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The Last Days Of The Third Reich
Forty years ago, a tangle of chaotic events led to the death of Hitler, the surrender of the Nazis, and the end of World War II in Europe
April/may 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 3
Later that day Doenitr received a second radio signal from Berlin. This one staggered him. Without mentioning that Hitler was dead, Bormann informed the admiral that the Führer had appointed Doenitz as his successor. Until this moment, Doenitz had never received the slightest hint that he was considered a suitable heir. Now he suddenly found himself president of the Reich, supreme commander of the Wehrmacht…the Führer.
The man who took over this collapsing regime was a fifty-four-year-old career officer who looked, without his resplendent naval uniform, like a shoe clerk. Though perhaps unprepossessing in appearance, Doenitz had gained renown for carrying out one of the deadliest strategies in modern naval warfare, the submarine wolfpack. Using this technique, Doenitz’s two hundred Uboats had sent over fifteen million tons of Allied shipping to the bottom of the sea.
Karl Doenitz, a descendant of squires and magistrates, was an archetypal German of his class. He accepted authority from above without question and expected the same obedience from below. An apolitical monarchist by temperament, he had been scandalized by the disorder of the Weimar Republic. When the Nazis came along, he took their professions of nationalism and idealism at face value. He believed that Hitler had made Germany “Europe’s strongest bulwark against the onslaught of Communism.”
Hitler’s effect on Doenitz, he confessed, had been mystical and hypnotic: “after spending even a few days at his headquarters, I generally had the feeling that I would have to get away from Hitler’s suggestive influence if I were to free myself from it.”
Still, Karl Doenitz was no brown-shirt bully. He had even intervened personally with Hitler to save some “decent Jews” in his navy. But toward the official Nazi racial claptrap and its tragic consequences, he turned a blind eye.
If Hitler had sought slavish loyalty in his heir, he had made the perfect choice. With the war hopelessly lost, Admiral Doenitz was still exhortine his navy to fight on and still signing death sentences for deserters. Before Hitler’s surprise move, all that Doenitz had wanted was to die an honorable death in battle, as his two sons had already done.
But now he was the Führer, and his first concern was to find out how the spurned Himmler would take this news. “Himmler had armed forces at his disposal,” he later observed, adding, “I had none.” He invited Himmler to see him again, this time on his own turf at Plön.
At first Himmler haughtily refused to come. Finally he gave in to Doenitz’s pleas and arrived at the admiral’s headquarters accompanied by six armed SS men. Doenitz received Himmler seated at his desk. Under some papers and within reach, the admiral had concealed a pistol with the safety catch off.
Doenitz handed Himmler the message appointing himself Führer. Himmler read it and turned pale, his features disbelieving. He, the most powerful Nazi next to Hitler, the policeman of Europe, the imolementer of the “final solution,” had been passed over for this colorless sailor? ( Doenitz’s eyes followed Himmler uneasily as the Reichsführer slowly rose to his full height. Then Himmler bowed to Doenitz and said, “Allow me to become the second man in your state.”
Doenitz experienced deep relief. He also managed to put off Himmler on his offer to serve in the new government.
The Nazi empire that Doenitz inherited was now only a remnant of its once vast reach. Days before, the American and Russian armies had indeed linked up at Torgau on the Elbe, splitting Germany in half. German forces in Italy had surrendered unconditionally, and Soviet troops had reached the Berlin Reichstag . German soldiers were surrendering to the West in numbers that suggested a field-gray tidal wave flowing into POW cages. Field Marshal Montgomery’s 21st Army Group had raced across SchleswigHolstein to the Baltic, sealing off Doenitz in an isolated pocket of the country he supposedly led. Doenitz had thus been offered the sea captain’s most glorious fate, the opportunity to go down with his ship. Only this time it was the entire ship of state going under.
The grand admiral nevertheless took up his duties with implausible zeal. Still unaware that Hitler was dead, he radioed Berlin: “My Führer: My loyalty to you will be unconditional. I shall do everything possible to relieve you in Berlin… I shall continue this war to an end worthy of the unique, heroic struggle of the German people.”
The next morning, Doenitz received another message signed by Goebbels and Bormann, who finally informed him that Hitler was dead. That evening Doenitz delivered his first radio address to the German people. The tone of his broadcast was reverential, as he spoke of the “hero’s death” of the Führer. He had not known of Hitler’s suicide. He then explained why he was not immediately ending a hopeless war. “My first task is to save German men and women from destruction by the advancing Bolshevist enemy. It is to serve this purpose alone that the military struggle continues.” He then took a slap at the Western Allies for insisting that Germany surrender to the Russians as well as to the West. “The British and Americans in that case will not be fighting in the interests of their own peoples, but solely for the expansion of Bolshevism in Eurone.”