Ulrich Friedrich Wilhelm Joachim von Ribbentrop (born Ulrich Friedrich Wilhelm Joachim Ribbentrop) (April 30, 1893 – October 16, 1946) was Foreign Minister of Germany from 1938 until 1945. He was later hanged for war crimes after the Nuremberg trials.
Ribbentrop was born in Wesel, Niederrhein, the son of the Army officer Richard Ulrich Friedrich Joachim Ribbentrop and Johanne 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 Istanbul as a staff officer. During his time in Turkey in World War I, Ribbentrop befriended another officer named Franz von Papen.
In 1919 Ribbentrop met Anna Elisabeth Henkell , known as "Annelies" to her friends. She was the daughter of wealthy champagne producer Otto Henkell and his wife Katharina "Käthe" Michel from Wiesbaden. They were married on July 5, 1920 in Wiesbaden and Ribbentrop travelled Europe selling the family firm's wares. Between 1921 and 1940 Annelies gave birth to five children:
Annelies von Ribbentrop was a haughty woman who totally controlled her husband, and was often described as being a Lady Macbeth-type character. A confirmed social climber, Ribbentrop persuaded his aunt Gertrud von Ribbentrop – whose husband had been knighted – to adopt him on May 15, 1925, allowing him to add the aristocratic von to his name. For most of the Weimar Republic era, Ribbentrop was apolitical and had no anti-Semitic prejudices.
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 a complex series of secret intrigues, schemes and negotiations in Berlin between von Papen, who served as Chancellor at the end of 1932, Hitler, and various friends of President Paul von Hindenburg. The end result of these talks was the ousting of Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher, the former Defense Minister who had held the top post for just a few months, and 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 Alte Kämpfer (Old Fighters) of the Party disliked him. Typical of this hatred for Ribbentrop was the diary entry of Joseph Goebbels: "von Ribbentrop bought his name, he married his money, and he swindled his way into office ." 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 anti-Semite.
He became Hitler's favourite foreign policy advisor partly by dint of his knowledge of the world outside Germany but mostly by means of 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 he 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 agreements). 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, appointed Ribbentrop head of the delegation sent to London in June 1935 to negotiate it. Once the talks began, Ribbentrop, who possessed a certain elan and sense of audacity, issued Sir John Simon an ultimatum. He informed Simon that if Germany's terms were not accepted 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 important change in German foreign policy. The Auswärtiges Amt had traditionally favored a 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 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 into adopting a pro-German foreign policy. 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 actual decision-makers in the British government such as Cabinet-level politicians or high-ranking bureaucrats. Neither Hitler nor Ribbentrop understood very well that when people like Lloyd George or Rothermere declared that they favored closer Anglo-German ties, they were speaking as private citizens, not on behalf of London.
In August 1936 the Nazi government appointed Ribbentrop 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 have fulfilled 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 worsened his already poor relations with the British Foreign Office. He had once greeted the King with "Heil Hitler!" (Punch referred to him as Von Brickendrop.) His aggressive and overbearing manner towards everyone except his wife and Hitler meant that to know him was to dislike him. His 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, and Hitler for that matter, never understood that British foreign policy aimed at the appeasement of Germany, not an alliance. While the Ribbentrops were in Britain, his son, Rudolf von Ribbentrop, attended Westminster School in London.
Peter Ustinov was Rudolph's schoolmate at this time, as related in his autobiography 'Dear Me' (1971). Ustinov is also supposed to have clandestinely leaked Rudolph's presence at his school to The Times. The result of this was the prompt withdrawal of the younger Ribbentrop from the school as a precautionary measure for his safety, as well as for security of his father's mission in London.
Ribbentrop's time in London was also marked by scandal. It was believed by many members of the British upper classes that he was having an affair with Wallis Simpson, the wife of British businessman Edward Simpson and the mistress of King Edward VIII. According to files recently declassified by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation, Mrs. Simpson was believed to be a regular attendee at Ribbentrop's social gatherings at the German Embassy in London where it was thought the two struck up a romantic relationship . Ribbentrop was said to have used Simpson's access to the King to funnel important information about the British to the German government . Supposedly, Simpson was paid by the Germans for this information and was happy to continue the relationship as long as she received payment. The FBI took the matter seriously enough to advise President Roosevelt of their findings; he once commented to a confidante that Simpson "played around...with the Ribbentrop set."
However, although the success of the arrangement was supposedly one of the reasons for Ribbentrop's appointment to the position of Foreign Minister, it should be pointed out that the actual truth of the matter is still very much in doubt. Simpson, who later married the King and was known in later life as the Duchess of Windsor, noted in her book The Heart has its Reasons that she met Ribbentrop on only two occasions and had no personal relationship with him whatsoever.
On February 4, 1938 he succeeded Konstantin von Neurath as Foreign Minister in the German government. Ribbentrop's appointment was generally taken at the time and since as indicating that German foreign policy was moving in a more radical direction. In contrast to Neurath's less bellicose nature, Ribbentrop unequivocally supported war in 1938 - 39. Benito Mussolini commented, "Ribbentrop belongs to the category of Germans who are a disaster for their country. He talks about making war right and left, without naming an enemy or defining an objective" . During the May Crisis of 1938, Ribbentrop boastfully told the British Ambassador, Sir Neville Henderson that Germany was prepared to wage struggle to the death with Britain and France and that in regards to Czechoslovakia "...there would not be a living soul in that state" .
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. Moreover, as time went by, Ribbentrop started to oust 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 a 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 transforming his country into a 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. He advised Hitler that Britain would not go to war in the defence of 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, he 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 a 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 great misfortune to Germany."
Ribbentrop was 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. He championed the so-called Madagascar Plan in June 1940 to deport all of Europe's Jews. 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 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 war with Germany and as Germany was losing, 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. Ribbentrop had no knowledge of the plot, but the involvement of so many former and serving members of the Foreign Ministry reflected badly on him as Hitler felt with some justification that Ribbentrop was not keeping proper tabs on what his diplomats were up to. After July 20, Ribbentrop worked closely with the SS in purging the Auswärtige Amt of those suspected of involvement with the putsch. Also done in close co-operation with the SS was Ribbentrop's last significant foreign policy move, the coup of October 15, 1944 that deposed Admiral Miklós Horthy of Hungary for attempting to seek a separate peace with the Allies.
A prime example of Ribbentrop's decline in influence after the beginning of the war was illustrated by a practical joke played on him on one of his birthdays. Hitler, along with Walter Hewel (an ambassador who also happened to be one of Hitler's old friends), arranged to craft a wooden box, fill it with ornate copies of treaties and agreements created by Ribbentrop, then present it to him in recognition of his "service to the Third Reich." However, upon opening the box, Ribbentrop discovered it was empty. Before breaking into laughter, Hitler apologetically explained that he couldn't find a single treaty or agreement Ribbentrop had made that hadn't eventually been broken.
On April 20, 1945 Ribbentrop attended Hitler's 56th birthday party in Berlin. This was one of the last times he saw Hitler. After the party, Ribbentrop attempted to have a meeting with Hitler, only to be told to go away as Hitler had more important things to do than talk to him. According to Albert Speer's memoirs, Ribbentrop did, sometime between April 22 and 24, manage to coax Hitler into seeing him in the Fuehrerbunker one last time by appealing to Hitler's pity – namely, by insisting he'd stand and, if necessary, sleep in front of the Chancellory doors until Hitler admitted him. According to Speer, while Hitler finally relented and briefly saw Ribbentrop, he only allowed him in long enough for farewells, and refused to discuss any official matters with him.
In his political testament, Hitler appointed Arthur Seyß-Inquart as German foreign minister. Hitler wanted to ensure Ribbentrop was not part of the new Nazi government. Upon Hitler's suicide and the ascension of the new German government, Ribbentrop was thus dismissed by acting President, Admiral Karl Dönitz, and went into hiding. Ribbentrop was arrested by the British in Hamburg on June 14, 1945. Found with him was a rambling letter addressed to the British Prime Minister "Vincent Churchill" criticizing British foreign policy for anti-German bias and blaming the British for the Soviet occupation of the eastern half of Germany and thus for the advance of "Bolshevism" into central Europe. The fact that Ribbentrop even in 1945 didn't know that Churchill's first name was Winston reflected his general ignorance about or indifferentism toward the world outside of Germany.
Ribbentrop was a defendant at the Nuremberg Trials, and the Allies' International Military Tribunal found him guilty of all charges brought against him. Even in prison, Ribbentrop remained subservient to Hitler, stating "Even with all I know, if in this cell Hitler should come to me and say 'Do this!', I would still do it." .
During the trial, Ribbentrop rather unsuccessfully attempted to deny his role in the war. For example, during his cross-examination, the prosecution brought up claims that he (along with Hitler and Göring) threatened the leader of Czechoslovakia, Emil Hacha, with a "threat of aggressive action." The questioning resulted in the following exchange :
While not recorded in the trial transcript, Göring was said to have remarked, after hearing these words, that Ribbentrop deserved to hang, if only for his stupidity.
Since Göring had committed suicide a few hours prior to the time of execution, Ribbentrop was the first politician to be hanged on the morning of October 16, 1946. After being escorted up the 13 steps to the waiting noose, Ribbentrop was asked if he had any final words. He calmly said: "God protect Germany. God have mercy on my soul. My final wish is that Germany should recover her unity and that, for the sake of peace, there should be understanding between East and West." As the hood was placed over his head, Ribbentrop added: "I wish peace to the world." After a slight pause the executioner pulled the lever, releasing the trap door Ribbentrop stood upon. Most accounts, including an official British report, agree Ribbentrop's hanging was botched. Rather than breaking his neck and killing him instantly, as it should have, the rope slowly strangled Ribbentrop. He was pronounced dead approximately 20 minutes after being dropped. (Source: Bloch, pp. 498)
In 1953 Ribbentrop's memoirs, Zwischen London und Moskau ("Between London and Moscow"), were published.
|Preceded by |
Leopold von Hoesch
|German Ambassador to the Court of St. James |
1936 – 1938
|Succeeded by |
Herbert von Dirksen
|Preceded by |
Konstantin von Neurath
|Foreign Minister of Germany |
1938 – 1945
|Succeeded by |