Ribbentrop is a genius — Adolf Hitler
I assure you, we are all appalled by all these persecutions and atrocities. It is simply not typically German! Can you imagine that I could kill anyone? Tell me honestly, do any of us look like murderers?— Joachim von Ribbentrop in Nuremberg
Among the few ideas that Hitler held to throughout his life, unaltered by any compromise demanded by the tactics of power, was the conviction of the supremacy of force. He took up the old dictum that struggle is the father of all things, which the popular philosophy of the nineteenth century had interpreted in the tritest possible way, and construed it as meaning that at murder, cruelty, cunning or brutality were the right of a higher humanity and proof of an unspoilt morality. Totally ensnared in analogies between nature and human society, which gave both his first and his later pronouncements their characteristic mark, he carried over the laws of the jungle into the lives of individuals and of nations.
How deeply such an outlook—not consciously and firmly, but as a vague underlying feeling—pervaded the masses is proved by the echo it aroused when Hitler made his debut as a demagogue. From the deep German subconscious, his extravagant appeals touched in particular that type of petty bourgeois behind whose philistine respectability, soulfulness and vague romanticism could be seen the outlines of a harsh belief in force. Blood and iron, as the current phrase had it, ruled the course of the world; history was unsentimental; the world spirit rode its tall steed through battlefields littered with corpses and cared nothing for the rights of others. It would be a mistake to regard this perversion of values as being confined to the German situation; it represented an upsurge of long standing with its origins in Europe as a whole. But the combination of this distorted viewpoint with specifically German problems proved a highly inflammable mixture.
The universal phenomenon involved has been aptly described as 'mass Machiavellianism'. It resulted from the increasing participation of all levels of the population in politics. Whereas in past ages only the leading groups had been conscious of the conflict between the norms of accepted morality and the demands of the state, now, in a way quite different from that anticipated by the liberal and democratic spokesmen of the twentieth century, awareness of this conflict became infinitely widespread without creating any feeling of tension. What had been held out as liberation from dependence on uncontrollable old-style power politics, and as the elimination of the 'double morality' of power politics, proved on the contrary to be the point at which precisely this double morality entered into the whole of society. The new situation was marked by the increasingly unashamed disparagement, by ever-widening circles of the population, of all forms of public ethics, which were condemned as a 'soft morality of sentiment and renunciation'. This meant nothing less than that morality per se was considered an attitude of soft emotionalism and of cowardly renunciation of the nation's essential claims. The conviction that the state had a morality of its own had hitherto been held only by those in positions of leadership and acted on only after weighing up all the factors involved. Now it became the
'everyday morality of the little man', as Karl Mannheim wrote, 'who today practises power politics such as we find in the past only in the secret documents of leading statesmen', (1)
and practised it, moreover, without the control provided by a rational consideration of the facts. The urge towards participation in politics degenerated into an urge towards participation in the contempt for moral sanctions within politics.
This development coincided with the peculiarly pathological assumptions current in the political consciousness of the German people at the dawn of the era of the national state. The aspiration towards a German national state, never satisfied and never relaxed; the widespread feeling of having arrived too late at the colonial partition of the world; the vision of a German mission in the heart of Europe, as romantically sentimental in conception as it was aggressive; the urge for German hegemony culminating rapturously in the idea of the Reich; and a willingness to sacrifice to the outward goals of domination an inner freedom that had never really been experienced—in short, the unstable equilibrium of a nation which had almost never in its history felt at one with itself created a combination of circumstances ripe for the swing to an all-or-nothing imperialist adventure.
One may or may not see German participation in the First World War as a first step in a truly Napoleonic dream of dominion, a grasping at world power. In any case, such dreams came to a head with the end of the war and its aftermath. The Hitlerian thesis 'world power or destruction' had its precursors and contributors, who placed the emphasis on many different aspects, in every camp from the centre to the right and running right across the established political fronts. Treaties, tracts or circular letters, significantly always dealing with foreign policy, whether they were put out by scholars, businessmen or journalists or by the wildly proliferating sectarian nationalist groups, revealed not merely a passionate desire for a say in public affairs but also an ambition to rebuild the deeply wounded national spirit on the foundations of future imperialism. The widespread humiliation gave these projects an extreme note and a sense of being above all consideration for others both in setting their aims and in choosing their means. No matter if the world 'fell in fragments', as a later popular National Socialist fighting song put it, expressing the thrilling shudder that so warmed petty-bourgeois hearts with a taste for the apocalyptic. Faith in force, in unscrupulous violence, rapturously proclaimed by Hitler, worked on these groups and classes like magic and had a far more lasting influence than hazy National Socialist ideology. Here the 'natural law' traditionally surrounded by a zone of silence was openly stated, the formula for success openly displayed with its promise of satisfying all the nation's needs at one blow. The 'Machiavellianism of the masses' had culminated in the appearance of Hitler and now became a political force. (2)
With his divorce from the standards of wider responsibility, the typical man of power who rose to the top among Hitler's followers certainly recognized the explosiveness of the mixture that made him what he was, but he admired himself in this situation and mistook his predilection for catastrophe for the demonic quality of historical grandeur. The logical consequence of all this was that in the course of the history of the Third Reich control of foreign policy was always more violently fought for than any other. Here practical incompetence had the greatest chance of success, national bitterness could be most effectively worked off and an understanding of power and faith in force could most readily take effect in aggression. And here too was the logical point at which the spirit of the tavern crashed into the world of high-level politics, knocking over all the players, and before the eyes of a dumbfounded world displayed its bombast, its greed for prestige, and its desire to impress in a way that was both pathetic and shattering. The representative of this type was the Third Reich's Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop.
The circumstances in which he found his way to Hider in the early 1930s are revealing in themselves. In response to a chance remark by Hitler that he could not follow the foreign press because of his ignorance of foreign languages, Ribbentrop, the wine and spirits importer, was recommended to him as a reader. Ribbentrop not only had a good knowledge of languages but had also been the author of a political newsletter which was sent to business contacts at home and abroad and which took a nationalist and anti-Bolshevik line. Hitler accepted him, influenced not least by his outward appearance as a man of the world.(3) This was the start of a rapid rise in a career of astounding incompetence. For Ribbentrop, who shared Hitler's habit of indulging in great visions expressed in endless monologues, it led into those realms where the megalomaniac word loses its innocence and unexpectedly influences the destinies of nations; where self-assertive coarseness brings the reputation, not of a swashbuckler among neighbours and boon companions, but of a disturber of the peace before the bar of history. Ribbentrop evidently never grasped the difference between these two roles and confronted it during the Nuremberg trial with that same strained mien which a lifelong intellectual helplessness had forced him to adopt. He was condemned as the pothouse politician whose bombastic utterances were suddenly fulfilled as by a malevolent fairy, whose words, dictated by a hunger for self-importance, suddenly became flesh and, even more, blood.
It was no doubt his inflated busybody arrogance that also made him the target of so much negative criticism. From the French Foreign Minister Bonnet and his Italian and Spanish counterparts, Count Ciano and Serrano Suner, through the leading functionaries of the Third Reich to the court psychologists at the Nuremberg trial the verdicts differ in tone, never in substance. Representative in this sense is the sketch by the former French ambassador in Berlin, Robert Coulondre:
Hitler launches into monologues when carried away by passion, but Herr von Ribbentrop does so when he is ice-cold. It is futile to challenge his statements; he hears you just as little as his cold, empty, moon-like eyes see you. Always speaking down to his interlocutor, always striking a pose, he delivers his well-prepared speech in a cutting voice; the rest no longer interests him; there is nothing for you to do but withdraw. There is nothing human about this German, who incidentally is good-looking, except the baser instincts.(4)
State Secretary von Weizsacker referred to Ribbentrop's disqualifying inability to submit to the rules of conversation. The Reich press chief, Otto Dietrich, called him 'witless and undiplomatic, touchy and subservient', while Goebbels sarcastically explained the contempt for the Foreign Minister by almost all the top leaders of the Third Reich by saying that whereas each of the leading men had at least one praiseworthy side, Ribbentrop had none.(5) The lone weak voice raised in his favour among the hostile chorus is that of his secretary; but she too emphasized Ribbentrop's unconditional subservience, thereby indicating the obvious reason why he for so long retained the esteem of Hitler, who on one occasion called him a 'second Bismarck' and on another 'a genius'.(6) For whatever Ribbentrop accomplished to win the admiration of his contemporaries, he paid for it with servitude, and his later State Secretary von Steengracht actually spoke in Nuremberg of 'a certain hypnotic dependence upon Hitler'.(7) But it would doubtless be more correct to say that Byzantinism was merely part of the ambitious efforts of a man who sought dependence and fell on his knees before he was asked to. It matches the picture of this character ready-made for totalitarianism in its intellectual dishonesty, brutality and longing for subjection that in August 1939, after his spectacular trip to Moscow, he went into raptures before anyone who would listen about Stalin and his fellow "men with the strong faces" and even in his last notes written during his imprisonment in Nuremberg he commented that he had spent 'a harmonious evening with them'.(8)
It was his great desire, which he pursued beyond the limits of the ridiculous, to appear himself as 'a man with a strong face'. Hence the forced toughness which he assumed; the artificial, screwed-up pose of the statesman filled with cares for the future; the laborious furrowed brow; in short all the Caesar-like grimacing which, in all his high-falutin obtuseness, so often verged towards buffo comic opera. Eye-witnesses said he almost fell on the rails of the Garde des Invalides when he visited Paris in 1938, through holding his head high, as he always did.(9) The vanity, the provocative self-assertion and continual self-dramatization, were merely the reverse side of his very ordinary personality; on the sleeves of the fantastic diplomatic uniform which he had designed for him there was embroidered a terrestrial globe dominated by an eagle. His desire to please and his ambition were as great as the ruthlessly fraudulent means by which he sought to satisfy them.
These elements crop up over and over again in his undistinguished career up to the beginning of the 1930s. He came from a middle-class officer's family, went to Canada as a merchant in his youth, and returned to Germany shortly after the outbreak of the First World War. That he was awarded the Iron Cross First Class only retrospective and in response to a petition has been disputed, but it would be in keeping with his mentality. (10) After the war he belonged 'to the lower ranks of cafe society', (11) until marriage to the daughter of a well-known champagne manufacturer gave him the entree into high society which he had been striving for. He later tried, falsely, to explain his elevation to the nobility as a reward for bravery in the war; for his name was originally Joachim Ribbentrop and he exploited a change in the law after 1918 to get himself adopted by a distant noble relative of the same name. Goebbels commented contemptuously,
'He bought his name, he married his money, and he swindled his way into office.' (12)
The emphatic hostility of the Minister of Propaganda was due not merely to rivalry in the sphere of foreign policy but to a considerable extent also to Ribbentrop's having joined the party late and rather by chance. Also his dubious nobility and ostentatious snobbery, which earned him the nickname 'Ribbensnob', (13) together with his forced gentility and exclusiveness, irritated the older supporters of the movement, especially those who, like Goebbels, remembered its former proletarian impulses and spirit. True, Ribbentrop's house in Berlin-Dahlem, Lentze-Allee 7-9, had served as a meeting-place during final negotiations over the formation of the cabinet of 30th January 1933; but such predominantly social activities did not count among Hitler's early followers. They regarded him as a parvenu, and these men who had risked their lives for the movement never entirely lost their distrust of the upstart who was using it as a springboard for his undisguised personal aims. The Fuhrerlexikon (the Who's Who of leading Nazis) of 1935 did not even mention his name. (14)
It may be that it was this total lack of support within the party that finally placed him in that attitude of unconditional servility, already present in his personality, which determined his future career and made him such an undignified and despised shadow of Hitler. It is also said of him that he sometimes sought to discover Hitler's views through go-betweens and then presented them as his own.
'Foreign policy for him consisted in being the first to present some important report to Hitler and to sense in advance how Hitler would evaluate it. To Ribbentrop a thing was important if it was likely to be regarded as important by Hitler. If he turned out to have been mistaken about this, he immediately lost all interest.' (15)
In the so-called Ribbentrop Bureau, which he provocatively set up opposite the German Foreign Office in the former house of the Prussian Minister-President, he created in spring 1933 a staff, at first small but soon numbering more than 300, to satisfy his ambitions in the field of foreign policy. He later explained that the function of this office was restricted to the creation of 'good will' abroad. (16) In fact, however, he used it to carry on a stubborn and ruthless war with the Foreign Office. He found himself emphatically supported in this by Hitler, who fostered such rival claims to jurisdiction not only because they made it easier for him to maintain his own power, but also out of a deep-seated aversion for the Foreign Office, that 'omnium-gatherum of creatures', as he once called it. Its fundamentally conservative outlook, its traditional objectivity and recalcitrant stiffness, coupled with its lack of enthusiasm and its bureaucratic pedantry, were anathema to him. The dreary embassy reports' did not interest him, he once declared and gave his own idea of the new-style diplomat of the National Socialist school:
'An efficient ambassador must be able to act as a maître de plaisir; in any case he must be able to pander and prefabricate. What he should be least of all is a correct civil servant.' (17)
Ribbentrop himself hardly measured up to this ideal, but Hitler was obviously impressed by his brutal directness, and his curt, domineering tone was in keeping with Hitler's views on the style of National Socialist foreign policy.
Nevertheless, the apparatus of the Foreign Office remained for the time being largely intact, particularly as Hitler seemed to be trying to carry on the revisionist policy of continual willingness to negotiate that had been the foreign policy credo of the Weimar Republic. The carefully preserved appearance of moderation and constancy were entirely tactical. He wanted to soothe foreign fears that the men now in power in the Reich might embark on the boundless ambitions proclaimed, for example, in Mein Kampf and in countless threatening speeches. This would give the regime a breathing spell in which to eliminate internal opposition and consolidate. The first aim of foreign policy, as stated in detail by Hitler in his speech to the Dusseldorf Industrial Society in 1932, was to mobilize and unify the militant energies of the people within the frame-work of plans for future expansion. Only total control and unification internally—this was the burden of his declaration—guaranteed complete freedom of action externally. (18)
Apart from occasional intervention, then, Hitler did not interfere in the work of the Foreign Office until the process of seizing power was completed and stability largely assured. Then, however, its influence on the moulding and formulation of foreign policy was noticeably curbed, in so far as it was not voluntarily abandoned. The old officials of this department, in working for Hitler's immediate aims — the undermining and dissolution of collective security as represented by the League of Nations, and its transformation into a multiplicity of bi-lateral relationships—had shown a lethargy that was not in keeping with the versatile ruthlessness of the new style: when it came to carrying out his strategic ideas they were quite useless. Plans for the revision of the Versailles Treaty, the creation of a unified Greater German Reich and imperialist solutions to the problems of Lebensraum in the East all involved breaking agreements, and using blackmail, duplicity or the threat of war, and these plans were confined to a very narrow circle. Soon the Foreign Office became a mere 'technical apparatus' (19) required for purely routine tasks, but for the rest more and more obviously bypassed and ignored.
In one of these special tasks, now increasingly entrusted to reliable followers in the first moves towards cold-shouldering the Foreign office, Ribbentrop achieved an astonishing success in the early summer of 1933 with the conclusion of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement. It was of course due less to his tactless and blackmailing conduct of the negotiations than to the vacillations of British policy, to wavering in London and Paris. In neither city could the authorities make up their minds whether the dynamism of Hitler's regime was to be halted by cautiously meeting him halfway or by vigorously opposing him. In both they veered between distrust and attempts to minimize the danger. Thus they found themselves facing precisely that problem which had dominated the political situation inside Germany before 1933 and they confronted it in the same deluded and contradictory manner, handing Hitler his successes and then disputing them with him ever more helplessly and nervously.(20)
Despite assertions to the contrary,(21) Ribbentrop manifestly felt it a setback, in summer 1936, to be appointed German ambassador to London. As a mere courtier, far from the capital Berlin, with its struggles for power and its cabals, he probably feared for his position. With provocative negligence he did not go to London until three months after the appointment, and thereafter made so many trips home to Berlin that Punch christened him the Wandering Aryan, while a leading official of the British Foreign Office indignantly complained that Herr von Ribbentrop apparently regarded his activity at the Court of St James as a 'part-time job'.(22) Nor were his humourless and officious nature and the frosty solemnity with which he surrounded himself calculated to win him even the personal success which he so much desired.
'When I questioned Ribbentrop's ability to cope with British problems,' Goring later commented, 'Hitler explained to me that Ribbentrop knew "Lord So-and-So". I replied, "Yes, but the trouble is that they also know Ribbentrop."'(23)
At a reception at court in 1937 the ambassador committed the famous gaffe of greeting the King with the Nazi salute, a faux pas that has become the classic example of amateurish and unfitting diplomacy. Rejection by English society, which in his eyes held the ultimate decision on some imaginary rank, offended him deeply and perhaps confirmed him in his conviction of the irreconcilable nature of Anglo-German antagonism even more strongly than the failure of his policy, which varied between attempts to curry favour and arrogant demonstrations of strength.
'Every day', he wrote in a secret memorandum shortly before his recall, 'on which in future our political reflections were not fundamentally determined by the idea that England is our most dangerous adversary would be a gain for our enemies.' (24)
The disastrous consequences of this aversion, which was in total opposition to the Third Reich's initial policy of an alliance of interests with Britain, were first disclosed in 1938 when Hitler, in the great spring reshuffle, appointed him Foreign Minister. According to an eye-witness it sometimes happened that
'Hitler fundamentally opposed Ribbentrop's Anglophobia and commented upon it sarcastically. But in practical terms Ribbentrop's one-sided instructions had a clearly observable effect on him.' (25)
According to everyone except the ex-Foreign Minister himself, he gave Hitler misleading information, especially on British policy, during all the crises of 1938-9, creating the picture of a nation basically so resigned that for the foreseeable future it would accept every act of violent conquest by the Reich.(26) Hitler acted on this catastrophic and short-sighted thesis all the more readily because it was in line with his own ideological preconceptions about the humanitarian weakness and political degeneracy of the Western democracies. Ribbentrop's prestige and influence grew still further when this prediction was apparently confirmed in the course of the Austrian and Czech crises, when the British Prime Minister left the unhappy Czechoslovakia to her fate after his disastrous reference to 'these countries which we scarcely know'. Certainly Ribbentrop did not decisively determine the Reich's foreign policy at this or any other time. 'The policy I pursue is not mine but the Fuhrer's,' he frankly told the French ambassador, Coulondre.(27) But Ribbentrop added many characteristic details to that policy and, at least between the Munich Agreement of autumn 1938 and the Moscow Pact of August 1939, was at the height of his political career, more than ever the 'foreign-political secretary', as he was described at Nuremberg.(28) He more than anyone reinforced Hitler in the hazardous policy that gave its stamp to the hot and hectic summer of 1939; he in particular circulated the foolish theories that Germany 'had not exploited the Western powers' fear of war to the full' and that 'at Munich Britain was only out to gain time in order to strike when better armed'.(29) Goring's remark in 1943 that 'this war is Ribbentrop's war' was going too far,(30) but demonstrably Ribbentrop did everything he could to frustrate last-minute peace moves. The account by the Swedish businessman Birger Dahlerus of his efforts in summer 1939 to prevent the threatened war contains not merely a mass of indications of Ribbentrop's activity in exactly the opposite direction, but also the surmise, admittedly originating from Ribbentrop's personal rival Goring, that the Foreign Minister had been after his life.(31) Over and above this he refused to allow the head of the London mission to see Hitler when he came to Berlin in response to a request for an urgent report on the situation; he forbade the ambassador in Warsaw to return to his post, although German-Polish relations were heading for a crisis; and he pushed aside unconsidered the warning reports from the ambassador in Washington because they contradicted Hitler's preconceived opinion. State Secretary von Weizsacker once had to warn his leading colleagues of a directive from Ribbentrop ordering him to have any of his officials who expressed an opinion of his own running counter to the line ordered by Hitler shot in the office on his personal responsibility—the ultimate absurd exaggeration of the methods of a 'personal foreign policy' that was now fully established.(32) These methods could claim certain striking successes and, as Hitler said, had ruthlessly exploited the advantages of knowing 'no pedantic and sentimental scruples'.(33) The tactics were always the same: an initial announcement of unconditional demands, immediately followed by a surprise attack and then a peace offer coupled with the assurance that no further demands would be made, until the game began all over again. At first they bewildered the adversary and put the European powers in a state of paralysis which was further intensified by the constant threat of war, but it was to be expected that this diplomacy by challenge must soon reach its natural limits. As early as 1937 Weizsacker noted in the margin of an embassy report from London that this was a policy of 'accelerating the Last Judgement'.(34) Ribbentrop, however, seems never to have been aware of this. When he was reminded after the Austrian Anschluss of Bismarck's cautiously gradual policy, he retorted, Then you have no idea of the dynamic force of National Socialism.' (35) Dynamism was here nothing but a synonym for the readiness continually to go the whole hog. The Italian Foreign Minister, Count Ciano, wrote in his diary:
It was at his Schloss Fuschl, while we were waiting to sit down to dinner, that Ribbentrop informed me of the decision to throw the tinder into the powder barrel, exactly as though he were talking to me about the most unimportant and ordinary administrative matter. Well, Ribbentrop, I asked him as we strolled in the garden, what do you want? Danzig or the corridor? Not any more—and he stared at me with those cold 'Musee Grevin' eyes—we want war! The will to fight is unalterable. Any solution that might satisfy Germany or avoid war, he rejects. I know for sure that the Germans, even if all their demands were met, would attack just the same, because they are possessed by the devil of destruction (36).
It may be that Ciano was exaggerating; but the impression of resolute barbarity that actually prides itself on its own brutality and greed is authentic. Undoubtedly this was all nothing but talk and 'war' merely another word in Ribbentrop's swash-buckling vocabulary; nevertheless it made history. A close colleague of Goebbels overheard a conversation between Ribbentrop and Hitler that reveals the inconceivable cynicism of this policy.
'When the war is over,' boasted the Foreign Minister, 'I shall have a finely carved chest made for myself. I shall put in it all the state agreements and other contracts between governments that I have broken during my period of office and I shall break in the future.'
Hitler replied jokingly,
'And I shall send you a second chest when the first one is full.'(37)
And if it was not a resolute will to war that guided Ribbentrop during the great world crisis, it was a sly arrogance that persuaded himself and others that Britain and France would intervene only formally in order to save face in a cause — as he assured his listeners, posing as a man in the know- for which they had no serious intention of taking real action. The first inkling of what he had started may have come when the British ultimatum reached the Reich Chancellery on 3rd September 1939, and Hitler spat out that furious 'What now?' which Ribbentrop could answer only with a meaningless rhetorical flourish.(38) The rapid triumphs of the early phase of the war, which carried the Third Reich to the zenith of its power, swept away all hesitation; and when the first difficulties arose with the breaking off of 'Operation Sea Lion', the principle of flight forward into new adventures, new campaigns, helped to stun any lasting realization of the truth. On 22nd June 1941 the most disastrous step on this path was taken: German armies launched an invasion of Soviet Russia. Among his closest confederates Hitler said,
'I feel as though I were pushing open a door into a dark room I had never seen—not knowing what lies behind the door.'(39)
This, fundamentally, was how they had always conducted foreign policy.
By the time they had pushed open the doors to almost all the dark rooms, convinced of the truth of Ribbentrop's arrogant 'We are far stronger than we ourselves believe!' (40) the Foreign Minister's personal fall began. True, he continually travelled around in the wake of headquarters and kept himself in readiness within easy reach, but he could do nothing to revive his waning influence. This was partly because of Hitler's view that in time of war the Foreign Office had no function, since questions of power 'could not be decided by diplomatic means'.(41) Behind this lay not merely the memory of the rejection of the 'peace offer' that Hitler in his usual way made shortly after the successful conclusion of the Polish campaign, but also an insight into the nature of this war. It was becoming more and more clearly a bitter ideological conflict and hence acquiring the character of a 'crusade', which indeed left little room for diplomatic activity. At the same time, the neglecting of contacts with neutral and Allied powers clearly revealed the limits of a purely expansionist 'diplomacy', which could impose from a position of power but could not genuinely negotiate because of its basic hostility to compromise.
However, Ribbentrop's inflexibility and lack of imagination also certainly played a part in the final phase of the withdrawal of power from the Foreign Office; now, as events became unfavourable to him and threats of force no longer achieved anything, he lapsed into pugnacity. It is reported that in spring 1943 'he received no further support from Hitler, who derided him as a busybody'. As his influence waned, his desire to extend his jurisdiction increased, so that according to his secretary he was soon devoting 'at least 60 per cent of his time' to futile conflicts with rivals.(42) He tried to regain part of his influence, following the well-tried method of his rivals, by taking an active part in the policy of exterminating the Jews and urging Germany's allies to speed up the evacuation of their Jewish populations; naturally this attempt had no lasting effect.(43) His offer of resignation, later such an important part of his attempts at self-justification, was an obvious expression of wounded pride, and though he drew attention later to the fact that Hitler called him his 'most difficult subordinate' and his department the 'house of difficulties', this certainly referred not to any practical resistance he had offered, but to the purely procedural difficulties he caused. A typical incident underlines this. When Rumania began to back out of the coalition with Hitler he did not bother to look into conditions in Bucharest, but devoted his whole energy to quarrelsome investigations into who could have handed in a memorandum on this subject to the Fuhrer's headquarters without going through the proper channels.(44)
Helplessly he watched the gradual dissolution of his department, whose influence he had once been so keen to reduce. By 1944 his name crops up only occasionally and in trifling contexts in documents and memoirs. One such was when he commissioned a colleague to demonstrate in a memorandum the indispensability of the Foreign Office. Or there was that grotesque scene on 20th July 1944, when an argument broke out in the exasperated atmosphere of headquarters. In the course of it Goring, evidently without first addressing him in the proper terms, went for him with his marshal's baton and was shrilly put in his place with the words, 'I am still Foreign Minister and my name is von Ribbentrop.'(45) This was all that was left: a reference to his title of nobility, to which strictly speaking he had no claim, and to a post which he had long since ceased to hold. His last months were filled with nervous hopes of conflict among the enemy, with unrealistic fantasies of uniting with the Western powers against the danger from the East, which the Nazis themselves had conjured up and introduced into the heart of Europe. Yet he still maintained an outward show of bold self-confidence. Count Folke Bernadotte found him in April 1945 as vain as ever and with his old unpleasant tendency to self-righteous monologues. Time after time he assured the Count that nothing was lost yet.(46) His career came to an end on 1st May, when Donitz informed him that he was dismissed from the post of Reich Foreign Minister.
'In order to avoid a long argument he invited Ribbentrop to ring him back if he thought he could name a suitable successor. After an hour Ribbentrop was on the line. He had thought the matter over at length and with a good conscience he could only suggest one man to Donitz: Ribbentrop.' (47)
A few weeks later he was taken from his bed in a Hamburg flat by British soldiers.
Birger Dahlerus, who saw him as head of the 'inferior elements' around Hitler, overestimated his personal importance. Certainly his activities were disastrous, but at bottom he was not really evil, but only base and heartless and of an unparalleled moral insensitivity that caused him to refuse to the last to withdraw his bloodthirsty phrases. Even in the face of death he could not see the extermination of millions of people as anything but 'an additional burden on foreign policy'. (48)
In their cold impersonality the notes he wrote in the Nuremberg prison are among the most agonizing documents left by the chief actors of that epoch. There is not a word of remorse or even of understanding, nothing but the wearisome platitudes of an indoctrination supervisor, as when he seeks to justify his policy, blames the German opposition and the British government alternately for the war, and tells the world with a silly fake honesty that
'seriously, there was no joint action directed by world Jewry from Moscow, Paris, London and New York'.(49)
In his total poverty of conscience he never grasped the moral considerations which, beyond all the dubious legal technicalities, gave the trial its decisive legitimation; rather, seeing everywhere the triumph of force and neither knowing nor acknowledging anything beyond it, he saw this trial too as purely a question of power.
'Everyone knows that the verdict is utterly untenable,' he wrote in one of his last letters. 'But I was once Adolf Hitler's Foreign Minister and politics demands that for this fact I shall be condemned.' (50)
The only argument he ever understood was who had the greater number of divisions, airplanes, tanks, factories or raw materials behind him. He was nothing in himself, and whatever he achieved he owed to Hitler's favour and power. Once he was deprived of their support and they no longer lent their terrible weight to his words, he was quickly reduced to the wretched proportions of the pothouse politician with the Nietzschean will to power which fundamentally he had always been. 'Since Hitler's death I have been done for,' he said at Nuremberg.(51)
His subservience endured, for it was the precondition for his rise to a position of historical importance. He was an example of that paradox, a million times repeated—the 'totalitarian man' who achieves the longed-for feeling of self-elevation only in a state of total subservience.
'Do you know,' he admitted to the Nuremberg court psychologist, G. M. Gilbert, 'even with all I know, if now in this cell Hitler should come to me and say, "Do this! " I would still do it.'
In his attempt at self-justification he kept returning to the idea of loyalty, which is an old mythological concept from the emotional world of the German petty bourgeois, who has been taught to measure the value of loyalty not by the value of its object, but isolated from all reasons and hence from all meaning. 'We Germans are a peculiar people; we are so loyal,' asserted Ribbentrop.(52)
G. M. Gilbert advanced the theory that each of the leaders of the Third Reich at Nuremberg possessed a kind of 'second line of defence'. The diplomats and military men took refuge in their social standard, Goring adopted an attitude of self-conscious heroism, Hess escaped into hysteria, others identified themselves with certain ideas, traditions or rediscovered certainties of faith; only Ribbentrop had nothing left to retreat to after Hitler's death. He possessed neither a conviction nor the support of an aristocratic origin, and in the narrow sobriety of his nature even escape into a psychopathological condition was barred to him. The world of Hitler, which for a while had inflated and maintained his unsubstantial ego, now after the collapse left a vacuum in which he could no longer keep himself erect. (53) This is the only explanation for his spinelessness, the tearful tone of his statements, and his degeneration even outwardly in clothing and bearing. Bye-witnesses all agree with shock about his performance in court. He had transformed his once brash arrogance into an undignified, anxious servility, by which he seemed to hope to gain something. He disputed everything at great length, unimpressed by proof, in wearisome monologues. We are told that he failed
'even to gain the ear of the court. He did not succeed even in arousing the listener's curiosity. He failed to convince. People felt ashamed. The feeling of shame grew, it proliferated, strangled, and cut off the breath.' (54)
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