How did Nazi Germany survive until 5 June 1945?

When did the Second World War end in Europe? And when did the Nazi German government surrender? You’d be forgiven for saying ‘on the same day’, and most people would suggest Victory in Europe Day (8 May 1945 in most countries, but celebrated on 9 May 1945 in the Soviet Union) as the most obvious day.

Alternatively, it could be 7 May 1945 – the day of military surrender that was signed in Reims, France  by Alfred Jodl on behalf of the German High Command. This surrender was confirmed in a second surrender ceremony convened at Moscow’s behest in Berlin on 8 May 1945 with Germany represented by Wilhelm Keitel.

In fact, the Nazi German government officially limped on until 5 June 1945. It continued to be the nominal government of Germany even after the arrest of both the civilian and military leaders on 23 May 1945. What led to this curious power vacuum? How was occupied and unoccupied Germany run during this time? And how did Nazi Germany survive for almost a month after its military defeat?

Adolf Hitler’s last will and testament had named Admiral Karl Dönitz as his successor. Even with his thousand year Reich crumbling and as he contemplated suicide, Hitler was still egomaniacal – Dönitz would only succeed as the Reich president and not as the Führer. Führerdom would be destroyed as thoroughly as the state it had once led.

Dönitz was not the obvious choice – there were more senior military figures and longer serving and more zealous party members. But Dönitz was loyal – a fact that immediately elevated him in Hitler’s eyes above the ‘treacherous’ Göring and Himmler. Goebbels was another possible candidate, but he was holed up in the Berlin bunker and would follow his Führer in committing suicide.

The Führer’s decision to change his successor from Göring to Dönitz was communicated to the admiral from the Reich chancellery via Bormann on 30 April 1945. The next day, on 1 May 1945, Dönitz was informed of Hitler’s suicide and he assumed office as Reichspräsident and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

This would prove a toxic inheritance – a fact amply demonstrated by considering what Dönitz would be either the president or commander of. On 1 May 1945, the Third Reich continued to be in nominal control of Norway, Denmark, a swathe of the modern day Czech Republic, Austria and northern Italy, a slice of the border between France and Italy, a thin coastal strip stretching across the Netherlands and north Germany, the pale of territory around Königsberg in East Prussia (soon to become Russian Kalingrad) the Channel Islands, the western quarter of Crete and the neighbouring Mediterranean island of Dodecanese.

Its territories were fractured and indefensible. The Luftwaffe had, for all practical military purposes, ceased to exist, what remained of the Wehrmacht was being rolled back by sweeping Allied advances  and the Kriegsmarine could not operate in isolation.

Dönitz, as the Commander-in-Chief of the Kriegsmarine, was based at the navy’s Flensburg headquarters. This unassuming and small north German city now became the de facto capital of Nazi Germany.  Dönitz assembled a cabinet and made a broadcast to what remained of the nation (at least, to those remnants that had both access to a radio and still cared enough to listen to what the Nazis had to say).

Diplomatic niceties, uncertainty surrounding the ultimate fate of Germany and tensions between the Allies ensured that the Flensberg Government would survive through to the end of May. The whole cabal was arrested by US and British forces on 23 May 1945, leaving a power vacuum whilst the Alllies decided how to administer the conquered territories. Until then, the Third Reich continued, powerless but nominally in existance.

So what did the Flensburg Government achieve in its brief existance? It surrendered all of its forces in Holland, north west Germany and Denmark on 5 May 1945. Soon after, it signed the unconditional surrender of all German forces.  A few cabinet meetings were conducted, a few radio broadcasts made but otherwise, the Flensburg Government was not in the position to do very much.

The Nazi Government, the Third Reich and Germany as an independent nation state would all come to an official end on 5 June 1945 under the terms of the Berlin Declaration signed by the governments of the UK, USA, USSR and the provisional government of the French Republic.  The declaration provided for the direct administration of the defeated nation by the victorious allies and thus the dissolution of the German state.