Essays & Reviews

Paul Seabury, The Wilhelmstrasse (1954)

After World War II, former German Foreign Office State Secretary Ernst von Weizsäcker sought to draw a distinction between service of the German nation and of the Hitler regime: “As a civil servant, one does not serve a constitution, but the Fatherland. One serves whichever government and constitution is given the country by the people.” In a similar vein Paul-Otto Schmidt, another senior diplomat, wrote in his memoirs: “Governments came and went, foreign ministers changed, but for German diplomatists such events signified no change in their fundamental task: to represent the Reich abroad.”

Paul Seabury, Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley, examined these claims in his 1954 classic, The Wilhelmstrasse: A Study of German Diplomats under the Nazi Regime. He also dealt with wider and perhaps more universal issues: the behavior and moral responsibility of the bureaucratic technician in a modern society; and the question of continuity of foreign policy under various political regimes.

The German Empire created by Bismarck inherited from Prussia a highly rationalized, professional trained, permanent bureaucracy, an important part of which was the Foreign Office (the Wilhelmstrasse). The prestige of this bureaucracy as a whole was enormous. Its personnel was recruited not only from the aristocracy but from the commercial and, later, industrial middle class. By the turn of the 20th century it represented an amalgam of the “liberal” nationalist and conservative elements of German society. The early Weimar Republic attempted to democratize German diplomacy by introducing “new blood” into lower career-service posts and appoint non-career officials into higher positions. The experiment failed. The old Imperial laws governing the civil service were carried over into the Weimar era; this made it virtually impossible for the parties of the Republic—the Social Democrats, Democrats, and the Catholic Center—to develop a genuinely Republican civil or diplomatic service.

The career diplomats under the Weimar regime resented the parliamentary oratory of democratic amateurs, yearned for the authoritarian constitutional arrangements of the past (many preferred a restoration of monarchy) and deplored the absence of unitary direction and nationalistic vigor which alone, to their way of thinking, could break the shackles that restrained German greatness. They sought to steer German foreign policy towards the traditional Prussian dream of an eastern-oriented policy of close collaboration with Russia. Together with General von Seeckt and the General Staff, and the political support of extreme nationalist elements, the Foreign Office careerists aimed to build a continental alliance which would restore German military and economic supremacy over Central Europe, and which would enable Germany to rectify Versailles, not by patient negotiation and compromise, but by force. Although some aspects of this policy were tacitly embraced by various Weimar governments, the goal of a Russian-German bloc was not one subscribed to by the Liberal and Socialist parties of the Weimer coalition. This was the foreign policy of German reaction, as expressed through the Foreign Office.

Baron Konstantin von NeurathThe advent of the National Socialist regime created problems and opportunities for the Wilhelmstrasse. Hitler too sought to overthrow Versailles and reestablish German greatness, but his strategic agenda, as laid out in Mein Kampf and by Nazi ideologues like Alfred Rosenberg, pointed towards a German-led European coalition against Russia. He also made clear his contempt for career diplomats. On the other hand, when Hitler came to power, Germany was strategically isolated. Any early attempt to achieve his maxim objectives without diplomatic cover would have led to disaster. Few Nazis had any awareness of political conditions outside of Germany. Their early forays abroad were clumsy and counterproductive. Consequently Hitler was forced to rely heavily on the ministerial bureaucracy. He retained Baron Konstantin von Neurath, a careerist, as foreign minister. Hitler was well aware of the peacetime utility of keeping correct, conventional, and urbane diplomats in their post, as shock absorbers between the outside world and the realities of Nazi power and purpose.

From 1933 to 1938, Hitler’s successfully aggressive diplomacy could be rationalized by the Wilhelmstrasse as a modern-day application of Bismarck’s strategy, one aimed at continental domination without provoking a major European war. Hitler’s diplomats shared the major territorial aspirations of the Nazi regime—including the truncation and destruction of Czechoslovakia and the proposed “settlement” of the Polish Corridor question. Their preferred approach was distinguished only by caution and a sense of timing. Together with many in the Army, they had profound fears of a two-front war involving Britain, France and possibly the United States. The appropriate Foreign Office missions and division, however, swung into line to defend Hitler’s diplomatic offensives of the mid and late 1930s, although a few senior officials, such as Weizsäcker, privately encouraged the British to adopt a firm line

Hitler, for his part, dispensed with the advice of his career diplomats and assumed control of the direction of German foreign policy. He wanted to remove any bureaucratic obstacles to his vision of the Thousand Year Reich. At the general level, he altered civil service laws, pressured civil servants to join the Party, infiltrated reliable party members into important administrative posts, and eliminated “unreliable elements.” To counterbalance the Wilhelmstrasse specifically, Hitler attempted to cultivate auxiliary instruments to conduct foreign policy (broadly defined), which were responsible to him or to Party formations. In 1938, as part of a larger purge of government and the army, Hitler felt strong enough to appoint a Nazi crony, Joachim von Ribbentrop, to replace Neurath. By the late 1930s, Seabury writes, the Nazis had transformed the German Foreign Office into a reliable instrument of their policies. Ribbentrop himself envisioned the creation of a truly Nazi diplomatic service. He proposed that selected Aryans from the Hitler Youth and other affiliated agencies, under the auspices of the SS, would undergo a program of sports and political indoctrination, to be coupled with an internship with officials in the Foreign Office.

This process did not go very far, however. The form, if not the independence, of the professional diplomatic corps remained in place as an aristocratic anomaly. Careerists regarded their new superior with contempt, as an incompetent upstart, but for the moment they and Ribbentrop realized that they had common interests. Ribbentrop feared that if he appointed Nazis to senior posts, he would be creating rivals to his own position. Both sides stood to lose much if matters were torn from the hands of the Foreign Office by predatory bureaucratic competitors such as Rosenberg, Himmler, or Goebbels. A majority of senior career diplomats joined the Nazi Party. Some took formal rank in the SS. With the outbreak of war and the demands on manpower, Ribbentrop’s plans to flood the lower Wilhelmstrasse echelons with Aryan Nazi novices were shelved.

Joachim von RibbentropWithin two years, especially after the invasion of Russia, traditional diplomacy was liquidated, in Seabury’s phrase. (Senior career diplomats privately had grave doubts about the invasion, but they had no say in the matter). The German Reich now dealt almost exclusively with satellites or enemies. The Wilhelmstrasse was still open for business—one of its principal assignments was to arrange with local officials for the deportation of Jews from occupied territories or satellite states—but it rapidly sank into insignificance and incoherence. Ribbentrop, who traveled with Hitler, was seldom in Berlin and lost interest in day-to-day operations of his Ministry. A few Foreign Office officials resigned or engaged in the plots against Hitler but most stayed the course. Contrary to later claims made at Nuremburg and in memoirs, there is no evidence that the professional bureaucracy after 1939 attempted in any way to sabotage Hitler’s foreign policy or war effort.

Seabury concludes that the decline in the German diplomatic service as a self-sufficient bureaucracy was the result of conditions that were inherent in the Nazi state itself—”the disintegration of traditional administrative procedure, the intense jurisdictional wrangles, the friction between the ‘new’ and ‘old’ (pre-Hitler) officialdom, the struggle for bureaucratic self-preservation, and the tenor of the system itself. The notion, shared by many old career officials—that a self-sufficient professional diplomacy could remain as kind of ‘state within a state,’ managing and manipulating its own machinery for its own purposes—proved incompatible with the totalitarian regime in which it existed.”

In 1942, Ribbentrop quietly expressed his personal belief that Hitler’s final goal of world domination was so close that the Führer would no longer have need for a foreign policy “in the old sense,” and hence no need for a foreign minister. Ribbentrop need not have worried, on that score at least.