paukenschlag against United States east coast shipping. Carried out the next month, with only nine U-boats, 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 learn. Shipping losses, which had appeared to be coming under control as the British Navy gradually adapted to the new challenge, instantly 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. Both investigations into communications security came to the conclusion that espionage was more likely, if Allied success had not been accidental. Nevertheless, Dönitz ordered his U-boat fleet to use an improved version of the Enigma machine—the M4—for communications within the Fleet. The Navy was the only branch to use the improved version; the rest of the German military continued to use their then current versions of 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 and became known as "Wolf pack" in English. Allied shipping losses shot up tremendously, and there was serious concern for a while about the state of British fuel supplies.

Dönitz was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Navy in January 1943. 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 then-sole remaining operational capital ship (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.

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 May 19, 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 would be killed on May 13, 1944. Klaus convinced his friends to let him go on the fast torpedo attack 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.

Hitler's successor

On April 30, 1945, Hitler committed suicide and Goebbels followed suit a day later. In his last testament, Hitler surprisingly designated Dönitz his successor as Head of State, expelling both Hermann Göring and Heinrich Himmler from the Nazi Party. Significantly, Dönitz was not to become Führer, but rather President, a post Hitler had abolished years earlier. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels was to become Head of Government and Chancellor of Germany.

Following Goebbels' death, Dönitz became the sole representative of the crumbling Reich. He appointed Count Ludwig Schwerin von Krosigk as President and they attempted to form a government. 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 correctly feared vengeful Soviet reprisals. However, the Dönitz government was not recognized by the Allies and was for some days more or less ignored.

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 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.

Late on May 1, Heinrich Himmler attempted to make a place for himself in the Flensburg government. The following is Dönitz description of his dismissal of Himmler:

At about midnight he arrived, accompanied by six armed SS officers, and was received by my aide-de-camp, 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.

On May 4, the German forces in the Netherlands, Denmark, and northwestern Germany under Dönitz’s command were surrender to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery in the Lüneburg Heath southeast of Hamburg, signaling the end of World War II in western Europe.

Several days later, Dönitz authorized the Chief of Staff of the German Armed Forces, Colonel-General Alfred Jodl, to sign the instrument of unconditional surrender of all German forces to the Allies. Jodl signed the surrender documents in Rheims, France. 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.” The next day, shortly before midnight, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel repeated the signing in Berlin at Marshal Zhukov’s headquarters, and, at the time specified, the Second World War in Europe ended.

On May 23, the Dönitz government dissolved when its members were captured and arrested by British forces at Flensburg. Dönitz was the highest ranking German captured.

War crimes trial

Following the war, Dönitz was held as a prisoner of war by the victors, who accused him of war crimes. 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." Among the war crimes charges, he 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.

Dönitz was found not guilty on count (1) of the Indictment, but guilty on counts (2) and (3) and was sentenced to ten years in prison. However, in view of all the facts proven, and in particular of an order of the British Admiralty announced on May 8, 1940, according to which all vessels should be sunk on sight in the Skagerrak, and the answers to interrogatories by Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, wartime commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, stating that unrestricted submarine warfare had been carried on in the Pacific Ocean by the United States from the first day that nation entered the war, Dönitz's order to conduct unrestricted submarine warfare was not officially included in his sentence, but was still the main reason why most judges wanted him convicted. He was imprisoned for ten years in Spandau Prison in West Berlin.

Later years

Dönitz was released on October 1, 1956, and he retired to the small village of Aumühle in Schleswig-Holstein (Northern 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 and President of Germany. 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.

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). Most editions today combine Mein wechselvolles Leben and Mein soldatisches Leben into a single volume.

Late in his life, Dönitz’s reputation was rehabilitated to a large extent and he made every attempt to answer correspondence and autograph postcards for others. Dönitz died of a heart attack on December 24, 1980, in Aumühle. As the last German officer with rank of Grand Admiral, he was honored by many former servicemen and foreign naval officers who came to pay their respects at his funeral on January 6, 1981.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Cremer, Peter. U-Boat Commander: A Periscope View of the Battle of the Atlantic. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1984. ISBN 0870219693
  • Davidson, Eugene. The Trial of the Germans: Account of the Twenty-two Defendants Before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1997. ISBN 0826211399
  • Dönitz, Karl. Memoirs: Ten Years and Twenty Days. Da Capo Press, 1997. ISBN 0306807645
  • Hadley, Michael L. U-Boats Against Canada: German Submarines in Canadian Waters. McGill-Queen's University Press, 1985. ISBN 0773508015
  • Macintyre, Donald. U-boat Killer London: Cassell, 1999. ISBN 0304352357
  • Padfield, Peter. Dönitz: The Last Führer. Cassell & Co, 2001. ISBN 9780304358700
  • Prien, Gunther. Fortunes of War: U-boat Commander. Cerberus Pub, 2005. ISBN 9781841450537
  • Werner, Herbert A. Iron Coffins: A U-boat Commander's War, 1939-45. London: Cassell Military, 1999. ISBN 0304353302

External links

All links retrieved October 5, 2022.

Preceded by:
Adolf Hitler
(as Führer and Reich Chancellor)
President of Germany
Succeeded by:
Allied military occupation 1945–1949
Divided into East and West in 1949

West Germany: Theodor Heuss
East Germany: Wilhelm Pieck


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