History tells us that as soon as Grand Admiral Doenitz took over as the "new fuehrer" of the Reich, he sent Admiral von Friedeburg to meet with Field Marshal Montgomery as a first step in convincing the Western Allies to end their war with Germany and join them in a new grand alliance against the Russians.
Of course it didn't go down that way. Once he'd arrived at Montgomery's HQ, Monty tersely informed von Friedeburg that there would be no discussions of any kind. Von Friedeburg was there only for one thing, to sign an unconditional surrender, and if he did not do this, Monty was happy to continue killing every German he could find. Von Friedeburg was crushed. Doenitz had entrusted him with the survival of the German people and he'd failed. History tells us he reacted by suffering a nervous breakdown on the spot and that he had several more over the course of the next few days during which time he was forced to sign not one, but three diffferent surrenders; first to Montgomery, then to Eisenhower, and finally to the Russians in Berlin. After that he returned to Doenitz' headquarters in Flensburg, where he remained in a catatonic state for the next two weeks, before finally committing suicide, shortly after being arrested by the British. Beyond that, very little is known about von Friedeburg or why he committed suicide. In my novel Germania, a large part of the story deals with von Friedeburg's progress through the multiple surrenders. I tried to create a real character out of him, instead of the historical footnote that he is usually reduced to. This excerpt takes place during a meeting he had with Doenitz on Levensau Bridge, just before signing the first surrender.
It had been four days since Ziggy and Cremer had come aboard as heads of Doenitz’ security detail and other than the standoff with Himmler’s men, they hadn’t done much in that time besides salute and present arms a couple dozen times. When the order came for Ziggy to take a detachment of men to accompany the Grand Admiral to Levensau Bridge, he assumed it had to do with Admiral von Friedeburg’s negotiations with the British.(Excerpt from Germania, first published by Simon & Schuster in 2008, now also available on Kindle here).
Levensau Bridge was only a mile or two east of the British front lines and in the last day all the fighting seemed to have come to a halt. Though the bridge still stood, it had been too heavily bombed for vehicles to cross over. They parked on the road leading up to it and waited. For the first time in days, the bridge was empty. Presumably everyone on the other side who’d wanted to flee the British had already done so, and anyone who wanted to go west thought better of doing it right there.
On the opposite bank a Navy staff car was driving up. Then it stopped and Admiral von Friedeburg got out and began clambering across the bridge towards them.
For several minutes, Doenitz stood with his aides, silently watching von Friedeburg’s progress through his field glasses. Then he abruptly took them away from his eyes. “Wait here,” he said and started quickly up the bridge to meet him.
Ziggy put his field glasses to his eyes and looked over at von Friedeburg approaching. Something was very wrong, he thought. His footsteps seemed jerky and his face was frozen into a Greek mask of horror. He watched the two men stop and face each other. They began exchanging words back and forth. Doenitz remained stiff and arched while von Friedeburg stood slumped. Then von Friedeburg put his hand over his eyes and Ziggy realized with a shock that he was weeping.
Doenitz started barking something at him, but von Friedeburg kept crying and shaking his head like he was saying, no, I tried but it didn’t work. Hans, get hold of yourself, Doenitz seemed to be saying. Remember what you are! But von Friedeburg only kept pleading. Please don’t make me go back. Please, I can’t take it. I can’t!
Ziggy kept his eyes on the two figures, clearly defined against the grayness of the river and sky. Their gestures seemed to describe what they were saying so completely it made Ziggy wonder if, without even knowing it, he was telepathically reading conversations again.
Whatever the case, there was no question about Doenitz’ answer. You have your orders and you will carry them out! Then Doenitz softened his stance slightly and said something reassuring. Von Friedeburg set his mouth hard into a grimace, and stood rigidly at attention as the rain pelted his face. Doenitz finished speaking, then turned and began angrily marching back. Von Friedeburg stood motionless for a few seconds and then started walking back to his side of the river.
Ziggy lowered his glasses. He wished he hadn’t witnessed any of it. The way von Friedeburg was acting seemed less like head of the Navy than some freshly-minted ensign being dressed down after panicking during his first depth charge attack. What had happened to him?
Twenty yards from the bottom of the bridge, Doenitz stopped and gestured for his adjutant. The adjutant ran up, but before he even got there, Doenitz snapped out a couple words and the adjutant turned again and ran back to the others.
“Korvettenkapitän Loerber,” he barked. “Report to the Grand Admiral on the double!”
“Jawohl,” shouted Ziggy and ran to see what the old man wanted.
Doenitz looked at him cold and hard as iron. “Something has come up,” he said. “I need you to go back with Admiral von Friedeburg to help him negotiate with the British.” Then, softening his voice, he added, “You’re a U-Boat captain. You’ll know how to handle it.”
“Yes, sir,” said Ziggy, completely bewildered.
Doenitz went on. “The Admiral is having problems. He has a very difficult job ahead of him. You must help him, be his friend, but if things get out of hand you are to remind him of his duties, as a German Naval officer and as a man.”
Ziggy looked at Doenitz and saw how his eyes blazed with cold anger. “You speak pretty good English, as I recall,” he continued. “That might be helpful. Loerber, you need to make sure he’s able to function. The Navy’s honor is at stake. Do you think you can do that?”
“I’ll do my best, Grand Admiral.”
“No! That won’t do, Loerber. The Admiral just did his best and it wasn’t enough. Whatever it takes, Loerber, you must see to it that he carries out his task. On this I am giving you full leeway. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Grand Admiral.”
“It shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours. Now get moving.”
Ziggy saluted and started across the bridge. He hadn’t been walking a minute when things started reeling on him. Be his friend? Remind him of his duty? Full leeway? If it hadn’t been Doenitz telling him this, Ziggy would have thought it a joke.
The rain clouds that hung over them, low and heavy, cloaked everything in gray gloom, making the riverbank look more like a forlorn late fall than the middle of springtime. So the war was ending, he thought. Hitler was dead, Doenitz was Head of State and Von Friedeburg was apparently in the middle of negotiating a ceasefire with the British. Peace was finally descending on Europe. Germany was finished. We’d wanted war and gotten it. He tried to imagine what peace would be like, but couldn’t.
Ziggy walked across at a brisk pace. As he approached the Admiral’s Mercedes, the driver got out and came to attention.
“Come on, let’s get going,” said Ziggy, not bothering to salute back.
“Sir?” asked the driver. “Perhaps you might prefer to ride in the front.”
Ignoring his suggestion, Ziggy opened the rear door and leaned inside. Admiral von Friedeburg sat empty-eyed in the back. “Herr Admiral?” asked Ziggy.
Von Friedeburg did not look at him.
“The Grand Admiral has asked me to accompany you, sir.”
Von Friedeburg glanced at Ziggy just long enough to let him know he understood.
“I’ll be sitting in the front, if you need me, sir.”
Von Friedeburg gave a slight nod like he thought it was a good idea. Franzi shut the rear door and took the seat next to the driver.