From the archive: The silence of Karl Doenitz

‘The nine-day Fuehrer’: Interview with Karl Doenitz, 4 May 1975.

IAlbert Speer: His Battle With Truth, Hitler’s architect tried to charm his biographer Gitta Sereny and convince her that he knew nothing of the Final Solution. But for Karl Doenitz, the U-boat captain who for a few days became president of the Third Reich after Hitler’s suicide, there was seemingly no need for such wasteful dialogue, and he stuck to his own deluded monologue until his death in 1980.

Barry Pree’s interview with Doenitz (‘The nine-day Fuehrer’, 4 May 1975) begins by saying that after his release from Spandau in 1956, he told reporters: ‘It is my duty to remain silent.’ Two years later he published Ten Years and Twenty Days, ‘a dutifully detailed, but remarkably impersonal book about his war-time career and experiences as Head of State’. But because he had not elaborated any further, Pree concluded that, ‘In his own way, this proud old man has kept his word, he has remained silent.’ He didn’t want to face the reality.

Pree described Doenitz, 83, who lived alone in ‘an imposing old villa’ half an hour from Hamburg, as: ‘A surprisingly small man; skeleton thin, quite bird-like, but wiry; and almost totally deaf.’ A journalist writing in the 50s described him as ‘Spandau’s most dangerous character,’ but there was nothing of that now; and little of the man who ‘spat hatred’ at Nuremberg.

‘On 21 July, the day after the attempt to assassinate Hitler and stage a coup,’ wrote Pree, ‘Doenitz broadcast to the nation: “Holy anger and measureless wrath fill us today over the criminal attack that was supposed to have cost the life of our beloved Fuehrer…’ Doenitz always maintained that ‘his primary considerations during the final phase of the war were… to save lives’.

At Nuremberg, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, by far the most lenient of those handed out. ‘Even after the war, and after Nuremberg, his admiration of Hitler remained undiminished.’