University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


Probe Details Culpability Of Nazi-Era Diplomats

Probe Details Culpability Of Nazi-Era Diplomats

NPR News

During the Third Reich, Germany's foreign ministry staff across Europe cooperated in the mass murder of Jews and others, according to a government-sponsored study released Thursday in Berlin.

The report says German diplomats during the Nazi era were far more deeply involved in the Holocaust than previously acknowledged. It also shows how West German diplomats after the war worked to whitewash history and create a myth of resistance and opposition to Nazi rule.

Fully Aware And Actively Involved

The report is a devastating indictment of Germany's war-era diplomatic corps, that long cast itself as relatively "clean" of Nazi war crimes and tried to portray any wrongdoing as the result of a few bad actors.

Peter Hayes, a professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., is one of four historians who co-wrote the nearly 900-page report. He hopes it helps destroy one of the last myths of the Third Reich.

Historians over the last two decades have chronicled the deep complicity of the major institutions of German society -- including big business and universities -- in the crimes of the Nazi regime.

"This is really the last bastion of the notion that high-ranking people in the society could somehow keep themselves separate from what the Third Reich set out to do," Hayes says.

Historians looked in 32 different archives worldwide and interviewed eyewitnesses. The study, commissioned by the government five years ago, shows that German diplomats were not only fully aware of the genocidal policy throughout the war, but they were also actively involved in all aspects of deportation, persecution and genocide of Jews.

After the report's release Thursday, Germany's current foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, said that the ministry took part "with bureaucratic coolness in the systematic annihilation of European Jews."

An Effort To Rewrite History

One of many pieces of damning evidence included a meeting in late 1944 -- when the war was almost certainly lost for Germany -- of the heads of sections of the foreign ministry. At that gathering, the diplomats talked openly about the extent of the mass murder to date and efforts they were going to make to increase the carnage, even in the fading months of the regime.

Other evidence included a travel reimbursement report from German diplomat Franz Rademacher, the head of the ministry's Jewish affairs section, after a trip to Nazi-occupied Serbia.

"He wrote that the purpose of his visit was the liquidation of the Jews in Belgrade -- right there on the form he submitted to the finance office within the ministry," Hayes says.
Historians have previously uncovered evidence of the foreign ministry's Holocaust complicity. Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop was hanged for war crimes after the Nuremberg trials.

The study also shows how throughout the 1950s and '60s, the ministry worked hard to try to whitewash its role in mass murder and rewrite history.

Americans, too, at times glossed over Nazi crimes -- especially to gain access to intelligence assets or skilled administrators -- as Cold War realpolitik won out over justice, the report notes.

After the Allies let Germans take the lead in de-Nazification and then relaxed control of West German institutions after 1951, the foreign ministry allowed former Nazis to enter the foreign service in droves. Some of those stained diplomats then helped other Nazis gloss over their reputations.

"Once we turned de-Nazification over to the Germans at end of 1946, then very largely this process became one of mutual exculpation," Hayes says. "People wanted to believe their own arguments about how they'd been seduced by the Nazis into following this regime and so on. Thus they believed their own alibis."

The process accelerated when the Allied occupation ended in 1955, Hayes says. Then even members of the SS -- some with extremely dark pasts -- slipped back into the foreign service.

At the release of the report at the foreign ministry, Westerwelle said the extent of ministry collusion during the Nazi era "shames us" and vowed to make the report's findings part of the training for future diplomats.

He also praised the few staffers who actively opposed the Nazis, including a dozen who were killed for their resistance.