Hitler’s Handlers

Shore’s intriguing book examines the archived papers of several important Nazi-era diplomats and foreign policy officials in an effort to piece together how well informed Hitler was–or wasn’t–about Germany’s foreign adversaries in the period leading up to World War II and how, in at least one case, that may have accelerated the oncoming war. In a sense, this project is something like a historical GAO report, tracing the flow of information up the chain of command in an effort to pinpoint where it broke down.

Shore, who has served as a member of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff and brings an insider’s expertise to his subject, begins his investigation shortly after Hitler took office in 1933. Despite the dramatic change of leadership, Germany’s foreign ministry bureaucracy experienced no wholesale house cleaning. Instead, Hitler inherited a ministry teeming with socially elite Weimar-era career officials like Foreign Minister Constantin Freiherr von Neurath, who were versed in the “rigid lines of hierarchical command” through which the ministry operated.

All of that changed when Hitler came to power. German citizens, including those in the government, were frightened by his infamous purges, such as the Night of the Long Knives, in which at least 77 people were killed (including a former chancellor) and more than 1,100 arrested. Hitler’s SS also “struck to eliminate rivals, to settle old scores, and, above all, to leave their mark.” By creating a climate of distrust, uncertainty, and fear, his regime inadvertently denied itself the benefit of receiving important foreign policy information. Instead of performing their jobs, the first priority for career officers quickly became protecting their own livelihoods (and lives).

As a result, many foreign ministry officials like Neurath began hoarding information as a means of self-protection. By reading–and then burying–intelligence reports and other important documents, officials could appear knowledgeable and useful, thus preserving their own hide. When Hitler contemplated retaking the Rhineland, for instance, Neurath boldly contradicted the Fuhrer’s other advisers and urged him to move ahead, secure in the knowledge (through reports he’d gathered but not shared) that France wasn’t prepared to protect the area. Through this measure, Shore writes, Neurath could “appear as a bold risk-taker, a quality Hitler strongly favored in his advisers.” Sure enough, when the invasion succeeded with ease, Neurath’s star rose.

It was, however, a fleeting victory. Neurath was locked in a fierce rivalry with a Nazi Party foreign policy official named Joachim von Ribbentrop, who had his own bureaucratic tricks for advancement. Ribbentrop delivered sensitive cables to Hitler directly, before the ministry had a chance to digest them. In the fall of 1935, he proposed reshuffling the foreign policy organizations in a way that would have severely weakened Neurath (his plan failed only when Neurath threatened to resign). When Neurath retaliated by posting Ribbentrop to London in a bid to isolate him, the Nazi official stubbornly avoided the London embassy for months on end and continued reporting directly to Hitler. As his access to the Fuhrer waned, so did Neurath’s influence. And as Nazi Party officials like Ribbentrop gradually came to dominate the positions of power in the foreign ministry, career foreign policy bureaucrats–who held the actual expertise–were edged out. By the time Neurath learned that Ribbentrop had brought Japan into the Anti-Comintern Pact, Hitler had already approved of the move.

Shore suggests that the bureaucratic infighting and personal interest that prompted Hitler’s advisers to conceal information may have had pronounced effects on Germany’s foreign policy leading up to World War II. In 1939, for example, the chief political official in the foreign ministry, Ernst von Weizsacker, knew of an overture Stalin made at least four days before Hitler did–but may have withheld this information in the hope that Stalin would ally with Great Britain, rather than Germany. Later that year, Ribbentrop may have done precisely the opposite, withholding reports that suggested the British were open to negotiation. Why? A pact with England could have jeopardized the Nazi-Soviet alliance–“the crowning moment of his career.”

Had Hitler been aware of Stalin’s offer, it might have hastened a crucial alliance. Had he known about Great Britain’s willingness to negotiate, he might have done so, even as World War II drew near. Much of Shore’s brief, but well-researched, examination is speculative. It’s difficult to know for certain who knew what when. What is clear is that Hitler’s failure to master his own bureaucracy played an important role in the course of events that led to World War II.

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Joe Dempsey

Joe Dempsey was an intern at the Washington Monthly.