The German Foreign Service and its Nazi Past

Mar 11, 2011

Panel Discussion at GHI Washington | Orgnized by GHI Washington and USHMM; Participants: Christopher Browning (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Norbert Frei (Universität Jena/New School for Social Research), Peter Hayes (Northwestern University), Miriam Rürup (German Historical Institute), and Klaus Scharioth (Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany).

The recent publication of Das Amt und die Vergangenheit: Deutsche Diplomaten im Dritten Reich und in der Bundesrepublik [The Foreign Office and the Past: German Diplomats in the Thir

d Reich and the Federal Republic] has prompted a re-evaluation of the role of the Foreign Office during the Third Reich and the postwar effort to deal with the Nazi past. Two of the study’s authors, Norbert Frei and Peter Hayes, will join a panel of experts to explore the book’s surprising resonance.

Event Report

The Foreign Office and the Nazi Past: Panel Considers Controversial Bestseller

In 2005, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer announced the appointment of an independent commission of historians to investigate the history of the Foreign Office (Auswärtiges Amt) during the Nazi era and the early postwar period. The commission published it findings last year in the book Das Amt und die Vergangenheit. Deutsche Diplomaten im Dritten Reich und in der Bundesrepublik (The Foreign Office and the Past: German Diplomats in the Third Reich and the Federal Republic). The publication of Das Amt triggered a wide-ranging public debate in Germany. Two members of the commission joined two other scholars and Dr. Klaus Scharioth, the Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany to the United States, for a discussion of Das Amt at the GHI on March 3.

Prof. Peter Hayes (Northwestern University), one of the commission members, opened the discussion by outlining several key decisions the commission made at the outset of it work, and he went on to address the two principal criticisms that have been leveled against Das Amt. To the charge that the book has little if anything new to offer on the subject, Hayes noted that the commission's mandate was accuracy, not novelty. The commission was also explicitly tasked with investigating the Foreign Office's complicity in the crimes of the Nazi regime, Hayes went on to explain in response to criticism that the Holocaust is given disproportionate attention in Das Amt. 

Prof. Norbert Frei (Universität Jena/New School for Social Research, New York), a colleague of Hayes's on the commission, elaborated on some of the methodological and historiographic concerns that informed the commission's approach. Studies of institutions under the Nazis, Frei explained, have traditionally focused on their "role" in the Nazi exercise of power. Rather than consider the "role" of the Foreign Office "in" the Third Reich, the commission looked at the Foreign Office as the Foreign Office "of" the Third Reich and how its staff adapted to the post-1933 political order.

Professor Christopher Browning (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), the author of a pioneering study of the Nazi-era Foreign Office, commended the commission for its painstaking work. Das Amt, in Browning's judgment, performs an invaluable service in confirming the findings of earlier studies, in casting light upon the service of pre-1945 Foreign Office personnel in the refounded foreign service of the Federal Republic, and, above all, in dispelling the myth that the Foreign Office was somehow different from other public institutions during the years of Nazi rule.

Dr. Miriam Rürup (German Historical Institute) offered several reflections upon Das Amt and posed a series of questions. Addressing Hayes and Frei, she concluded by asking whether the commission members ever felt that they were being instrumentalized by a Foreign Office eager to foster the image of an admirably self-critical image of the Federal Republic.

Ambassador Scharioth, in his previous position as State Secretary in the Foreign Office, had played a central role in formulating the commission's mandate and choosing its members. High on the Foreign Office's list of criteria, he noted, was that the commission include both German and foreign scholars. Noting that Browning's ground-breaking The Final Solution and the German Foreign Office (1978) has long been considered a must-read by many at the Foreign Office, Scharioth added that it was decided not to invite historians who had already worked on the topic to serve in the commission in order to preclude the suspicion that the Foreign Office sought to determine the outcome of the investigation by appointing scholars whose views already known.

David Lazar