Karl Dönitz was born September 16th, 1891 in Grünau, at the time a small town near Berlin and today a suburb of the German capital. His father was Emil Dönitz and his mother Anna Beyer. Karl had an elder brother Friedrich. In April 1910, Karl joined the Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial Navy) and he entered service as Seekadett (midshipman). Hardly a year later, on April 15th, 1911 he was promoted to Fähnrich zur See (ensign). At the age of 22, Karl Dönitz received his commission as officer, holding the rank of Leutnant zur See (Lieutenant 3rd classs).
In World War One, Karl Dönitz served aboard the light cruiser Breslau of the Magdeburg class. He rose quickly throught the ranks and was promoted to Oberleutnant zur See (Lieutenant 2nd class) on March 22nd, 1916. On May 27th, that year he married the nurse Ingeborg Weber, daughter of a general. Shortly afterwards he applied for a transfer to the submarine service. His request was granted in October 1916 with his posting as officer of the watch aboard U-39. On April 3rd, their daughter Ursula was born. In February 1918 he was appointed commander of UC-25 and on July 2nd of that year he took command of UB-68. He saw action in the Mediterranean in this submarine. On October 4th, 1918, UB-68 was forced to surface due to technical problems and the vessel was sunk by British gunfire. Dönitz and 32 members of his crew survived the sinking and were imprisoned in Valetta on Malta. After the armistice in November 1918, Dönitz was held as a prisoner of war in a camp near Sheffield in Great Britain. His release was accelerated for medical reasons and he returned to Germany in July 1919. On May 14th, 1920, son Klaus was born.
Oberleutnant zur See Dönitz continued his career in the Vorläufige Reichsmarine (temporary state navy), which had evolved out of the Kaiserliche Marine as the naval branch of the Reichswehr of the Weimar Republic. On January 10th, 1912, within a year, he was promted to Kapitänleutnant (Lieutenant 2nd class senior grade). On March 20th, 1922, the Dönitz family was enlarged by the birth of son Peter. The following years, Dönitz was mainly active as commander of various torpedoboats until November 1st , 1928 when he was promoted to Korvettenkapitän (Lieutenant 1st class). The same day he took command of 4.Torpedobootshalbflotille consisiting of the brand new torpedoboats Albatros, Kondor, Möwe and Greif.
The naval officer from Grünau continued to rise and on September 1st, 1933, he was sworn in as Fregattenkapitän. Like many other German officers, Dönitz was frustrated by the downfall of the German Empire and the degeneration of the German navy. He yearned for restoration of order and a new leader. However, by his own admission, he would not have become an honorary member of the Nazi Party (NSDAP) until 30 January 1944, when he was awarded the Golden Party Insignia by Hitler. In 1934 he took command of the light cruiser Emden and made a tour around the world showing the flag with this vessel that lasted a year. On board there were many cadetts and ensigns who could gain practical experience on this trip. In 1935, the Reichsmarine of the Weimar Republic was blended in with the Kriegsmarine of Nazi Germany. September 1st of the same year saw Dönitz being promoted to Kapitän zur See and commander of 1. U-bootflotille Weddingen, consisting of U-7, U-8 and U-9.
Just like all other navies of the world at the time, the Kriegsmarine saw its submarine arm as part of a surface fleet that was to be deployed against enemy warships, in Germany’s case mainly British and French naval units. Karl Dönitz openly argued for a German war fleet which was to consist mainly of U-boats. These boats should concentrate on British and French merchant shipping and oil tankers. These were relatively easy targets and by destroying the enemy’s merchant fleet, the war fleet would be crippled owing to lack of fuel and provisions. He claimed he could bring the enemy to its knees with a fleet of 300 new U-boats Type VII.
During his imprisonment in Wold War One, he had devised the strategy of the Wolfpack where a number of U-boats simultaneously attacked merchantmen and their escorts. In this period this was not yet possible as the German U-boats did not have the right communication equipment at their disposal. Halfway through the 30s however, the Germans had developed ultra high frequency (UHF) radioequipment and messages could be encrypted by the new Enigma machine.
Kapitän zur See Dönitz stood alone though with his ideas and he was hardly taken seriously by the other German naval officers. He had a ongoing quarrel with the Commander-in-Chief of the Kriegsmarine, Erich Raeder who advocated a larger surface fleet. Owing to the limitations on shipbuilding in the Treaty Of Versailles, Germany only had a small number of modern surface units available that would surely lose the battle against the superior British and French warships. Raeder however counted on Plan Z, the expansion of the High Sea fleet but this construction programme would only be completed in 1945. On January 28th, 1938, Karl Dönitz was promoted to Führer der Unterseeboote (chief of the submarine arm) in the rank of Kommodore (Commodore). In 1939, Karl Dönitz wrote a book about his plans and ideas. Apart from tactics and strategies, he also desribed his Nazi fanatism and his appreciation for the camaradery among the U-boat crews.
On September 3rd, 1939, Wortld War Two broke out when Great Britain and France declared war on Germany as her troops had invaded Poland two days before. To the Kriegsmarine, this moment came far too early as it did not have a sufficient number of warships at its disposal. Karl Dönitz had to make do with only 70 U-boats. He could not put his Wolfpack strategy to attack enemy shipping in practice because Adolf Hitler demanded he shoud directly confront British surface units by attacking with U-boats operating independently. This led to some successes, such as the sinking of the British battlecruiser H.M.S. Royal Oak in Scapa Flow harbour in Scotland by Günther Prien in U-47. On October 1st, 1939, Dönitz’ title was changed to Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote (Commander of the U-boat fleet). The corrresponding rank was Konteradmiral (Rear admiral) and the officer from Grünau again rose through the ranks. On September 1st, 1940, he was promotred to Vizeadmiral (vice-Admiral).
U-boats were far cheaper and faster to build than large surface units, causing ther German U-boat fleet to expand much more rapidly than the surface fleet. The sinking of the Bismarck by British warships on May 27th, 1941 was further proof that even the mightiest German surface units could be defeated. This lend the U-boat arm of the Kriegsmarine increasing importance and so expanding Dönitz’ power. The commissioning of new U-boats enabled him to sink more and more Allied merchant vessels which had a notable impact on British war economy. Karl Dönitz was a highly dedicated commander. He contacted his U-boats daily to be informed of positions, fuel stocks and occasions to attack. This co-ordination enabled him and his fleet of U-boats to prepare and launch their attacks in the most effective manner possible. On March 14th, 1942, Karl Dönitz was rewarded for the success of his U-boats with his promotion to Admiral.
In September 1942, U-156 sank the British passenger liner Laconia in the Atlantic. Among the passenger were some 1.800 Italian prisoners of war, guarded by hundreds of British and Polish soldiers. U-156, U-506, U-507 and the Italian submarine Cappellini took hundreds of survivors aboard but during this action they were spotted by an American bomber and were attacked. The U-boats were forced to dive, leaving the survivors behind in open sea. Most of them were rescued later by Vichy-French warships. As a result of this event, better known as the Laconia incident, Dönitz immediately prohibited any rescue action by U-boats which made them far too vulnerable during such actions. Towards the end of 1942, so many Type VII U-boats had entered service that Dönitz could turn his Wolfpack strategy into practice. Losses of Allied merchantmen rose to a climax and the Germans seemed to be winning the battle for the Atlantic.
Early 1943, the incapacity of the German surface fleet against the British warships was the cause of an argument between Adolf Hitler and Erich Raeder, Commander-in-Chief of the Kriegsmarine. Hitler threatened to have all German surface vessels demolished and to deploy their guns in coastal batteries. Raeder could only prevent this by resigning in the hope his successor would have more success. On Janaury 30th, 1943, Karl Dönitz was promoted to Commander-in-Chief of the German navy and received the corresponding rank of Grossadmiral. Dönitz could persuade Hitler however of the fact that the surface units of the German navy were indispensable. They agreed the High Sea fleet would continue to exist but all new construction programmes be aborted, only the construction of U-boats would continue.
In 1943, the tide of the battle for the Atlantic began to turn in favour of the Allies. In this phase of the war, the Americans were building more ships than the German U-boats could sink. Moreover, an increasing number of U-boats were being sunk by Allied escorts, equiped with state of the art radar techniques and by aircraft from escort carriers protecting the convoys. The breaking of the Enigma code also greatly diminished the success of the Germans. Despite the German losses, Hitler continued to have the fullest confidence in his commander of the Kriegsmarine. Karl Dönitz also suffered personal losses in 1943 when his youngest son Peter was killed on May 19th. He was officer of the watch aboard U-954 when it was sunk in the north Atlantic by Allied warhips with all hands lost. The second heavy blow for Dönitz came when his eldest son Klaus went down in the torpedoboat S-141 off the English coast on May 13th, 1944.
Towards the end of World War Two, Adolf Hitler had entrenched himself in his Führerbunker beneath the Reichschancellory in Berlin. In his political testament, made up the day prior to his suicide on April 30th, 1945, Hitler named Grossadmiral Dönitz as his successor. Dönitz himself had expected Hermann Göring or Heinrich Himmler to succeed Hitler but they both had fallen from grace; Göring because he had openly applied for this post and Himmler because he had tried in vain to make peace agreememnts with the Allies, without informing Hitler. Furthermore, Hitler felt he had been betrayed by the leaders of the Wehrmacht, the Luftwaffe and the SS because they had, in his opinion, lost him the war. The Kriegsmarine had played no significant role in this defeat and moreover, the German dictator was surely not disappointed about the results of the U-boat war. Hence, Karl Dönitz appeared to be Hitler’s most logical successor. Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels was appointed Reichskanzler but he committed suicide on May 1st, 1945. On the same day, Grossadmiral Dönitz became Reichspräsident and Commander-in-Chief of the German armed forces. He set up his government in Plön near Flensburg, close to the Danish border. The Dönitz government was also known as the Flensburg government. Dönitz had chosen this place because he hoped to be arrested by the Allies after the inevitable defeat of Germany rather than by the revengeful Soviets. The same night, Dönitz announced on radio, addressing the German population, that Adolf Hitler had died a hero’s death and that Germany would continue fighting in order to prevent the country from being overrun by Soviet troops. The greatest merit of the Flensburg government was the evacuation by sea of 2.5 million German soldiers and civilians from German and Polish areas that had been captured by the Soviets.
On May 4th, 1945, the Germans in the Netherlands, Denmark and northwestern Germany surrendered to the British. Reichspräsident Dönitz sent a plea for capitulation to the British Fieldmarshall Bernhard Montgomery but added he wished to continue fighting against the Soviet troops, as he had announced to his people. The next day, he dispatched Generaladmiral Hans Georg von Friedeburg, his successor as Commander-in-Chief of the German navy, to the HQ of General Dwight Eisenhower, the American Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, with the same request. The Allies however denied the request and demanded unconditional surrender by Germany. Threatened by more Alied bombings of German cities, Dönitz gave in and on May 7th, Germany officially surrendered. One day later, another capitulation agreement was signed, this time in the presence of the Soviets. On May 23rd, 1945, the members of the Dönitz government were arrested for warcrimes by the Allied Control Commission. Karl Dönitz had been head of state of the German Republic for a mere 23 days.
From November 20th, 1945 to October 1st, 1946, the Trial of Nuremberg took place in the German city of Nuremberg. During this International Military Tribunal, 22 high ranking Nazi leaders stood trial for warcrimes and crimes against humanity. The four counts of the indictment were:
1. Conspiracy to wage a war of agression or crimes against peace,
2. Waging a war of agression,
3. War crimes,
4. Crimes against humanity.
Karl Dönitz was one of the 22 Nazi leaders during this trial but he was chargesd with the first three counts only. Although he had made anti-Semitic and anti-communist statements regularly during the war in speeches and radio messages, he was not connected to the crimes against humanity in the concentration and extermination camps.
During the first afternoon session on May 10th, 1946, Dönitz was interrogated about a particular statement, when he spoke about the "ever spreading poison of Jewry".
SIR DAVID: Will you now please turn to page 8 of the British document book, where you’ll find your speech on Hero’s day, March 12th, 1944. You say this:
"What would have become of our fatherland today if the Führer had not unified us under Nationalsocialism? Divided parties, battered by the ever spreading poison of Jewry and vulnerable because we lacked the opposition of our present unyielding ideology; therefore we would have succumbed long ago to the burden of this war and we would had surrendered to an enemy that would have destroyed us mercilessly". Document 2878-PS.
What did you mean by the ever spreading poison of Jewry?
DÖNITZ: I meant we were living in a situation of unity and that this unity represented fortitude and that all elements and power …….
SIR DAVID: No, that is not what I asked. I ask you: what did you mean by the ever spreading poison of Jewry? It is your statement and you are going to tell us what you meant by it.
DÖNITZ: I can imagine it would be very difficult for the inhabitants of the cities to withstand the heavy bombardments if such an influence could have taken hold, that is what I meant.
SIR DAVID: Well, you can tell me again what you meant by the ever spreading poison of Jewry.
DÖNITZ: It meant it could have had a devastating effect on the endurance of the population and during our country’s life and death struggle; as a soldier, I was very worried about it.
SIR DAVID: Well, that is what I wanted to know. You were the commander-in-chief and you indoctrinated 600.000 to 700.000 people. Why did you tell them Jewry was an ever spreading poison in partypolitics. Why was that? What was it you had against Jews that made you think they would have a bad influence on Germany?
DÖNITZ: That statement was made in my memorial speech on Hero’s Day. It shows that it was my opinion that the endurance, the capacity of the population such as it was, to endure could have been better maintained if there were no Jewish elements within the nation.
SIR DAVID: This kind of talk, the ever spreading poison of Jewry raised an state of mind that led to the death of five or six million Jews during these past years Are you saying you knew nothing of the actions and intentions to do away with the Jews and exterminate them?
DÖNITZ: Yes of course I say that. I knew absolutely nothing about it and if that kind of statement has been made, it is no proof yet that I had any presumption of the killing of Jews.
This explanation was probably sufficient for the Tribunal not to charge Dönitz with crimes against humanity.
The Tribunal did not find him guilty of count one of the indictment but did find him guilty on counts two and three. The charges against Dönitz were largely based on Weisung 154, the order of unlimited submarine warfare that was in violation of the Navy Protocol of 1936 which had been signed by Germany too, as well as the Laconia order Dönitz had issued following the Laconia incident. Dönitz’ defence got unexpected support from the American admiraal Chester Nimitz, among others, who stated that the Americans had also been waging unlimited submarine warfare in the Pacifc. Dönitz was not held accountable for the Laconia order. Karl Dönitz was sentenced to ten years imprisonment. He served his sentence in Spandau prison in what was Western Berlin at the time.
Karl Dönitz was released on October 1st, 1956 and he and his wife retired to the village of Aumühle, near Hamburg in northern Germany. Here he wrote the books "Zehn Jahre und zwanzig Tage" (Ten years and twenty days) and "Mein wechselvolles Leben" (My varied life). In both autobiographic works, he emphasized his life as a non-political officer, just like he had done in his defence at the Nuremberg trial. In later life, he grabbed every opportunity to distance his name and that of the German navy from the crimes against humanity committed by the Nazi regime. He would have acted like a soldier who had to obey orders. Karl Dönitz died of a heart attack, 89 years old on December 24th, 1980. On January 6th, 1981, he was buried without military honours in Waldfriedhof cemetery in Aumühle-Wohltorf, though in the presence of hundreds of German and foreign former officers and other veterans of the war.