The Last Führer: 9 Facts about Karl Donitz, Hitler’s Successor

The Last Führer: 9 Facts about Karl Donitz, Hitler’s Successor

Natasha sheldon - June 26, 2017

Karl Donitz was born on September 16, 1891, the second son of Anna Beyer and Emil Donitz, an engineer. In 1910, Donitz enlisted in the Kaiserliche Marine or German Imperial Navy, a career that lasted 35 years. During those years, Donitz was a husband, father, prisoner of war, master strategist and the man who built the greatest submarine navy in the world. He never joined the Nazi party but managed to impress Hitler sufficiently to be named the Fuhrer’s successor. He ended his career as not only Admiral but also the last Fuhrer of the Third Reich.

The Last Führer: 9 Facts about Karl Donitz, Hitler’s Successor
World War II German U-576 submarine

The Wolfpack Method

In 1913, Donitz’ received his first commission as an acting sub-lieutenant. Just one year later, he was experiencing real action when the First World War broke out. For the first two years of the war, Donitz served on battle cruisers. But in 1916, after he was promoted to Oberleutnant, Donitz was asked to transfer to submarines. For the next two years, he served as a sub-commander in the Mediterranean- until months before the end of the war, his craft was sunk and he and the rest of his crew were taken prisoner in Malta.

Donitz was transferred to a POW camp near Sheffield in the UK. Despite the fact the war ended soon afterward, he was not released until July 1919. However, while imprisoned, Donitz used his time wisely. He began to consider the best way for U-boats to take down enemy ships. Donitz concluded it was best for several U-boats to lie in wait. When a boat spotted a convoy, they were to radio the other ships so they could gather together -like a wolf pack. The wolf pack would allow the ships to pass. Then they would strike.

Donitz did not have the chance to test his theory until war broke out again in 1939. He became convinced that German success depended on a campaign against the British merchant fleet. Oil tankers were a prime target, as cutting the oil supplies would severely handicap the Royal Navy. By now, high-frequency transmitters meant that the allies could not jam the German’s radios. If the U-boats stayed close to the surface and attacked under the cover of night, they could not be seen or detected by sonar.

Donitz began to petition for the German fleet to be converted into U-boats. He believed that 300 VII U-boats were sufficient to defeat Britain. Donitz faced stiff resistance from other commanders. But in the end, he convinced them. He began to train sub crews in wolfpack tactic and employ all the technology at his command. By the end of the war, despite the nation’s defeat, Germany had the most advanced submarine fleet in the world- thanks to Karl Donitz.

The Last Führer: 9 Facts about Karl Donitz, Hitler’s Successor
Admiral Karl Donitz discusses strategy with staff. Google Images

Donitz and the Code Breakers

By 1943, Donitz’s work with the Navy had achieved him the rank of Grand Admiral and he was now commander in chief of the navy. But he did not believe in delegating- let alone trusting his submarine commanders to make their own decisions. Donitz was notorious for micro managing his crews. He believed in keeping a close eye on the daily operations of his U-boats, often contacting them up to 70 times a day to establish their position, and fuel supply- despite the fact that these were details he could easily have left to their commanders.

This practice actually did more harm than good because it weakened the security of communications. Donitz’s constant questions had to be answered. The steady flow of constant messages between the subs and command meant that the allies were more likely to intercept them. This meant the allies had a better chance of deciphering them. As Donitz was often inquiring into the U-boats position, the allies found this out too, which made it much easier to attack the subs and remove their threat to ships.

As the allied successes against U-boat operations increased, the admiral decided to investigate. Although he believed espionage was responsible for the leaks, Donitz still improved the coding of his messages. In 1942, he installed an improved version of the Enigma machine of his submarines. The Kriegsmarine was the only force to use this new, four-wheeled version of the machine. Donitz was once again on top-for ten months at least- before the allies also cracked the new code.

The Last Führer: 9 Facts about Karl Donitz, Hitler’s Successor
Donitz with Hitler. Google Images

Donitz was not a Nazi-but was unquestioningly loyal to Hitler

Unusually for such a high-ranking and trusted senior officer, Donitz never at any point joined the Nazi party. Although his two sons joined the Hitler Youth and his daughter the League of German Girls, both Donitz, and his wife remained staunchly outside the party. “We Liked being non-political, ” said Ursula Hessler, Donitz’s daughter, “As for our feelings towards National Socialist party, we were fairly average for that time in Germany.”

However, even though Donitz never joined the Nazis, he did share some of their ideals. Several of his comments smacked of anti-Semitism. He blamed Sweden’s decision to close its international waters to Germany because of the country’s dependence on “international Jewish capital.” In August 1944, he said he would “rather eat dirt than see my grandchildren grow up in the filthy, poisonous atmosphere of Jewry.” This remark was explained away later as meaning that Germany would stronger in the war without the Jews. But Donitz also denied that he or his men would have advocated harm to Jews.

Despite his lack of party membership, Donitz advanced- because of his loyalty to Hitler. In a speech to his commanders in chief on German Heroes day, 1944, he reminded them of their debt to the Fuehrer:

“What would have become of our country today if the Fuehrer had not united us under National-Socialism? Split into parties, beset with the spreading poison of Jewry and vulnerable to it, and lacking, as a defense, our present uncompromising world outlook, we would long since have succumbed to the burdens of this war and been subject to the merciless destruction of our adversaries.”

Donitz’s loyalty to Hitler was unquestioning. He would not go against any of the dictates of his leader- even when he himself did not quite agree with them. When Albert Speer, Hitler’s Minister of Armaments wanted to stop Hitler’s scorched earth policy and tried to recruit Donitz’s heap, the admiral refused.

“In comparison to Hitler we are all pipsqueaks”, he declared loyally. “Anyone who believes he can do better than the Führer is stupid.”

The Last Führer: 9 Facts about Karl Donitz, Hitler’s Successor
The Laconia Incident. Google Images

The Laconia Order

A decision made for practical reasons in 1942 would later come back to haunt Donitz – and was responsible for his conviction for war crimes. It was customary for Kriegsmarine vessels to pick up any allied survivors of their attacks. In September 1942, German U-boats were rescuing survivors- including women and children- from the RMS Laconia on the West African coast. They had informed the allies of their rescue efforts and were on their way to transfer the survivors to Vichy French ships. But despite this, American aircraft attacked them. Dozens of survivors were killed.

Donitz issued what became known as the Laconia order. This stated that: “All efforts to save survivors of sunken ships, such as the fishing out of swimming men and putting them on board lifeboats, the righting of overturned lifeboats, or the handing over of food and water, must stop. Rescue contradicts the most basic demands of the war: the destruction of hostile ships and their crews.The orders concerning the bringing-in of captains and chief engineers stay in effect.Survivors are to be saved only if their statements are important for the boat.Stay firm. Remember that the enemy has no regard for women and children when bombing German cities!”

It was also later claimed that Donitz also ordered the deliberate killing of survivors. In 1943, the German navy captured members of an allied torpedo boat. They were interrogated for intelligence purposes. But afterward, they were turned over to the SD and shot. Donitz always insisted he had never been aware of the incident and that the admiral in charge was actually a subordinate of the Army general in command of occupied Norway. But, this, taken with the Laconia order built-up a picture of a hard-hearted man- when in fact Donitz was essentially simply protecting his troops- and ensuring that he minimized naval losses.

The Last Führer: 9 Facts about Karl Donitz, Hitler’s Successor
Donitz (center) after the founding of the Flensburg Government. Google Images

Hitler’s Will and the Flensburg Government

By the end of April 1945, the war was drawing to its close. Hitler, hidden in the Fuhrer bunker beneath the Reich Chancellery gardens of Berlin was aware his end was nigh and plotting his suicide. But he had to make sure the Reich did not pass to either Goring of Himmler. Both were now completely out of favor with Hitler. Goring had enraged him by asking for permission to assume leadership of the Reich. Worse yet, Himmler had tried to seize power and attempted to surrender to the Allies on May 28. The allies refused him.

So Hitler had to fix upon another successor. On April 29, 1945- the day before his suicide, he re-wrote his will, naming not one but two men to succeed him. This was a reversion to the custom of the Weimar government Hitler had overturned. Goebbels was to be Chancellor and head of government. But Karl Donitz was to be Supreme Commander of the armed forces and President of the Reich. But when Hitler committed suicide the next day, Goebbels copied him- leaving Donitz to take over the whole leadership as the last Fuhrer of the Third Reich.

Donitz and his new government established itself at Flensburg -Murwik near the Danish border- hence the name “The Flensburg Government”. When Donitz learned of his unexpected legacy, he assumed Hitler wanted him to negotiate the end of the war. ” The picture of the military situation as a whole showed clearly that the war was lost, ” he said later “. 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 state, could come was that the war must be brought to an end as quickly as possible in order to prevent further bloodshed.”

But Donitz wanted to surrender to the British and Americans-not the Russians. “My first task is to save German men and women from destruction by the advancing Bolshevist enemy,” he stated in his first radio broadcast as the leader on the May 1, 1945. By May 4, all forces in western Europe had been surrendered to the British Field Marshall Sir Bernard Law Montgomery. Donitz ordered that the signing of the declaration of surrender was delayed as long as possible to allow eastern German troops to more west and surrender to the British and Americans. In this way, Donitz saved 1.8 million German soldiers from Soviet revenge.

The Last Führer: 9 Facts about Karl Donitz, Hitler’s Successor
German naval commander Karl Donitz raises his hand in oath before taking the witness stand at the International Military Tribunal (IMT) at the Palace of Justice, Nuremberg, Germany, 29th August 1946. Getty Images

Donitz was the first head of state to be tried for war crimes

Donitz remained President until May 23, 1945 when the Flensburg Government was dissolved. He was amazed to be immediately arrested and put on trial at Nuremberg.

“The trial can only end in a mistake because it is founded on one, ” said Donitz “How can a foreign court try a sovereign government of another country? Could we have tried your President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Secretary Henry Morgenthau, or Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden, if we had won the war? We could not have done so and would not have. The trying that went on would have to be done by the nation itself and the courts set up there.”

Donitz was indicted on 3 counts: conspiracy to commit crimes against peace and humanity; waging wars of aggression; and finally crimes against the laws of war. Donitz countered by claiming he was merely an officer obeying orders. He denied all knowledge of the Holocaust and used his aid to Admiral Bernhard Rogge when he was subjected to Nazi persecution for having a Jewish grandparent as an example of his non-bigotry. “I never had any idea of the goings-on as far as Jews were concerned, ” Donitz told Leon Glodensohn, an American psychiatrist. ” Hitler said each man should take care of his business, and mine was U-boats and the Navy.”

When accused of planning the war with Hitler he claimed: “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?” It was arguments like this that led to Donitz’s acquittal on the first charge. But, despite the protests of allied military commanders who claimed that they had also waged unrestricted warfare at sea, he was found guilty on the other two charges and sentenced to ten years in Spandau Prison. He was, until the conviction of Liberia’s Charles Taylor in 2012, the only head of state convicted by an international tribunal.

The Last Führer: 9 Facts about Karl Donitz, Hitler’s Successor
Donitz as a prisoner. Google Images

Prisoner No 2

In 1947, Donitz was transferred to Spandau prison. Reports from witnesses and other prisoners suggest that the 56-year-old ex-Admiral would have served a hard sentence. Conditions in Spandau were described as a “cruel and unusual punishment.” The German leaders were ill fed, ill clothed and treated with indignity.

As prisoner no 2, Donitz’s daughter Ursula described her distress on visiting her father to find him ‘Looking terrible.” In wooden shoes and dreadful clothes “when the Russians controlled the prison, ” Ursula explained, “The men went hungry.”

Visits prohibited physical contact and only lasted for half an hour. The family was also only allowed to talk about family matters. Politics were forbidden. In this way, Donitz knew very little about what was going on in the world outside. But when he found out that Theodor Heuss had been elected President of West Germany in 1953, he declared him a puppet who had not been elected by the German state and until he was, he Donitz, remained President.

Afterward, Donitz never spoke or wrote of his time in prison. Clearly, this was a time he wished to forget. But nor did he want to loose his dignity by complaining about his treatment. So he bore it with typical fortitude. He also continued in his staunch belief of Hitler and the Third Reich. On December 27, 1947, Albert Speer reported how ” Donitz has in no way revised his view of Hitler. To this day, Hitler is still his commander in chief” and reported that 2 years later, “Schirach, Raeder, and Donitz are distinctly cool toward me…. They disapprove of my consistent and basic rejection of the Third Reich.”

The Last Führer: 9 Facts about Karl Donitz, Hitler’s Successor
Donitz, after his release, as an Elderly man. Google Images

Donitz: Author and TV star

On October 1, 1956, Donitz was released. He retired to the small village of Aumuhle in Schleswig-Holstein in North West Germany. There, he began to write. His first memoir “Zehn Jahre, Zwanzig Tage” ((Ten Years, Twenty Days) were first published in Germany in 1958 and translated into English in 1959. The books cover Donitz’s ten years as a U-boat commander as well as his mere 20 days as leader of the German state.

Zehn Jahre, Zwanzig Tage” acts as an apologetic defense of Donitz’s involvement in the Third Reich. He claims he was never a politician, merely a soldier and so not responsible for the regime’s crimes. But he also states Nazism was a product of its time- and blames dictatorship as a flawed form of government as the main reason’s for the regime’s failings. Donitz’s second memoir ” Mein Wechselvolles Leben” (My Ever Changing Life), deals with his life before the rise of the Nazis in 1934.

Donitz also made a few television appearances. His first- after the Nuremberg Trials- was in the 1950’s documentary series “Victory at Sea” which dealt with naval conflict during the Second World War. Then in the 1970’s, he began to appear on a number of other documentaries. His first in 1970 was “At vinde krigen”, a Danish series looking at Germany’s fall. He then appeared in the Thames Televisions “The World at War” in 1973 and finally in 1976 in “The memory of Justice”. His voice was used posthumously in 2012 in “Menschen” a short, fictional account of the withdraw of Germany’s forces.

Otherwise, Donitz lived quietly. He received a great deal of correspondence -and even requests for his autograph! He apparently attempted to answer every letter sent and posted out autographed postcards to those who requested them. He remained unrepentant about his role in the war, sticking to the line that he had done nothing more than his duty to his nation.

The Last Führer: 9 Facts about Karl Donitz, Hitler’s Successor
The funeral of Karl Donitz. Google Images

A Hero’s Send-Off

Despite the fact that Donitz had never been directly involved in war crimes and had tried to negotiate the best surrender for German troops at the end of the war, the government of West Germany was unwilling to give Donitz a pension above more than that of a captain, on the basis that he only became admiral because Hitler favored him. But Donitz fought his case. He took the government to court, stating that Hitler may have promoted him- but it was based on merit. Donitz won and was awarded the full pension of an admiral until his death.

Karl Donitz died of a heart attack at his home in Aumuhle on December 24, 1980. He was the last German officer with the rank of grand admiral. His funeral on January 6, 1981 was honored by 2,500 people, not only by many former German servicemen, including 100 holders of the knights cross of the iron cross but foreign navel officers, including members of the British royal navy. But a representative of the German defense ministry was not in attendance.

Perhaps still conscious of Donitz’s closeness to Hitler, the West German government denied Donitz military honors and forbade military personnel in attendance from wearing uniforms. But many German navy officers did so anyway. On gold lettering, on the black and white ribbon of one of the many wreaths left in the snow of the quiet cemetery of Aumuhle where the Third Reich’s last leader lay quietly read: “To our Reich’s President”. Other wreaths read ” Grand Admiral Donitz, in honor and fidelity-the survivors of U-Boat 309″ and “courage to the end”. Amongst his contemporaries at least, Donitz was remembered as someone who had simply done his duty.