long-awaited publication of the historians' report on the role of the German
Foreign Office during the Third Reich brought to light a series of facts that
revealed the depth of the ministry's involvement in the Holocaust. As several U.S.
media phrased it, "German Foreign Ministry confronts Nazi past" (The
Wall Street Journal). The study elicited renewed interest around the globe
- from Spain to China - in the
way Germans handle the difficult heritage of the Nazi era (FAZ).
Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle rose to the challenge by facing it head on: In his speech on occasion of the book's presentation in Berlin, he confessed that the Foreign Office was shamed by the "Selbstgleichschaltung" (the voluntary total alignment with Nazism) and the cold administrative detachment with which the Office had contributed to the systematic genocide of the European Jews. He stressed that the study left no room to gloss over unpleasant facts. It summarily refuted the notion that the Foreign Office merely watched Nazi crimes from the sidelines, or even strove to prevent the worst, during the Third Reich. That myth had been carefully fostered immediately after the war by those members of the diplomatic corps who longed for a new, ‘clean' beginning of the young German democracy, and also by some who sought to cover up their personal involvement in the Nazi regime's crimes (Foreign Office).
The study indeed established that a substantial number of Foreign Office's staff members had aided and abetted the Holocaust. The diplomatic corps, as the country's elite, had willingly gone along with the Nazis in eliminating Europe's Jewry, because it had shared their anti-democratic and anti-Semitic convictions. No outside pressure had been responsible for this turn of events, but rather the abovementioned process of "Selbstgleichschaltung" (Tagesspiegel).
Published in book form under the title Das Amt und die Vergangenheit ("The Office and the Past"), the historians' report lists document upon document detailing staff members' involvement in the mass murder. As the most shocking example, the head of the "Jewish Department" in the Foreign Office during the Third Reich, Franz Rademacher, callously listed "the liquidation of Jews in Belgrade" as the purpose of a business trip abroad (Sueddeutsche Zeitung) By 1943, over 80 percent of the Foreign Office higher service staff were NSDAP members. In countries like Bulgaria and Greece, members of the German diplomatic corps organized the deportation of Jews to the Nazi extermination camps (Tagesspiegel).
The verdict of the study's leading investigator, German historian Eckhart Conze, is devastating: In his assessment, the Third Reich's Foreign Office had constituted a criminal institution that had undeniably formed part of the Nazis' criminal regime (Welt). Unusual for a history textbook, the first edition of the study sold out within days of its publication (FAZ). That was also the case in the Foreign Office's own bookstore, perhaps not surprisingly after Minister Westerwelle had announced his intention of making it required reading for all aspiring diplomats (Maerkische Oderzeitung).
The report also included documentary evidence that the training of diplomats during the Third Reich not only included visits to Hitler's Obersalzberg, but also tours of the Dachau concentration camp. Unsettling for the historians was their discovery that, following the restitution of the Foreign Office in West Germany in 1951, there was a concerted effort to conceal the complicity of individual officers as well as entire networks in the crimes committed by the Nazi regime (FAZ).
Even after the war, some of these officers continued their harassment of Jews. For example, the Federal Republic's General Consul in Jerusalem, Walter Doehle, made life miserable for German Jews who had fled to Palestine by stalling on their pension applications. Meanwhile, former collaborators in the Foreign Service were able to pursue their careers unfettered, especially since they were coveted as experts on communism and the Middle East by the Western Allies. Thus nearly the entire staff of the Third Reich's "Orient" department remained on board and formed the core of the "Middle and Near East" section of the nascent West German Foreign Service in Bonn (Juedische Allgemeine).
Reportedly, it was disgust with this connivance of the official structures that set the stone rolling and led to the historical inquiry into the role of the Foreign Office in the first place. In 2003, a retired lady diplomat, Marga Henseler, became irate over an obituary honoring a former West German chief diplomat in Barcelona in a Foreign Office internal newsletter. The memorial note completely ignored the man's record as a war criminal. News of the matter eventually reached then Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer (Green Party). He in turn prohibited the continuance of such obituary practices and called into being the historical commission (FAZ).
The significance of the commission's appalling revelations engendered vivid debate in Germany: For instance, the Frankfurter Rundschau claimed that the study proved a timely publication in the aftermath of the Sarrazin debate. It should serve to remind Germans how easily hate propaganda - whether directed at their fellow countrymen of Jewish or of Turkish descent - can delude receptive elites. This in turn could lead otherwise law-abiding citizens to heedlessly engage in criminal activities (Frankfurter Rundschau). The study's findings regarding how former Nazi collaborators integrated themselves into the nascent West German Foreign Service ought also to inform the ongoing discussion surrounding civil service personnel with Stasi records, who succeeded in joining the unified Germany's bureaucratic apparatus and political elite (Frankfurter Rundschau).
Meanwhile, the Berliner Zeitung took pains to note that the entire episode underscores that Nazism is not the only product "made in Germany" worthy of note internationally. No less remarkable are strong and courageous characters such as Marga Henseler. She is of course the 90-year-old former diplomat whose refusal to remain silent on what she perceived to be misguided praise for a Nazi collaborator, put an end to the covert whitewashing of the Foreign Office's past (Berliner Zeitung). In his address on occasion of the Conze report, Foreign Minister Westerwelle had also named a small minority of several courageous Foreign Office members who had decided to resist the criminal path. These exceptional individuals, he stated, should be held up as examples to today's Foreign Service personnel.
At the report's official launch in Washington, D.C., U.S. diplomat Stuart E. Eizenstat emphasized that the German willingness to face up to their Foreign Service's historical shortcomings was commendable and by no means self-evident by international standards. In the opinion of the study's authors, the fact that it took over 60 years for this reckoning to take place is due to the requisite generational change at the Foreign Office. Only once the Cold War had ended, and the generation so heavily involved in the events had retired, could an honest review of the diplomats' role during the Nazi era take place (FAZ).
However, Eckhart Conze's summary claim that the whole Foreign Office under the Nazi dictatorship would qualify as a "criminal organization" also came under criticism. Not only former diplomats who felt personally targeted by this classification, but also reputable historians are asking to what extend it is fair to summarily judge people in that manner from today's perspective without taking into account the historical and individual context in which each person acted. Moreover, historian Daniel Koerfer (Free University, Berlin) argues that we cannot draw the right lessons from history if we merely search for further proof of guilt and blame. Rather one should relate historical research to the mechanics and dynamics of a totalitarian dictatorship in order to identify patterns that make individuals as well as institutions engage in crimes such as those committed in the Third Reich (FAZ).
Photo Licence: CC-BY Auswärtiges Amt