The Myth of Nazi Germany's Foreign Ministry

The idea that the German foreign office during the Nazi period was a stronghold of traditional, aristocratic values is no longer tenable according to recent research, as Markus Bauer reports.

The Auswärtiges Amt, Berlin, c. 1935The uproar started in May 2003, when an 84-year-old Marga Henseler wrote a letter to Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister and head of the foreign office (Auswärtiges Amt, or AA). In it, she expressed her indignation about an obituary in the AA newsletter InternAA honouring the diplomat Franz Nüsslein. She reminded the foreign minister that Nüsslein had been responsible for many executions by refusing any reprievals following Germany’s annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1938.

Fischer asked his staff to brief him about the rules concerning obituaries in his ministry. He learned that it had been the custom to honour former ambassadors and other leading figures of the AA with obituaries, despite the fact that many of them had played significant roles in the Holocaust. Trying to stop this practice, the minister ordered that no former member of the SA, SS or Nazi Party should be granted an obituary. But the so-called Mumien (mummies) – the elder generation of diplomats and high-ranking members of the AA – started to campaign against Fischer’s decision. They stated that among party members there had also been many who resisted Hitler’s regime, claiming further that the AA had been a centre of opposition: the few who supported atrocities and the killing of Jews had been National Socialists and had no adherence to the traditional structure of the AA. In this conflict between minister and mummies, Fischer decided to convene an international commission of historians to examine the role of the AA during the Third Reich and the Holocaust as well as in the postwar Federal Republic.

When the report of the commission was published in October 2010 it caused uproar not only among politicians and historians but also with the wider public. It provoked disputes about politics and historiography, about institutional and personal guilt and its remembrance. The renowned daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) made the 900-page report Das Amt, compiled by a team led by historians Eckhart Conze, Norbert Frei, Peter Hayes and Moshe Zimmermann, a major topic. FAZ publisher, Frank Schirrmacher, expressed his shock and indignation that the AA had created and maintained for decades the image of a conservative and aristocratic reservoir of traditional German values that resisted as much as possible the pressure of Hitler’s party. Das Amt reveals the role of the foreign ministry under Konstantin von Neurath and especially Joachim von Ribbentrop in accepting National Socialist policies and to some extent conducting killings and deportations during the Holocaust. Moreover, in its second half, the book paints a picture of how members of the AA invented and propagated the myth that the core of its most important sections, made up of traditional staff with aristocratic backgrounds, did everything to minimise, counteract and resist antisemitic policies. One of the main pieces of evidence in support of this image was voiced by an active participant in the July 20th, 1944 plot against Hitler, Adam von Trott zu Solz, who was quoted by a colleague as saying that the AA had been clean to its core and that many of its older staff could be employed after the end of the Hitler regime.

This picture is questioned in the report, where it is viewed as a cynical strategy used in the Nuremberg trials (and known as the Wilhelmstrassenprozess) to defend former AA staff such as Ernst von Weizsäcker, father of later German Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker. After the foundation of the Federal Republic in 1949 many of the former staff regained important positions in the new government, whereas almost no exiles from the Nazi regime were reinvited to apply for their former positions.

How important these issues remain was seen at the end of October 2010 when the new foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, received the report that his predecessor Fischer had commissioned in a public event at the AA. In surprisingly clear words he expressed his opinion that the AA had been part of the Nazi machinery of death and that the report would be used in future as part of the education of young diplomats. In another event that day Fischer declared that the mummies had always requested obituaries for the Nazi diplomats – now they had got what they wanted, the shameful truth.

However since its publication the report has also faced a wave of criticism. In the FAZ a former AA member Rainer Blasius expressed in almost daily articles his rejection of the report and tried to question the details of its allegation that the AA was a key part of the Nazi system. In a number of letters to the editor former members of the AA criticised the report as being unjust and of neglecting acts of resistance by AA members. Blasius stated that not everything in the report was even new and sensational: the infamous travel expense allowance paid to the diplomat Franz Rademacher, who gave as his reason for his journey to Belgrade as ‘liquidation of Jews’, was already known in the 1950s.

Further controversy about the role of the AA during Hitler’s rule followed the publication in summer 2010 of the German translation of US historian Christopher Browning’s seminal work The Final Solution and the German Foreign Office: A Study of Referat D III of Abteilung Deutschland 1940-1943 – 30 years after the original American edition had appeared. Browning stated in a German press interview that the second part of the report, which examined the creation of the myth of an AA resistant to the Nazi regime, was the source of considerable new information that will lead to a greater understanding of the involvement of German diplomats and foreign office officials in the worst excesses of the Nazi period. It appears that one of the oldest myths of the Nazi years has been exploded.

Markus Bauer is a writer and historian of Eastern Europe based in Berlin.