From November 20th, 1945 to October 1st, 1946, the Trial of Nuremberg took place in the German city of Nuremberg. During this International Military Tribunal, 22 high ranking Nazi leaders stood trial for warcrimes and crimes against humanity. The four counts of the indictment were:
1. Conspiracy to wage a war of agression or crimes against peace,
2. Waging a war of agression,
3. War crimes,
4. Crimes against humanity.
Karl Dönitz was one of the 22 Nazi leaders during this trial but he was chargesd with the first three counts only. Although he had made anti-Semitic and anti-communist statements regularly during the war in speeches and radio messages, he was not connected to the crimes against humanity in the concentration and extermination camps.
During the first afternoon session on May 10th, 1946, Dönitz was interrogated about a particular statement, when he spoke about the "ever spreading poison of Jewry".
SIR DAVID: Will you now please turn to page 8 of the British document book, where you’ll find your speech on Hero’s day, March 12th, 1944. You say this:
"What would have become of our fatherland today if the Führer had not unified us under Nationalsocialism? Divided parties, battered by the ever spreading poison of Jewry and vulnerable because we lacked the opposition of our present unyielding ideology; therefore we would have succumbed long ago to the burden of this war and we would had surrendered to an enemy that would have destroyed us mercilessly". Document 2878-PS.
What did you mean by the ever spreading poison of Jewry?
DÖNITZ: I meant we were living in a situation of unity and that this unity represented fortitude and that all elements and power …….
SIR DAVID: No, that is not what I asked. I ask you: what did you mean by the ever spreading poison of Jewry? It is your statement and you are going to tell us what you meant by it.
DÖNITZ: I can imagine it would be very difficult for the inhabitants of the cities to withstand the heavy bombardments if such an influence could have taken hold, that is what I meant.
SIR DAVID: Well, you can tell me again what you meant by the ever spreading poison of Jewry.
DÖNITZ: It meant it could have had a devastating effect on the endurance of the population and during our country’s life and death struggle; as a soldier, I was very worried about it.
SIR DAVID: Well, that is what I wanted to know. You were the commander-in-chief and you indoctrinated 600.000 to 700.000 people. Why did you tell them Jewry was an ever spreading poison in partypolitics. Why was that? What was it you had against Jews that made you think they would have a bad influence on Germany?
DÖNITZ: That statement was made in my memorial speech on Hero’s Day. It shows that it was my opinion that the endurance, the capacity of the population such as it was, to endure could have been better maintained if there were no Jewish elements within the nation.
SIR DAVID: This kind of talk, the ever spreading poison of Jewry raised an state of mind that led to the death of five or six million Jews during these past years Are you saying you knew nothing of the actions and intentions to do away with the Jews and exterminate them?
DÖNITZ: Yes of course I say that. I knew absolutely nothing about it and if that kind of statement has been made, it is no proof yet that I had any presumption of the killing of Jews.
This explanation was probably sufficient for the Tribunal not to charge Dönitz with crimes against humanity.
The Tribunal did not find him guilty of count one of the indictment but did find him guilty on counts two and three. The charges against Dönitz were largely based on Weisung 154, the order of unlimited submarine warfare that was in violation of the Navy Protocol of 1936 which had been signed by Germany too, as well as the Laconia order Dönitz had issued following the Laconia incident. Dönitz’ defence got unexpected support from the American admiraal Chester Nimitz, among others, who stated that the Americans had also been waging unlimited submarine warfare in the Pacifc. Dönitz was not held accountable for the Laconia order. Karl Dönitz was sentenced to ten years imprisonment. He served his sentence in Spandau prison in what was Western Berlin at the time.
Karl Dönitz was released on October 1st, 1956 and he and his wife retired to the village of Aumühle, near Hamburg in northern Germany. Here he wrote the books "Zehn Jahre und zwanzig Tage" (Ten years and twenty days) and "Mein wechselvolles Leben" (My varied life). In both autobiographic works, he emphasized his life as a non-political officer, just like he had done in his defence at the Nuremberg trial. In later life, he grabbed every opportunity to distance his name and that of the German navy from the crimes against humanity committed by the Nazi regime. He would have acted like a soldier who had to obey orders. Karl Dönitz died of a heart attack, 89 years old on December 24th, 1980. On January 6th, 1981, he was buried without military honours in Waldfriedhof cemetery in Aumühle-Wohltorf, though in the presence of hundreds of German and foreign former officers and other veterans of the war.