Hitler's Diplomats Historian Calls Wartime Ministry A 'Criminal Organization'
Part 3: Overthrowing Hitler Out of The Question
SPIEGEL: In 1938, Weizsäcker, together with fellow diplomats and top military leaders, was allegedly prepared to overthrow Hitler if war broke out with the Western powers.
Conze: An overthrow of Hitler was out of the question. The group wanted to avoid a major war and the potential catastrophic consequences for Germany. Their goal wasn't to get rid of the dictator but, as they saw it, to bring him to his senses.
SPIEGEL: Minister Neurath was forced to resign in 1938 because he had warned Hitler against a world war. His successor was the fanatical Nazi Joachim von Ribbentrop, who yearned for a war. In your account, you do not see this change in leadership as a significant turning point.
Conze: A good ministry under Neurath and a bad one under Ribbentrop -- that's key to the perception of history that was cultivated in the Foreign Ministry after 1945. There may have been differences between the two ministers, but the policy remained the same. Under both Neurath and Ribbentrop, the foreign service functioned and fulfilled the role that was assigned to it. That's what counts.
SPIEGEL: You argue that even the decision to pursue the Holocaust was ultimately made during a conversation between Ribbentrop and Hitler on Sept. 17, 1941.
Conze: It was part of a series of conversations during those few days, between Hitler and SS chief Heinrich Himmler, Himmler and Ribbentrop, Ribbentrop and Hitler. The discussions centered around what was to happen with the Jews in Germany, particularly in light of the United States' foreseeable entry into the war.
SPIEGEL: What did Ribbentrop propose?
Conze: That's difficult to reconstruct, because we don't have the applicable files. But merely the fact that the meetings took place shows that the Foreign Ministry played a key role in the decision to deport the German Jews.
SPIEGEL: You also state that the Foreign Ministry took "the initiative to resolve the 'Jewish question' at the European level."
Conze: The Foreign Ministry attempted to secure access to the Jews in other countries for the German authorities and, to some degree, to develop a European Jewish policy, because the Ministry was looking for new responsibilities. When the war began, classic diplomacy was, of course, largely irrelevant. And which area of operation was more in line with the regime's main objective? The Jewish policy.
SPIEGEL: And the diplomats participated without complaint?
Conze: Most of them adapted, including Werner von Bargen in Brussels, who would later become the Federal Republic of Germany's ambassador to Iraq. In July 1942, he proposed that the Nazis hold off on deporting Belgian Jews and choose "Polish, Czech, Russian and other Jews" instead.
SPIEGEL: But that wasn't Bargen's idea. He was just reporting what the German military administration in Belgium had proposed.
Conze: Yes, but when the order came from Berlin to apprehend and deport the Jews, he was involved. In my view, a person is not exonerated by the fact that he reported that others wanted to wait a while longer. There was, after all, fundamental agreement that Bargen also clearly shared. The rest consisted of tactical considerations, like: What's the best way to do this? Do we take foreign Jews first? If we do that, there won't be quite as much of an outcry.
SPIEGEL: Reports were also sent to (Foreign Ministry) headquarters by SS special operation units that had shot and killed hundreds of thousands in the Soviet Union and had kept detailed records. You write that the diplomats showed an "understanding" for the murders, because they "reacted impersonally" to the reports. You make it sound as if they could have protested upon receiving the reports.
Conze: The diplomats understood the logic of the "final solution" and made it their own with their signatures and initials. Naturally, it was hard to object. But some diplomats did articulate their objections, though not with the special operation units. Take, for example, Gerhart Feine, an embassy counselor in Hungary who helped save many Hungarian Jews from deportation in 1944.
SPIEGEL: After the war, the Allies sentenced senior diplomats, including Weizsäcker, to long prison sentences in the so-called Wilhelmstrasse Trial. Nevertheless, a myth was spread that the ministry had had nothing to do with the crimes. Why?
Conze: The legend stems from individuals associated with the Weizsäcker defense. Former diplomats, such as the brothers Erich and Theo Kordt, played a key role in the effort, as did other members of the traditional upper class, which Weizsäcker represented. One of them was his defense lawyer, Hellmut Becker, the son of the Prussian culture minister, Carl Heinrich Becker, and another was Marion Gräfin Dönhoff, a young journalist who sharply criticized the trial in Die Zeit. They all knew that if they succeeded in exonerating Weizsäcker, they would have rehabilitated the national conservative, aristocratic and bourgeois upper class.
- Part 1: Historian Calls Wartime Ministry A 'Criminal Organization'
- Part 2: "Self-Enforced Political Conformity"
- Part 3: Overthrowing Hitler Out of The Question
- Part 4: Filling The Ranks of The West German Foreign Ministry