Adolf Hitler was the man who led the Nazi party to power in Germany and created the Third Reich. He was Germany’s first Nazi dictator, but he was not its last. That ignominious distinction belongs to Admiral Karl Dönitz, Hitler’s handpicked successor. Karl Dönitz was an unusual choice to succeed Hitler. He was a gifted naval officer and a devoted Nazi, but he had come up through the ranks of the military, not the Nazi party, unlike other prominent leaders of the Third Reich.
Dönitz was born in 1891 in Grünau, Germany. The son of middle class parents, Dönitz began his military career in 1910 when he enlisted in the German Imperial Navy. He received a commission in 1913 and requested a transfer to the burgeoning German submarine force in 1916. Dönitz took command of U-boat UB-68 in 1918. His time as a submarine captain did not last long, however. While operating in the Mediterranean, his submarine suffered technical malfunctions that forced it to the surface. Rather than let the U-boat fall into enemy hands, Dönitz scuttled the vessel and surrendered to the British. He spent the rest of the war in a British POW camp.
After Dönitz returned to Germany, he chose to remain in the greatly reduced German navy. Under the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was forbidden to possess any submarines. Accordingly, Dönitz spent the next 15 years traveling the world aboard various German warships. Then in 1935, Admiral Erich Raeder chose Dönitz to reconstitute Germany’s submarine force in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles. As the wartime commander of Germany’s U-boats, Dönitz achieved enormous success destroying allied ships in the Atlantic. His command sank more than 3,500 allied vessels in the protracted Battle of the Atlantic during the course of World War II. The German Navy lost approximately 784 submarines in the process, and Dönitz suffered personally when his two sons were killed while serving in the German navy.
Although Dönitz’s submarines were a serious threat to Britain’s survival, the German navy always rated behind the army and air force in German armament priorities. In 1943, just as the tide of the war turned decisively against Germany, Dönitz assumed command of the German Navy when Admiral Raeder retired. As German forces retreated on land, German U-Boats continued to menace allied ships through the end of the war.
Dönitz had only occasional contact with Hitler prior to 1943, but Dönitz met with the Führer twice a month after being named commander of the German navy. Even though Dönitz joined the Nazi party only in 1944, Hitler appreciated how Dönitz initiated a program of Nazi indoctrination for German sailors and Dönitz’s confidence that U-boats could still bring Britain to its knees. After July 1944, Hitler held Dönitz in even higher esteem when it was discovered that no German naval officers took part in the failed attempt to assassinate the Führer orchestrated by high-ranking Germany army officers. As Germany’s fortunes deteriorated, Dönitz remained steadfastly loyal to Hitler. The two men met with increasing frequency during the final months of the war, as Hitler became more and more isolated in his Berlin bunker. On the eve of the Soviet attack on the city, Dönitz ordered thousands of German sailors to take up arms and help defend the capital. On April 20, 1945, as Hitler celebrated his 56 birthday in his Führerbunker, more than a million Soviet soldiers began their assault on Berlin.
Hitler knew the war was lost and by April 27 had sent most of his personal staff away. He also permitted senior leaders such as Hermann Göring, Albert Speer, Heinrich Himmler, and Karl Dönitz to flee the doomed city. Meanwhile, two generals, a handful of secretaries, propaganda minister Josef Goebbels and his family, and Hitler’s longtime girlfriend, Eva Braun, remained in the bunker. Contrary to Hitler’s public vow to die fighting in a climactic final battle, he had no intention of actually fighting. Instead, he began planning his suicide to avoid the dishonor of surrender he associated with the German government of 1918.
In accordance with a secret decree Hitler signed in July 1941, Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring would succeed Hitler as leader of the Reich upon the latter’s impending death. That changed on April 23, 1945, when Göring sent Hitler a telegram asking whether the latter was still capable of governing. Göring declared that if he did not receive an answer to his telegram within two hours, he would presume Hitler was incapacitated and Göring would assume leadership of the Reich. Hitler was livid. He expelled Göring from the Nazi party, labelled him a traitor, and ordered the Luftwaffe commander’s arrest. With Russian soldiers mere blocks from the Fürhrerbunker, Hitler dictated his final will and testament on April 29. In this document, Hitler declared Karl Dönitz would become the head of state, commander of the German armed forces, and Reichspräsident upon Hitler’s death. Joseph Goebbels would become the new Chancellor. The next day, Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide. When Goebbels and his family committed suicide on May 1, Dönitz was elevated to the sole leadership of the crumbling Reich.
Dönitz was surprised when he learned he had been named Hitler’s successor, and he was not alone. When General of the Waffen SS Obergruppenfürer Felix Steiner heard of Dönitz’s appointment, Steiner reportedly responded “Who is this Herr Dönitz?” Dönitz later claimed that Hitler made this choice “because he felt, doubtlessly, that only a reasonable man with an honest reputation as a sailor could make a decent peace.” Dönitz later told his American captors that he immediately set about surrendering German forces after assuming power, but in fact, the admiral prolonged the war as long as possible.
As Germany’s military situation deteriorated, Dönitz attempted to negotiate a favorable surrender with the western allies in order to avoid abandoning German soldiers and equipment to the Soviet Union. Dönitz knew that Soviet captivity would likely mean death for hundreds of thousands of German soldiers. But Hitler had sealed these soldiers’ fates years earlier by insisting on a policy of no retreat. Dönitz had endorsed this decision not only by supporting Hitler but by ordering German sailors to face Soviet tanks in Berlin.
Now, Germany’s rapid collapse prevented Dönitz’s attempts to control events. German commanders who felt no personal loyalty to Dönitz began surrendering in the west. The mass surrenders of the German 12th Army and parts of the 9th Army gave Dönitz hope, however, that he could negotiate a partial peace with the United States and Great Britain. Dönitz attempted to use occupied Denmark and Norway as bargaining chips in these efforts. American General Dwight Eisenhower and British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery refused these overtures and demanded the unconditional surrender of all German forces. Still, Dönitz urged German forces to keep fighting, and even upheld Hitler’s directive to destroy German infrastructure until May 6.
When Dönitz learned of Eisenhower’s insistence on a simultaneous German surrender on all fronts without the destruction of ships or airplanes, the German leader regarded it as unacceptable. From Dönitz’s headquarters in the town of Flensburg on the Danish border, he instructed his lieutenants to cable Eisenhower that a complete capitulation was impossible but a capitulation in the west would be immediately accepted. Eisenhower held steadfast in his resolve and threatened to resume bombing raids and close borders to those fleeing from the east if Dönitz did not sign a surrender on May 7. Only when Dönitz was faced with this threat of consigning all German soldiers outside American lines to Soviet captivity did he finally agree to surrender. The fact that the capitulation would not go into effect until midnight on May 8 was a small consolation that gave German soldiers 48 hours to flee to American lines. Dönitz authorized General Alfred Jodl to sign the document of surrender, which the latter did at 2:41 AM on May 7 at Reims in occupied France. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin then insisted on another signing ceremony in Berlin which took place in the early morning hours of May 9.
Curiously, Dönitz and his administration were allowed to remain in Flensburg for another two weeks. They spent their time holding cabinet meetings in which they debated meaningless matters of policy such as whether portraits of Hitler should be removed. Dönitz was finally arrested by the allies on May 23.
In the postwar era, Dönitz portrayed himself as a professional soldier who knew nothing of Hitler’s war plans or atrocities. In reality, Dönitz was a fervent believer in Adolf Hitler and privately admitted he knew about German concentration camps as early as 1934. He similarly tried to portray his actions at the end of the war as an effort to save German soldiers from the clutches of communism. In reality, his orders failed to preserve most troops in the east because he did not order German troops facing American, British, and French forces in the west to stop fighting. Nor did he permit German troops in the east to retreat until it was too late.
Unlike thousands of German civilians, soldiers, and Nazi party officials who chose to commit suicide after World War II, Dönitz lived to a ripe old age. Although several German generals were hanged following their convictions at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, Dönitz was sentenced to just 10 years in prison for permitting slave labor in German shipyards and allowing his sailors to kill unarmed captives. He was not held accountable for waging unrestricted submarine warfare against the United States and Great Britain. Despite being one of only two men to lead Nazi Germany, he succinctly summed up his attitude in 1946 from a jail cell in Nuremburg: “So I sit here in my cell with my clear, clean conscience, and await the decision of the judges.” Dönitz remained unrepentant for his Nazi beliefs for the remainder of his life. Following his release from prison in 1956, Dönitz wrote his memoirs and retired to the small village of Aumühle in West Germany. He died in 1980 at the age of 89.
This article is part of an ongoing series commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II made possible by Bank of America.