Alfred Rosenberg is thought to be a very controversial person. He almost had no official position, and those few he did have, he wasn’t successful in at all - he once almost ruined the whole National Socialist Party.
But he still remained one of Hitler's closest people. He considered himself in the same league as Goebbels and Ribbentrop, but none of them took him seriously. He was known as the main ideologist of Nazism, but his writings were rarely read. Hitler appointed him “Minister for Russia” - but ignored almost all of his projects. And despite such a career dogged consistently by failure, Rosenberg still managed to be given the death penalty at Nuremberg.
German, Russian and ... Jew?
In 1918, at the end of the First World War, Rosenberg tried to join the German Volunteer Corps in Reval (modern day Talinn, the capital of Estonia). The Germans refused him because he was assumed to be Russian. But was he a German? Perhaps on his mother's side: she was half German, half French, and a native of St Petersburg. His father, however, was a shoemaker and a member of a merchant guild who was thought to be a Baltic German (although all Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians were called “Germans” in imperial Russia for the sake of simplicity).
In 1936,the Hungarian Jewish journalist Franz Szell studied archives in Latvia and Estonia and published the investigation where he tried to show that Rosenberg, the chief Nazi philosopher, had no German blood. According to the journalist, he was Latvian, Estonian, “Mongol” (meaning “Russian”) and even a little bit Jewish. Researchers take this claim seriously: first, the journalist - whose suggestion would have been considered the height of impertinence - disappeared right away. Second, the research was used by the Vatican and published in its official newspaper "The Roman Observer" - and this institution is pretty savvy at assessing the credibility of newspaper stories.
It's not just about the blood. Alfred, who was born in 1893, lost his mother at the age of two months and his father at the age of 10; he was raised by his Russophile aunts. In his native Reval he graduated from a Realschule, where courses were given in Russian. The boy's favourite subject was drawing. His sketches of the house of Peter the Great in Reval's Kadriorg Park adorned the walls of the school. When he arrived home during the war 30 years later, to his amazement he saw that the drawings he did when a child remained in the same places.
After school, he entered Riga Polytechnic, where he was also taught in Russian.
When the Germans were approaching Riga during the First World War, Rosenberg - along with his fellow students - was transferred to Moscow, away from the frontline, to continue studies at the Moscow Polytechnic, (now the Bauman Moscow State Technical University, coincidentally named after another Baltic German).
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His first marriage also connected Rosenberg with Russia: he got wed at the age of 22 after falling in love with Hilda Leesmann, an Estonian-German woman; she was a ballet dancer (a student of Isadora Duncan), sympathetic to Russia and very intellectual. She introduced the voracious, but slightly uncouth young man to Russian literature, art and philosophy. In 1915, she took him to Paris to drink coffee in the Rotunda café and move in bohemian circles. And though she sounds privileged, she was no aristocrat - her father was a fishmonger, though very successful and he almost had a monopoly on the Baltic sprat market in the Russian Empire.
Rosenberg, just like his future idol Hitler (they met a few months later), dreamt of a career in architecture: the project of a crematorium was his diploma work.
He was even offered a vacancy in Moscow. He made friends with Russian liberals, admired Dostoevsky, knew Moscow well. He visited St. Petersburg and commented on the "nobility and generosity" of his mother's hometown and the city where his parents were married.
He was in Moscow during the October Revolution. He automatically became a Soviet citizen and a Soviet engineer-architect.
With such a background he left Russia and went to Munich to help build the Third Reich. Because of his wife’s illness, they had to remain apart for a while, and when they met again the ballerina could hardly recognise her husband who had turned into a fanatical Nazi anti-Semite. In 1923, the couple divorced - with a little help from Hitler: an ideologically unreliable wife did not fit the rising star of the party. Anyhow, she died soon after and Rosenberg married again.
Alfred and Adolf
It's hard to believe, but in his youth Hitler was under the influence of Rosenberg, who was four years younger than the future Führer, had no military background and was considered to be a “Russian emigrant”.
It was Rosenberg who introduced Hitler to the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, a Russian-language hoax about the Jewish claims to world domination.
When Rosenberg first heard Hitler make a speech in one of Munich's pubs in 1919, he was already quite a Nazi, but he was still associated with the Russian community: Rosenberg was a member of a secret club - the Aufbau Vereinigung (Organisation of Reconstruction), which attracted radical monarchists and anti-Semites (mostly from Russia).
Rosenberg joined the German Workers' Party - the Nazionalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, the cradle of the NSDAP, which would eventually become known all over the world as the Nazi Party - eight months earlier than Hitler. And when the NSDAP was established by Hitler, he received a membership card number 625.
Rosenberg was one of the organisers of the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 in Munich. But unlike Hitler and the other rioters, he did not go to jail.
“Shortly before his arrest, Hitler wrote several short notes to his comrades,” Rosenberg noted in his diary, “I also received a message written with pencil: ‘Dear Rosenberg, from now on you will lead the movement’.”
When Hitler was freed, the party was falling apart - administrative incompetence is Rosenberg's hallmark which, however, did not prevent him from retaining Hitler's trust.
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Hitler published Mein Kampf (My Struggle) in 1925, and Rosenberg published The Myth of the Twentieth Century in 1930. The ideas in these books became the catechism of Nazism, the main building blocks of the ideology: racial theory, anti-Semitism, the exclusivity of the German nation, a return to pagan origins etc. A million copies were printed of Rosenberg's book; every true German had to read it. "The book was distributed by the party for every possible reason,” according to Serge Lang and Ernst von Schenck, who wrote the commentaries accompanying the Memoirs of Alfred Rosenberg, which were published in 2013. “But,” they added, “it was read mainly by National Socialist ideologists in search of their own slogans or by opposition ideologists looking for weak spots in the stronghold of Nazism.”
Hitler said of the book that it was "incomprehensible nonsense written by a self-confident Baltic with a blinkered mind." Here’s an excerpt so that you can judge for yourself: “The blood which died, begins to live. In its mystical sign the cells of the German Folkish soul renew themselves. Past and present suddenly appear in a new light, and for the future there results a new mission. History and the task of the future no longer signify the struggle of class against class or the conflict between one church dogma and another, but the settlement between blood and blood, race and race, Folk and Folk. And that means: the struggle of spiritual values against each other.” Possibly for the only time in one’s life, it’s okay to agree with Hitler..
Inappropriateness for important positions
Hitler gave Rosenberg the highest Nazi title (after Führer) of Reichsleiter – an honour held by only 25 people - but he didn’t dare appoint his old friend to a serious post outside the party service.
After the Nazis came to power, the Reichs philosopher considered Joseph Goebbels and Konstantin von Neurath to be his main competitors. The first was appointed Minister of Propaganda, whereas Rosenberg remained chief editor of Völkischer Beobachter, the newspaper of the NSDAP. However, Hitler created, especially for Rosenberg, the position of Commissar for the Supervision of Intellectual and Ideological Education of the NSDAP. Sounds impressive, but less real power was implied.
Jealousy for Goebbels was reflected on the pages of Rosenberg’s diary. Unlike many, he did not appreciate Goebbels' eloquence and managerial talent. According to Rosenberg, Goebbels was “complacent with his own words and cheap applause after his anti-Semitic speeches”. He considered himself a colossus, which Goebbels and his ministry could not break: “My struggle for the souls and views of party members has basically already ended in victory. All the cunning intrigues of the "executive authority" and envious people could not prevent this".
This is not the first time Hitler employed this trick of giving Rosenberg an impressive, but half-empty position. Earlier, he was appointed head of the foreign policy department of the NSDAP. Rosenberg's importance in this post can be assessed by examining the 1939 treaty with the Soviet Union. On such an important topic, one might think that the views of the head of the party's foreign policy department - a man known as “Russian” Rosenberg, no less - would have carried some weight. But they were ignored. From his diary: "Along with the Führer, Göring is responsible for the assessment of these documents, and – what`s funny - such a nonentity as Ribbentrop is in charge of that as well".
Göring was the only one from the Hitler elite who was considered by Rosenberg as an equal politically and intellectually. He was mistaken here as well - according to an IQ test, Göring was 11 points smarter. Dutch journalist and Nazi historian Louis de Jong wrote about Rosenberg: "He considered himself the second Bismarck, a statesman with unique knowledge and foresight".
Immediately after the Nazis came to power, Rosenberg engaged in an exhausting career war with Foreign Minister von Neurath. (What it must have been like for them to sit next to each other in the dock in Nuremberg!) Incriminating notes, dripping poison into the ear of the Führer - Rosenberg did his best to "dump on" Neurath. In 1934, Rosenberg wrote in his diary: “Yesterday I presented to [the Führer] the results of a three-month investigation into sabotage at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Führer was very annoyed and said: ‘Go to the Minister of Justice and give him my order: he must investigate if one of the Reich ministries is sabotaging my orders!’” According to Rosenberg's diary, Hitler never did anything but praise and agree with him.
When Neurath left the Foreign Ministry in 1938, Rosenberg considered it down to his own machinations. It seemed to be a shining moment for Alfred Rosenberg. He wrote vague notes to the Führer asking that he be appointed to the vacant post. But that particular plum went to Joachim von Ribbentrop instead.
In the party’s pyramid, Rosenberg's status was high. Hitler created the so-called "Department of Rosenberg" (Dienststelle Rosenberg (DRbg)) – a party institution with vague functions, designed to oversee ideological and foreign policy; it also included the “Rosenberg Headquarters”, which were engaged in the acquisition and theft of art objects in the occupied territories.
But Alfred Rosenberg wanted real executive power - a ministerial portfolio.
He also begged Hitler for a seat on the Privy Council. It included the most trusted, most valuable top Nazis. Among the future Nuremberg defendants, Göring, Hess, Keitel, Röder, Ribbentrop and Neurath were all awarded this honour at various times which forever eluded Rosenberg.
Finally, it happened: loyalty and intrigue bore fruit. On 22 June 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union, and on 17 July, Hitler presented Rosenberg with a newborn ministry - the ministry for the occupied eastern territories. Rosenberg’s spirit was light: "The Führer gave me a new business, the Führer gave me control of Russia!" – he wrote in his diary.
And how did he intend to rule Russia?
According to Rosenberg's plan, the Soviet Union should be divided into five governorates: Ostland - Belarus and the three Baltic republics - should have been Germanised.
The governorship of Ukraine was to become a cash cow for the German economy, a land inhabited by uneducated slaves hostile to ethnic Russians.
The Caucasus (plus the historical Region of the Don Army) and Turkestan were to be transformed into separate governorates - they were pseudo-independent, something like a vassalage.
Russia itself, including Moscow and St Petersburg - once dear to Rosenberg's heart - were to become a zone for the deportation of unwanted elements from all over Europe.
Only one island of the USSR was honoured to become part of the Third Reich - or rather, a peninsula - Crimea. Rosenberg personally came up with new names for the cities there. He planned to rename Simferopol to Gothenburg and Sevastopol to Theodorichshafen in memory of the Crimean Goths, ethnic traces of whom vanished at the latest by the 17th century.
A lot of paperwork was done, a lot of meetings held. But from the very first days it became clear that Hitler did not intend to follow the recommendations of the "eastern" ministry: the captured Western Ukraine was immediately annexed to the general government of Poland. The rest of the occupied territories were controlled by the military administration, the ministry's emissaries remained on the sidelines, and there was no "dismemberment" along Rosenberg's lines.
Evil tongues in the Wehrmacht and in the party said that Rosenberg did not understand either the Germans or the Russians, that he was completely useless. Since the summer of 1944 he was referred to - with a grin - as the minister of the no-longer-occupied eastern territories.
Even Rosenberg's own lawyer at the Nuremberg trials, Alfred Thoma, despised his client, calling him a "pretentious pagan".
Hitler left Rosenberg only one "toy": he allowed him to create the Lokot Republic, an ersatz state in the occupied Bryansk region, which was managed by Soviet collaborators.
Hitler had no other philosophers for you
On the morning of 15 April 1946, courtroom No 600 of the Nuremberg Palace of Justice was full: the interrogation of the chief ideologue of the Third Reich was about to be conducted. Rosenberg went to the podium and began to lecture the public about Nazi philosophy. By the middle of the day, the spectator seats were half empty: listening to his mishmash of occultism, anti-Semitism, anti-clericalism and racism was unbearably boring.
Rosenberg spoke for a day and a half consecutively. When the trial finally began cross-examining him, the remaining spectators perked up. But not for long: Rosenberg turned out to be absolutely predictable. “I was not, I did not take part, did not participate” – that’s what his simple line of defence looked like. The defendant diligently avoided specific questions, constantly going off topic by resorting to ideological rhetoric. Probably, in those hours he was glad that Hitler did not entrust him with real executive power.
But even those things that had been Rosenberg’s responsibility were enough to give him the status of one of the main Nazi criminals.
Alfred Rosenberg "The Political Diary"
Gustav Gilbert "The Nuremberg Diary"
Yuri Yemelyanov "Sketches of the Nazis" ("Soviet Russia", June 8, 2010)
By Yulia Ignatieva