Hitler's Diplomats Historian Calls Wartime Ministry A 'Criminal Organization'
In a SPIEGEL interview, historian Eckart Conze discusses the German Foreign Ministry's contribution to the Holocaust, Nazi old-boy networks in postwar Germany and the reluctance of the German diplomatic community to address its own troublesome past.
SPIEGEL: Professor Conze, for four years a commission of historians that you chaired examined the role the Foreign Ministry played in national socialism and how it later addressed this part of its past. What did you discover?
Conze: The Foreign Ministry wasn't just somehow involved in national socialism or even a hotbed of resistance, as was long claimed. From day one, it functioned as an institution of the Nazi regime and backed its politics of violence at all times. After 1945, there was a high degree of staffing continuity within the ministry, and some of its diplomats were seriously tainted.
SPIEGEL: How active was the Ministry's participation in the crimes of the regime?
Conze: The Ministry contributed, as an institution, to the violent crimes of the Nazis, even including the murder of the Jews. In this sense, one can say that the Foreign Ministry was a criminal organization.
SPIEGEL: That's a serious charge. What evidence do you have to support it?
Conze: For instance, in 1941 Franz Rademacher, the Foreign Ministry official in charge of Jewish affairs, traveled to Belgrade to meet with local officials, but also with representatives of the Reich Security Head Office -- in other words, the SS -- to plan and execute the murder of Jews. In fact, he noted on his expense statement that the purpose of the trip was the "liquidation of Jews in Belgrade." Every bookkeeper at the Foreign Ministry knew what was going on.
Conze: No. Take, for example, Ambassador Otto Abetz in Paris and the head of his political division, Ernst Achenbach, who would later become a politician with the FDP (Free Democratic Party). They and their staffs played an important role in the apprehension and deportation of Jews. When partisans in France killed German soldiers, the diplomats immediately thought of deporting one or two thousand Jews to the extermination camps in retaliation. The Ministry also played a key role in the abduction and transport of forced laborers to the German Reich. France was one example, and Italy, with Ambassador Rudolf Rahn, was another.
SPIEGEL: You create the impression that the Holocaust couldn't have happened without the diplomats.
Conze: I don't claim that, but the cooperation of the Foreign Ministry was critical to ensuring that things went smoothly. The Ministry represented the Nazi regime's interests in countries like Greece, France, Serbia and Hungary, and it negotiated with their governments on such matters as the deportation of Jews.
SPIEGEL: During the war, there were sometimes more than 6,000 people working for the Foreign Ministry. How many of them were involved in the Holocaust?
Conze: The overwhelming majority, because, in their respective positions, they were part of the general machine that had to function -- and did function -- be it in the political division, the cultural division, the legal division or in the many foreign missions.
SPIEGEL: In your book, you also write that it was rare that Ministry employees were "overtly culpable or could clearly be identified as war criminals."
Conze: You have to distinguish between individual and institutional actions. In our book, we write that "the" German diplomats were accomplices. This is a reference to the Foreign Ministry and its diplomats as an institution. One also has to examine, at the level of individual action, how much responsibility the individual had.
SPIEGEL: A criminal is a person who has committed a crime. But proving that was extremely difficult for the courts after the war.
Conze: The historian is not a judge and can thus arrive at his conclusion independently of a legal assessment, a conclusion into which he incorporates the institutional and ideological background. In this sense, Achenbach is clearly a criminal, even if he was never convicted.
SPIEGEL: Why did so many diplomats become Hitler's willing helpers?
Conze: Most of them already perceived the Nazi takeover in 1933 as a redemption
SPIEGEL: even though many of the old elites despised the Nazis and saw them as riffraff.
Conze: Yes, but with few exceptions, the top diplomats in the Weimar Republic were opposed to a liberal political order and parliamentarianism. And then the Nazis built political and ideological bridges for them. They announced their intention to reverse the Treaty of Versailles and make the German Reich into a world power. The majority of the diplomats were able to sign their names on to such a program.
- 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