Sixty years after the war, Doenitz is one of those figures who remains controversial within mainstream circles. Some see him as a Nazi war criminal who got off too easy while others see him as a brilliant military strategist subjected to victor's justice due to his successes. While my view tends towards the latter once Doenitz is put in context, I would not suggest trying to suggest overly romanticizing the individual either. Instead, a look at his nuanced views suggests that while Doenitz can hardly be described as a "good little Nazi" (unlike, for example, Wilhelm Keitel who gave up resisting at all to anything and just followed orders) he like nearly all of his contemporaries harbored a good deal of antisemitic prejudice even if he protested against the "excesses" in persecuting the Jews on Kristalnacht. Rather the picture of himself that Doenitz paints is that of a patriotic fighting man, deferring to civil authority, and doing his best to prevent the destruction of his nation at the hands of her enemies. There is probably a great deal of truth to this image, but let's not take the man out of context and whitewash his views.
Doentiz's conviction at Nuremberg remains similarly controversial in part because the most serious charges against Doenitz either resulted in acquittals or had to be set aside. These included his orders in relation to the Laconia incident and his use of unrestricted submarine warfare. Instead he was convicted and sentenced to ten years for training U-boat crews for war, and acting otherwise in his role as a soldier, under laws of war not in force at the time. While some believe he should have been convicted for real war crimes, this was made problematic because there was nothing that he did to the British or Americans that the Americans didn't do to the Japanese. Indeed Chester Nimitz's affidavit in support of Doenitz's defense may have been pivotal in getting the conviction for prize rule violations set aside. Moreover over a hundred allied admirals wrote Doenitz to express their support for him and outrage at his conviction and sentence.
So with these notes, let's look at the memoirs themselves.
These memoirs really begin with Doenitz's experiences on U-boats during WWI and the birth of the wolf-pack idea. He then covers the development of this idea in training between the wars, the changes to German naval limits, etc. It covers in meticulous detail the early ears of the U-boat war in terms of attempts at end-runs around the prize rules on the British side, and the eventual fall into completely unrestricted submarine warfare.
From there we see a careful coverage of the cat and mouse game that was submarine and antisubmarine warfare in WWII. Doenitz waged one hell of a war effort and despite being heavily outnumbered and outgunned, gave both the British and the Americans a great deal of concern that they might actually lose (as documented by Churchill, Roskill, and others, and quoted in this book).
Eventually the book turns towards his activities as commander in chief and later head of state. Here we get a few surprising windows into Doenitz's political views regarding the rise of Nazism (that it was seen at the time as preferable to a rise of communism given that moderate parties had all failed in the Weimar Republic), prosecutions of the Jews (that he regarded Kristalnacht as excessive and protested against it in those terms, though he knew nothing of the holocaust until after the war), and his views on Hitler's successes (in politically unifying Germany, in doing away with the class warfare that was tearing the country apart, and the like). Finally we are given a few glimpses into initial misgivings about the Nazi state, such as the fact that Doenitz found he had to avoid spending too much time around Hitler in order to avoid losing himself in the man's charisma (despite the fact that he clearly admired Hitler in a large number of ways), and that there were many orders from Hitler that Doenitz as commander in chief simply refused to follow, such as stationing of political guidance officers with military units. In the end he offers some thoughts about the death camps which he was only made aware of after the war and the dangers of dictatorships as well as the importance in safeguarding civil liberties.
Through these areas, he avoids discussing hot-button issues like antisemitism although a careful look at the nuances of his views does show some level of antisemitism in them.
Throughout the book we are treated to a very different view of what WWII was really about. Doenitz was of the opinion that WWII came about because Great Britain could not tolerate a resurgent Germany as a military power and therefore had to destroy the state as a corporate entity (which in fact they did following the war).
In the end, by reading this book, I have come to a very different view of WWII than I had before. This is one of those books that will help you step outside the master narrative we are fed in school which is mostly based on war-era propaganda and see the war from a perspective of geopolitics.
Not only is this book important therefore to those interested in the major figures of WWII, but it is important in understanding that war in context. Moreover the discussions about civil liberties and the dangers of abuses of power are as relevant today as they were when the book was written. I would highly recommend that everyone read this book.
Historians will perhaps eventually come to a consensus regarding the character and nature of this man but for now, such agreement remains elusive. But perhaps this is what makes this book so interesting.
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