Dönitz: The Last Führer

by Peter Padfield. New York: Harper and Row, 1984, 523pp, $25.00, ISBN 0-06-015264-8.

Reviewed by H. Keith Thompson

In an appearance on a book-talk show on BBC radio, the author was asked why he had written this book. He replied that it was written at the suggestion of his agent. That is perhaps a clue to the author's motive in slapping together this garbled, hostile rehash of long-discredited British war propaganda. It draws heavily on British naval archives and the writings of Dönitz himself, evidencing in its course the usual British ability to twist facts according to their own nationalistic propaganda views.

The entire first 91 pages of the work are taken up with the early training and family background of Dönitz, and his experiences in World War I as a youthful naval junior officer and ultimately submarine commander. This is based largely on books written by Admiral Dönitz and from a few interviews with unsuspecting members of his surviving family who were not let in on the fact that they were being cynically used for a third-rate hatchet job on their relative. The author attempts an apology for this on page xi of the "Acknowledgments." A clue as to what was on the author's mind may be found in the conclusion to the first chapter, on page 91: "So ended Germany's first bid for world power, and Karl Dönitz's career as an Imperial naval officer. But for both the attitudes were too ingrained to be altered even by the bitter shock of defeat."

The author takes the standard British view that while it was fine and perfectly proper to blockade Germany and the European continent with the large British fleet for the purpose of starving the population, it was inhumane and wrong for the Germans to employ the use of unrestricted submarine warfare in order to counter this. The whole thrust of this argument is simply British propaganda. Their allies engaged in unrestricted submarine warfare at will, particularly the Americans -- as attested by Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz at Nuremberg.

The author is openly anti-American, as most of the British are. On page 237 he writes: "It is not realized how much the U.S. Navy, like the German, gained expansionary wind from jealousy of the Royal Navy, shading naturally in more, aggressive U.S. naval officers into active dislike of the arrogant pretensions and imperial manner of British naval officers. Whether Admiral Ernest J. King, the U.S. C-in-C, was actively anti-British is not for debate here, but his attitude was undoubtedly that he was not going to play second string to the Royal Navy as the U.S. Navy had in the First World War, and as Patrick Beesley puts it in his study of British operational intelligence, neither he nor his staff had anything to learn from 'a bunch of limeys'." Nowhere does author Padfield care to concede that in two world wars, the U.S. entered against its own interests and over the objections of a considerable percentage of its population, in order to save the collective hide of the British.

In his discussion of the Dönitz government which followed the death of Hitler, the author goes out of his way to try to demonstrate that Dönitz was more friendly to Heinrich Himmler than the Dönitz memoirs indicate. Padfield writes (page 409): "Whatever they said to each other it was not the short interview Dönitz described; they talked through the night while in the canteen the adjutants drank quantities of Hennessy brandy together." On page 423, Padfield guesses that "probably Dönitz felt he owed him loyalty from their relationship in better days," and states that Dönitz arranged for Himmler and all the SS personnel in attendance upon the Dönitz government to " 'dive for cover in the Wehrmacht.' " Padfield's source for this is none other than Rudolf Höss, former commandant of Auschwitz, who soon thereafter was made a prisoner of the Communists and whose every statement has been found suspect by later historians.

The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg is disposed of very summarily by the author, who relies almost entirely on IMT documents and the statements of Albert Speer. Virtually everything written or said by Speer is, to put it mildly, open to question. The man was a type commonly known about any police headquarters. After a crime, he would be prompt to arrive and deliver a full and fulsome confession. Speer was prepared to dicker for anything, and would deliver up any of his former com- rades for a smile from the Allies. That is how he saved his neck. The writings of Speer can be ranked with those of Höss, sometimes colorful and interesting but hardly of legal -- or historical -- weight.

Padfield prints, on his concluding page (491), the text of a supposed letter of Dönitz to the Times of London, allegedly dictated in 1971 and "to be opened and published after his death." The letter urges British, French and German unity, cites Russia and Communism as the true enemy, and mentions the German "struggle against Hebrews!" Heretofore unpublished and supposedly in possession of the Times, this letter is probably a forgery. Although he could have agreed with its sentiments, Dönitz would not have written such a letter in English or in such a manner. No reproduc- tion of the letter itself appears in the Padfield book. Grand Admiral Dönitz had little command of English and would have written in German, as he could presume that the Times had excellent facilities to translate it. Nor would he have trusted the Times to handle the letter as he wished in any case. This is another example of how Padfield, in his typically sloppy approach to research, leaves things up in the air.

Padfield devotes considerable attention (pages 489 and following) to what he terms the "failure of the efforts made on his [Dönitz's] behalf with the Federal Government and with the former allied powers to clear his name. The campaign flickered for the last time in 1976 with the publication of Dönitz at Nuremberg, a reappraisal. It was not a reappraisal; no new evidence was produced." The author does not understand the meaning of the term "reappraise"; perhaps he needs a refresher course in basic English as well as one in historical method. A reappraisal requires no "new evidence," merely a re-examination of the old. And new evidence was, anyway, indeed produced, demonstrating irrefutably the unfitness of the Nuremberg tribunal and certain of its members; this evidence accrues to the benefit of not only Dönitz but all the defendants in that sorry proceeding. Padfield is no doubt piqued at the efforts of some high-ranking English officers on behalf of Admiral Dönitz, particularly Admiral of the Fleet the Rt. Hon. Earl of Cork and Orrery, and Field Marshal Lord Henry Maitland Wilson of Libya. Wilson states outright that "... there were no breaches of International Maritime Law by the Axis Powers reported to me... the Nuremberg Trials were staged as a political stunt." The Earl of Cork and Orrery, himself a participant in the Norway campaign of 1940, holds that "As regards the legality of these trials, is there any question but that judged by previous standards, they were illegal?... To try high ranking military officers on such a charge as 'planning aggressive warfare,' or because malpractices occurred in the area of their command, and to inflict heavy sentences upon individuals for doing what was their obvious duty to their country to do, to me savours more of vengeance than justice." One hears nothing of this sort from Padfield, who hides from his reader any mention of this material. The English newspaper Birmingham Post, reviewing a book by Dönitz on 9 May 1959, held that "From it emerges a picture of an upright, nonpolitical naval officer with brilliant and original ideas on the employment of U-boats as destroyers of shipping. A man who might have won the war for Germany if he had been given the three hundred U-boats for which he asked... Sadly, Dönitz quotes Nelson: 'Only numbers can annihilate.' He never had the numbers."

Because author Padfield never saw the second edition of Dönitz at Nuremberg, published by the Institute for Historical Review, he never read the evaluation therein of Tom C. Clark, Attorney General at the time of the Nuremberg trials and later a Justice of the United States Supreme Court: "These learned minds [the contributors to Dönitz at Nuremberg] not only isolate the Nuremberg 'principle,' placing it in the right perspective, but at the same time cite the able and devoted Admiral as a victim of the precept. I hail this anthology as required reading for all who are interested in equal justice under law for the defeated as well as the victorious." But Padfield, who doesn't like Americans anyway, would find this "overstated." Perhaps he would prefer the obituary of Dönitz in the German magazine Der Spiegel (Nos. 1-2, 1981), which states: "And 30 years later there have united 254 Generals, Admirals and Marshals of the Western world in a book [Dönitz at Nuremberg: A Re-Appraisal] to laud Dönitz as a soldier and as a man in a way never before accorded to any German ..."

Peter Padfield's book, Dönitz: The Last Führer, will cost you $25.00 for no reason that I can see. It is a cheap production, not only internally but also in physical terms. Its dust jacket states that it is "the first biography" of Dönitz. Even that is wrong, as at least two appeared in Germany before Padfield's. Unless you feel the need of a heavy dose of castor oil in the form of snivelling British propaganda, save your money and pass this piece of trash by.

From The Journal of Historical Review, Winter 1984 (Vol. 5, Nos. 2,3,4), pages 405-408.