“I’m Rinso-white”; that’s a line from one of the scenes in Hair, specifically the lead-in to “Ain’t Got No.” The expression is actually older than that, and comes from the laundry detergent’s old advertising campaigns. Rinso-white apparently was the thing to be. In Europe the equivalent was and remains Persil. John Mortimer uses the brand-name as a nickname for a notoriously “bent copper,” D.I. “Persil” White. In the late 1940s and 1950s the product’s name acquired a more sinister overtone, at least in central Europe, and among a very definable group.
It’s very much true that success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan. And seldom has there ever been a more orphaned orphan in that respect than the Nazi state. After May, 1945 all those tens of thousands — hell, millions — of Germans who cheered themselves hoarse as Hitler and his jack-booted thugs, his legions of soldiers, fleets of tanks, and swarms of aircraft marched, rumbled, and screamed past mysteriously vanished into the ground, as if they’d never been there. Whatever else they may have said among themselves, publicly at least you couldn’t find a True Believer with a search warrant. It’s sort of the flip side of the phenomenon that after the war the entire population of France turned out to have been active in the Resistance (makes you wonder how they managed so effectively to round up and ship off their Jewish population . . . perhaps the Jews self-deported?).
[In that connection I’ll observe that when my father served in Army counterintelligence, stationed in Germany from 1964-65, he was alerted to listen very carefully to what the slightly older Germans, the ones who would be in their mid-40s by that point, got to saying when you’d poured enough beer down them. Sure enough, it was even so. Paul Fussell may have noticed a reluctance to speak — while sober and with an American present — about just exactly what one was doing during those twelve years from 1933 to 1945, but maybe that’s because he didn’t get drunk enough with enough Germans of the right ages and backgrounds. The expression “the good old days” meant something very specific to Germans of a certain age range, and it was an expression they used not infrequently among themselves.]
The inability to find anyone who’d ever agreed with the Nazis, either as a philosophical proposition or just from the standpoint of practical politics — by which I mean taking over Europe and subjecting it to direct rule by or effective subordination to Germany — was nowhere more pronounced than among precisely those groups who had been the most effective at implementing the take-over. The very senior officials of Nazi Germany were unredeemable, by and large. Too many corpses about the place and all. Too bad, that; for them the “good old days” would never come again. Oh sure, there were exceptions — Field Marshal Erich von Manstein (who point-blank refused to join the anti-Hitler conspiracy with the statement that “Prussian field marshals do not mutiny”) comes to mind — who managed to pick back up their old Nazi careers under the federal German banner, but by and large they were, officially at least, tainted goods. It was in the next level down, among the faceless bureaucracy, still pretty senior and able not only to implement policy but to have had a direct hand in formulating it, in steering the “right” — by which is meant the wrong — people to the right places, that post-war Germany presented a conundrum. There were way too many of them for the networks of mutual support to keep up outside active employment; they had no skills other than being government bureaucrats; and they couldn’t all run to the welcoming arms of South America.
These were the people at the level of Adolf Eichmann. His defense, if you recall, was that he was just a functionary implementing decisions his superiors had made, that he was bound to follow at peril literally of his life. Except he wasn’t any such thing. He was, in fact, the Holocaust’s johnny-on-the-spot for rounding up hundreds of thousands of Jews and shipping them off to be exterminated. He was not just an executive but rather also a decision-maker. And in the end he was convicted as such and danced at the end of a noose for it.
Eichmann’s central difficulty in defending himself may well have been his institutional affiliation. He was SS, an organization which started out as Hitler’s personal bodyguard and by the end of the war had metastasized into nearly a state within the state. Nowadays people associate the concept of “Auschwitz” with extermination. What isn’t as well-known, at least not in the Anglosphere, is that the extermination camp was Auschwitz-Birkenau, or “Auschwitz II,” and that camp only came into its own as an industrialized killing facility towards 1943-44, by which time three-quarters of all the Jews who would die in the Holocaust had already been killed. There was, however, more to Auschwitz than just Birkenau; there were extensive industrial facilities, owned and operated by the SS and manned with the inmates who had not been killed upon arrival. The SS owned other industrial facilities all over Germany and the occupied territories. By the end of the war the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA), or the Reich Main Security Office, an SS sub-organization, had encompassed the SD, the Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service), a secret police principally employed outside Germany in the East, and the Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei, or secret state police), which was the principal secret and political police within Germany and in the West. Then there was the Waffen-SS, the separate army run by the SS, and numerous other unsavory organizations. The SS managed to liquidate and absorb the competencies of the Abwehr, the military counterintelligence department (in April, 1945 they hanged its former head, Admiral Canaris, and his assistant, Hans Oster, the latter among the most committed and vociferous anti-Nazis; it was Oster who went to the Dutch embassy on the evening of May 9, 1940, and told them, “Tomorrow morning at 4:00.”) The entire SS and all its works were damned by the Allies after the war as a criminal enterprise. No one wanted to know anything about it, to have had anything to do with it, even to admit that it had once existed.
Other organizations did not have the public relations problems the SS did. One agency in particular managed for decades to maintain the fiction that it not only had never willingly cooperated with Nazism but had been a hot-house of active opposition conspirators. We refer to the Auswärtiges Amt, the Foreign Office. Internally it referred (and still refers) to itself as “das Amt.” Its politico-cultural antecedents were the old nobility of Prussia and the Empire. Commoners, the recently-ennobled, and of course Jews needn’t apply, in those days. The Prussian foreign service was the preserve of people like Otto von Bismarck, who while still a junior diplomat simply took off, without formal leave, for several months to pursue an affair with another man’s wife. When someone back at home office observed he might as well get back to the job he was being paid to do, Bismarck huffed that he had no intent of giving an account of his domestic arrangements to anyone, and carried on as before. He suffered no career repercussions. In 1862 King Wilhelm I called him to Berlin to become minister-president of Prussia and steam-roll the Prussian Landtag on the issue of army appropriations. It was the place where the “mediatized” nobility, who had lost their sovereign powers and territories in the Napoleonic invasions and the subsequent pan-European settlement of 1814 but who were still considered marriageable by the remaining sovereign houses, found a home if they absolutely had to earn some income. Not a few of them could — and doubtless did — sniff with Bismarck that the Hohenzollerns were no more than a “Swabian family no better than mine.”
After the Great War — a war, by the way, which the Amt played no small part in bringing about with its combination of ham-fisted confrontationalism towards France and Britain (e.g. the Agadir incident in 1911) and its crawling subservience to Wilhelm II — it remained to a large extent what it had been. It did, a tiny bit, open its ranks up to a few Jews and the classes who formerly would have become officers in the army or navy. But as the major national institution which survived intact (Versailles annihilated the army and navy, flat prohibited an air force, confiscated most of the merchant marine, and laid crippling indemnities on the economy which had to be satisfied from the major industries) it was able to preserve to a large degree its internal culture.
Then came 1933. If you buy the official line from the post-1949 Amt, for the next twelve years its officials and functionaries seldom let a chance go by to pour sand in the gears, shove wrenches in the spokes, and generally gum up the works of the Nazi enterprise. This was when they weren’t outright conspiring to bring down that horrid regime. And so forth. In truth there were senior members of the Amt who actively joined the opposition, or who publicly opposed the regime in the years after it seized power. The latter group were mostly forced out well before the war started. Of the former group, after the July 20 Plot failed most of them were executed. Hans Bernd Gisevius went into hiding in Switzerland and survived. Ulrich von Hassell (irony alert: Admiral Tirpitz’s son-in-law), who had been ambassador to Italy, didn’t. Hans Bernd von Haeften was among the first group hanged at Plötzensee in August, 1944. Friedrich Warner Graf von der Schulenberg had been ambassador to the Soviet Union; he too was executed.
Diplomats are schooled in sniffing out tiny hand-holds on sheer cliffs. It’s their stock-in-trade, really. Does Country X really demand thus-and-such, or might it be willing to accept so-and-so with a hint of this-and-that, which is pretty damned close to such-and-such but not quite, or not quite yet. Sure enough, the (former and soon-to-be once-again) diplomats of the Wilhelmstraße realized that with so many of their actual anti-Nazis dead, there was no one to deny their own affiliation with the dead heroes. And the myth of the Amt’s nobility and purity was born.
I say “myth” because you see, the Amt was in it up its well-bred shoulders. Their senior officials voluntarily joined the party and its organizations in droves, even beyond the extent of politely obtaining a party card. In the occupied countries they actively collaborated with the SD, the Gestapo, the SS, the Arbeitsfront (the slave-labor outfit headed by Robert Ley, who killed himself before he could be tried at Nuremberg; we got Fritz Sauckel, though, Goering’s field agent in the four-year plan program and the Nazis’ chief slaver in occupied Europe), and the entire rest of the Nazi machinery of death and oppression. In fact, in several countries it was the Amt who took the lead in locating Jews and other candidates for deportation and who made suggestions to the SS/SD/Gestapo about how better to implement the Final Solution and the rest of the program of oppression.
How is this now known, what was for decades successfully hidden? Because the German government a number of years ago commissioned a study to tell the actual, full story. Granted, it was long after anyone personally implicated was available to have his pension revoked or — heaven forfend! — go to prison, but at least it was set as its task the puncturing of the thick web of lies. And it did exactly that, publishing in 2004 an enormous door-stop of a book: Das Amt und die Vergangenheit: Deutsche Diplomaten im Dritten Reich und in der Bundesrepublik (The Office and the Past: German Diplomats in the Third Reich and the Federal Republic ), a copy of which I picked up in 2011. They actually sat down and paged through the archives, finding who joined the party under what circumstances and when; who was pressed into early retirement when he wouldn’t join; who joined not only the party but specific party organizations . . . like the SS, for example; who was responsible for making precisely which decisions about specific actions and policies, who communicated with whom about what and when.
And most importantly, the book lays out in sordid detail who was involved after the war in the wholesale production of what became known as “Persilscheine,” or “Persil certificates.” That’s what they called the official certifications of non-culpability that were the magic ticket to getting back on the government payroll, specifically in the new Auswärtiges Amt of the Federal Republic of Germany beginning in 1949. Very briefly summarized, what happened was that the old Amt officials attested to each other’s anti-Nazi bona fides; the anchor points were tied to the now-dead, and therefore unable to contradict, actual anti-Nazis. It was a mutual-exoneration society, in short.
At the center of it was Ernst von Weizsäcker, who’d joined the Weimar Auswärtiges Amt in 1920, after serving in the Kaiserliche Marine during the war (he’d been Admiral Scheer’s flag lieutenant at Jutland in 1916). He became a bureaucrat’s bureaucrat, deeply embedded in the power structure of the Amt instead of out in the field for most of his career. He was the go-to guy who made or broke careers by steering friends and stifling opponents. And at various times he was also involved in the Amt’s policy-making process. In short, he had pretty much full knowledge of what was going on in occupied Europe, and why, and what was happening to the victims. And he sat at his desk for most of the war, working the levers, willingly in service to the regime. There’s no credible indication at all that he was anything other than a willing servant of Hitler’s, although he from time to time did disagree on things like whether liquidating Czechoslovakia just in 1938 was a good idea . . . or whether they maybe ought to wait a bit before liquidating it . . . so as to be better able to fend off Britain and France while feeding on the corpse of Czechoslovakian independence.
We hanged his ultimate boss, Ribbentropp, at Nuremberg. Ol’ Joachim was an outsider, though, a “Quereinsteiger,” whose first job in the Amt was as foreign minister. He brought a bunch of his people with him, and they were of course thoroughly resented by the lifers (such as Weizsäcker). When it came time to try the functionaries at what became known as the Ministries Trial, Weizsäcker was the lead defendant. That trial was the next-to-last trial of the major Nazi war criminals, and by that point the resources, time, and patience of the prosecuting powers was nearing its end. The lead prosecutor, Telford Taylor (who’d been chief assistant to Robert Jackson at the first, big International Military Tribunal trial at Nuremberg), had seen his case slowly sift through his fingers as he progressively lost the behind-the-scenes administrative battles to bring the full weight of the evidence to bear on the defendants. By the time the trials started in January, 1948 he was down to a passel of figure-head defendants, including Weizsäcker. He convicted almost all of them, but in the case of ol’ Ernst, the conviction was the object of an almost immediate and highly coordinated public relations campaign, which in 1950 succeeded. He’d been sentenced to seven years in 1949 (inclusive of time served; he’d been arrested on his return from the Vatican, where he’d been ambassador since 1943, only in 1946); that was reduced to five years in 1950, and that same year they let him out. He died the next year.
A key player in coordinating the exoneration efforts from the outside was his son, Richard von Weizsäcker, who in 1948 had been a law student and an active member of his defense team. When daddy was convicted he became a central point of organization for the effort to have his father’s conviction set aside, either legally or effectively in fact (as the latter indeed happened). Doing so also necessarily closely involved Richard in white-washing the war-time deeds of other Amt insiders, because of course their testimony in support of his father was only as useful as their own purity. All of which is to say that Richard von Weizsäcker was as closely involved as was possible in sweeping under the rug the institutional guilt, the willing collaboration, of his father’s ministry in the butchery that was Nazi Germany abroad.
Over the rest of the 1950s the new Amt absorbed more and more of its former officials, each one holding (proudly? we can hope not) his Persilschein, attesting that he was untainted by his past. Towards the 1970s and early 1980s these people began to retire, and almost without exception they receded into the twilight accompanied by fulsome official praise, and with full and generous state pensions.
And Richard von Weizsäcker? Dutiful son, defender of his Nazi father, fetched up as Bundespräsident in 1984, an office he kept until 1994. In Germany the Bundespräsident is the official head of state; the Kanzler is merely the head of government. He is chosen by the Bundestag, and occupies a public position that is theoretically supposed to be above politics. He is, to the extent a nation can be said to have a political conscience, supposedly the conscience of the country. If there are unpalatable truths to be spoken, it is expected that the Bundespräsident will speak them. Richard was Bundespräsident while I was spending my second junior year in Germany in the mid-1980s, and he was viewed, both then and later, as something of a secular saint.
He died last week, and yesterday Germany said good-bye to him in a state funeral. At the risk of understatement, the parade of speakers somehow failed to mention his efforts in the concealment of war crimes, and the critical nature of his efforts in ensuring that war criminals and collaborators in war crimes not only were not punished, but returned to power in the same roles they had filled during the war. Specifically mentioned was his address to the nation on May 8, 1985, the 40th anniversary of the surrender; he characterized that as a “day of liberation,” by which of course he meant that it was a liberation for Germany as well. Which is true enough, but one has to ponder how much credit a prisoner is entitled to who viciously fights, to the death, those who would strike the fetters from his arms and legs. His Christian faith was also praised as a center-point for his effectiveness as a politician and human (he served from 1964-7, and then again from 1979-81 as president of the Lutheran Council in Germany). I’m sure he was a good Christian boy, as we say around here.
He also was a key figure in the white-washing of an entire institution’s active participation in the crimes against humanity of the regime his father so diligently served. And in ensuring that the men on whose skirts, if not on whose hands, the blood of millions glared in bright red walked freely the halls of power in the reconstituted Germany.
For those who will never read Das Amt und die Vergangenheit (it’s not available in translation, more’s the pity), I guess that Richard von Weizsäcker is once and forevermore Rinso-white.