Dec 14

German Admirals on Trial

Monday, December 14, 2015 12:01 AM


Did famed U-boat commander Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz escape justice at Nuremberg? (National Archives)

Did Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz escape justice at Nuremberg? (National Archives)

The 22 German leaders who stood trial at Nuremberg 70 years ago included Grand Admirals Erich Raeder and Karl Dönitz. In addition to conventional war crimes, for which they were separately charged, the admirals were accused of engaging in aggressive warfare. Conceived in an effort to encourage nations to renounce war, the unprecedented aggressive warfare charges were criticized by some as ex post facto law.

Having participated in a prewar conference during which German Führer Adolf Hitler made known his war plans, and having later recommended to Hitler the invasion of Norway, Raeder was heavily exposed by the aggressive warfare charges. Though the British had themselves considered occupying part of Norway, arguing that point was barred by the trial rules. The most serious of the conventional war crime charges faced by Raeder concerned the Commando Order, imposed at Hitler’s insistence, whereby captured commandos were executed whether or not in uniform.

As Germany was already on the defensive when he assumed command of the Navy, Dönitz could only be accused indirectly of conducting aggressive war. The most important of the conventional war crime charges he faced concerned the conduct of the U-boat war. Through a brilliant legal maneuver, Dönitz’s counsel demonstrated that American submarine commanders had acted no differently from Dönitz’s captains in attacking merchant ships without warning.

Although only some of the other war crime charges could be so readily explained away, Dönitz’s conduct as an ardent National Socialist was insufficiently pursued by the prosecution. Those actions included Dönitz’s ending a longstanding navy policy of avoiding politics by his joining the Nazi Party and exhorting his officers to embrace that murderous ideology. Further, not fully recognized then, he was complicit in genocide by delivering anti-Semitic orations while fully aware of the ongoing murder of the European Jews. There was good reason for Hitler to designate Dönitz his successor.

In retrospect, aggressive warfare might better have been condemned by the court and declared punishable in the future. Absorbing the aggressive war charges more fully than any of the other defendants, Raeder was sentenced to life imprisonment, but released after nine years for health reasons. In Dönitz’s case, a sharply divided jury settled on a highly questionable conviction for aggressive warfare along with conviction for war crimes. The meandering opinion, written by the single juror who favored acquittal, failed to coherently enunciate the basis for Dönitz’s guilt, leading many to erroneously believe that his ten-year sentence, the shortest meted out at Nuremberg, was unjust.

Despite the inept disposition of the admirals’ cases, the Nuremberg trials were on the whole successful in its quest for justice.


A half year after the first and best known Nuremberg trials commenced, an equivalent war crimes trial began in Tokyo. With a defense team initially headed by an American Navy captain, that trial differed in an important respect. With a prime objective of demonstrating the aggressive intent of the wartime Japanese government, every defendant was expressly selected in the expectation they could be convicted of waging aggressive war. The course of that trial, which raised more serious questions than Nuremberg whether it was victor’s justice, will be the subject of a future Navy History article.

To read Mr. Rems’ article in the December issue of Naval History, “Götterdämmerung: German Admirals on Trial,” click here.