Some suggest that he was not even a true Nazi. But in the early 1930s, he supported Hitler, and during the preparation for military aggression, he became minister of foreign affairs. It was Ribbentrop who signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union. But when Germany violated the agreement, the minister's role collapsed. His attempts to split the anti-Hitler coalition failed. Ribbentrop started plundering the occupied territories and deporting Jews.
A Bourgeois Among the Nobility
Ulrich Friedrich Wilhelm Joachim Ribbentrop was born on 30 April 1893 in Wesel, Rhenish Prussia. He was a son of a career army officer, a noble with no title. When he was nine years old, his mother died of tuberculosis. His father married for a second time, and soon the family moved to the Swiss city of Arosa. In Switzerland, Joachim often saw wealthy and titled tourists from all over Europe. Perhaps it was then that he developed a passion for high society with its attributes of power, wealth, and titles.
In 1910, he went to Canada with his brother, where he opened a business to supply German wine to North America. As soon as the war broke out, Joachim Ribbentrop returned to Germany and voluntarily went to the front, hiding from doctors the fact that his kidney had been removed because of tuberculosis.
After being wounded, Ribbentrop was assigned to the German military mission to Constantinople. There, he met future Reich Chancellor and International Military Tribunal defendant Franz von Papen.
The Treaty of Versailles came. The German Army was reduced to a minimum, political power was weak – a career in state service no longer seemed so tempting to the ambitious 25-year-old Ribbentrop. He returned to commerce and opened a company that sold French wines and liqueurs in Berlin. In this field, he met Otto Henkell, a major wine producer and owner of Henkel & Co. He married his daughter Anna Elisabeth Henkell in 1920 and became Henkell & Co's representative in Berlin.
His father-in-law introduced Ribbentrop to a circle of rich wine merchants. The company headed by Ribbentrop became one of the largest in Germany, and he became a rising star of the upper class. In 1923, Ribbentrop built a villa with a tennis court and swimming pool in Dahlem, a district of Berlin. His parties were attended by noblemen, financiers, and industrialists – all of the city’s high society.
As his contemporaries noted, Ribbentrop was a bourgeois by habits and outlook, but he painfully sought to become a “true nobleman”. In the end, he found a way to get the cherished “background” into his last name. In 1925, although he was already an adult, he was formally adopted by a distant relative, his aunt Gertrud, who belonged to the titled family branch of the Ribbentrops. The rumour was that he paid her an allowance for this service.
Why did Ribbentrop, a rich, high-society, open-minded man, join the Nazis, a movement of poorly educated proletarians and small shopkeepers, belligerents, persecutors of the church and traditions, shouting about equality and socialism?
In 1930, a friend of his from the war introduced him to Hitler. Afterwards, Ribbentrop began to sponsor the Nazi Party and joined it on 1 May 1932. Ribbentrop also joined the SS; he was promoted to the rank of SS-Standartenführer (Colonel) on 30 May 1933.
“I suspect that he did not support the racial theories of the Nazis at all”, a historian Vasily Molodyakov said.
In his view, Ribbentrop, like some other politicians, saw the end of the bourgeois Weimar Republic as a result of the global economic crisis caused by the Great Depression. Out of the two evils – the victory of the Communists or the dictatorship of the Nazis – he chose the latter one.
In his memoirs written in the Nuremberg Prison, Ribbentrop admitted that he was simply fascinated by Hitler. Another prominent Nazi and defendant, the beloved architect of the Führer and Reich minister of armaments, Albert Speer, ironically remarked that Ribbentrop's office was decorated with photographs of himself and the leader of the Reich together. But looking closer, one could see that it was the same photo multiplied by the cabinet owner.
At Nuremberg, after Nazi propaganda films were shown as evidence in the courtroom, Ribbentrop cried and asked the prison psychologist: does he not feel the power of Hitler's personality?
An Aide for Delicate Matters
Hitler seemed to show sympathy for Ribbentrop too. From late 1932 onwards, at the Ribbentrop Villa in Dahlem, the future Reichsführer conducted secret negotiations with politicians who might become allies with the NSDAP. These included von Papen, who would briefly take up the post of German vice-chancellor in 1933.
In the early 1930s, Germany, disarmed after World War I, was squeezed between a strong France and Poland, which had become stronger. When Hitler came to power in 1933, he entrusted Ribbentrop – at that time already a member of the Reichstag – with a delicate task: to weaken his opponents through negotiations and strengthen Germany's military capabilities, preparing the country for an open confrontation.
In April 1934, the Ribbentrop Bureau was opened, a sort of analytical centre that provided foreign policy information to the Führer personally. There were 13 employees and several freelance advisers. Ribbentrop had to convince the international community that Germany needed to increase armaments despite the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
No particular diplomatic success was achieved: France objected to a compromise with the Reich. Then Hitler simply declared that Germany was “free from any obligations with regard to the Treaty of Versailles and can arm itself at its own discretion, without restriction or control, based on the enthusiastic endorsement of its people”.
Failed Diplomatic Mission in Britain
In 1935, Hitler sent Ribbentrop to England as a special envoy where he succeeded in concluding the Anglo-German Naval Agreement. Ribbentrop believed that a strong Anglo-German alliance against the Bolsheviks was needed. “One of the main tasks of our diplomacy in London is to educate the British about the real dangers of Bolshevism”, Ribbentrop, who had already become ambassador-plenipotentiary at large, wrote to his colleague in Rome.
On 26 October 1936, thanks to Ribbentrop's efforts, an agreement was concluded between Germany and Fascist Italy, and on 25 November, the Anti-Comintern Pact was signed – an anti-Communist pact concluded between Germany and Japan that was directed against the Communist International. Hitler's Axis Powers were thus formed.
Ribbentrop tried to reassure British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden that "the pact is not directed against anything other than world Communism and that England's accession would not be hindered either", but they did not want to see the Communist danger in England. By the end of 1937, it had become apparent that Britain was unwilling to get on close terms with Hitler's Germany. All that remained was to build up armaments.
“Germany had placed herself in a new position due to the Wehrmacht build-up and the occupation of the Rhineland”, Hitler said before his appointment. “We are back in the circles of the nations of equal status and it was now the moment to find solutions to certain problems – problems that could be solved only with a strong army, not that it was in any way by its deployment but by the mere fact of its existence”.
What the Führer referred to as a “clear relationship with neighbours” was the annexation by Germany of neighbouring regions inhabited by Germans: Austria, the Sudetenland (areas of Czechoslovakia), the city of Memel in Lithuania, and the Danzig Corridor, a Polish territory that separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany.
This very idea continued the unification policy pursued by famous Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in the second half of the 19th century. The difference was that in 1938, the country was no longer the venerable Kaiser Germany, but a totalitarian state with racial laws and violent suppression of dissent.
Inaptitude to Hold the Position
On 4 February 1938, Hitler appointed Ribbentrop as minister of foreign affairs to replace Konstantin von Neurath, who disagreed with the Führer's aggressive plans.
Many people did not accept the new minister. He knew foreign languages, had long been among the German elite,and had achieved some foreign policy successes. But the German diplomatic corps did not consider him to be their own, and Ribbentrop's manners did not fit into the adopted protocol. He also completely Nazified the ministry, creating a body within it that dealt with the party and ideological issues.
“He was a man who occupied a responsible position and for which he had neither talent, knowledge nor experience, and he himself knew and sensed this very well”, a counsellor at the German Embassy in Moscow, Gustav Hilger, recalled. “At the same time, he sought to hide his feelings of inferiority by an arrogance that often seemed unbearable. That a minister should shout at a grey-haired counsellor until his voice snapped was unheard-of before von Ribbentrop introduced the language and brutal tone of voice of a drill sergeant in the Foreign Office. Moreover, he was under a morbid compulsion to put his own person in the foreground all the time and to live in the grandest possible style”.
At first, Ribbentrop did not play a key role in foreign affairs. The Anschluss of Austria was mainly prepared by Hitler and Göring while the minister was packing his luggage in London. According to Ribbentrop, the Anschluss was “...an example of Hitler's style of work, always leaving the final decision to himself and sometimes taking it at a moment that no one expected, even in his immediate circle”. The ministry's role was more prominent in the work on the Munich Agreement.
Ribbentrop’s Favourite Pact
Ribbentrop’s biggest success was the agreement with the Soviet Union. In March 1939, the German-Polish negotiations on the Danzig Corridor failed - Poland achieved a military alliance with Britain and France. On his way back from Warsaw, Ribbentrop said: “Now we have only one option if we do not want to be completely surrounded: to unite with Russia”.
And so it happened. In August 1939, after unsuccessful attempts to conclude an agreement with Western democracies, the Soviet leadership approached the Third Reich with a proposal for negotiations.
On 23 August, Ribbentrop flew to Moscow via Königsberg (his aircraft came under fire near Velikiye Luki by mistake) and headed straight for the Kremlin. Hitler had instructed him to sign an agreement with the Soviet Union as soon as possible, so the Reichsminister accepted all the main demands of the Soviet Union. That same night, Joachim von Ribbentrop and the minister of foreign affairs of the USSR, Vyacheslav Molotov, in the presence of Joseph Stalin, signed the Non-Aggression Pact between Germany and the Soviet Union, and an additional secret protocol that divided up the spheres of influence in Eastern Europe. These documents are usually known by the names of the signatories: the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
After the agreement was signed, a solemn feast was held in the Kremlin which lasted until dawn. It was only in the morning that Ribbentrop was able to inform Hitler about the success of his mission.
“The banquet in honour of Ribbentrop continues”, recalled Valentin Berezhkov, an aide to Molotov, who worked as an interpreter at the meeting. “A lively conversation brings guests and hosts together. Informing Hitler about it later, the Reichsminister, struck by the hospitality of the ‘Leader of Peoples’, generously added: ‘Stalin and Molotov are very nice. I felt like I was among old fellow party members’”.
The day after the agreement was ratified by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, Germany attacked Poland.
Ribbentrop enthusiastically joined in the planning of war crimes. On 12 August 1939, a conference was held on the Führer’s train. The prosecution's witness, Major General of the German Wehrmacht Erwin Lahousen, testified at the Nuremberg trials:
“Ribbentrop, returning to the subject of Ukraine, [said] once more that the uprising should be so staged that all farms and dwellings of the Poles should go up in flames, and all Jews be killed. I remember with particular clarity the somewhat new phrasing that ‘all farms and dwellings should go up in flames’. Previously there had only been talk of ‘liquidation’ and ‘elimination’”.
On 27 September 1939, after Germany had invaded Poland and World War II had begun, Ribbentrop arrived in the Soviet capital again. The new negotiations ended in the morning of 29 September with the signing of the German-Soviet Boundary and Friendship Treaty.
In the following year, 1940, Ribbentrop assured the authorities of Norway, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Yugoslavia, and Greece that they had nothing to fear, while the German General Staff was moving troops for an unexpected attack.
The late 1930s and beginning of the 1940s were the peak of Ribbentrop's career. Despite being an ideological opponent of Communism, he did not rule out the possibility of the USSR joining the Axis powers: in his opinion, it was in line with German interests. However, in 1940 the USSR made demands that were rejected by the Third Reich, and Hitler was already preparing for war.
No Declaration of War
According to historians, around the end of April 1941, Ribbentrop was introduced to the Barbarossa Plan, which envisaged a treacherous attack on the Soviet Union and a victorious war in a few months. The minister did not like the plan. It marked an end both to the pact and to “Eastern policies” in general. However, some researchers believe that he was aware of Germany's aggressive plans back in August 1940. In any case, the Reichsminister played a role in ensuring that Finland, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria joined the Third Reich in the war.
“I remember... Ribbentrop declaring war on the night of 22 June 1941 to the Soviet Ambassador to Germany, Dekanozov, whom I was accompanying”, Valentin Berezhkov wrote in his book “How I Became Stalin's Interpreter”. “The Reichsminister had probably had a quick drink to give him courage before declaring this step, which was fatal for the Nazi Reich. Although, perhaps, they were just celebrating the start of the new ‘blitzkrieg’ at Hitler's headquarters, from where Ribbentrop came. His face turned red; his hands trembled. After hearing Ribbentrop's statement that two hours ago German troops had crossed the Soviet border, the ambassador stood up and said that German leaders were committing criminal aggression for which they would be severely punished. Turning his back and not saying goodbye, Dekanozov headed for the exit. I followed suit. And then the unexpected happened: Ribbentrop rushed after us and started speaking under his breath, trying to assure us that he personally was against the Führer's decision to go to war with Russia, even attempting to dissuade Hitler from this madness, but the latter would not listen. ‘Tell them in Moscow that I was against the attack’. Ribbentrop's last words reached me when, having passed the corridor, I was already going down the stairs following the ambassador. What did this astonishing confession by the minister for foreign affairs of a country that had just declared war on another power mean?”
For his part, Erich Sommer, an interpreter for the Protocol Department of the German Foreign Office, testified that according to Hitler's order, Ribbentrop did not use the expression “declaration of war", neither during the reception nor in the note handed over to the Soviet envoy. This fact was yet more proof of the treacherous nature of the attack.
Looting and Holocaust
After 22 June 1941, the role of the Foreign Ministry faded: everything was decided by the army and special services. Ribbentrop's tasks came down to signing agreements with German satellite states.
The minister was involved in more down-to-earth activities, such as looting the occupied territories.
In 1941, the German Foreign Ministry created the SS Special Purpose Battalion, under the supervision of Ribbentrop. The tasks of the so-called Ribbentrop Battalion included the seizure of cultural and historical property, libraries, scientific documentation of institutions and archive collections, which were brought back to Germany. In March 1942, an exhibition of the pillaged goods was held in Berlin.
An even darker chapter in Ribbentrop's biography was his involvement in the Holocaust. In September 1942, he issued an order requiring German embassies in occupied or dependent states to force the deportation of Jews and refugees. In February 1943, Ribbentrop issued a protest to Benito Mussolini over the slow deportation of Jews in Italian-occupied France (originally, Italian Fascism did not have an anti-Semitic connotation). On 17 April 1943, during a meeting between Hitler and Hungarian leader Miklos Horthy, the Reichsminister said: “Jews must either be exterminated or taken to concentration camps”.
Losing Hitler’s Trust
Ribbentrop remained faithful to Hitler until the end. When German generals conspired in 1944 and tried to kill the Führer, the foreign minister was one of the first to go to Hitler to declare his support. But this loyalty did not help Ribbentrop keep the Führer’s trust.
The Führer was annoyed that the German diplomats had failed to split the anti-Hitler coalition and the country continued the war on two fronts. In his political testament on 29 April 1945, Hitler dismissed Ribbentrop from his ministerial post. He was to be replaced by the Reichskommissar of the occupied Netherlands, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, but the latter recused himself.
After the war, Ribbentrop disappeared from the radar for some time, but failed to escape. On 14 June 1945, he was detained by an Allied patrol in Hamburg.
By Daniil Sidorov