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Götterdämmerung German Admirals on Trial

By Alan P. Rems

Count 3, covering violations of the rules of war, required no innovative rationale. Supplementing the Hague and Geneva conventions, naval warfare rules were laid down in the 1935 Treaty of London signed by Nazi Germany, which forbade sinking merchant ships without warning and required the safeguarding of shipwrecked passengers and crews.

Admirals Raeder and Dönitz were separately indicted under Counts 1, 2, and 3. Unlike the German generals, the admirals were not charged under Count 4 with crimes against humanity. Nevertheless, they faced charges serious enough to earn them a place on the scaffold had their cases gone differently.

The Admirals

Raeder commanded the German navy for 15 years, from the Weimar Republic in 1928 until early 1943. Dissatisfied with the performance of the surface navy, German Führer Adolf Hitler then removed Raeder to a figurehead position and installed Dönitz in his place. Commander of a U-boat during World War I, Dönitz led that force from its re-establishment in 1935 until he succeeded Raeder. Selected by Hitler as his successor, Dönitz ruled the crumbling Third Reich in its final days and presided over a powerless government in the weeks after the German surrender.

Both admirals were ardent nationalists, but otherwise very different men. Fifteen years older than Dönitz and reared in the big surface-navy mentality of Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, Raeder had aspirations for Germany to again become a great naval power. 2 He readily accepted the Nazi regime that might bring that about without particular attachment to its ideology. 3

Although Dönitz later tried to portray himself as no more than a dedicated sailor, his record tells a quite different story. A passionate admirer of Hitler, the admiral ended a long-standing navy policy of avoiding political involvement by joining the Nazi Party in early 1944. 4 His dedication was recognized by receipt of the Golden Party Badge that year. 5 Intent that his officers share his Nazi ideals, Dönitz instructed them: “The officer is the exponent of the state. The idle chatter that the officer is non-political is nonsense.” 6 As a measure of how thoroughly his commanders were imbued with Nazi fervor, virtually no navy personnel were implicated in the plot to kill Hitler. 7 While in Russian hands, Raeder wrote: “Dönitz’s strong political party inclination brought him difficulties as head of the navy. His last speech to the Hitler Youth . . . gave him in the navy the nickname Hitlerboy [Hitlerbube] Dönitz.” 8

Defending Dönitz and assisting in Raeder’s defense was Otto Kranzbühler, considered the shrewdest defense attorney at Nuremberg, a naval judge advocate who remained on active duty until the German navy was dissolved. Appearing in uniform for much of the trial, Kranzbühler projected an image of uprightness that, along with his considerable tact and legal skill, gained the goodwill of the court and helped offset Dönitz’s image as “a tough U-boat commander who looked and acted the part.” 9 In hopes they might change his attitude, Dönitz was seated at lunch with defendants who had become disillusioned with Hitler and his regime. 10 They could not shake this true believer, regarded by chief deputy prosecutor Telford Taylor as an “intelligent and forceful but harsh and purblind [half-blind] man.” 11

Aggressive Warfare

Of the two admirals, Raeder’s exposure was much the greater under Counts 1 and 2. In deciding when the conspiracy against peace began, the court settled on the secret Hossbach Conference of December 1937, so-called from Hitler’s adjutant who recorded the proceedings. Hitler then informed his military leaders, including Raeder, of his plans for war, urging them to prepare. Thereafter, Raeder was directly involved in planning and directing offensive naval operations, most importantly the invasions of Norway and Denmark, which were undertaken at his urging to protect the delivery of Swedish iron ore and to acquire bases on the Atlantic. Although Raeder opposed the invasion of Russia, it was only because he was unwilling to take on a new opponent while Britain remained unbeaten.

Aware that the British had themselves considered occupying northern Norway, Raeder’s counsel sought access to the Admiralty’s records. That request was refused, as the rules of the court denied a tu quoque defense, essentially the contention that if we did wrong so did you.

Dönitz was in a far better position to respond to the conspiracy and aggressive-warfare charges. Limited to command of the U-boats, he had not participated in the high-level discussions leading to Germany’s attack on other states. By the time he assumed command of the navy in 1943, Germany was waging a defensive war for survival.

The U-boat War

Above all else, the fates of Dönitz and Raeder rested on how the court judged the conduct of the U-boat war. In direct violation of the London Naval Treaty, U-boats had regularly attacked merchant ships without warning and without attempting to rescue their passengers and crews. Kranzbühler had learned that U.S. submarines acted in much the same way against Japanese merchant shipping, but the rules of the court barred a tu quoque defense. Brilliantly, he argued that, with the arming of merchant vessels and their sailing under armed escort, the London treaty rules had become impossible for submarines to follow without inviting destruction. He reasoned that America, like Germany, had responded appropriately to a situation not foreseen in the treaty.

Kranzbühler sought to prove his point through an interrogatory to Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, wartime commander of U.S. naval forces in the Pacific. That bid would have been rejected, just as Raeder was denied access to the Admiralty’s records, except that America’s lead jurist, Francis Biddle, recognized the hypocrisy if the request was denied. Asserting personal privilege, Biddle forced the interrogatory through, and the response from Nimitz was decisive. Japanese merchantmen had indeed been regularly sunk without warning or attempt to rescue their crews. Taylor later wrote, “it was as clear as clear could be that if Dönitz and Raeder deserved to hang for sinking ships without warning, so did Nimitz.” 12

Still, the admirals were not out of the woods. Sinking ships without warning was one thing, but what happened to the seamen left alive in the water was another matter. After a U-boat rescuing survivors from the British passenger ship Laconia was attacked, Dönitz ordered: “no attempt of any kind must be made at rescuing members of ships sunk . . . rescue runs counter to the elementary demands of warfare for the destruction of enemy ships and crews.” 13 Determining the intent and general understanding of the final words—“and crews”—became critical in connection with one incident. Operating in the Mediterranean Sea, U-boat commander Lieutenant Heinz Eck had ordered the destruction of ship debris and the shooting of all survivors of a merchantman to conceal his presence in the area. During Eck’s postwar trial, it emerged that he was briefed before departure by flotilla commander Captain Karl-Heinz Moehle, who understood that Dönitz wanted ship crews to be killed.

Moehle testified at Nuremberg that his understanding was based on discussion with naval staff, who insisted that such incidents not be recorded in the U-boat logs. Backing up Moehle, Lieutenant Peter Heisig testified that, during an address to officers in training, Dönitz encouraged killing shipwrecked crews so they could not sail again. The testimony of Moehle and Heisig was in line with information conveyed by Hitler to the Japanese ambassador, that shipping was being attacked with the added objective “of killing as many of the crew as possible” so that “the Americans will soon have difficulties enlisting people.” 14

Under Kranzbühler’s skillful cross-examination, Heisig changed his testimony and Moehle admitted that there was no formal instruction calling for the killing of shipwrecked crews. Although Moehle had instructed departing captains over a three-year period, when such a substantial misconception should logically have surfaced, Dönitz claimed Moehle “is the only person who had doubts about the meaning of that order.” At Kranzbühler’s initiative, 67 former U-boat captains who were naturally disposed to support their former commander provided affidavits claiming they did not interpret the order as an instruction to kill shipwrecked crews. Thus, the issue remained unresolved, the ambiguity in the Laconia Order most likely intentional to provide cover for captains who acted in a way Dönitz preferred and Eck did.

The court also considered the case of the British passenger liner Athenia , sunk mistakenly by a U-boat in the first hours of war with the loss of 128 lives, including 28 Americans. Sensitive about Germany’s relations with neutral America, the boat’s log was altered at Hitler’s orders and the Ministry of Propaganda concocted a cover story that accused Prime Minister Winston Churchill of ordering the sinking to gain American support. While Dönitz and Raeder were cleared of responsibility for authorizing the sinking, Raeder was held responsible for allowing the propaganda statement to stand after the U-boat returned and the full facts became known.

The Other Charges

Of the other Count 3 charges, particularly serious was the Commando Order. In the summer of 1942, infuriated by commando operations along the Channel coast, Hitler required that the armed services issue orders calling for the execution of all commando prisoners whether or not in uniform. Intended as a deterrent and completely illegal, this order was distributed by Raeder and remained in force under Dönitz. Raeder was most directly affected, as naval troops either executed prisoners or turned them over to the Nazi security service (SD) for execution. As Dönitz was not informed about the single occurrence when he commanded the navy, and lacked jurisdiction in that case, he was held responsible only for allowing the order to remain in force. Still, Dönitz faced several additional charges not connected to the conduct of the war at sea.

Apparently knowing more than a little about concentration camps and their operations, Dönitz proposed using 12,000 prisoners for shipbuilding and repair on the Baltic coast, an outright violation of the Hague Convention. Recognizing the likely attitude of those unwilling laborers, he advocated group punishment for any acts of sabotage. When word filtered back to Germany about the secret killings of communist prisoners in an Australian POW camp, Dönitz extolled the killer as a hero who would be honored on his return to the fatherland. Also, responding to a proposal by Hitler that Germany renounce the Geneva Convention, Dönitz suggested that the desired actions be taken but without announcement so as not to lose face. Dönitz explained away these charges with some plausibility, although it was difficult to know how much was true and how much the product of his own and Kranzbühler’s ingenuity.

The real enemies for Dönitz, a committed Nazi, were communist Russia and, closely identified in the twisted ideology, world Jewry. Invited by Hitler to deliver the annual Heroes Day address in 1944, Dönitz extolled the Führer as rescuing a Germany “beset with the spreading poison of Jewry and vulnerable to it.” 15 Shrugging off his words in court, Dönitz declared they meant that he believed Germany “could be better preserved than if there were [no] Jewish elements in the nation.” 16 With much relief, he found that the prosecution had not turned up another 1944 speech in which, sounding even more like a rabid Gauleiter, he had declared, “I would rather eat dirt than have my grandson grow up in the Jewish spirit and faith.” 17

These utterances were not, in the words Dönitz used exhorting his men to politicize, “idle chatter.” In October 1943, Dönitz was guest speaker at the Posen Conference of Nazi Party leaders. Following him at the podium was Reich Leader of the SS Heinrich Himmler, who used the occasion to describe the murder of the European Jews with the obvious intent of involving his audience in the crime. 18 With such awareness, Dönitz was fully complicit in genocide in his 1944 speeches. While it is improbable that the admiral would have faced execution if later evidence and insights were available, as has been suggested, sufficient substance existed for indictment under Count 4 for crimes against humanity. 19 At a lunch break during the trial, after hearing the testimony of several concentration-camp survivors, a shaken Kranzbühler asked Dönitz, “Didn’t anybody know anything about these things?” Dönitz just shrugged and kept eating. 20

After the attempt on Hitler’s life in 1944 that left the Führer slightly wounded, Dönitz spoke to the nation by radio, assuring his listeners that Hitler was well and denouncing the conspirators. Defending that broadcast, Dönitz maintained that, had the attempt been successful, “the firm structure of the state would gradually have been destroyed.” 21 Little wonder that Dönitz earned accolades from some of Hitler’s most devoted followers in the dock—Hermann Göring, Wilhelm Frick, and Julius Streicher. After listening to other defendants express remorse, Göring exulted, “Now we finally hear a decent German soldier speak for once.” 22

Deliberations and Verdicts

Raeder’s case was decided with relative ease. Hampered by his “rough blend of feistiness and pedantry” and a chief defense counsel who irritated through “boring repetitiveness” and impudence, the case had to “paddle itself upstream,” according to one historian. 23 Conspiracy under Count 1 was clearly proved by the admiral’s evasion of naval provisions of the Treaty of Versailles and, most important, participating in the Hossbach Conference. Raeder’s waging of aggressive warfare, especially the attacks on Norway and Denmark for which he was directly responsible, easily gained conviction under Count 2. While the most serious Count 3 charges concerning submarine warfare were successfully parried by Dönitz and Kranzbühler, the executions under the Commando Order and the Athenia charge were sufficient for conviction under that count as well. With the Soviet jurist favoring a sentence of death and the other jurists favoring lesser but still severe punishment, life imprisonment was ultimately decided. Unwilling to spend the rest of his years in prison, the 71-year-old admiral requested execution instead. His request was rejected on the grounds that there was no provision in the tribunal’s charter allowing a penalty to be increased.

Deciding Dönitz’s case was far more difficult. To assist the jurists, various experts were brought to Nuremberg, including James H. Rowe, a former naval intelligence officer who had served under Biddle in the Justice Department. As Dönitz was not involved in the discussions leading to war and was in a subordinate position when Germany was on the offensive, Rowe considered him no guiltier of conducting aggressive war than any other German officer. That made complete sense with regard to Counts 1 and 2. Turning to the several U-boat–related issues under Count 3, Rowe favored wiping the slate clean based on Nimitz’s response. Then, dismissing the remaining Count 3 charges as sufficiently minor, he recommended acquittal on all charges.

Sensitive about America’s actions in the submarine war, Biddle eagerly accepted Rowe’s recommendations, declaring, “Germany waged a much cleaner war than we did.” 24 This was too much for the other jurists, including the American alternate, and particularly repugnant to Britain’s lead jurist, whose nation had suffered most heavily during the U-boat war.

When the majority voted to convict Dönitz under Counts 2 and 3, Biddle threatened to write a dissenting opinion. Anxious to present a united front to the world, the jurists reached a compromise under which the verdicts would stand but Biddle was allowed to write the opinion. The result was the least comprehendible opinion delivered at Nuremberg, the author pulling his punches as far as possible. Irrationally, Dönitz was convicted under Count 2 on the ground that, when war commenced, “his U-boats, few in number at the time, were fully prepared to wage war.” In dealing with Count 3, Biddle’s meandering wording made it impossible to ascertain the grounds on which guilt was determined. 25 Missing entirely was Dönitz’s role as a dedicated National Socialist who had endeavored to infect the navy with that murderous ideology. In line with Biddle’s relatively mild opinion, Dönitz was sentenced to ten years in prison, the lightest punishment handed down by the court.

Spandau and Post-Prison Life

The chilly relations that existed at Nuremberg between the two admirals continued in Spandau Prison. Raeder treated his former subordinate with condescension while Dönitz accused Raeder of forfeiting the opportunity to defeat Britain in 1941 by pouring resources into the surface fleet that could instead have gone for intensified U-boat construction. 26 Their unequal punishments were brought into line when Raeder, for health reasons, was released in 1955—one year before Dönitz. Raeder died at 84 in 1960.

Tensions were even greater between Dönitz and his one-time colleague and friend, former armaments minister Albert Speer, who served a 20-year sentence at Spandau. Speer tried to shake Dönitz from his devotion to Hitler, blindness to the crimes of the Nazis, and unwillingness to accept his share of responsibility for the misery brought on Europe. Convinced he had done no wrong and was convicted as the ruler of a defeated nation, Dönitz berated Speer for encouraging Hitler to appoint him as his successor and causing him to lose a decade of his life. “He is unable to see the magnitude of the horror,” Speer lamented in his prison diary. 27

On his release in 1956, Dönitz was warmly embraced by his captains and enjoyed their adulation through the end of his long life. Reading his 1958 memoirs, it is impossible to accept at face value much that he wrote, including, “What I learned in 1945 . . . and in 1946 about the inhuman side of the National Socialist system made a profound impression on me.” No less acceptable, considering his long and close service beside Hitler, was Dönitz’s claim that “The demonical side of [Hitler’s] nature I perceived when it was too late.” 28 Marveling at how completely Dönitz obscured his “personal relation to Hitler” and “childish faith in National Socialism,” Speer found the memoirs “the book of a man without insight.” 29 Unimpeded by a meaningful Nuremberg verdict, Dönitz fashioned a legend that could be embraced by the most unregenerate Nazis as well as credulous Allied officers who accepted his sanitized version of history and showered Dönitz with letters of support as a wronged brother-in-arms. Dönitz died in 1980 at the age of 89.

Was Justice Achieved?

In 1996, Taylor published an insider’s account titled The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials . The former chief deputy prosecutor maintained that, while it would have been appropriate to condemn aggressive warfare and declare it punishable in the future, such charges had been brought ex post facto against the defendants as critics had complained all along. 30 Also, among what Taylor called the “political warts” of the trial, was the imposition of the tu quoque rule with “lamentable concealment of evidence in the Raeder case.” 31

Had the trial been limited to the prosecution of crimes against the laws of war and humanity (Counts 3 and 4) as Taylor would have preferred, the outcomes should mostly have not been much different. That is, for those defendants charged under Counts 1 and 2 who were also charged under Counts 3 and/or 4, the severity of the crimes covered by the latter counts were more than sufficient to justify the punishments handed down. Limiting the charges also would have avoided the unsuccessful prosecutions of former economics minister Hjalmar Schacht and ex-chancellor and diplomat Franz von Papen, both indicted and acquitted under Counts 1 and 2.

Except for Rudolf Hess, whose borderline insanity might better have kept him out of the dock, no defendant absorbed the weight of the conspiracy and aggressive war charges more fully than Raeder, whose available defense was squashed by the tu quoque rule. Certainly, the Commando Order and the Athenia issue did not warrant a life sentence, especially when compared with the 20-year sentence received by Speer, who was responsible for the mistreatment of millions of slave laborers.

For quite different reasons the outcome of Dönitz’s case was unfortunate. His conviction under Count 2 gave his supporters good reason for complaint about victor’s justice. The admiral should have been convicted only under Count 3, with coherent enunciation of the reasons in an opinion written by someone other than Biddle. 32 The world was entitled to know exactly why Dönitz was guilty and deserved punishment.

Unquestionably, the Nuremberg Trial was necessary and on the whole successful. The crimes committed by most of those indicted and convicted were so enormous that no rational person could believe that the convictions and punishments were inappropriate. Fortunately, the inept disposition of the admirals’ cases was not representative of the quality of justice dispensed at Nuremberg.

1. Henry L. Stimson and McGeorge Bundy, On Active Service in Peace and War (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1947), 587.

2. Stephen Howarth, ed., Men of War (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), 45–46, 51.

3. Eugene Davidson, The Trial of the Germans (New York: Macmillan, 1966), 371.

4. Alan E. Steinweis and Daniel E. Rogers, editors, The Impact of Nazism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), 194, note 40, gives 1 February 1944 as Dönitz’s official membership date.

5. Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen, World War II: The Encyclopedia of the War Years 1941–1945 (New York: Random House, 1996), 256.

6. Davidson, Trial , 415.

7. Jak P. Mallmann Showell, Fuehrer Conferences on Naval Affairs 1939-1945 (London: Chatham Publishing, 1990), 406.

8. G. M. Gilbert, Nuremberg Diary (New York: Farrar, Straus and Company, 1947), 342.

9. Bradley F. Smith, Reaching Judgment at Nuremberg (New York: Basic Books, 1977), 250.

10. Joseph E. Persico, Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial (New York: Penguin Books USA, 1994), 223.

11. Telford Taylor, The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), 409.

12. Ibid., 406.

13. Ibid., 403.

14. Robert E. Conot, Justice at Nuremberg (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), 412.

15. Taylor, Anatomy , 405.

16. Ibid., 406.

17. Persico, Nuremberg , 253. Dönitz struck a very different note at Nuremberg, telling the prison psychiatrist, “We had no Jewish problem in the navy . . . I had no prejudices.” Leon Goldensohn, The Nuremberg Interviews (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), 14.

18. Peter Padfield, Dönitz: The Last Fuhrer (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), 322–323. While others allow the possibility that Dönitz departed before Himmler spoke, Padfield convincingly shows why that would be highly unlikely. Certainly, Dönitz lied in telling the Nuremberg psychiatrist, “I didn’t know then about Hitler’s extermination of Jews, which I learned about for the first time in Nuremberg.” Goldensohn, Interviews , 11. Himmler remained on friendly terms with Dönitz through the war, even presuming he might enter Dönitz’s short-lived government. The request unsurprisingly was refused.

19. Ibid., 468.

20. Persico, Nuremberg , 237.

21. Taylor, Anatomy , 403.

22. Gilbert, Nuremberg Diary , 327.

23. Smith, Reaching Judgment , 246.

24. Ibid., 568.

25. Ann and John Tusa, The Nuremberg Trial (London: BBC Worldwide Publishing, 1995), 462.

26. Albert Speer, Spandau: The Secret Diaries (New York: Macmillan, 1976), 116.

27. Ibid., 42.

28. Karl Dönitz, Memoirs: Ten Years and Twenty Days (Cleveland, OH: The World Publishing Company, 1959), 467, 477.

29. Speer, Spandau , 334.

30. Taylor, Anatomy , 635.

31. Ibid., 639.

32. The prospect of a Biddle dissent, signifying disunity of the tribunal, lost most of its force when the Russians formally dissented about several verdicts and sentences.



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