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Joachim von Ribbentrop

Ulrich Friedrich Wilhelm Joachim von Ribbentrop
Ulrich Friedrich Wilhelm Joachim von Ribbentrop.

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.

Early career

Ribbentrop was born in Wesel (now in North Rhine-Westphalia), the son of the Army officer Richard Ulrich Friedrich Joachim Ribbentrop and Johanne Sophie Hertwig. Ribbentrop was educated somewhat irregularly until his mid-teens at private schools in Germany and Switzerland. Fluent in French and English, Ribbentrop lived at various times in Grenoble, France, and London, before traveling to North America in 1910. After spending time in New York and Boston, he worked at various jobs in Canada including a salesman for an importer of German wines. During a portion of this time Joachim Ribbentrop was employed as the Corporate Secretary of the Cassiar Mining Company. Cassiar's investors included Canadians, Americans, British, Germans and Austrians. Following the outbreak of World War One in 1914, Ribbentrop fled from Canada (which, along with Britain, was at war with Germany) and returned home. Legend has it that he made his way back to New York City, then stowed away on a Dutch steamer. In any event, he was back in his homeland by autumn of 1914, and joined the 125th Regiment of the Hussars.

Ribbentrop reached 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. There is some speculation that Ribbentrop worked with Papen in the United States, before Papen was expelled in 1915 under suspicion of sabotage. 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:

  • Rudolf von Ribbentrop (born May 11, 1921 in Wiesbaden),
  • Bettina von Ribbentrop (born July 20, 1922 in Berlin)
  • Ursula von Ribbentrop (born Dezember 29, 1932 in Berlin)
  • Adolf von Ribbentrop (born September 2, 1935 in Berlin),
  • Barthold von Ribbentrop (born December 19, 1940 in Berlin)

Annelies von Ribbentrop was a haughty, controlling woman and was often described as being a Lady Macbeth-type character. 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. As a wealthy partner with his father-in-law in the Henckel-Trocken businessman with champagne firm, Ribbentrop did a great edeal of business with Jewish bankers, and he was able to organize the Impegronma Importing Company with financing from a Jewish lender . By 1928, however, it is said that he wanted to put his Jewish competitors out of business.

In 1929, Von Ribbentrop was introduced to Hitler, reportedly, as a man who "gets the same price for German champagne for the same price as others get for French champagne", as well as a businessman with foreign connections . He joined the National Socialist party in May 1932. When Kurt von Schleicher was ousted as Chancellor the following January, Ribbentroppthe former Defence 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 arranging for von Papen and Hitler meet secretly at the home of banker Kurt von Schroeder. 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 German dictator Adolf Hitler's favourite foreign policy adviser 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. 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.

Travelling diplomat

In November 1933, Ribbentrop began his work as an unofficial diplomat when he visited London and met 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 organisation 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 German Foreign Minister, Ribbentrop aggressively competed with the Auswärtiges Amt and sought to undercut the current 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 also 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 favoured 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 favoured 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 array 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 favoured 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. In May 1937, he greeted the King George IV with "Heil Hitler!" (Punch referred to him as Von Brickendrop.)

In his dealings with the British government, most of Ribbentrop's time was spent either demanding that Britain sign the Anti-Comintern Pact or that London return the former German colonies in Africa. Ribbentrop did not understand the King's limited role in government as he thought King Edward VIII could decide British foreign policy. He convinced Hitler that he had the Edward's support but this was, as was his belief that he had impressed British Society, a tragic delusion. During the Abdication crisis of December 1936, Ribbentrop reported to Berlin that only the reason why the crisis had occurred was because of an anti-German Jewish-Masonic-reactionary conspiracy to despose Edward, and that civil war would soon break out in Britain between supporters of the King and supporters of the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin. This led to a false sense of confidence about British intentions with which he unwittingly deceived his Fuhrer.

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.

Royal visits

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 former King - he had abdicated to marry her - 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.

Foreign minister of the Reich

On February 4, 1938, Ribbentrop 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 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. Ribbentrop was widely disliked by the old diplomats in Auswärtiges Amt. Herbert von Dirksen who served as Ribbentrop's successor as German Ambassador in London in 1938-1939 described Ribbentrop as "an unwholesome, half-comical figure".

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. The importance of this pact was that it allowed Adolf Hitler to attack Poland using the methods of Blitzkrieg (lightning war), while also being unafraid of fighting "a war on two fronts". This term refers to fighting a war against two different enemies at the same time. In this case, Hitler, after Ribbentrop signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact, could guarantee that he would only be fighting Britain and France from the East, and not the Soviet Union from the West. Ultimately, the pact left Poland open for Hitler to attack without fear of defeat.

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 with 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.

Declining influence

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, found Ribbentrop increasingly tiresome and sought to avoid him. The Foreign Minister's ever more desperate pleas for Hitler to allow him to find some way of making peace with at least some of Germany's enemies - the Soviet Union in particular - certainly played a role in this estrangement.

A major 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. 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.

Ribbentrop worked in close co-operation with the SS for what turned out to be his last significant foreign policy move, Operation Panzerfaust. On October 15, 1944, this operation resulted in a coup that deposed Admiral Miklós Horthy, Regent of Hungary. Horthy was deposed because he attempted to seek a separate peace with the Allies.

Joachim von Ribbentrop detention report and mugshots
Joachim von Ribbentrop detention report and mugshots.

On June 14, 1945, Ribbentrop was arrested by British troops in Hamburg. 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 did not know that Churchill's first name was "Winston" reflected his general ignorance about the world outside of Germany.

Trial and execution

The body of Joachim von Ribbentrop after his execution.
The body of Joachim von Ribbentrop after his execution.

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

PROSECUTION: What further pressure could you put on the head of a country beyond threatening him that your Army would march in, in overwhelming strength, and your air force would bomb his capital?

RIBBENTROP: War, for instance.

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.

At one point during the trial proceedings, US Army interpreter for the prosecution Richard Sonnenfeldt asked Baron Ernst von Weizsacker, Ribbentrop's second in command, how Hitler could have made him a high official. Weizsacker responded "Hitler never noticed Ribbentrop's babbling because Hitler always did all the talking" .

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.

In 1953 Ribbentrop's memoirs, Zwischen London und Moskau ("Between London and Moscow"), were published.

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