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Joachim von Ribbentrop
Ribbentrop was born in Wesel, Niederrhein, the son of the Army officer Richard Ulrich Friedrich Joachim Ribbentrop and Sophie Hartwig. Ribbentrop was educated somewhat irregularly until his mid-teens at private schools in Germany and Switzerland. Fluent in French and English, Ribbentrop lived several years abroad, working from 1910 to 1914 in Canada as an importer of German wines. Following the outbreak of war in 1914, Ribbentrop fled from Canada and returned to Germany via New York City.
He served in the Army during World War I, finally reaching the rank of first lieutenant, and was awarded the Iron Cross. He served on the Eastern Front, and then in 1916 was stationed in Constantinople as an staff officer. During his time in Turkey in World War One, Ribbentrop befriended another officer named Franz von Papen. Ribbentrop married in July 1920 into a wealthy champagne producing family and travelled Europe selling the family firm's wares. His wife was Anna Elisabeth (nee Henkell), known as "Annelies" to her friends. Annelies Ribbentrop was an haughty woman who totally controlled her husband, and was often described as being a Lady Macbeth-type character. The Ribbentrops had five children. The social climbing Ribbentrop convinced his aunt, whose husband had been knighted, to adopt him, allowing him to add the aristocratic von to his name. For most of the Weimar Republic era, Ribbentrop was apolitical and had no anti-semite prejudices.
A wealthy champagne merchant, he joined the National Socialist party in May 1932. Two years earlier, in 1930, he had met and impressed Adolf Hitler with his knowledge of titled foreigners. In January 1933, there were an complex series of secret intrigues, schemes and negotiations in Berlin between von Papen who served as Chancellor in 1932, Hitler and various friends of President Paul von Hindenburg. The end result of these talks was the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor by Hindenburg on January 30, 1933. Ribbentrop, who was both a Nazi Party member and an old friend of von Papen, facilitated the negotiations by letting von Papen and Hitler meet secretly at his Berlin home. This assistance endeared Ribbentrop to Hitler. Because Ribbentrop was a late-comer to the Nazi Party, the Alten Kämpfer (Old Fighters) of the Party disliked him. To compensate for this, Ribbentrop became a fanatical Nazi, almost to the point of becoming a caricature of a Nazi brought to life. In particular, Ribbentrop became a vociferous pro-nazi.
He became Hitler's favourite foreign policy advisor partly by his knowledge of the world outside Germany but mostly by shameless flattery and sycophancy. The professional diplomats of the elite Auswärtiges Amt (Foreign Office) told Hitler the truth about what was happening abroad in the early years of Nazi Germany; Ribbentrop told Hitler what wanted Hitler to hear about what was happening abroad. Ribbentrop in his turn was a great admirer of Hitler. In 1933 he was given the title of SS-Standartenführer. For a time, Ribbentrop was friendly with the Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler, but ultimately the two became enemies.
In November 1933, Ribbentrop began his work as an unofficial diplomat when he visited London and met with the Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and the Foreign Secretary Sir John Simon. Nothing of any substance emerged from these talks. In 1934, Ribbentrop founded an organization linked to the Nazi Party called the Büro Ribbentrop (later renamed the Dienststelle Ribbentrop) that functioned as an alternative foreign ministry. Up to the time of his appointment as Foreign Minister, Ribbentrop aggressively competed with the Auswärtiges Amt and sought to undercut the Foreign Minister, Baron Konstantin von Neurath at every turn. Initially, Neurath held his rival in contempt, regarding anyone whose written German, to say nothing of his English and French, was full of atrocious spelling and grammatical mistakes as unworthy of attention. Also in 1934, Ribbentrop was named by Hitler Special Commissioner for Disarmament, which made him part of the same Auswärtiges Amt that Ribbentrop was vying with. In his capacity as Special Commissioner, Ribbentrop frequently visited London, Paris and Rome.
Hitler's aim was to persuade the world that he wished to reduce military spending by making idealistic but very vague offers of disarmament (in the 1930s, the term disarmament was used to describe arms-limitation argreements). At the same time, the Germans always resisted making concrete proposals for arms limitation, and they went ahead with increased military spending on the grounds that other powers would not take up German offers of arms limitation. Ribbentrop's task was to ensure that the world was convinced that Germany sincerely wanted an arms-limitation treaty while ensuring that such a treaty never actually emerged. In the first part of his assignment, Ribbentrop was partly successful, but in the second part he more than fulfilled Hitler's expectations.
Ribbentrop was rewarded by Hitler by being made Minister Plenipotentiary at Large (1935–1936). In that capacity he negotiated the Anglo-German Naval Agreement (A.G.N.A) in 1935 and the Anti-Comintern Pact in 1936. In regards to the former, Neurath did not think the A.G.N.A was possible and so as to discredit his rival made Ribbentrop head of the delegation sent to London in June 1935 to negotiate the A.G.N.A. Once the talks began, Ribbentrop who possessed an certain elan and sense of audacity gave an ultimatum to Simon. Ribbentrop informed Simon that if he did not argee to the German terms in their entirety, the German delegation would go home. Simon was angry with this demand, and walked out of the talks. Much to everyone's surprise, the next day, the British accepted Ribbentrop's demands and the A.G.N.A was signed in London on June 18, 1935. This diplomatic victory did much to increase Ribbentrop's prestige with Hitler.
The Anti-Comintern Pact of November 1936 marked an imporant change in German foreign policy. The Auswärtiges Amt had traditionally favored an policy of friendship with China, one that Neurath very much believed in following. Ribbentrop was opposed to the pro-China orientation of the Auswärtiges Amt and instead favored an alliance with Japan. The Anti-Comintern Pact marked the beginning of the shift from on Germany's part from China's ally to Japan's' ally.
During the same period, Ribbentrop often visited France to try to influence not very successfully French politicians in pro-German direction. Ribbentrop enjoyed more success in the United Kingdom where he was able to persuade an impressive roster of British high society to visit Hitler in Germany. The most notable guest Ribbentrop brought to Hitler was the former Prime Minister David Lloyd George in 1936. Most of Hitler's British guests were aristocrats, retired politicians, ex-generals, and various businessmen like the newspaper magnate Viscount Rothermere. Very few of these people were the decision-makers in the British government such as Cabinet-level politicians or high-ranking bureaucrats. Neither Hitler or Ribbentrop understood very well that when people like Lloyd George or Rothermere declared that they wanted closer Anglo-German ties, they were speaking as private citzens, not on behalf of London.
In August 1936 he was appointed Ambassador to Britain with orders to negotiate the Anglo-German alliance that Hitler had predicted in Mein Kampf. Ribbentrop was not the man for such a mission, but it is doubtful that even a more skilled diplomat could accomplish Hitler's dream of a grand Anglo-German alliance. His time in London was marked by an endless series of social gaffes and blunders that made worse his already poor relations with the British Foreign Office. Ribbentrop's aggressive and overbearing manner towards everyone except his wife and Hitler meant that to know him was to dislike him. Ribbentrop's negotiating style, a strange mix of bullying bluster and coldness coupled with lengthy monologues praising Hitler, alienated many. Ribbentrop's inability to achieve the alliance that he had been sent out for frustrated him as he feared it could cost him Hitler's favour, and it made him a bitter Anglophobe. Ribbentrop or Hitler for that matter never understood that British foreign policy aimed at the appeasement of Germany, not an alliance. While in Britain, his son, Rudolf von Ribbentrop, attended the Westminster School in London.
On February 4, 1938 he succeeded Konstantin von Neurath as Foreign Minister in the German government. Ribbentrop's appoinment was generally taken at the time and since as indicating that German foreign policy was moving in more radical direction. In contrast to Neurath's less bellicose nature, Ribbentrop was all for war in 1938-39. Ribbentrop loathed Neville Chamberlain , and viewed his appeasement policy as some sort of British scheme to block Germany from her rightful place in the world. Ribbentrop regarded the Munich Agreement as diplomatic defeat for Germany, as it allowed Germany to gain the Sudetenland without the war Ribbentrop wanted. Morover, as time went by, Ribbentrop started to push out the old diplomats from their senior positions in the Auswärtiges Amt and replaced them with men from the Dienststelle. By 1943, 32% of the offices in the Foreign Ministry were held by men who previously served in the Dienststelle.
On December 6, 1938 Ribbentrop visited Paris, where he and the French foreign minister Georges Bonnet signed an grand-sounding but largely meaningless Declaration of Franco-German Friendship. Ribbentrop was later to claim that Bonnet told him that France recognized Eastern Europe as being within Germany's sphere of influence. He played a role in the German annexation of Bohemia and Moravia (1939) by bullying the Czechoslovak President Emil Hacha into transferring his country into an German protectorate. More importantly, Ribbentrop played a key role in the conclusion of the Soviet-German nonaggression pact, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, and in the diplomatic action surrounding the attack on Poland. The signing of the Non-Aggression Pact in Moscow on August 23, 1939 was the crowning achievement of Ribbentrop's career.
Ribbentrop's time as Foreign Minister can be divided into three periods. In the first, from 1938-39, he tried to persuade other states to align themselves for Germany for the coming war. In the second from 1939-43, Ribbentrop attempted to persuade other states to enter the war on Germany's side or at least maintain pro-German neutrality. In the final phase from 1943-45, Ribbentrop had the task of trying to keep Germany's allies from leaving her side. During the course of all three periods, Ribbentrop met frequently with leaders and diplomats from Italy, Japan, Romania, Spain, Bulgaria, and Hungary.
After 1940, Ribbentrop, who was a Francophile, argued that Germany should allow Vichy France a limited degree of independence within an binding new Franco-German partnership. To this end, Ribbentrop appointed a colleague from the Dienststelle named Otto Abetz as Ambassador to France with instructions to promote the political career of Pierre Laval. The amount of Auswärtiges Amt influence in France varied as there were many other agencies competing for power there such as the military, the SS and the Four Year Plan office of Ribbentrop's archenemy Hermann Göring, but in general from late 1943 to mid 1944, the Auswärtiges Amt was second only to the SS in terms of power in France. In 1941, Ribbentrop strongly pushed for German aid to for the Rashid Ali government in Iraq.
From the later half of 1937, Ribbentrop had championed the idea of an alliance between Germany, Italy and Japan that would partition the British Empire between them. After signing the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact, Ribbentrop expanded on this idea for an Axis alliance to include the Soviet Union to form an Eurasian bloc that would destroy maritime states such as Britain. Ribbentrop liked Stalin and was against the attack on the USSR in 1941. He passed a word to a Russian diplomat: "Please tell Stalin I was against this war, and that I know it will bring big misfortune to Germany".
Ribbentrop found to have had culpability in the Holocaust on the grounds that he persuaded the leaders of satellite countries of the Third Reich to deport Jews to the Nazi extermination camps. The Auswärtige Amt played a key role in arranging the deportations of Jews to the death camps from France (1942-44), Hungary (1944-45), Slovakia, Italy (after 1943), and the Balkans. He was considered an accomplished diplomat made culpable by placing his talents at the disposal of an infamous government. Ribbentrop assigned all of the Holocaust-related work to an old crony from the Dienststelle named Martin Luther, who represented the Foreign Ministry at the Wannsee Conference.
As the war went on, Ribbentrop's influence declined. As much of the world was at with Germany and as Germany was losing the war, the usefulness of the Foreign Ministry contracted. Moreover, many of the people Ribbentrop appointed to head German embassies were grossly incompetent. Hitler, for his part, increasingly found Ribbentrop to be a very tiresome man whom he began to avoid. Another blow against Ribbentrop was the participation of many of old diplomats from the Auswärtige Amt in the July 20, 1944 putsch and assassination attempt against Hitler. After July 20, Ribbentrop worked closely with the SS in purging the Auswärtige Amt of those suspected of involvement with the putsch.
At the end of World War II, Ribbentrop was dismissed by acting President, Admiral Karl Dönitz, but he was a defendant at the Nuremberg Trials and was found guilty by the Allies of all charges they put against him. Since Hermann Göring had committed suicide a few hours prior to the time of execution, Ribbentrop was the first politician to be hanged on the night of October 16, 1946. His last words were "Gott schützt Deutschland!" (God protect Germany).
Konstantin von Neurath
|Minister of Foreign Affairs|
- Bloch, Michael Ribbentrop New York: Crown Publishing., 1992.
- Browning, Christopher R. The final solution and the German Foreign Office : a study of Referat D III of Abteilung Deutschland, 1940-43 New York: Holmes & Meier, 1978.
- Craig, Gordon "The German Foreign Office from Neurath to Ribbentrop" pages 406-436 from The Diplomats 1919-39 edited by Gordon Craig and Felix Gilbert, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953.
- Jacobsen, Hans-Adolf "The Structure of Nazi Foreign Policy, 1933-45" pages 49-94 from The Third Reich edited by Christian Leitz, Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.
- Michalka, Wolfgang "From Anti-Comintern Pact to the Euro-Asiatic Bloc: Ribbentrop's Alternative Concept to Hitler's Foreign Policy Programme" pages 267-284 from Aspects of the Third Reich edited by H.W Koch, London: Macmillan 1985.
- The Munich Crisis, 1938 Prelude to World War II edited by Igor Lukes and Erik Goldstein, London: Frank Cass Inc, 1999.
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