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Karl Doenitz

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Karl Doenitz (1891-1980) was a Grossadmiral in World War II, heading the German submarine (U-boat) arm, then the navy as a whole, and was briefly head of state after Hitler's suicide. He was convicted by the Trial of the Major War Criminals, and sentenced, after one of the more complex trials, to ten years' imprisonment.

Nazi beliefs

He had a high regard for Hitler, except when the Navy was being criticized.

By most accounts, he was completely surprised by the announcement that he was to succeed Hitler as chief of state. Hitler did not name a new Fuehrer, which combined the head of state and head of government functions. Hitler named Joseph Goebbels to succeed him as Chancellor of Germany.


He clearly built up the submarine arm in violation of the [{Treaty of Versailles]], which forbade submarines to Germany. Much more complex, however, are the issues about the conduct of the war and whether his orders were crimes against humanity, both military and civilian. Airey Neave, a land soldier, wrote that Doenitz and Erich Raeder were charged with the "worst war crime of a sailor. They had made no effort to rescue survivors of torpedoed ships but even worse had ordered them to be shot in lifeboats or rafts or sometimes in the water."[1]

Tu quoque

His defense counsel, Otto Kranzbuehler, a naval officer and attorney, was extremely capable. Doenitz's case was the only one in which the Tribunal accepted a tu quoque defense, essentially saying that something could not be called a crime if the accuser ("you, too") had also done the same thing. Kranzbuehler sent an interrogatory to U.S. Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, who essentially confirmed that U.S. submrines in the Pacific operated as had German ones.
I in no way wish to prove or even to maintain that the American Admiralty in its U-boat warfare against Japan broke International Law. On the contrary, I am of the opinion that it acted strictly in accordance with International Law. In the United States' sea war against Japan, the same question arises as in Germany's sea war against England, namely, the scope and interpretation of the London Submarine Agreement of 1930. The United States and Japan were also signatories to this agreement.
My point is that because of the [Allied] order to merchant vessels to offer resistance, the London Agreement is no longer applicable to such merchantmen. Further, that it was not applicable in declared operational zones in which a general warning had been given to all vessels, thus making an individual warning unnecessary before the attack.
Through the interrogatory to Admiral Nimitz, I want to establish that the American Admiralty in practice interpreted the London Agreement in exactly the same way as the German Admiralty, and thus prove that the German conduct of sea warfare was perfectly legal.
The same applies to the treatment of shipwrecked persons in waters where the U-boat would endanger herself by rescue measures. [2]

Doenitz's order for submarines not to attempt rescue needs to be put into context. It was issued after a German submarine, having discovered that Italian prisoners of war were aboard a torpedoed ship, radioed a broadcast asking for rescue operations to be respected. His submarine was attacked by an Allied aircraft.


  1. Airey Neave (1978), On Trial at Nuremberg, Little, Brown, pp. 201-202
  2. The Trial of German Major War Criminals, Seventy-Fourth Day: Tuesday, 5th March, 1946 (Part 3 of 3)