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Book Review: Karl Doenitz and the Last Days of the Third Reich

By (May 6, 2016) No Comment

Karl Doenitz and the Last Days of the Third Reichkarl d

by Barry Turner

Icon Books, 2016

When Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz became Nazi Germany’s Head of State on April 30, 1945, named by Hitler in his will as his successor, many of his fellow Germans and most of his Allied enemies would have asked the same simple question Barry Turner asks in his even-handed and understated new book, Karl Doenitz and the Last Days of the Third Reich: Why Doenitz? To a predictably uncomfortable extent, the answer largely boils down to the dog-eat-dog attrition of Nazi politics:

Why Doenitz? It is a question that Germany’s most senior naval officer must have asked himself. He was, above all, a professional. Neither allies nor enemies ever doubted his talents as a military commander. As a political leader, however, his credentials were less apparent. A regular attender at Hitler’s strategy conferences, his advice was welcomed and trusted on naval matters but he was by no means a Nazi ideologue. Until 1944 when the bomb plot to assassinate Hitler gave added value to badges of allegiance, he was not even a Party member. Others, surely, were better qualified and better placed to take on the succession. On the other hand, Doenitz must have recognised that a process of elimination had raised his status.

Turner’s book gives readers a quick overview of Doenitz’s military service in both world wars, but his account concentrates on the high drama of a long-time military man being brought into the gaudily pathetic final wreck of the Nazi state, trying to maneuver for the best possible terms with adversaries so heartily sick of war that their preferences ran to the distinctly bloodthirsty. Doenitz had been an extremely effective naval commander (in a war that had cost him two sons), and this no doubt fed into the sanguine attitude of some Allied leaders, which Turner captures well:

The prospect of a trial of alleged German war criminals had been on the Allied agenda since 1942. Churchill was instinctively opposed to a long-drawn-out legal process but when the Big Three met in Tehran in late 1943, he reacted badly to Stalin’s suggestion that, come the peace, 50,000 of the German general staff should be liquidated. Roosevelt tried to make a joke of it, revising the figure down to 49,000. There was no laughter from Churchill. Knowing full well Stalin’s capability for indiscriminate brutality, he declared that his country would not stand for mass murder His preferred option was for what he called ‘executive action,’ the quick dispatch by the military of the big names in the Nazi hierarchy.

Doenitz was sentenced to ten years (Turner incisively mentions that the sentence “stands out as an example of victor’s justice”) and was released from Spandau prison in 1956. He avoided the spotlight and died in 1980, and Barry Turner’s lean and thorough book does him the greatest measure of complex justice he’s yet seen in an English-language publication. Doenitz is a stark example of the “good German” that fruitfully complicates accounts of the war, and Karl Doenitz and the Last Days of the Third Reich puts his case before a new generation of readers.

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