What Happened to Nazi Germany After Hitler's Suicide?

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Karl Dönitz, center, and Adolf Hitler, 1939.
Karl Doenitz, center, and Adolf Hitler, 1939.Credit: ullstein bild via Getty Images

Hitler’s suicide on April 30, 1945 is usually perceived as the end. From the moment he and his mistress Eva Braun killed themselves, it was clear that Nazi Germany was over. But actually the Germans only surrendered on May 9. What happened in that week and a half?

In his will, Hitler tapped his successors for the cabinet. He appointed the head of the German navy, Admiral Karl Dönitz, as his heir and president of Germany. He passed over party leaders like Heinrich Himmler and Herman Göring, who were seen as traitors for having tested the possibility of surrender to the Americans and the British. Hence the appointment of Dönitz, who had been unflaggingly loyal.

Dönitz indeed hastened to set up a government, working for four days on the task, though he didn’t necessarily follow Hitler’s instructions meticulously. Dönitz saw two options. One was full victory by the Allies, entailing the eradication of the Nazi regime, the dismantling of the German armed forces and the enslavement of the German people for centuries.

Marshal Montgomery, right, reads the surrender terms. From left, Rear Admiral Gherard von Wagner, war reporter Chester Wilmot (standing), Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg, Luneburg, May 4, 1945.Credit: Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

The other, the one Dönitz hoped to achieve, was the Nazi government cooperating with the West and possibly with the Soviet Union, with the Wehrmacht perhaps cut back severely but not taken apart. Of course, the option that Dönitz feared is what happened, other than the subjugation of the German people, of course.

Throughout, Dönitz thought he had bargaining chips. As May began, parts of Norway and Denmark were still under Nazi occupation; he thought he could use them in negotiations to preserve the Nazi regime. Astonishingly, certain high-ranking Nazis who hadn’t fled or committed suicide, but who weren’t named to Dönitz’s cabinet, tried to nab portfolios.

From the start of May, the new Nazi cabinet met every day, its members slave to the illusion that they still wielded influence. It was dubbed the Flensburg Cabinet after the town in northern Germany where it met.

In the end, the Nazis surrendered to the Western Allies on May 8 and to the Soviet Union on May 9, with zero bargaining power. Even so, the Allies let the Dönitz cabinet remain in place, even tapping certain civilian ministers to be the ministers of food and transportation and help the Americans manage the new situation. But on May 23, 1945, the Allies arrested Dönitz and others, formally bringing Nazi Germany to an end.

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