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Verdict Karl Dönitz

Dönitz is indicted on Counts One, Two and Three (explanation). In 1935 he took command of the first U-Boat flotilla commissioned since 1918; became commander of the submarine arm in 1936; was made Vice-Admiral in 1940, Admiral in 1942 and on 30 January 1943 Commander-in-Chief of the German Navy. On 1 May 1945 he became the Head of State, succeeding Hitler.

Crimes against Peace

Although Dönitz built and trained the German U-Boat arm, the evidence does not show he was privy to the conspiracy to wage aggressive wars or that he prepared and initiated such wars. He was a line officer performing strictly tactical duties. He was not present at the important conferences when plans for aggressive wars were announced and there is no evidence he was informed about the decisions reached there. Dönitz did however, wage aggressive war within the meaning of that word as used by the Charter. Submarine warfare which began immediately upon the outbreak of war, was fully co-ordinated with the other branches of the Wehrmacht. It is clear that his U-boats, few in number at the time, were fully prepared to wage war.
It is true that until his appointment in January 1943 as Commander-in-Chief he was not an Oberbefehlshaber. But this statement underestimates the importance of Dönitz' position. He was not just any army or division commander. The U-Boat arm was the principal part of the German fleet and Dönitz was its leader. The high seas fleet made a few minor, if spectacular raids during the early years of the war, but the real damage to the enemy was done almost exclusively by his submarines, as the millions of tons of Allied and neutral shipping sunk will testify. Dönitz was solely in charge of this warfare. The Naval War Command reserved for itself only the decision as to the number of submarines in each area. In the invasion of Norway, for example, he made recommendations in October 1939 as to submarine bases, which he claims were no more than a staff study and in March 1940 he made out the operational orders for the supporting U-boats, as discussed elsewhere in this Judgment.

War Crimes

Dönitz 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 Prosecution has submitted that on 3 September 1939 the German U-Boat arm began to wage unrestricted submarine warfare upon all merchant ships, whether enemy or neutral, cynically disregarding the Protocol and that a calculated effort was made throughout the war to disguise this practice by making hypocritical references to international law and supposed violations by the Allies.
Dönitz insists that at all times the Navy remained within the confines of international law and of the Protocol. He testified that when the war began, the guide to submarine warfare was the German Prize Ordinance, taken almost literally from the Protocol; that pursuant to the German view, he ordered submarines to attack all merchant ships in convoy and all that refused to stop or used their radio upon sighting a submarine. When his reports indicated that British merchant ships were being used to give information by wireless, were being armed and were attacking submarines on sight, he ordered his submarines on 17 October' 1939 to attack all enemy merchant ships without warning on the ground that resistance was to be expected. Orders had already been issued on 21 September 1939 to attack all ships, including neutrals, sailing at night without lights in the English Channel.
On 24 November 1939, the German Government issued a warning to neutral shipping that, owing to the frequent engagements taking place in the waters around the British Isles and the French coast between U-Boats and Allied merchant ships which were armed and had instructions to use those arms as well as to ram U-Boats, the safety of neutral ships in those waters could no longer be taken for granted. On 1 January 1940, the German U-Boat command, acting on the instructions of Hitler, ordered U-Boats to attack all Greek merchant ships in the zone surrounding the British Isles which was banned by the United States to its own ships and also merchant ships of every nationality in the limited area of the Bristol Channel. Five days later a further order was given to U-Boats to make immediately unrestricted use of weapons against all ships in an area of the North Sea, the limits of which were defined. Finally on 18 January 1940, U-Boats were authorized to sink, without warning, all ships "in those waters near the enemy coast in which the use of mines can be pretended". Exceptions were to be made in the cases of United States, Italian, Japanese and Soviet ships.
Shortly after the outbreak of war the British Admiralty, in accordance with its Handbook of Instructions of 1938 to the merchant navy, armed its merchant vessels, in many cases convoyed them with an armed escort, gave orders to send position reports upon sighting submarines, thus integrating merchant vessels into the warning network of naval intelligence. On 1 October 1939, the British Admiralty announced British merchant ships had been ordered to ram U-Boats if possible.
In the actual circumstances of this case, the Tribunal is not prepared to hold Dönitz guilty for his conduct of submarine warfare against British armed merchant ships.
However, the proclamation of operational zones and the sinking of neutral merchant vessels which enter those zones presents a different question. This practice was employed in the war of 1914-1918 by Germany and adopted in retaliation by Great Britain. The Washington Conference of 1922, the London Naval Agreement of 1930 and the Protocol of 1936 were entered into with full knowledge that such zones had been employed in that war. Yet the Protocol made no exception for operational zones. The order of Dönitz to sink neutral ships without warning when found within these zones was, in the opinion of the Tribunal, therefore a violation of the Protocol.
It is also asserted that the German U-Boat arm not only did not carry out the warning and rescue provisions of the Protocol but that Dönitz deliberately ordered the killing of survivors of shipwrecked vessels, whether enemy or neutral. The Prosecution has introduced much evidence surrounding two orders of Dönitz, War Order Number 154, issued in 1939 and the so called Laconia order of 1942. The Defense argues that these orders and the evidence supporting them do not show such a policy and introduced much evidence to the contrary. The Tribunal is of the opinion that the evidence does not establish with the certainty required that Dönitz deliberately ordered the killing of shipwrecked survivors. The orders were undoubtedly ambiguous and deserve the strongest censure.
The evidence further shows that the rescue provisions were not carried out and that the defendant ordered that they should not be carried out. The argument of the Defense is that the security of the submarine is, as the first rule of the sea, paramount to rescue and that the development of aircraft made rescue impossible. This may be so, but the Protocol is explicit. If the commander cannot rescue, then under its terms he cannot sink a merchant vessel and should allow it to pass unharmed before his periscope. These orders then, prove Dönitz is guilty of a violation of the Protocol.
In view of all of the facts proved, and in particular of an order of the British Admiralty announced on 8 May 1940, according to which all vessels should be sunk at night in the Skagerrak and the answer to interrogatories by Admiral Nimitz that unrestricted submarine warfare was carrieid on in the Pacific Ocean by the United States from the first day that nation entered the war, the sentence of Dönitz is not assessed on the ground of his breaches of the international law of submarine warfare.
Dönitz was also charged with responsibility for Hitler's Commando Order of 18 October 1942. Dönitz admitted he received and knew of the order when he was Flag Officer of U-boats, but disclaimed responsibility. He points out that the order by its express terms excluded men captured in naval warfare, that the Navy had no territorial commands on land, and that submarine commanders would never encounter Commandos. In one instance, when he was Commander-in-Chief of the Navy in 1943, the members of the crew of an Allied motor torpedo boat were captured by German naval forces. They were interrogated for intelligence purposes on behalf of the local admiral, and then turned over by his order to the SD and shot. Dönitz said that if they were captured by the Navy their execution was a violation of the Commando Order, that the execution was not announced in the Wehrmacht communiqué and that he was never informed of the incident. He pointed out that the admiral in question was not in his chain of command, but was subordinate to the Army general in command of the Norway occupation. But Dönitz permitted the order to remain in full force when he became Commander-in-Chief and to that extent he is responsible.
Dönitz in a conference of 11 December 1944, said: "12,000 concentration camp prisoners will be employed in the shipyards as additional labor".
At this time he had no jurisdiction over shipyard construction and claims that this was merely a suggestion at the meeting that the responsible officials do something about producing ships, that he took no steps to get these workers, since it was not a matter for his jurisdiction and that he does not know whether they ever were procured. He admits he knew of concentration camps. A man in his position must necessarily have known that citizens of occupied countries were confined in the concentration camps in large numbers.
In 1945 Hitler requested the opinion of Jodl and Dönitz whether the Geneva Convention should be denounced. The notes of the meeting between the two military leaders on 20 February 1945 show that Dönitz expressed his view that the disadvantages of such an action outweighed the advantages. The summary of Dönitz' attitude shown in the notes taken by an officer, included the following sentence: "'It would be better to carry out the measures considered necessary without warning, and at all costs to save face with the outer world".
The Prosecution insisted that ''the measures'' referred to meant that the Convention should not be denounced, but should be broken at will. The Defense explanation is that Hitler wanted to break the Convention for two reasons: to take away from German troops the protection of the Convention, thus preventing them from continuing to surrender in large groups to the British and Americans; and also to permit reprisals against Allied prisoners of war because of Allied bombing raids. Dönitz claims that what he meant by "measures" were disciplinary measures against German troops to prevent them from surrendering and had no reference to measures against the Allies that this was merely a suggestion and that in any event no such measures were ever taken, either against Allies or Germans. The Tribunal however, does not believe this explanation. The Geneva Convention was not, however, denounced by Germany. The Defense has introduced several affidavits to prove that British naval prisoners of war in camps under Dönitz' jurisdiction were treated strictly according to the Convention and the Tribunal takes this fact into consideration and regards it as a mitigating circumstance.


The Court finds the Defendant Dönitz not guilty on Count One of the Indictment and is guilty on Counts Two and Three.

See also: Final statement Dönitz

Explanation of the four Counts of the Indictment:

  1. Conspiracy to wage a war of aggression or crimes against peace
  2. waging of a war of aggression
  3. war crimes
  4. crimes against humanity


concentration camp
Closed camp where people are being held captive that are considered to be anti- social, enemies of the state, criminal or unwanted individuals. These groups mostly do not get a fair trial or are condemned to doing time in a camp.
crimes against humanity
Term that was introduced during the Nuremburg Trials. Crimes against humanity are inhuman treatment against civilian population and persecution on the basis of race or political or religious beliefs.
Military unit, usually consisting of one upto four regiments and usually making up a corps. In theory a division consists of 10,000 to 20,000 men.
Armed incursion.
Resistance against the enemy. Often also with armed resources.
A weapon of war. A cigar shaped body fitted with explosives and a propulsion and control mechanism. Intended to target after launch a nearby enemy ship and disable it by underwater explosion.
The German name for a submarine. German U-Boats (Submarines) played a very important role during the course of warfare until May 1943. Many cargo and passenger ships were torpedoed and sunk by these assassins of the sea.
war crimes
Crimes committed in wartime. Often concerning crimes committed by soldiers against civilians.
German armed military forces, divided in ground forces, air force and navy.


Karl Dönitz, C-in-C of the Kriegsmarine as of 1943 and Hitler's successor as Reichspräsident Source: Wikimedia Bild 146-1976-127-06A.


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Arnold Palthe
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International Military Tribunal, Nuremberg 1947