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Karl Dönitz


Karl Dönitz () (16 September 1891 – 24 December 1980) was a German naval Commander who served in the Imperial German Navy during World War I and commanded the German Navy (Kriegsmarine) during the second half of World War II.

In the final days of the war, Dönitz became the President (Reichspräsident) of Nazi Germany. He held this position for about 20 days after the death of Adolf Hitler.

After the war, Dönitz was convicted of war crimes at the Nuremberg Trials and served ten years in prison.

Early life and career

Dönitz was born in Grünau in Berlin, Germany to Anna Beyer and Emil Dönitz, an engineer. Karl had an older brother, Friedrich.

Imperial navy

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, 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.

Interwar period

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.

Weimar republic's navy

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.

On 1 September 1935, Dönitz was promoted to Captain (Kapitän zur See). He was placed in command of the 1st U-boat Flotilla Weddigen, which included U-7, U-8, and U-9.

During 1935, the Weimar Republic's Navy (Reichsmarine) was replaced by the Nazi German Navy (Kriegsmarine).

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 T. 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 subs together into a "wolf pack" to overwhelm a merchant convoy's defensive escorts. Implementation of wolf packs had been difficult in World War I due to the limitations of available radios. In the interwar years, Germany developed ultra high frequency transmitters which it was hoped made their radio communication unjammable, while the Enigma code machine made communications secure (or so it was believed). Dönitz also adopted Wilhelm Marschall's 1922 idea (claiming credit for it) 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.

Commodore and leader of the submarines

On 28 January 1939, Dönitz was promoted to Commodore (Kommodore) and "Leader of the Submarines" (Führer der Unterseeboote).

Role in World War II

In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany, and World War II began. Having anticipated the war to begin in 1945, The Kriegsmarine was caught unprepared for war. The Z Plan was tailored for a war beginning in 1945, not 1939. The plan called for a balanced fleet with a greatly increased number of surface capital ships, including several aircraft carriers. At the time war did start, Dönitz's U-boat force included only 57 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 were generally unsuccessful, while the other boats continued to do well against Dönitz's primary targets of merchant shipping.

Rear admiral, vice admiral, and commander of the submarines

On 1 October 1939, Dönitz became a Rear Admiral (Konteradmiral) and "Commander of the Submarines" (Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote); 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, 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 from, and committed every imaginable mistake. Shipping losses which 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 (the naval version of Enigma). Both investigations into communications security came to the conclusion 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 (intended to be even more secure), the M4, for communications within the fleet, on 1 February 1942. The navy was the only branch to use the improved version; the rest of the German armed forces (Wehrmacht) continued to use their then-current versions of Enigma. 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 again be read (see also Ultra 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" and became known as "wolfpack" (Wolfsrudel) 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 more U-boat construction and technological development. 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 boats, and the Type IX U-boat, appeared very late because of Dönitz's indifference, even hostility, to new technology.His opposition to the larger Type IX was not unique; Admiral Thomas 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 very personally involved in operations, often contacting his boats up to seventy times a day with questions such as their position, fuel supply, and other "minutiae". This helped compromise his cyphers, by giving the Allies more messages to work from. The replies also 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).

Commander-in-chief and grand admiral

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). 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.

Hitler's successor

On 30 April 1945, Hitler committed suicide. In his last testament, Hitler expelled both Hermann Göring and Heinrich Himmler from the Nazi Party. He surprisingly designated Dönitz his successor as Head of State (Staatsoberhaupt) and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. Significantly, Dönitz was not to become Führer. Instead, Dönitz became President (Reichspräsident), a post Hitler had abolished years earlier. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels became Head of Government and Chancellor of Germany (Reichskanzler). 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' 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. 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, after the signature of the unconditional surrender, the Dönitz government was not recognized by the Allies and was for some days more or less ignored.

Flensburg government

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.

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.

Himmler was ultimately named Minister of Interior but was dismissed on 6 May.

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

On 7 May, Dönitz authorized the Chief of Staff of the German Armed Forces (Wehrmacht), Colonel-General (Generaloberst) Alfred Jodl, to sign the instrument of unconditional surrender of all German forces to the Allies. Jodl signed these 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." On 8 May, shortly before midnight, General Field Marshal (Generalfeldmarschall) Wilhelm Keitel repeated the signing in Berlin at Marshal Georgiy Zhukov's headquarters, and, at the time specified, World War II in Europe ended.

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


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 would be killed on 13 May 1944. 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. His daughter Ursula married the U-boat commander and Knight's Cross recipient Günther Hessler in November 1941.

Relation to Jews and Nazism

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 scouts 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 Hitlerand 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 due to 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. He was also recorded on several occasions of speaking about Jews in the "tone of Gauleiters". 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 Bernhard Rogge, who was of Jewish descent, when the Nazi Party began to persecute the admiral.

War crimes trial

Following the war, Dönitz was held as a prisoner of war by the victorious Allies, 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. 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. 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.

On the specific charge of ordering unrestricted submarine warfare he was found "[not] guilty for his conduct of submarine warfare against British armed merchant ships", but the judges found that "Doenitz 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 Doenitz 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 Doenitz is guilty of a violation of the Protocol. ... the sentence of Doenitz 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 of an order of the British Admiralty announced on 8 May 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 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. Dönitz disputed the righteousness of his trial at Nuremberg, saying, "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?. Numerous Allied officers also sent letters to Dönitz conveying their disappointment over the fairness and verdict of his trial. He was imprisoned for ten years in Spandau Prison in West Berlin.

Later years

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.

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. Unlike Albert Speer, Dönitz was unrepentant regarding his role in World War II since he firmly believed that no one will respect an individual who compromises with his belief or duty towards his nation in any way, whether an individual's betrayal was small or big. Of this conviction Dönitz writes (commenting on Himmler's major betrayal):

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 died of a heart attack on 24 December 1980, in Aumühle. As the last German officer with the 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 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.

Portrayal in popular culture

Karl Doenitz has been portrayed by the following actors in film, television and theater productions;



  • Dönitz, Karl, Grossadmiral. Memoirs: Ten Years and Twenty Days. Da Capo Press, USA, 1997. ISBN 0306807645. (reprints 1958 German-language Athenäum-Verlag edition).
  • Fellgiebel, Walther-Peer (2000). Die Träger des Ritterkreuzes des Eisernen Kreuzes 1939-1945. Friedburg, Germany: Podzun-Pallas. ISBN 3-7909-0284-5.
  • Guðmundur Helgason. " Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote (BdU) Karl Dönitz." at
  • Kurowski, Franz (1995). Knight's Cross Holders of the U-Boat Service. Schiffer Publishing Ltd. ISBN 0-88740-748-X.
  • Padfield, Peter. Dönitz: The Last Führer. Cassell & Co, UK, 2001
  • Range, Clemens (1974). Die Ritterkreuzträger der Kriegsmarine. Stuttgart, Germany: Motorbuch Verlag. ISBN 3-87943-355-0.

Background information

  • Cremer, Peter. U-Boat Commander: A Periscope View of the Battle of the Atlantic. 1984. ISBN 0870219693
  • Davidson, Eugene. The Trial of the Germans: Account of the Twenty-two Defendants Before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. 1997. ISBN 0826211399
  • 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. 1999. ISBN 0304352357
  • Werner, Herbert A. Iron Coffins: A U-boat Commander's War, 1939–45. 1999. ISBN 0304353302
  • Prien, Gunther. Fortunes of War: U-boat Commander. 2000. ISBN 0752420259
  • Herwig, Holger H. Innovation ignored: The Submarrine problem in Murray, Williamson and Millet Allan R. ed. "Military Innovation in the Interwar Period". Cambridge University Press 1998
  • Failure to Learn: American Anti-submarine Warfare in 1942 in Cohen, Eliot A. and Gooch, John. Military Misfortunes Vintage Books 1991

Further reading

External links

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