At Leo Baeck Institute in New York Tuesday, former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer discussed his role as initiator of a commission to investigate the role that German diplomats played in Hitler’s apparatus of persecution. The event, which was the first public discussion of the initiative in the US, was co-sponsored by the American Council on Germany and the New School for Social Research.
The commission’s report, Das Amt und die Vergangenheit (October 2010, Blessing Verlag) has unleashed a debate over how much of the material is actually new and whether the commission’s judgment that the Foreign Office was a “criminal organization” goes too far.
Addressing a capacity crowd, Fischer said the study was necessary to dispel the myth, long propagated by the Foreign Office, that it was an apolitical bureaucracy hijacked by Nazi-appointed outsiders, exercising resistance whenever possible.
Though many details were previously documented by historians in the 1970’s and 80’s, Fischer that a comprehensive and systematic study was needed to enlighten non-specialists about the broader context.
“I myself was shocked when I read it,” said Fischer of the commission’s report. Despite his confrontation with Germany’s past as a student radical during the 1960’s, he said, “I didn’t know that the Holocaust was organized by the Foreign Office in many occupied countries. […] I never knew about the office to protect indicted war criminals that warned suspects not to go to France and other countries after the war.”
It started with a letter…
Fischer traced the initiative back to a letter from a retired interpreter for the Foreign Office. In 2003, Marga Henseler wrote to then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to object to an obituary for a former Nazi, Franz Nüsslein, in a Foreign Office newsletter.
Nüsslein had joined the Foreign Office in 1955 and became German Consul General in Barcelona despite the fact that he had been convicted of war crimes for his role in sentencing Czech citizens to death during World War II. The obituary did not mention his activities during the war or his war crimes conviction.
“I was ashamed,” said Fischer, referring to the letter. “Ms. Henseler wrote ‘I don’t understand how a former Nazi can get an obituary from the Foreign Office while Joschka Fischer is Foreign Minister.’ So I said, ‘that’s it.’ ”
Fischer decreed no more obituaries would be published for former Nazi party members, but was later criticized by a group of retired diplomats over the policy.
“When I became Foreign Minister, I thought, naively, that there was a new consensus about the German past,” Fischer said. “I couldn’t believe that this self-perception [of a lack of culpability for Nazi crimes] still existed among the elite in a modern, democratic Germany.”
Resistance was the exception
In response to the criticism, Fischer convened an international panel of independent historians from Germany, the United States, and Israel to investigate in 2005.
One of the commission’s members, Norbert Frei, joined Fischer at LBI. Currently the Theodor Heuss visiting professor at the New School, Frei described how the German diplomatic corps, which traditionally drew on the most elite elements of German society, adopted a narrative that it had been co-opted by Nazi-appointed outsiders like Joachim von Ribbentrop, who became Foreign Minister in 1938, and Franz Rademacher, who headed the Office of Jewish Affairs.
“People talk about the role of the Foreign Office in the Nazi regime as if they were two separate entities,” said Frei. “Our hypothesis was that the Foreign Office in the Third Reich was the Foreign Office of the Third Reich.”
The study does take note of acts of resistance by German diplomats, but these instances, Frei said, serve primarily to show that various kinds of resistance were possible. Unfortunately, according to Frei, “resistance was the exception.”
The study also paints a dark picture of the Foreign Office in the years after the war. Many former Nazis, including convicted war criminals, evaded Allied de-nazification procedures and quickly re-established themselves in the new bureaucracy. Even in the 1950’s the culture in the Foreign Office was such that diplomats who had collaborated with US intelligence during the war were prevented from re-joining the Foreign Office.
“Our book has struck a nerve”
Frei also addressed criticism from those who say that its judgment of the German Foreign office as a “criminal organization” is too categorical and that the book does not offer enough new information.
“None of these critics have suggested that the book should contain more information on the Post-war period. What really got under their skin is that our book did not end in 1945,” said Frei.
Some of the generation of diplomats, now retired, whose mentors were tainted by association with the Nazis, “seem to believe that service rendered to the Federal Republic of Germany should weigh against crimes committed for the Nazis,” Frei continued.
The report paints an uncomfortable picture of a modern German state that was built by elites who only slowly and in response to outside pressure rejected Nazi ideology.
Fischer suggested that that is why the report is so important today: “Confrontation with the past has always been an essential part of building the modern German democracy, but it has always been a struggle. […] This report is an important contribution to modern Germany’s self understanding.”