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 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.
So what should I do? Am I supposed to continue following the path of someone who has abdicated his responsibility and leadership? If Hitler wanted the war to continue, he should have stuck to his job. Where was he anyway? Was he dead? Or had he gone out to the streets to join the fighting? What difference does it make? he asked himself.
He remembered driving back from Luebeck that day telling himself that Himmler would be the next Fuhrer - the thought of serving under a liar like that seemed more than he could take. He found himself wishing he’d had the guts to arrest Himmler on the spot. Himmler’s men would have gunned him down immediately, but at least he could have died honorably, and remained true to all those young men he’d sent to their deaths.
Or, instead of returning to Ploen, he should have gone to the nearest airstrip, commandeered a plane and flown up to Oslo and gotten aboard one of the Type XXI boats and gone out to the North Atlantic to raise hell. The first enemy warship they’d find, they’d sink. Then they’d find another and sink it too and then the one after that and the one after that, until they’d finally get sunk themselves. He had the right to do that. He was a soldier and a soldier’s last bullet is always for himself. But it seemed Hitler had taken that privilege from him so he could go out fighting on the streets of Berlin. So why had he done it? It wasn’t right. Damn it, it wasn’t fair! It wasn’t. It was selfish!
So what do I do? What is the interest of the State? The interest of the State is survival. And at all costs, Germany must survive! Surrender, then? That’s not why I was appointed by the Fuhrer. But then he’s not Fuhrer any more. I am. I’m the Fuhrer. Don’t say that! Don’t use that word. I’m head of state. I’m in charge.
Doenitz got up from his chair and opened the door to the outer office. Ludde-Neurath was staring at the war log. “Sir?” he asked, looking up.
“Captain, I need to ask you a question and I want a completely honest answer,” said Doenitz. “Do you ever get into conversations where during the course of it people say to each other or to you, “This war has to end.” Do you ever get into these conversations?”
For one very long, uncomfortable moment, Ludde-Neurath stared back hard at him like he wasn’t sure it was a trick question or something else. Then he answered, “Sure, all the time.”
“All the time?”
“Sir, what do you think people talk about?”
Doenitz nodded and went back into his office. He finished off the coffee, set the cup back down and rubbed his eyes. Then he switched off the desk lamp and in the darkness swiveled his chair around toward the window. As his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, he saw the first light was beginning to gather in the Eastern sky. In another hour, the first allied air attacks would commence. They would hardly discriminate between refugees and military traffic.
Today was May first, May Day. A funny time to start.
(Excerpt from Germania, by Brendan McNally, Simon & Schuster, 2008; Kindle download now also available here).