Wednesday, November 14, 2012

How Heinrich Himmler Lost the Fuehrership to Doenitz


Late April, 1945


Determined to remain in the besieged Berlin and continue directing the war from there, Hitler divided up the parts of the Reich still in German hands into Southern and Northern Zones and entrusted their day-to-day administration respectively to Goering, the head of the Luftwaffe, and Grand Admiral Doenitz, commander of the Navy. While Goering had already held many government posts in his day, Doenitz had absolutely no experience outside the Navy. Suddenly he found himself in charge of all civilian and military affairs not only for northern Germany, Denmark and Norway. It was not something he relished.

With the war in its final days, the refugee problems Doenitz faced were staggering. Though the Northern Zone was host to hundreds of thousands of refugees, next to nothing had been set up for them; not emergency field kitchens, hospitals nor camps. Mostly this was because Hitler had forbidden any planning for the eventuality of defeat or even retreat. In his mind, the survivors of a defeated Germany had already proven their own unworthiness and did not warrant any aid or accommodation. As a result, the refugees who’d made it into northern Germany were left to wander, starving, wounded and sick, wheeling their few possessions stuffed into carts and prams, others with only the clothes on their backs.

Nevertheless, as dire as the civilian situation was, it largely failed to obtrude into Doenitz’ consciousness. Even with defeat so obviously imminent, the Grand Admiral’s focus stayed on fighting the war. At this point he was probably the last of Hitler’s commanders who still hadn’t given any thought to ending the fighting. Part of the reason was that his own arm, the U-Boats, had not been defeated yet, and what’s more, they were about to a deploy the Type XXIs; a revolutionary new class of hydrogen peroxide-powered, super submarines, which Doenitz believed could still turn the course of the war around.

Doenitz’ other preoccupation was the massive seaborne rescue operation going on in the eastern Baltic. Using a scratch force of everything from destroyers to fishing boats and even barges and harbor craft, the Navy had evacuated nearly a million soldiers and civilians from ports in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and East Prussia. Nearly a million still remained, and he loathed letting them fall into Russian hands. Beyond that, Doenitz felt he had neither the time nor energy to spare for people who, for all their misery, were already relatively safe. He delegated their welfare to a subordinate and put them out of his mind.

As the days crept toward the end of April, and the prospects of rescue of the Berlin festung grew ever more remote, the situation in the Northern Zone also continued to worsen. The British 21st Army Group, which had been advancing on Berlin, suddenly pivoted northward and was soon standing at the outskirts of Hamburg, Bremen, and other port cities along the German North Sea coast. Doenitz was forced to evacuate his headquarters at Koralle for Forelle in Ploen in the Schleswig Holstein peninsula just below Denmark. Soon all that remained between them and the British Army was the Elbe river, which, to the British juggernaut, barely registered as a barrier.

Not far from Ploen were the Eutin Lakes, around which most of the government ministries had set up encampments. Speer was there with his staff, as was just about everyone else who’d escaped Berlin. Some departments who’d managed to bring their files with them resumed a semblance of operations in trailers and trucks. But most spent their time sitting around campfires, trying to decipher the relentlessly optimistic radio broadcasts still coming out of the beleaguered Berlin for any hint of what was really going on. By now all rescue attempts had been thrown back and whatever faith people might once have professed in the miracle weapons were put aside without comment. Everyone knew the war could not possibly go on much longer. But with the memory of the flying squads fresh in their minds, people kept their more realistic speculations to themselves.

By contrast, a much more upbeat atmosphere reigned at SS headquarters in nearby Luebeck. Having sent his secret peace offer to Eisenhower a week earlier, Himmler and his men were confident the Western Allies would soon accept his olive branch and enter into an alliance with Germany against Russia. Himmler, with his eyes squarely on the future, now imagined himself alongside Eisenhower, jointly leading Europe into a fresh millennium of glory. Flush with optimism, he began planning a new government and a new party to replace the Nazis, which he was tentatively calling Nationale Sammlungspartai, or, Party of National Union.

Though he never directly admitted to negotiations with Eisenhower to anyone beyond his inner circle, the broad insinuations Himmler kept making were quite sufficient. Soon everyone began showing up in droves at the Luebeck police presidium to pledge their support to the next Fuhrer and try wheedling posts in his upcoming regime. About all that was missing was for Hitler to take the hint and depart the stage.

Actually, there was something else missing, and being a man accustomed to having all his ducks in a row, Himmler found it perplexing. Grand Admiral Doenitz still had not come to offer allegiance. Was something wrong? The uncertainty was beginning to grate on him. Had Doenitz failed to see the writing on the wall or was he already backing Goering or some other pretender to Hitler’s throne? Finally Himmler had had enough. On April 30, he sent a radio message to Doenitz, telling the Grand Admiral to come to Luebeck for a meeting.

Reading Himmler’s summons, Doenitz felt miffed. Not only was he not being told what the meeting would be about, but as head of the Northern Zone, he should be the one, not Himmler, to initiate meetings. But the state of the Reich being what it was, Doenitz did not see much point in quibbling over protocol with the man who by all appearances was Hitler’s de facto successor. With a small detachment of U-Boat men for security, he set out to see what the Reichsfuhrer wanted.

It was only during that long harrowing drive to Luebeck that it finally dawned on Doenitz how bad things were. There was little traffic except for the endless streams of refugees wandering the roads. The dead lay where they collapsed along the roadside, people who only days before had been solidly bourgeois were now ragged, dirty and fighting over food scraps. It was the sort of thing he’d seen in the defeated nations at the beginning of the war. But watching it happen to his own countrymen was not something he was prepared for.

Reaching Himmler’s headquarters at the Luebeck police presidium, Doenitz felt briefly buoyed by the sight of the SS troops concentrated there. Unlike what he’d seen on the road, these men looked well-fed, well-clothed, well-armed, confident; anything but defeated. Still, they were but a tiny island in a sea of misery.

His meeting with the Reichsfuhrer SS turned out to be a much bigger shock. What began as an ordinary situation briefing soon deteriorated into Himmler’s mystical ramblings. Having just come face-to-face with the enormity of the refugee situation, Doenitz was shocked at Himmler’s lack of empathy toward their plight. Instead of addressing the humanitarian catastrophe going on outside, Himmler talked about Karma and the state of the cosmos, but mainly about himself.

Doenitz listened with growing exasperation as Himmler explained how the great cosmic gyres were spinning, and how the moment had come for him to seize his destiny along with that of Europe. Certainly things were dark at the moment, but soon that darkness would be replaced by the light of a new day. He was at the nexus of a moment of great changes and it was important to recognize this and not fight it. What was happening to Berlin was regrettable, but with the cosmos in flux, it would be foolish to squander any more men and material on a lost cause. What they had to think about instead was the future.

Himmler told him about the fissure soon to erupt between the Western Allies and the Russians and how this could be exploited to Germany’s benefit. Soon they would be at war with each other, leaving the West no choice but to bring Germany into their alliance. Certain measures were already underway which would hasten the new entente, he told Doenitz, though he deftly avoided providing any specifics.

Listening to Himmler, Doenitz felt the cold flash of realization come over him. Certainly the man was a nut, but all this mystical gibberish of his was nothing more than a smokescreen for treason. All this time he’d been dutifully parroting the Fuhrer’s calls for duty, sacrifice and for fighting to the death, while plotting his own peace deal, as if the Fuhrer no longer mattered. So this was what the SS was all about! At least the Navy wasn’t like this. Backstabbing was unthinkable there. It saddened him that Hitler should live to see such betrayal by his closest friends.

Finally Himmler made his pitch. “Grand Admiral, I want to know that when the time comes, as the new Fuhrer, I will be able to count on your support.”

Doenitz’ answer was abrupt. Staring into Himmler’s eyes, he replied icily: “Reichsfuhrer, as a German officer, I will naturally support any legally constituted government.” With a certain grim satisfaction he watched Himmler nervously pull back. It was obviously not the answer he’d been hoping for. Then Doenitz added: “And until we are ordered otherwise, we will of course continue fighting the British and Americans the same as the Russians.” Himmler nodded feebly.

When Doenitz returned to Ploen, he found a radio message waiting for him from Berlin. Far away in San Francisco, something called the United Nations was holding its founding conference and as part of the opening festivities, they’d publicly announced the Reichsfuhrer’s secret peace overtures to Eisenhower. Hitler had learned about it from Western news broadcasts and in his fury, stripped Himmler of all titles and rank. Now he wanted Doenitz to move against him with everything he had.

Putting the message down, Doenitz turned to Admiral Godt and asked him come with him as he walked his dog on the beach. It wasn’t at all clear what Hitler thought Doenitz could do. The fact was, he hadn’t the men or weapons to move against anyone, least of all the Reichsfuhrer, who still has full divisions of heavily Waffen SS at his command. Besides, Himmler’s demotion had come from someone buried inside a bunker in what was now a faraway city, cut off and almost entirely overrun by the Russians. Hitler had to understand by now that his orders wouldn’t carry much weight. “What do they expect me to go after him with?” Doenitz grumbled to Godt, “my sheepdog?”

Still, orders were orders, so he returned to Luebeck to pay Himmler another visit. The drive back didn’t help his bleak state of mind. The ranks of refugees seemed to have only swelled in the last few hours, their misery even more pronounced. The reception at Himmler’s headquarters was much cooler this time. When Doenitz confronted him with Hitler’s accusations, the Reichsfuhrer haughtily dismissed them as enemy disinformation. Though Doenitz didn’t believe Himmler, it was obvious to him that the Reichsfuhrer held all the cards and there was nothing he or the Navy could do about it.

Driving back to Plon, Doenitz felt wracked by helplessness and disgust. Himmler, Hitler’s Faithful Heinrich, was a liar and a traitor and everyone else in the Nazi hierarchy rats scurrying to save their own miserable necks. All that grand talk about loyalty and honor which had for so long been watchwords to a nation now turned out to be empty. He thought about suicide. A soldier’s last bullet is always for himself. Then he thought about getting aboard one of his new U-Boats and taking it out for a last glorious battle. All he’d have to do was drive to the nearest airfield and fly out to Norway, where the new boats were waiting. They would sail out, engage the enemy, sink as many of them as they could, until it became their turn to die. Then the Navy would be free to surrender and go into captivity with its head held high. But in the end, instead of doing any of those things, Grand Admiral Doenitz went back to his headquarters.

This time there were no messages waiting for him from the Fuhrerbunker. Instead he had a surprise visitor. Slumped in a chair outside his office and looking terrible was Albert Speer. He’d come, he said, to offer his services, anything he could do. Looking at his younger colleague, Doenitz felt all the antipathy he’d harbored against him evaporate. He invited Speer to join him and his staff for dinner.


Dinner was largely the same as the enlisted men were getting; turnip soup, black bread and bitter-tasting synthetic coffee, but even so, it must have been welcoming fare to Speer, who had spent most of the last ten days wandering with little sustained human contact. They were all men he knew from countless previous meetings and sitting among them, he no doubt felt again immersed in a certain mess room camaraderie. They were Admiral Meisel, Admiral Godt, Admiral Kummertz, and Captain Hessler, Doenitz’ adjutant and son-in-law, while Doenitz’ aide, Commander Ludde Neurath, came in and out with messages.

After Admirals Kummertz and Godt gave their reports on the day’s progress in the Baltic evacuation and U-Boat and surface operations elsewhere in the theater, Doenitz raised his hand to make an announcement. As soon as it became impossible to continue the Baltic evacuation, he would get aboard one of the new U-Boats and seek out death at sea in a final battle. He turned to Hessler, his son-in-law. “You are now head of the family, Gunther. I trust you to do what’s right for my wife and daughter.”

When the meal was finished and the dishes cleared, Doenitz asked the others to leave him and Speer alone so they could have a private conversation. Though they’d seen each other at Hitler’s birthday party on April 20, this was the first time they’d actually talked since February. They brought each other up to date on what they’d been doing and compared notes on their different meetings with Himmler. Speer alerted Doenitz to the growing mood of revolt in Hamburg, one of the key arrival ports for the Baltic evacuation. Kaufmann, the gauleiter there, was getting antsy about letting his already shattered city get further destroyed in a land battle and had made no secret about his intent to make a deal with the British. Speer also talked about his spur-of-the-moment flight back into Berlin the day before for a last conversation with Hitler. It was a daring stunt, but pointless. When he finally made it through the burning city to the Fuhrerbunker, he was received by a cold and remote Hitler who seemed to regard his appearance as more an intrusion than anything else. Though Doenitz could tell Speer was crushed by this treatment, his numbness was already interspersed with flitterings of dark humor which was not far from Doenitz’ own mood at the moment.

It was perhaps ironic that fate should bring these two men together at the Reich’s darkest hour. In certain respects, the two could not have been more different. Speer, ten years younger, decidedly civilian in bearing, always more than a bit smug and arrogant, played by his own rules as much as he could, bypassing the government and party structures whenever it suited him. His narcissistic nature made him often quite ruthless in how he used people to further his own ends. Doenitz, by contrast, hardly even had a self. He was the Navy and its needs were all he cared about.

Yet what they shared was even more pronounced. Both were at heart technocrats, who viewed politics as beneath them, a petty distraction from more important tasks. They had largely stayed out of the inner workings; Speer, because of his closeness to Hitler and Doenitz, because naval warfare was something which so baffled Hitler, he allowed him a free hand to run his shop.

Doenitz and Speer had always worked well together professionally. They both had a taste for numbers and technology and though Speer might have been a prima-donna, whenever Doenitz needed something, Speer usually could be counted on to deliver.

As they talked, Doenitz’ aide, Captain Ludde Neurath, came in with a fresh report. The U-2511, the first of the Type XXI boats, had just completed another key phase of its shakedown cruise off the Norwegian coast. Everything was progressing so well that in another day the shakedown cruise could be transitioned into its first war patrol. It was the moment he’d spent years waiting for. The most revolutionary and deadly submarine ever designed was ready to go to war. But looking at the report, Doenitz wondered if now any of it even had a point. The war was lost and not even his miracle boats could change its course.

Up to now, it had all been simple for Doenitz. He’d get his orders from Hitler and he’d carry them out. Hitler was in charge, he knew what he was doing and as far as Doenitz was concerned it all worked fine. But once Berlin got surrounded and Hitler gave up his freedom of movement, all of it got crazy. You can’t run a war, even a losing one, from inside a beleaguered fortress. To hell with appearances! Hitler should have gotten out and gone somewhere else, but he wouldn’t. Now he was sending out orders that didn’t make any sense. He no longer had any idea what was going on outside Berlin. Everything in the Northern Zone was completely falling apart. And now Himmler had gone behind his back and was cutting a deal with the Allies.

Doenitz had never planned for surviving the war. Other than his wife and daughter, he’d already lost everything that he’d held dear. Both his sons had been killed, so had his brother. His estates were overrun. If the war was going to just end in a surrender, what would it say to all those who’d already paid the ultimate sacrifice? For Speer too, everything was gone. The buildings he had designed and built to last a millennium had already been pounded to rubble. This was perhaps what bound them together as they sat together in a deathwatch for their world. Hitler’s death might mark a new beginning for Himmler and his crew, but for the two of them, it was obviously the end of the road.

The door opened again. Ludde Neurath had another message. This time, it was a telegram from the Fuhrerbunker. Doenitz stared at it a moment, then handed it to Speer. It read: “IN PLACE OF THE FORMER REICH-MARSHAL GOERING, THE FUHRER APPOINTS YOU, HERR GRAND ADMIRAL, AS HIS SUCCESSOR. WRITTEN AUTHORIZATION ON THE WAY. IMMEDIATELY TAKE ALL STEPS REQUIRED BY THE PRESENT SITUATION. BORMANN.”

Speer didn’t know what to say. He mumbled weak congratulations. Doenitz looked back at him like he was joking. Then he turned to Ludde Neurath. “Who else has seen this?” he asked.

“Besides myself, only the radio operator,” answered the adjutant.

“I want him taken aside and sworn to secrecy on this,” snapped Doenitz. “I want this message sealed and put in my safe. No one is to know about this until I give the word. Understand?”

“Yes, Herr Admiral,” answered Ludde Neurath.

After Ludde Neurath had gone, Doenitz looked at Speer. “What am I supposed to do now? I don’t know anything about politics.”

Speer demurred. “Notice how it didn’t say anything about the Fuhrer. Does this mean he’s still alive?”

Speer had a point. Odd that the telegram hadn’t actually mentioned it. Did it imply Hitler was alive, but had gone off to join the fighting? Or was he dead, but they’d elected not to tell him? If it was the first, it was unforgivable. It was one thing for a general to do that, but for a head of state, it was completely irresponsible! If, on the other hand, Hitler was dead, then they should have informed their new leader of that key fact. Doenitz called in the other admirals. They passed the message around. No one said anything.

“You need to deal with the Reichsfuhrer immediately,” one of them advised.

“I know,” said Doenitz. “With such a man anything is possible. Speer, I want you to draft a message back to the bunker. I think you know what to say. Captain Ludde Neurath, call up Luebeck, tell the Reichsfuhrer I want to see him here immediately.”

Himmler rebuffed the first summons. Only after Doenitz called him himself, did he consent to come. Meanwhile Speer wrote a message; MY FUHRER, MY LOYALTY TO YOU IS UNCONDITIONAL…

Outside, preparations were underway for Himmler’s arrival. Captain Peter Cremer, the U-Boat ace commanding Doenitz’ guard battalion, had his men hide themselves among the trees and bushes in the path leading from the car park to the building housing Doenitz’ offices.

As they had feared, Himmler arrived accompanied by a guard detail of huge SS men armed for bear. They included his two adjutants Grothmann and Macher, of the Das Reich Division, and veterans of the Russian campaign. They immediately spotted Cremer’s men hiding and told them that if they didn’t come out immediately, they would kill them all “with the greatest of ease.

Cremer and his men stepped out of the bushes, rifles and submachine guns at the ready. A tense standoff ensued in which Grothmann and Cremer both tried to get the other side to stand down, but neither would relent.

It only ended when Ludde Neurath appeared at the building entrance and invited the Reichsfuhrer inside to meet with the Grand Admiral.

Inside his office, Doenitz waited for Himmler to arrive, a Browning automatic pistol hidden within easy reach under a pile of files on his desk.

Himmler came in, eyeing Doenitz coldly. “What is it?” he demanded.

Without getting up from his desk, Doenitz handed him Bormann’s telegram. “Read this,” he ordered. Himmler looked at the telegram and his face turned white. Then he managed to regain some of his composure.

“Grand Admiral, may I express my most sincere congratulations. The Fuhrer is right. It is up to a soldier to put an end to the war.” He paused for a long moment, then added, “You will of course, allow me to be the Second Man in your government.

“I’m afraid that is out of the question,” Doenitz answered.

“May I ask why?”

“The government I intend to form will be of a non-political nature. In the event of negotiations, your presence would not be acceptable to the enemy.”

“May I make an observation, Grand Admiral?” asked Himmler politely.

Doenitz nodded for him to proceed and for the next hour, Himmler went off on a long polemic which seemed to include everything under the sun. Doenitz let him go on, but didn’t give in to any of his subsequent pleas for a post in the new government. Finally, Himmler stood up, saluted and left.

Doenitz sent his staff to bed, and getting himself another cup of ersatz, settled into a long dark night of agonizing over what he should do next. Sometime before dawn he reached his decision and called his first government meeting where he would announce it.

Alone finally, Doenitz let his eyes close for a moment. It had been nearly six hours since the telegram had arrived from the Fuhrerbunker naming him Hitler’s successor and only now, with Himmler out of the way, was the weight of this new job beginning to sink in. Head of State, Reichspräsident, Fuhrer, Heil Doenitz! The last thought made him shudder.

He went back to his pile of reports and for two hours his attention remained focused only on paperwork. After thirty five years in the Navy, it had become second nature and now it provided him with a sense of reassurance that things were not as utterly chaotic as they appeared. Armies, even on their last legs, continued to generate reports, requests, tallies, statistics, strategic assessments. They kept streaming in and Doenitz continued reading them. But then somewhere around four thirty he looked up, rubbed his eyes, and realized nothing he was reading addressed the real heart of the matter; that the war was lost and as Head of State, the only choice left to him was deciding how large the funeral pyre should be.

He picked up a report from the Admiral Kummetz, in charge of the Baltic evacuation. Twenty more ships had come into different German ports with refugees and soldiers. Estimated numbers, thirty five thousand men, women and children. Tomorrow they hoped to get out fifty thousand. Every freighter, barge, and fishing boat they could get their hands on was now going to and from the Latvian ports of Lepaya and Memel, where upwards of a million Germans were still holding off the Russians. He knew as well as anyone what the Russians would do to them when they got them. He had to continue the evacuation. He couldn’t give up on them.

He needed to put together a government. But how was he supposed to do that? He didn’t know the first thing about government or diplomacy. He wondered if what Himmler had said about the Americans and British considering an alliance with Germany against the Russians could be true. It seemed crazy. But then didn’t he have all those spies and that whiz-kid Schellenberg with all his foreign contacts?

Besides, forming a new government is still only a means to an end. So what end was he seeking? What was left? A surrender? A few hours ago, the idea had still been completely unthinkable. But now it seemed to be the only thing that made any sense. The irony was that the Fuhrer had given the job to him because he knew he would never surrender.

(Excerpt from Germania, first published by Simon & Schuster in 2008, now also available on Kindle here)

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