Hitler, Donitz, and the Baltic Sea (39 page)

BOOK: Hitler, Donitz, and the Baltic Sea
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Several members of Hitler’s entourage attested to Dönitz’s popularity with Hitler. Speer later asserted that Dönitz was one of the few Nazis given an SS escort squad and an armored Mercedes, and Hitler’s valet, Heinz Linge, was to recall that the Führer often claimed Dönitz was the only one who had not deceived him. Puttkamer declared that Dönitz won Hitler’s respect by speaking bluntly but honestly, adding that Dönitz had immense authority even with the Party. Hitler’s air force adjutant asserted that in the war’s final weeks Hitler displayed great confidence in Dönitz, but not in Göring or Himmler. Goebbels’s diary contains several passages praising Dönitz for his ideological attitude and determination to continue the struggle. On Hitler’s last birthday, ten days prior to his suicide, he invited only Dönitz, Keitel, Jodl, and Göring individually into his private quarters to receive their best wishes.
Everyone else had to settle for a handshake from Hitler in a crowded conference room. Finally, in his political testament Hitler stated, “May it become a point of honor to future German Army officers, as already is the case with our navy, that the surrender of a district or city is out of the question.”
To reward Dönitz for his loyalty, Hitler granted him a monthly “salary supplement” of four thousand marks.
On the tenth anniversary of the Nazi seizure of power Hitler appointed Dönitz naval commander in chief, and exactly one year later he awarded Dönitz the Golden Party Badge. Hitler was keenly aware of dates and the significance of timing, and it is very unlikely that the choice of 30 January to give Dönitz these two great honors was happenstance.

Dönitz returned Hitler’s admiration. After a meeting in August 1943 Dönitz added to the summary of the conference: “The immense power the Führer radiated, his unswerving confidence, the farsighted evaluation of the situation in Italy these past days has made it very clear that in comparison to the Führer, we are all very wretched pip-squeaks. . . . Anyone who believes he could do better than the Führer is stupid.”
When British aircraft sank the battleship
in November 1944, Hitler did not reproach Dönitz but rather consoled him. Dönitz claimed that on this occasion he realized not only Hitler’s historic greatness but also his humanity.
In July 1945 Dönitz told interrogators that “Hitler was a person with an abundance of good heart; his mistake was perhaps, that he was too noble.”
Immediately prior to the Nuremberg Trials, Dönitz said of Hitler, “I have always found him very courteous, very polite, and very hearty to me. I can’t say any other thing. I made his acquaintance as a man of the best heart, of the most noble heart.”
In the summer of 1946 he pointed out that people in 1850 regarded Napoleon as despicable and a criminal but that forty years later judgment had changed, indicating his belief that Hitler’s reputation would be restored. At the same time he stated, “All in all, I believe that there was very much decent in the Third Reich.”
Even after the Nuremberg trials, when he could no longer even feign ignorance of the enormity of Nazi crimes, Dönitz did not revise his opinion of Hitler. He still considered criticism of Hitler treasonous and was probably the only person on the planet to regard himself as Germany’s sole legal head of state because Hitler had appointed him thus. He bitterly resented being a prisoner and, prior to his trial at Nuremberg, tried to convince the Anglo-Americans that he alone could prevent German naval officers from going over to the Russians.

Some of Dönitz’s actions in the final weeks of the war, including his brief tenure as head of state, require closer scrutiny. On 22 April Dönitz left Berlin first for Plön, and ten days later for Flensburg, to command the
“northern zone,” consisting of northern Germany, Denmark, and Norway. On the morning of the 25th he held a meeting with two Gauleiters of northern Germany, Friedrich Hildebrandt and Hinrich Lohse. Dönitz briefed the two Party officials on what he considered to be the most urgent tasks facing the northern region, explaining that his foremost goal was to obtain more combat soldiers by combing out men from rear-area units in all branches of service. Another “urgent task,” ranked eighth, was to establish flying drumhead courts-martial. In view of the situation facing millions of German soldiers and civilians, one can only wonder at Dönitz’s belief that roving courts-martial were a priority. Furthermore, naval police had a reputation among some Germans as being even more savage than the SS; naval executions for desertion continued until the end of the war and beyond. Incredibly, on 4 May 1945 Dönitz approved a sailor’s death sentence for making critical remarks about Hitler, and on 9 May—after the war had ended—the Naval High Command checked to make sure the execution had been carried out. Three additional sailors who deserted on 5 May were executed on the 10th, again after the war was over.

Dönitz became Reich president on 1 May and held this post until the 23rd, when the Allies arrested him. In that time he did virtually nothing to break with Hitler’s policies. He did reject the services of criminals like Himmler but allowed several Nazis to remain in their cabinet posts, and he ordered no changes whatsoever in OKW. He made no attempt to ban or dissolve the Nazi Party, and pictures of Hitler remained on the walls of government buildings even after Germany’s surrender.

There are several versions of how Hitler selected Dönitz as his successor. After the war Dönitz insisted that the appointment had taken him “completely by surprise.” He also falsely claimed that since 20 July 1944 he “had not spoken to Hitler at all except at some large gathering.”
Dönitz would maintain that in prison Speer confided that he had suggested Dönitz to Hitler as a possible successor. Speer, however, asserted this was not the case and that he had assured Dönitz of this shortly before the latter’s release from Spandau.
At Nuremberg Dönitz testified that he had no idea why Hitler had chosen him, that he assumed it was merely because after Göring’s fall from favor he was the senior service chief.
Yet Admiral Meisel attested that Dönitz had engaged in a power struggle with Göring, due to Dönitz’s “unbridled ambition” to become “the second man in the state.”
Hitler’s naval adjutant related a story that one evening in the winter of 1944–45 Hitler asked who his successor should be. One person proposed Göring, another Himmler, and so forth, but Hitler rejected them all. Then someone suggested Dönitz, and Hitler remained silent.

Some view Hitler’s choice of Dönitz as his successor simply as a matter of convenience, but this is not the case. Hitler seriously considered two army men, Model and Schörner, both experts at defensive warfare and fanatical National Socialists, and coincidentally both former commanders of Army Group North.
It was surely wounded pride and jealousy that led Göring to exclaim, “Who was Dönitz? A little admiral who could negotiate a peace.”
Göring was not alone in suggesting that the selection of Dönitz reflected Hitler’s realization that the war was lost, that he needed to appoint someone suitable to make peace. This appears to be a logical course of action in hindsight, but it does not make sense when viewed from Hitler’s perspective when he made this decision. In his last days Hitler repeatedly looked to Dönitz to
Berlin, not to surrender it.
Furthermore, Hitler expelled Göring and Himmler from the Party and stripped them of their titles for negotiating with the Allies. Hitler’s anguish and sense of betrayal at their attempts to negotiate is well documented. Furious, Hitler shouted, “A traitor must never succeed me as Führer.”
Why would he have appointed Dönitz as his successor to make peace when he had just disgraced the two most likely candidates for that very reason?

Hitler need not have feared defection by Dönitz. Dönitz had long been an ardent supporter of Hitler’s strategy of holding out to the end. For example, in an address in December 1943 Dönitz proclaimed several ideas he would later insist he had never espoused: “I am a strong supporter of the idea of ideological indoctrination. . . . It is nonsense to say that soldiers or officers must be non-political. . . . I am an adherent of not giving up anything in the East that is not absolutely necessary. I have vigorously advised holding the Crimea. I have exerted my influence as much as I could for that purpose.”

Two months later Dönitz delivered a similar talk, again emphasizing the importance of defending every foot of ground in the East, including the Crimea. He also insisted it was vital to keep the enemy out of the Baltic because of the current buildup of the new U-boat force. In a speech later that year Dönitz maintained that the navy’s “fanatically pursued and unshakable goal” was to revive the U-boat war. He insisted that the Allies had not yet built enough vessels to compensate for the tonnage they had lost and that their demands for shipping space were greater than ever. In December 1944 Dönitz addressed high-ranking naval officers in Weimar, and a major theme of this talk emphasized the need to hold Courland.
In a radio speech of 20 February 1945 Dönitz announced to Germany’s youth, Even after the war had ended, while still head of state, Dönitz declared that “the basis for the further existence of the German people is the national community created by National Socialism.”

You have been so very fortunate as to be placed by destiny in the greatest era of our people. . . . You must be attached body and soul and with all the forces of your heart and character to the Führer. You must regard yourselves
children, whom nothing on earth could ever make waver in their unconditional loyalty. This is the greatest and finest thing in a man’s life—unconditional and loyal devotion to the great man who is his leader.

Dönitz certainly had done nothing to indicate to Hitler that he would conclude peace. In March 1945 he urged Germans to follow the example of the Japanese at Iwo Jima, where American troops killed 14,000 Japanese soldiers but captured only 180. In a decree of 11 April 1945 he warned that slavery awaited Germans in the Soviet zone of occupation, while in the Anglo-Saxon zones National Socialism would be ruthlessly eliminated, resulting in chaos for the German people. In addition, he cautioned that the “intellectual weaklings” who considered surrender would be the first to perish under such conditions. Finally, Dönitz pointed out that continuing to fight offered Germany the only hope to improve its situation. He commanded all naval personnel on land to fight to the end defending their naval bases, and those at sea to go down with their ships rather than surrender. At the meeting with the Gauleiters on 25 April 1945 the subject arose of ending the war to save lives. Dönitz angrily replied that this was a matter for Hitler alone to decide and that no one had the right to diverge from the course determined by him. “The Führer’s actions,” he insisted, “are determined exclusively by concern for the German people. In any event, since capitulation must mean the destruction of the German people’s substance, from this viewpoint it is only right to fight on.”

Dönitz backed up his words with action. On 26 or 27 April, with the situation in Berlin clearly hopeless, he ordered 150–300 naval cadets flown into the capital to help defend the city. Although this demonstration of devotion impressed Hitler, the cadets were not trained for street fighting and needlessly suffered heavy casualties. Hitler’s comments about these troops reveal his fondness for Dönitz:

Grand Admiral Dönitz has detached Navy soldiers for the personal protection of the Führer. They are the bravest men he has. He wants to make a certain number of them available to me. This offer comes from Dönitz himself. He’ll bring them in at any cost. When I have them, it will be a certain relief for you, because it’s the highest elite of a commander-in-chief of one of the branches of the Armed Forces. Of the 600,000 men in the Navy, Dönitz will give the bravest 150 men for my personal protection. The moment could come when extreme steadfastness is everything. . . . The Navy wanted to send in 2,000 men every night for three or four days.

Between 24 and 27 April Dönitz readied approximately 12,000 naval troops for air transport to Berlin, but by this point it was no longer possible to fly them there. In contrast to Himmler and Göring, early on 1 May Dönitz, unaware at this time of Hitler’s suicide, dispatched a telegram to his Führer pledging his loyalty and promising to continue the fight.

Hitler’s political testament contained no indication that he wished his successor to end the war. Instead he wrote: “I request the commanders of the army, navy and air force to strengthen our soldiers’ spirit of resistance in the National Socialist spirit with the utmost means, with special emphasis to the fact that even I myself, as the founder and creator of this movement, have preferred death to cowardly abdication or even a capitulation.”
In the next section of his testament Hitler expelled Himmler and Göring from the Party for negotiating with the enemy without his knowledge and against his wishes. Hitler selected Dönitz as his successor because he believed the grand admiral was a dedicated Nazi who would never surrender.

Memories of 1918 were never far from Hitler’s thoughts. If he had wanted to surrender, he certainly would not have chosen a staunch Nazi to do so, because (even though the war had supposedly been lost due to treachery) true Nazis never surrendered. The greatest treason of the “November Criminals” of 1918 had been to surrender. If he had been thinking of giving up he could have bestowed this burden upon people he detested; like the founders of the Weimar government, they could bear the odium of defeat, not the Nazis. True, it would be difficult to manufacture another “stab in the back” legend with Russians troops occupying the Reichstag, but one lie had caught on, why not another? If 1918 was frequently on Hitler’s mind, it was even more the case with Dönitz. The navy bore the disgrace of having ushered in the revolution with its mutiny. Dönitz, and many other members of the German Navy, were absolutely determined that the service’s loyalty to the government, especially in time of war, never again would be called into question.

BOOK: Hitler, Donitz, and the Baltic Sea
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