Joachim von Ribbentrop: 'The most brainless boy' in Hitler's class?

Richard Wilkinson considers the character and standing of the much-despised Nazi Foreign Minister.

Who got the biggest laugh at the Nuremberg Trial? The answer is, von Ribbentrop. It happened when he was denying that he had bullied President Hácha of Czechoslovakia. ‘What further pressure could you put on the head of a country except to threaten him that your army would march in and your airforce would bomb his capital?’ demanded Sir David Maxwell-Fife. ‘War, for instance’, Ribbentrop replied and the court erupted. The other prisoners shook their heads in embarrassed disbelief while one asked his neighbour ‘How could such a man be Foreign Minister of the Reich?’

It was, and still is, a good question. Whereas no one facing a death sentence as a war-criminal is seen at his best, Ribbentrop was truly pathetic. ‘You weren’t even interesting!’ snarled Goering when the dishevelled wretch returned to the dock. Not that Ribbentrop was particularly regarded or highly rated in the days of his pomp. While no two Nazis liked each other, even by Third Reich standards the Foreign Minister was universally despised and detested. Nor have his biographers found much to say in his defence. Arrogant, vain, stupid, snobbish and servile, Ribbentrop must surely rank as Hitler’s worst appointment.

And yet... if Ribbentrop was that bad, why did Hitler appoint him in the first place and how did he keep the job for over seven years? What about his undoubted achievements, notably the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of June 1935, the Anti-Comintern Pact of November 1936 and the Non-Aggression Pact with the Soviet Union, negotiated by Ribbentrop in the Kremlin on August 23rd, 1939? Has he been underestimated? Did he have policies of his own as opposed to being Hitler’s cats-paw? Has he been made a scapegoat for the crimes and follies of Nazi foreign policy? Such questions are at least worth asking. Maybe it is time to challenge the ‘consensus of contempt’!

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