A Brief History
On April 29, 1945, deep below the streets of Berlin in his “Führerbunker,” German Führer Adolf Hitler, beleaguered and possibly the most despised man in the world, married his long time mistress Eva Braun and designated Admiral Karl Dönitz as his successor to lead the Third Reich, what Germany had labeled its current government. With the Soviet “Red” Army knocking on his door, Hitler knew the time had come that he and his dream of a greater Germany was coming to an end, and he was to kill himself the next day. Still, his vanity did not allow him to name Dönitz as “Führer,” a title reserved only for Hitler. Instead, Hitler ordered the title of “President of Germany and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces” be bestowed upon Dönitz.
Karl was born near Berlin, the son of an engineer. He joined the Imperial Navy 1913 as an officer and served in combat in World War I as a submarine commander as Captain of UB-68, which was sunk by the British in 1918. Karl was taken prisoner and ended the war in Britain.
Dönitz remained on active duty in the German Navy after World War I, and moved up the ranks, developing new and deadly tactics for submarine warfare. When the German Navy (now called the Kriegsmarine was once again allowed to have submarines, Dönitz was given command of a small fleet of U-boats. His ideas about submarine warfare conflicted with that of the head of the Kriegsmarine, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, who championed surface vessels as the ship building priority. Of course, circumstances had proven Dönitz correct as World War II unfolded, with the German surface fleet never achieving the impact the tremendous price in men, materials and money it had cost. The submarine (U-boat) fleet had proven much more effective and cost effective as well, giving Dönitz much prestige and influence on the German war effort, and especially on the Führer. In 1943, Dönitz replaced Raeder as Commander in Chief of the Navy and was given the rank of Grand Admiral (Großadmiral). If Dönitz had gotten his way much earlier, and Germany had concentrated on building a vast U-boat fleet with which to start World War II, the outcome of the war may have been quite different.
Dönitz only got to preside over a defeated Germany for a week before he was compelled to order General Alfred Jodl, Chief of Operations Staff of the German Military, to sign the instrument of surrender to the Allies on May 7, 1945. The Allies allowed Dönitz to remain in charge of German government as it was until May 23, 1945, when that government (known as the Flensburg Government) was dissolved.
Although Karl Dönitz was basically an old school honorable naval officer that sought to have his submarines act in accordance with international laws and courtesies, the contingencies and changing conditions of war led to harsh tactics being adopted, more or less imposed on Dönitz and his fleet. One of his sons had died in a U-boat sunk by the Allies, and the other was killed on an E-boat (a large torpedo boat, bigger than an American PT boat) raid against the French. (He had also fathered a daughter.) He had admitted to Allied interrogators that he indeed was a supporter of Adolf Hitler and had anti-Semitic tendencies. He was tried as a war criminal for “waging wars of aggression” and for violating the laws of war and convicted, though he was acquitted of committing war crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, which he served, and then lived the rest of his life in West Germany near Hamburg.
Karl Dönitz died in 1980 of a heart attack at the age of 89. He never apologized for his role in World War II, staunchly believing in his commitment to duty and patriotism. His years after release from prison in 1956 were spent in quiet obscurity, though he wrote 2 books about his life.
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For more information, please see…
Padfield, Peter. Dönitz: The Last Führer. Thistle Publishing, 2013.
Von der Porten, Edward. The German Navy in World War II. T. Y. Crowell, 1969.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of Adolf Hitler receiving the commander of the Navy, Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, in the “Führerbunker”, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license. This image was provided to Wikimedia Commons by the German Federal Archive (Deutsches Bundesarchiv) as part of a cooperation project.