Karl Donitz, Commander in Chief of the Kriegsmarine, Was The Last President of Nazi Germany

Left: Colorised photo of Karl Donitz / Right: Karl Dönitz in the U-Boot base, St. Nazaire. By Bundesarchiv - CC BY-SA 3.0 de
Left: Colorised photo of Karl Donitz / Right: Karl Dönitz in the U-Boot base, St. Nazaire. By Bundesarchiv - CC BY-SA 3.0 de

Karl Donitz, the Commander in Chief of the Kriegsmarine (Navy of the Third Reich), served as the last president of Nazi Germany. He was also the creator of the Reich’s German U-boat fleet and a very proactive naval leader.

1.Donitz was not a member of the Nazi Party

However, though he wasn’t officially a Nazi Party member, he was antisemitic and a loyal follower of Hitler. In a speech to the Commanders in Chief in February of 1944 he said:

“German men and women! 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.”

2. He was a prisoner of war at the end of WWI

In 1916, having served on battlecruisers and at an airfield, Donitz asked to be transferred to submarines. Two years in, aboard the UB-68 in the Mediterranean, he was sunk and taken prisoner near Malta. Even though the war ended during his imprisonment, he wasn’t released from the POW camp near Sheffield in Great Britain until 1920.

Detention report and Mugshots of Karl Dönitz, 1945 (Public Domain / Wikipedia)
Detention report and Mugshots of Karl Dönitz, 1945


3. He devised his best strategy while a POW – the Wolfpack method

Karl Dönitz during war meeting (Bundesarchiv, Bild 101II-MW-4210-10 / Frank / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / Wikipedia)
Karl Dönitz during war meeting. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de

Donitz’s strategy was to have several U-boats lurking and waiting for Allied ships, preferably in convoys, to pass. The first boat to spot an enemy ship would rally the others to converge like a wolf pack and then attack. The tactic worked well for him – until the Allies invented microwave radar.

4. His ultimate plan was to starve Britain

Karl Dönitz in the U-Boot base, St. Nazaire (Bundesarchiv, Bild 101II-MW-3491-06 / Buchheim, Lothar-Günther / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / Wikipedia)
Karl Dönitz in the U-Boat base, St. Nazaire. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de

During the first world war, Donitz had brought Britain to the edge of starvation with intense submarine warfare, keeping supply ships from Britain. His strategy was to sink as many ships as possible to cut off Britain’s food sources.

5. His micromanagement of his boats made work easier for Allied codebreakers

Colossus computer at Bletchley Park
Colossus computer at Bletchley Park

Donitz was so particular about knowing everything his boats were up to that he contacted them over 70 times a day. He wanted to know where they were, how much fuel they had, and other small details. Those 70 or more communications had 70 or more replies, and all of that back and forth gave Allied codebreakers a lot of material to work with. It also allowed Allied naval ships to ascertain their position and attack them easily.

6. Donitz wasn’t one for compassion or honor

While there are stories of Nazi officers, pilots, and soldiers valuing the lives of wounded enemy soldiers, civilians caught in crossfire, or pilots and sailors shot down or sunk, Donitz wasn’t one of them.

“No attempt of any kind must be made at rescuing members of ships sunk,” he said, “and this includes picking up persons in the water and putting them in lifeboats, righting capsized lifeboats, and handing over food and water. Rescue runs counter to the most primitive demands of warfare for the destruction of enemy ships and crews. Be hard; remember that the enemy has no regard for women and children when he bombs German cities.”

Dönitz and Hitler in 1945 in the Führerbunker.By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de

7. He shared control of Germany through Adolf Hitler’s last will and testament – until Goebbels committed suicide

Hitler’s last will and testament showing that Dönitz was chosen to succeed Hitler as Germany’s president

In his last days, Hitler became disenchanted with his top men, Goring and Himmler, and penned a will that would name Donitz as President and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and Joseph Goebbels as Chancellor and Head of Government.

When Hitler and Goebbels both committed suicide, Donitz stepped into leadership and appointed Ludwig Schwerin von Krosigk as leading minister.

Together they tried to keep the government intact. Both made a hasty retreat from advancing forces and from their secured position in Flensburg-Murwik, they oversaw the surrender of the  German armies to British or American forces, rather than to the Russians, as he feared the Soviets would deal with them more harshly.

8. He was shocked to be tried for war crimes

Karl Dönitz (center, in long, dark coat) is followed by Speer (bareheaded) and Jodl (to the left of Speer) during the arrest of the Flensburg government

Donitz believed it was ridiculous to try a head of state for war crimes. Additionally, he claimed that he knew nothing of the treatment of the Jews and that in his service he committed no crime.

“The trial can only end in a mistake because it is founded on one. 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.”

“I accept responsibility for U-boat warfare from 1933 onward, and of the entire navy from 1943 on, but to make me responsible for what happened to Jews in Germany, or Russian soldiers on the east front — it is so ridiculous all I can do is laugh.”

9. Support from U.S. Admiral Nimitz may be why Donitz only got 10 years

While on trial at Nuremberg, Donitz said this in his defense: “Your American admiral said that he held me in the highest esteem, and thought that I conducted my defense perfectly. He said through his chief of staff that my conduct was beyond reproach and he had the greatest admiration for me.”

Nimitz did provide an affidavit that stated that he too had engaged in unrestricted submarine warfare and that he supported its use. This is seen as one of the major reasons Donitz received a far lighter sentence than other German officers, despite his being close to Hitler.

Großadmiral Karl Donitz wearing both the World War II and World War I versions of the U-boat war badge on his tunic (Wikipedia / Public Domain)
Großadmiral Karl Donitz wearing both the World War II and World War I versions of the U-boat war badge on his tunic

10. He received a pension until his death in 1980

The government of West Germany didn’t think that Donitz deserved anything more than the pension of a captain, but Donitz fought that decision. The government’s position was that he only reached the rank of admiral because Hitler favored him, and not on his own merit. Donitz took it to court and won, receiving the full pension of an Admiral until his death from a heart attack in the small village in which he lived out his remaining quiet years.

Karl Donitz never believed that he should be held responsible or be placed under societal judgment for the atrocities performed by the Nazis. He believed that he lived  up his own convictions as an officer, dedicated to duty.

Jinny McCormick

Jinny McCormick is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE