29 October 2010
German diplomats under the Nazis
By Maram Stern
It is bad enough that 60 years had to pass until it was decided, in 2005, to take a closer look at the role the German Foreign Office played during the Nazi era. The four historians who undertook this task have now concluded that the ministry was not an oasis full of peace-minded, sophisticated diplomats or even covert resistance fighters. Instead, it was a "criminal organisation,“ as one of them put it. Sixty-five years after the end of World War II, the myth of the Foreign Office being an agency that acted independently of the Nazi party and was commited to peace and the moderation of the Nazis‘ excesses has been shattered. All too many of the 'noble' diplomats provided their services to Hitler, often readily.
The German diplomatic service also had its fair share of dyed-in-the-wool anti-Semites who wanted to rid Germany of the Jews. Even six decades after the Holocaust, the often-heard claim "We only wanted to prevent worse" still sounds like a mockery of the six million Jews who were murdered all over Europe. One needn’t be a historian to comprehend to what extent the destructive machinery the Nazis put in place depended on voluntary supporters in all areas of government, business and the military. Many officials in the Foreign Office sullied their hands and bureaucratic partners in crime. Not only were they in charge of concealing the extent of the Nazis‘ extermination plans, but they became actively involved in it in the occupied countries. The borders between followers and abbetors of the regime became blurred, and many officials – especially the senior ones – must be classified as abettors.
It is therefore particularly disconcerting to see how quickly the ministry was re-established in 1951 by employing the old élite of the Foreign Office prior to 1945. The practical use of experienced but tainted diplomats was considered more important than the principles of democracy and the rule of law. Similar to other areas, old Nazis were quickly back at the levers of power in the Foreign Office. Some even used their positions to protect war criminals from being caught and tried by making good use of the world-wide infrastructure of the diplomatic service. Parts of the Nazi regime thus continued to exist for decades under the cloak of the federal ministry. It is not hard to imagine that some murderers managed to escape justice because of false papers issued by German Foreign Office diplomats.
Even some younger diplomats who weren’t themselves ensnarled in any Nazi crimes did not want to face the unsavoury past of their ministry, but – consciously or not – prefered to accept at face value the pretence of older diplomats that the Foreign Office had only been a neutral, functional institution that was forced to implemente decisions taken by others. But there is no function without responsibility. And there must not be total loyality and unconditional service, not even towards the State. And yet, until recently favourable obituaries were published for deceased German diplomats whose activities during the Nazi regime were not even considered objectionable.
Moreover, it needed some political willpower even in 2005 to order an investigation into the ministry’s role under the swastika. Then Minister of Foreign Affairs Joschka Fischer deserves praise for taking a decision that his predecessors – among them the widely renowned Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Walter Scheel and Willy Brandt – failed to take. However, the crucial lesson of the now published study is that nearly seven decades after the Third Reich a lot of historical research remains to be done, in particular concerning the role of government ministries. The continuity of many Nazis who occupied key posts in the newly founded Federal Republic after the war was a big burden, and more research needs to be done.
In any case, too much guilt will never be expiated. Sixty-five years are a long time, and the number of those who can still be brought to justice for their deeds is even smaller than the number of those who can still give us an eyewitness account of the suffering under the Nazis. It is therefore very important to at the very least continue to bring about transparency and truth where legal steps can no longer be taken. Germany owes this not only to the victims of the Nazis. It owes it to itself as a modern, democratic state.
An honest and continuing study of recent history can also set an example for other countries and send an important signal. In countries occupied by Nazi Germany, there is also a lot to be examined and discussed in terms of colloboration in the persecution and deportation of Jews during the Holocaust. Only recently, the French Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld presented documents which prove that the head of the Vichy régime in France, Philippe Pétain, personally ordered stricter laws against Jewish citizens. Nobody had forced him to.
Even today the Nazi ideology is still present in the united Europe, more than democrats should tolerate. Therefore, we need more studies like the one presented by the historians on the German Foreign Office. State institutions must continue to provide the necessary funding for them.
Maram Stern, born 1955 in Berlin, is honorary vice-president and deputy secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress and runs the organisation’s European office in Brussels.
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