Ploen, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany April 22, 1945

By the start of April 1945 most large German cities were rub­bish heaps. City­scapes were char­ac­ter­ized by great rows of apart­ment blocks with their brick or stone facades ripped open. Church spires and factory chim­neys poked into grimy skies, their walls and roofs col­lapsed. These scenes of civil­ian and indus­trial waste­lands were the results of “totaler Krieg” (total war), though cer­tainly not in the sense that Propa­ganda Minis­ter Joseph Goeb­bels had urged Germans to embrace some two years ear­lier. The hoisted petard of Nazi ven­geance that was intended to gravely or mortally wound Germany’s enemies instead wreaked horrendous damage on the nation itself.

On April 15, 1945, anticipating a Red Army offen­sive on his capital Berlin and excru­ci­atingly aware that the rapid Allied advances had pretty much bisected the coun­try on an east-west axis, Adolf Hitler split the civil and supreme mili­tary com­mand of his ever-shrinking Third Reich between Commander-in-Chief West (Ober­befehls­haber West) Field Mar­shal Albert Kessel­ring, pulling duty in South­ern Germany, and Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz, since 1943 gifted head of the Kriegs­marine (German navy), assuming duty in the coun­try’s north­ern sector. A week later, on this date, April 22, 1945, Doenitz moved Naval High Com­mand head­quarters from Berlin to the small north­ern town of Ploen in Schleswig-Holstein, ordering thou­sands of naval person­nel to take up arms in support of old men and boys and the sick and exhausted sur­vi­vors of the once-invin­cible Wehr­macht (German armed forces) whom Hitler had committed to the hopeless defense of his nation’s capital.

Within days Ploen itself, site of the Reich’s Num­ber 1 U‑boat Training School, was sud­denly vul­ner­able to attack. Units of British Field Mar­shal Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group were 20 miles away. Dodging British war­planes over­head, Doenitz in his armored car, accom­panied by truck­loads of files and secret docu­ments, reached the safety of Muer­wik, just north of Flens­berg next to the Danish border. Here the unlikely suc­ces­sor of Hitler as Staats­ober­haupt (Head of State), bearing the titles of Reichs­prae­si­dent (Presi­dent) and Supreme Com­mander of the German Armed Forces, assumed leader­ship of the mori­bund Nazi govern­ment—what Germany’s ene­mies called the “Flens­berg govern­ment.” Doenitz stayed at his post until a small RAF task force took him and the main prin­ci­pals of his regime into cus­tody on orders of Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower on May 23.

Karl Doenitz (1891–1980) was a tall, thin-lipped authori­tarian age 54 when the Allies ended his war­time career. Not a mem­ber of the Nazi Party until 1944, Doenitz was in every respect the most loyal and trust­worthy of Hitler’s pala­dins. Bewitched by the Fuehrer’s charis­matic person­ality, Doenitz spoke warmly of Hitler’s “enor­mous strength” and shared the Nazis’ anti-Semitic views about “the poison of Jewry” and the evils of Soviet Bolshe­vism. More than any other senior mili­tary com­mander, Doenitz insisted that the interests of the state and the Wehr­macht were one and the same, turning a blind eye to the fiendish effects they had on each other.

Thrust into the role of chief puppeteer by Hitler’s suicide on April 30, 1945, Doenitz dis­patched his first mar­io­nette, or emis­sary, Col. Gen. Alfred Jodl, Chief of Oper­at­ions Staff of the German Armed Forces High Com­mand (Ober­kom­mando der Wehr­macht, or OKW), to Eisen­hower’s Supreme Allied head­quarters in Reims, France, on May 6. Doenitz dis­patched his second emis­sary, Field Mar­shal Wil­helm Keitel, head of the OKW, to Soviet Army HQ in Berlin on May 8. The two most senior officers in the German army signed back-to-back uncon­di­tional sur­renders on behalf of their coun­try’s mili­tary. Doenitz, Jodl, and Keitel were tried and con­victed for crimes against peace (i.e., crimes of aggres­sion) and war crimes by the post­war Inter­na­tional Mili­tary Tribu­nal in Nurem­berg, Germany. Doenitz served 10 years in prison and received a state pen­sion on release. Jodl and Keitel, on the other hand, were addi­tion­ally con­victed of crimes against humanity and were hanged in 1946.

Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz’s Flensburg Government, May 2–23, 1945

Extent of Flensburg Government Control, May 1945

Above: Map showing extent of Flens­burg Govern­ment control (dark gray), May 2–23, 1945. Headed by Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz, the Flens­burg Govern­ment had de jure but little if any de facto con­trol over the rem­nants of Hitler’s Third Reich, and none over the areas shown in shades of green. One Amer­i­can news­paper called the Flens­burg Govern­ment (some­times referred to as the Northern Govern­ment) a “fake govern­ment.” Named after Doenitz’s head­quarters on the Schles­wig-Hol­stein coast, the fledgling Flens­burg Govern­ment attempted to rule the coun­try following Hitler’s death (a “hero’s death,” Doenitz called it, not knowing it was sui­cide). The Doenitz “admin­is­tra­tion” (the label Win­ston Chur­chill chose to use)—unwilling to make a clean break from its Nazi past—was dis­solved by order of Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower. The prescient Nazi Arma­ments Minis­ter Albert Speer, as soon as he learned that the hard-nosed Jodl had signed the German Instru­ment of Surrender in Reims, France, on May 7, prophesied correctly when he told Doenitz that “the sovereign rights of the German people have ceased to exist,” and that “the fate of the German people will be decided exclusively by the enemy.”

Karl Doenitz and Adolf Hitler, Berlin 1945Karl Doenitz and Flensburg Government under arrest, Northern Germany, May 23, 1945

Left: Hitler receives Doenitz in late December 1944 or early 1945. Shortly before the mili­tary col­lapse of Nazi Germany and his sui­cide on April 30, 1945, Hitler trans­ferred the leader­ship of the German state to the Admiral. Doenitz did not become Fuehrer (a post Hitler abo­lished in his poli­ti­cal testa­ment), but rather Pre­si­dent (Reichs­praesi­dent) and head of the Germany’s armed services. Con­trary to a 1941 decree that Reichs­marschall Her­mann Goering would succeed him, Hitler had turned hours earlier on Goering and Reichs­fuerher‑SS Heinrich Himmler, the second most power­ful person in the country, for angling sep­a­rately to make peace with the Western Allies. Propa­gan­da Minis­ter Joseph Goeb­bels would have become German Chan­cellor (Reichs­kanzler) in the post-Hitler govern­ment but for his own suicide hours after Hitler’s.

Right: Three members of the Flensburg Govern­ment—Doenitz (dark coat), Reich Presi­dent and Minis­ter of War; trailing him Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel’s replace­ment as head of the Ober­kom­mando der Wehr­macht Col. Gen. Alfred Jodl; and to Jodl’s left (in civilian attire) Albert Speer, Minis­ter for Eco­no­mics—in the cus­tody of Brit­ish Royal Hus­sars during Oper­a­tion Black­out, May 23, 1945. Shortly after the men were taken into cus­tody, Flens­burg’s main street swarmed with Brit­ish tanks and troops rounding up the remaining mem­bers of Doenitz’s admin­is­tra­tion and staff. In all, between 5,000 and 6,000 Ger­mans, including hun­dreds of high-ranking mili­tary officers, were taken into cus­tody. The 20‑day farce at Flens­burg had come to its logi­cal end. Most offi­cers below the rank of colonel were released after a brief cap­tivity. Doenitz and his cabi­net were flown to England and impri­soned to await trial on war crimes charges. Tried by the four-power Inter­na­tional Mili­tary Tri­bu­nal in Nurem­berg (Novem­ber 20, 1945, to Octo­ber 1, 1946) Jodl was con­victed and exe­cuted as a war crim­i­nal; Doenitz (unrepen­tant) and Speer (repen­tant) received prison terms of 10 and 20 years, respectively.

Contemporary Newsreel Account of Arrest of Flensburg Government Members