Diplomatic Immunity?: The German Foreign Ministry's Nazi Past

Foto: Heinrich Hoffmann/ dpa

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.


Photo Gallery: Foreign Ministry No 'Haven of Resistance'

Foto: Marius Becker/ dpa

SPIEGEL: Perhaps Rademacher was an exception.

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.

"Self-Enforced Political Conformity"

SPIEGEL: Many later claimed that they had served their country as apolitical civil servants.

Conze: The term "apolitical" describes, in fact, an extreme political position. The more someone described himself as apolitical in the Weimar period, the more he despised the concepts of republic and democracy in his authoritarian view of the state.

SPIEGEL: Could it be that you're exaggerating the commonalities between the ministry on Berlin's Wilhelmstrasse and the Nazis? Most diplomats could hardly have shared Hitler's vision of racial supremacy.

Conze: A traditional upperclass anti-Semitism was common in top diplomatic circles. Many believed that there was a Jewish problem. The then-ambassador Ernst von Weizsäcker (father of former German President Richard von Weizsäcker) spoke of a "flood of Jews." This isn't necessarily the populist-racist anti-Semitism of the Nazi Party. But it did make it easier to participate in the policies of the new Reich chancellor. One out of 10 civil servants in the higher grade of the civil service later joined the SS, and 573 of 706 members of that higher grade had joined the Nazi Party by 1943.

SPIEGEL: The discrimination against the Jews attracted worldwide attention from the very beginning. More than a million people protested against it in the United States in late March 1933. How did the Foreign Ministry react?

Conze: The diplomats did what they always do in such situations: defend the policies of their own government. Many also felt that the anti-Semitic measures were justified. Only a few resigned from the service, including the then-ambassador in Washington, Friedrich von Prittwitz und Gaffron, and Albrecht Graf von Bernstorff, who was at the embassy in London at the time.

SPIEGEL: Didn't the others fall into line partly because the Third Reich was a dictatorship?

Conze: Our commission uses the term "self-enforced political conformity." The Foreign Ministry was under enormous competitive pressure, because a number of Nazi groups, including the Nazi Party's foreign organization, also wanted to engage in foreign policy. This created a unique dynamic that triggered a rush to cooperate. The Foreign Ministry showed initiative again and again, such as when it came to spying on emigrants abroad.

SPIEGEL: To whom are you referring?

Conze: Many emigrants were spied on, including composer Hanns Eisler, the young journalist Stefan Heym and politician Willy Brandt. But we have also found new information about Thomas Mann. He would not have been deprived of his citizenship in 1936 without the initiative of the Foreign Ministry. Mann was in Switzerland at the time, and the ambassador there -- it was Weizsäcker -- reported to Berlin that Mann had "responded to the patience of German authorities in dealing with him with derisive remarks," an act that satisfied the legal definition of "hostile propoganda against the Reich." Before then, the Foreign Ministry had warned against depriving Mann of his citizenship, because it could harm Germany's reputation. Now Weizsäcker and other diplomats were arguing in favor of this step. The government waited until the Olympics were over before stripping Mann of his citizenship.

SPIEGEL: Why the sudden change of heart?

Conze: The Neue Zürcher Zeitung had written that the German Reich, with its anti-Semitic policy, was abandoning the land of Goethe and the community of Western, civilized nations. This struck a nerve with someone like Weizsäcker, a member of an educated upper class shaped by humanist ideas.

SPIEGEL: Despite the self-enforced political conformity, Hitler complained at the time that the Foreign Ministry, under then-Foreign Minister Konstantin von Neurath was "causing problems everywhere."

Conze: It irritated the dictator that the diplomats were constantly pointing out the impact of his policies in other countries. And, of course, one also has to take the argument seriously that a few top diplomats associated with Weizsäcker rejected a single-minded war policy.

SPIEGEL: But at least those men placed themselves in opposition to Hitler.

Conze: They didn't necessarily oppose the war against Poland or, later on, the Soviet Union, but the war against the Western powers, which posed a potential threat to Germany as a major power. This is certainly a policy of opposition, but it doesn't question the Nazi regime's policies of disenfranchisement and violence.

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.

Filling The Ranks of The West German Foreign Ministry

SPIEGEL: It sounds like a huge conspiracy.

Conze: It doesn't take much to imagine that former diplomats were also thinking of their future and speculated that they would be going back to work in a new German nation. But for that to happen the old ministry had to be exonerated.

SPIEGEL: Many did in fact find themselves working in the foreign service of the Federal Republic of Germany, which was founded in 1949.

Conze: We have numbers to support this. In 1950-51, at least 42 percent of members of the higher grade of the civil service were former Nazi Party members -- a higher percentage than in 1938-39.

SPIEGEL: Ironically, then Chancellor Konrad Adenauer wanted to build a ministry that had "as little as possible to do with the old people." Where did he go wrong?

Conze: His people believed that they needed the experience and competency of the old personnel. And then the networks did their work. Herbert Blankenhorn, a former party member and Wilhelmstrasse man, was Adenauer's most important foreign policy advisor. And he always had an ear for his former colleagues.

SPIEGEL: Were there any alternatives at the time?

Conze: Other candidates could probably have been found, but it would have required great effort. There were emigrants who had returned home, as well as a number of Jewish and social democratic diplomats who had been fired in the 1930s. But the formerly persecuted made up only about a fifth of the personnel in the development phase, a share that declined after that.

SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, tainted diplomats were not left completely alone. Prosecutors were constantly opening new investigations. How did the ministry react?

Conze: The ranks were firmly closed, particularly around those who had come from Wilhelmstrasse. They made sure that their former colleagues who were on trial had archived records at their disposal and could thus search for exonerating material.

SPIEGEL: Did the ministry obstruct any investigations?

Conze: The Central Office of Legal Protection, a department within the Foreign Ministry, was to provide legal assistance to Germans indicted abroad. In the late 1960s, it was revealed that the department had notified hundreds of suspects that French authorities intended to prosecute them for Nazi or war crimes. It was essentially a warning not to travel to France.

SPIEGEL: Willy Brandt, a Social Democrat and former emigrant, was foreign minister at the time. He also protected his people.

Conze: When Brandt took office in 1966, the old diplomats feared that he was going to clean house in a big way. But Brandt wanted to avoid creating the impression that he, like his predecessor, was pursuing partisan staffing policies and was, in fact, decidedly reserved. He also sought the advice of State Secretary Georg Duckwitz, a former Wilhelmstrasse man.

SPIEGEL: But Duckwitz was a shining light. He helped Danish Jews flee to Sweden in 1943, while serving as a diplomat in Copenhagen.

Conze: Those two things aren't mutually exclusive. A person could have helped save the Danish Jews while at the same time being a staunch and devoted member of the old guard at Wilhelmstrasse.

SPIEGEL: This esprit de corps ensured that the ministry strongly blocked the examination of its history until a few years ago. How were your experiences at the Foreign Ministry archives?

Conze: We were permitted to see everything we wanted to see. But we don't know to this day whether we saw everything we could have seen. The standards at the ministry's archives aren't the same as those of the federal archives.

SPIEGEL: Do you believe that files were withheld from you?

Conze: All I can say is this: We know that certain documents existed, but that those documents couldn't be located.

SPIEGEL: In other words, evidence of further crimes could still be hidden in the archives?

Conze: I'm not willing to rule it out.

SPIEGEL: Professor Conze, we thank you for this interview.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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