Flensburg Government

MSM-hauptgebaeude.jpg

The Flensburg Government (German: Flensburger Regierung), also known as the Flensburg Cabinet (Flensburger Kabinett), the Dönitz Government (Regierung Dönitz), or the Schwerin von Krosigk Cabinet (Kabinett Schwerin von Krosigk), was the short-lived government of Nazi Germany during a period of three weeks around the end of World War II in Europe. The government was formed following the suicide of Adolf Hitler on 30 April 1945 during the Battle of Berlin. It was headed by Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz as the Reichspräsident and Lutz Graf Schwerin von Krosigk as the Leading Minister.

The administration was referred to as the “Flensburg Government” because Dönitz’s headquarters had been relocated in the port of Flensburg in northern Germany on 3 May 1945. Due to the rapid Allied advance, its nominal jurisdiction at the outset was limited to a narrow wedge of territory running from the Austrian border through Berlin to the Danish border; which, since 25 April 1945, had been cut in two by the American advance to join with Soviet forces at Torgau on the Elbe. Following the capitulation of all German armed forces on 8 May, the Flensburg government lost all direct territorial, military or civil jurisdiction, and all diplomatic relations were withdrawn. The western Allies allowed the Flensburg government to continue to meet and conduct what business it could until 23 May, when they dissolved the government and arrested its members as prisoners of war.

Formation 

Karl Dönitz

Once it became apparent that Hitler intended to stay and die in the besieged city of Berlin, effective overall command of German armed forces was exercised through the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (German High Command), which had relocated to Rheinsburg. Anticipating that German-held territory would be split, separate military and civilian commands had provisionally been established on 15 April; under Field Marshal Albert Kesselring at Pullach for forces in the south and west, and under Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz at Plön for forces in the north and east; but then Hitler had stalled on transferring executive military authority to them.

On 27 April Wilhelm Keitel and Alfred Jodl, of the Army High Command, met at Rheinsburg with Karl Dönitz and Heinrich Himmler to discuss the war situation now that the fall of Berlin could not be averted. Himmler took the chair as the acknowledged deputy Führer; and, since the disgrace and dismissal of Hermann Göring, Hitler’s expected successor. As they were leaving Rheinsberg on 28 April, Himmler asked Dönitz to confirm that he would be willing to serve in a successor government that Himmler might form. That day however, the British and Americans published Himmler’s secret proposals for a separate peace in the West (which they had rejected). On 29 April Dönitz received a telegram from Martin Bormann announcing Himmler’s dismissal from all posts, and ordering his arrest for treason. Dönitz went to Himmler’s headquarters in Lübeck on 30 April to confront him with the accusations, but Himmler denied them as fabricated propaganda. When a further telegram from Bormann that day confirmed both the dismissal and Dönitz’s appointment as Hitler’s successor, Himmler’s position became untenable, and Dönitz summoned him to Plön that night to tell him so.

Situation of World War II in Europe at the time of Hitler’s death. The white areas were controlled by German forces, the pink areas were controlled by the Allies, and the red areas indicate recent Allied advances.

With Himmler and Göring standing accused of treasonable negotiation with the enemy, Hitler in his political testament had named Grand Admiral Dönitz his successor as Reich President and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and designated Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels head of government as Reich Chancellor. Goebbels committed suicide in the Berlin Führerbunker on 1 May. The same day Dönitz accepted the offices of Supreme Commander and Head of State in separate broadcast addresses to the German armed forces, and German people. Residual ministers of the Hitler cabinet, who had fled from the fall of Berlin to join Dönitz at the Wehrmacht barracks near Plön in Holstein, resigned the next day. Suspecting that Bormann might also have escaped from Berlin and be intending to seize power, Dönitz met with Hitler’s former Finance Minister Lutz Graf Schwerin von Krosigk and asked him to constitute a new Reich government. 

Von Krosigk’s cabinet first met in Eutin, to which he and his ministerial staff had been evacuated, on 2 May. Later on 2 May, and in view of the rapidly advancing British Second Army forces which were approaching Lübeck, Dönitz met with von Krosigk, Paul Wegener, Himmler and Keitel to discuss the urgent necessity of a further relocation. Himmler argued for a move to Prague, then the last major central European capital city in German hands, and closer to advancing American forces with whom he hoped to negotiate personally, but Dönitz refused to sanction any move outside the borders of Germany. Moreover, the political situation of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was highly unstable. Dönitz decided instead to proceed to the Mürwik naval academy in Flensburg near the Danish border. The cabinet met in the Sportschool of the naval academy; while administrative offices and accommodation for the various ministries were established on the liner Patria [de], moored in Flensburg harbour. The German High Command, which had moved from Rheinsburg to Neustadt in Holstein two days before, then also relocated to Flensburg, while the SS leadership had been gathering at Flensburg since 28 April.

Cabinet 

Retaining some members from the previous Hitler cabinet and Goebbels cabinet, Karl Dönitz’s government consisted of the following people:

 
Portfolio Minister Took office Left office Party
Reichspräsident Karl Dönitz 30 April 1945 23 May 1945 NSDAP
“Leading Minister” Lutz Graf Schwerin von Krosigk 2 May 1945 23 May 1945 NSDAP
Minister for Foreign Affairs Lutz Graf Schwerin von Krosigk 2 May 1945 23 May 1945 NSDAP
Minister of the Interior Wilhelm Stuckart 2 May 1945 23 May 1945 NSDAP
Minister of Justice Otto Georg Thierack 24 August 1942 23 May 1945 NSDAP
Minister of Finance Lutz Graf Schwerin von Krosigk 1 June 1932 23 May 1945 NSDAP
Minister of Industry and Production Albert Speer 2 May 1945 23 May 1945 NSDAP
Minister for Food and Agriculture Herbert Backe 2 May 1942 23 May 1945 NSDAP
Minister for Labour Franz Seldte 2 May 1945 23 May 1945 NSDAP
Minister of War Karl Dönitz[6] 30 April 1945 23 May 1945 NSDAP
Minister of Transport Julius Heinrich Dorpmüller 2 February 1937 23 May 1945 NSDAP
Minister for Postal Affairs Julius Heinrich Dorpmüller 2 May 1945 23 May 1945 NSDAP
Minister for Armaments and War Production Karl Saur 30 April 1945 23 May 1945 NSDAP

Dönitz avoided including prominent Nazi leaders in his cabinet other than Speer; but included several serving officers in the SS and others who had been closely involved in formulating and prosecuting the genocidal policies of the former regime. Herbert Backe had been the author of the Hunger Plan of 1941, a deliberate strategy for mass elimination by starvation of Soviet prisoners of war and ‘surplus’ Soviet urban populations. Speer’s deputy in the Economics Ministry was Otto Ohlendorf, who had personally directed the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews and Communists in occupied Soviet territory. Wilhelm Stuckart had been a participant at the Wannsee Conference of January 1942, when the administrative responsibilities for the “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem” had been agreed. Otto Ohlendorf had transferred across directly from directing Himmler’s office as Reichsführer-SS; and overall, of 350 staff working in the offices of the Flensburg government, 230 had been members of the SS or other security services. Dönitz’s cabinet picks were clearly circumscribed by who was available. Otherwise, and in spite of his subsequent claim that his government was ‘unpolitical’, the most consistent characteristic of those chosen was a virulent opposition to Bolshevism, and a determination to ensure that the revolutionary events in Germany attending the Armistice of 1918 would not be repeated in 1945. As Dönitz did not then intend any surrender to the Soviets or Poles and continued to identify “Jews and profiteers” as enemies of the German people, he had little compunction over including in his cabinet men with blood on their hands, so long as that blood was Russian, East European or Jewish. 

For the first few days the post of Minister of the Interior was kept vacant. This had been the office of Heinrich Himmler, but Himmler had been condemned as a traitor, dismissed from all functions and ordered to be arrested in Hitler’s Last Testament. Dönitz did not want Himmler’s name associated with his new government, but nor could he afford to alienate the SS who remained armed and powerful. He tacitly set Hitler’s instructions aside and continued to see Himmler on a daily basis without according him any formal appointment. It was only on 6 May 1945, while final negotiations were in prospect for a capitulation to U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower in the west, that Dönitz dismissed Himmler from all his posts, and appointed Stuckart in his place.

Armed forces High Command 

Wilhelm Keitel

Dönitz had hoped to be able to appoint Field Marshal Erich von Manstein as Commander in Chief of the Army and Chief of the High Command of the Armed Forces (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht), to which the Army High Command (Oberkommando des Heeres) had been subject since 28 April 1945, but he could not be contacted on 2 May, and so Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel was kept in post; and in this capacity Keitel signed the act of surrender for the German High Command in Berlin on 8 May. A further factor favouring the continuation of Keitel as Commander in Chief, was the support for him of Colonel General Alfred Jodl, the Chief of Operations Staff of the Wehrmacht, whose retention Dönitz recognised as essential. Jodl was to represent Dönitz in negotiations with the Allies in Reims, France. Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg was appointed to succeed Dönitz as Commander of the Kriegsmarine, and was promoted by Dönitz to the rank of Generaladmiral on 1 May. The Air Force had largely been destroyed or grounded due to lack of fuel, so no new appointment was made, Field Marshal Robert Ritter von Greim remaining Commander of the Luftwaffe. 

In spite of its repeated relocations, the Armed Forces High Command continued to function, its organisation and structures having been maintained. But the same was not true of any other arm of government. Starting in March 1945, the staff of the various ministries had been evacuated to resort hotels in the Bavarian and Austrian Alps – chiefly in the region of Berchtesgaden, leaving only the ministers themselves in Berlin. On 13 April, the remaining foreign embassies and the diplomatic corps were evacuated to Bad Gastein. Finally on 20 April all the ministers and their personal staffs had been ordered to make their way southwards; but as by then the roads had been cut and there were insufficient transport aircraft available, several ministers (like von Krosigk) had perforce headed north instead. But consequently the government of Germany was, at the death of Hitler, split over six centres. The Propaganda Ministry, the personal fiefdom of Joseph Goebbels had remained with him in Berlin, as had the Nazi Party Chancellery under Martin Bormann; while the Luftwaffe High Command had relocated to Berchtesgaden, having been until his abrupt dismissal on 23 April the counterpart fiefdom of Göring. Himmler had retained his personal powerbase in the offices of the SS and security apparatus, which had been established in Lübeck in the north and then relocated to Flensburg. Other government ministries and ministers were then variously located at Berchtesgaden and Dönitz’s headquarters in Plön. With the Armed Forces High Command also located in the north – although many OKW personnel had gone south – there was, in consequence, no semblance any longer of a German central government, and most of the members of von Krosigk’s cabinet lacked any support staff from their nominal ministries.

Actions 

Heinrich Himmler

Dönitz’s initial priority was to open communication with the commanders of German armies, and to establish with them their acknowledgement of his new authority as sole Supreme Commander of all German armed forces. He also sought their agreement with his overall policy of negotiating successive partial surrenders with the Western Allies, while maintaining the war against Soviet forces in the east. Key to this was sidelining Heinrich Himmler, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Alfred Rosenberg and other former Nazi grandees who had fled to Flensburg, but whose continued participation in government would preclude any negotiation with the western Allies. Dönitz’s intentions in this were, if possible, to split the Allies, and to offer German military units as components of a common anti-Bolshevik front. Failing that, he sought to save as many German soldiers as possible from Soviet captivity by ordering units in the east to retreat westwards and surrender to the British, Canadians or Americans, and by redoubling Operation Hannibal, the maritime evacuation of units trapped on the Baltic coast. At Dönitz’s urging, Field Marshal Keitel and General Jodl attempted to direct what was left of the Wehrmacht towards these goals. On 2 May, Dönitz obtained pledges of allegiance from the commanders of German armies in Norway, Courland, East Prussia and Bohemia; these pledges were made to him personally as Supreme Commander, and not as Head of State in a forthcoming government. 

Otherwise however, Dönitz’s policies chiefly demonstrated continuity with the previous regime. The Nazi party was neither banned nor dissolved. Dönitz kept a bust of Hitler in his office; and the uniforms, insignia and protocol of Nazi Germany were maintained, initially including even the ‘Heil Hitler‘ greeting. Following a plea from Speer, Dönitz on 2 May rescinded the infamous ‘Nero Decree‘ ordering scorched earth destruction of German infrastructure and industrial plant; but it was not until 6 May that counterpart destruction orders were rescinded for those territories, such as Norway, remaining under German occupation. Moreover, neither summary courts for civil punishment, nor military discipline by summary courts martial were abolished; with military executions for insulting the memory of Hitler being confirmed even after the final capitulation on 8 May.

While the presence of SS leaders and their staffs in Flensburg had provided Dönitz with a source of personnel to support his government, otherwise they presented problems. In particular, the SS leadership had access to armed forces that were not under Dönitz’s control, and remained firmly loyal to Himmler, whom Dönitz had surmised was personally unacceptable now both to the Western Allies and to the Wehrmacht. Dönitz handled the issue by stringing Himmler along for as long as he could with vague prospects of a possible function in the government. Once serious negotiations were underway for surrender to Eisenhower, Himmler and the SS apparatus had to be got out of the way. On 5 May 1945 Dönitz informed Himmler of his forthcoming dismissal, promising false papers and identities for him and his leading lieutenants if they removed themselves promptly. Himmler called his fellow SS leaders together for a last time that day, and advised them to ‘dive down within the Wehrmacht’. By the next day they had fled.

This came too late for the concentration camp prisoners within the area who were now within Dönitz’s nominal authority, while under the actual control of the SS. These had numbered around 10,000 when Dönitz assumed the Presidency; mainly former inmates of the Neuengamme camp outside Hamburg, which had been shut down in preparation for the surrender of the city to the British. Between 16 and 28 April, the prisoners had been moved eastwards and concealed by the SS in a flotilla of unseaworthy ships anchored in the Bay of Lubeck, where they then remained without food or medical attention. At the time, this action had been protested by Rear Admiral Konrad Englehardt on Dönitz’s staff, but when the Flensburg government came into being, Dönitz made no attempt to free the prisoners, and his government avoided any subsequent acknowledgement that they had known they were there. On 3 May 1945, the prison flotilla was sunk by the Royal Air Force in the mistaken belief that the ships were being prepared to evacuate leading SS personnel. Over 7,000 prisoners drowned, mainly on the former liner Cap Arcona.

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