Joachim von Ribbentrop


Today, we have for the most part an image of the Third Reich that reflects simplistic wartime propaganda: that it was a totalitarian state whose institutions ran synchronously like a well-oiled machine toward the ultimate goal of what Josef Goebbels called Totalen Krieg. This characterization is only half right and tells only half the story. In actuality, the totalitarian infrastructure of the state was plagued by two hugely destabilizing factors: the indecisiveness of Adolf Hitler and the petty internecine conflicts within the government and the NSDAP that the Führer actively encouraged to keep anyone from getting too ambitious. There can be no better example of this institutional incompetence than Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister from 1938 to 1945. Once one of Hitler's favorites, von Ribbentrop suffered one of the most ignominious falls from grace of any of the leading figures of the National Socialist regime in Germany (and that's saying a lot if you've ever heard of Ernst Röhm or Hjalmar Schacht).

Early Life: Canada and the Great War

The man who would (not) be King was born Ulrich Friedrich Wilhelm Joachim Ribbentrop in the Rhineland in 1893 to an army officer and his wife. The Ribbentrop family was not a particularly fun place, as his father Richard was a strict disciplinarian who cared little for outward signs of emotion. His mother, Sophie, died when he was about 9 and Richard remarried in 1905. At school, Ribbentrop's academic achievements were nothing to be particularly proud of - he was 32nd in his class of 50. Still, his father sent him and his siblings to schools in Switzerland and then to England to improve their French and English skills (which Ribbentrop did reasonably well at).

In 1909, Ribbentrop moved to Canada where he seemed to be planning to settle for good: he had a decent job and a reasonable amount of civic pride (he took part in a North American ice-skating competition representing Canada). When the first World War began in 1914, however, Ribbentrop returned to Germany and fought on both fronts before an injury sidelined him in 1917. He became a minor government functionary, meeting and briefly serving with the future Chancellor of Germany Franz von Papen in Turkey. After the war, he married into money and got into illegally importing wine from France. He went legitimate sometime in the early 1920s and started his own wine-import business to support his family which by now included two sons. At some point, he entered into a bizarre agreement with his aunt to adopt him for the purpose of receiving the aristocratic "von" in his name. He apparently agreed to pay her 450 marks a month for the next 15 years for this "favor" but stopped doing so sometime within the frame of the first year.

Nazi Party Member and Government Official

I think it's worth pointing out here that von Ribbentrop -- as it was now proper to call him -- had two basic defects. First, he was an idiot. Second, nobody liked him. Realizing that his wine business couldn't support their lifestyle forever, his shrewish wife Anna badgered him into joining the growing National Socialist Party in 1932, extremely late in the game as compared to the other bigwigs in the party like Goebbels or Hermann Goering. Politically speaking, Ribbentrop's membership in the Nazi Party would make about as much sense as if Ralph Nader joined the Republican Party. Von Ribbentrop was a moderate conservative who didn't really understand (let alone care about) the vagaries of National Socialist politico-economic philosophy. Early on, he wasn't anti-Semitic; that being said, of course, he had no particular affection for the Jews either. In fact, the only person for whom von Ribbentrop had any affection was von Ribbentrop himself. That was, of course, until he met Hitler.

Von Ribbentrop met the future Führer at a party in 1932 and immediately captivated him with his stories about England, in which Hitler was highly interested. Hitler believed right until the war broke out that Germany's most natural ally in an armed conflict would be Great Britain and he wanted a keener insight into the British mentality. Typically, von Ribbentrop pretty much bullshitted his way through Hitler's questions in an effort to impress his captive audience and to continue hearing the sound of his own voice. Later, after the Reichstag Elections that resulted in the Nazis becoming the largest party in the body, von Ribbentrop helped broker the deal between his new friend Hitler and his old friend von Papen that led to the former becoming Chancellor and the latter accepting the position of Vice Chancellor. Von Ribbentrop didn't necessarily care about Hitler except for the fact that he expected Hitler to repay his kindness with an important post in the new government. He invented a pretty insignificant job for von Ribbentrop in the Foreign Ministry in 1934 just to get him off his back, but von Ribbentrop took it in stride and proudly proclaimed his position as Special Commissioner to the Reich Government for Disarmament Questions to anyone who would listen. Von Ribbentrop quickly made a nuissance of himself, frequently approaching foreign governments without authorization and upsetting the Foreign Office greatly. Everyone of any significance in the party's upper tiers resented von Ribbentrop except for Ernst Röhm. Considering Röhm was killed in June, it's safe to say that von Ribbentrop pretty much ran out of friends.

Von Ribbentrop's first major successes came in 1935 and 1936. In the first case, he successfully browbeat a British diplomatic mission into accepting an expansion of the German Navy and in the second case, he successfully brokered the foundation of an Anti-Comintern Pact with Japan for the purpose of "defend{ing} Western Civilization." He was rewarded with the ambassadorship to Great Britain and set about making political contacts in furtherance of an alliance between the two states. Of course, von Ribbentrop's vain, arrogant, acerbic personality did nothing to endear him to the London establishment and in short order, he was an unwelcome guest everywhere. Eventually, his recklessness got back to Hitler, who called him back to Berlin and gave him a real dressing-down. Whether or not Hitler was more angered by von Ribbentrop's behavior in England or by the fact that he had let himself be tricked into accepting von Ribbentrop's nonexistent credentials is debatable.

Prelude to War and Downfall

Von Ribbentrop played a dangerous game in the years leading up to the Second World War. By 1938, he replaced Konstantin von Neurath as Foreign Minister and he was consistently giving Hitler horrible "advice" that was really nothing more than just telling him what he wanted to hear about any particular issue. In most cases, he was right: as he predicted (or rather parroted) England and France did nothing in response to the Reich's absorption of Austria, the Sudetenland, and Bohemia and Moravia. Of course, he still hadn't mastered the fine art of keeping his fucking mouth shut: during incredibly tense negotiations, he matter-of-factly informed the British ambassador to Germany that if they so wished it, every man, woman, and child in Czechoslovakia would be killed. Von Ribbentrop was excluded from the next round of negotiations about the Czech question.

Amazingly, von Ribbentrop didn't start the war in 1938, mainly due to Hermann Göring (of all people) convincing Hitler that von Ribbentrop was unhinged. In August of 1939, von Ribbentrop was hurriedly sent to Moscow ostensibly to conclude an economic treaty between Germany and the Soviet Union. The real reason he went, of course, was to negotiate a nonaggression pact between the two states. The reason for the urgency was that Hitler had intended to invade Poland no later than August 26 and the Anglo-French delegation had arrived in Russia only a few days earlier. Josef Stalin was highly unimpressed by this group and sent them home with nothing. The deal with Hitler was more appealing anyway; he gave Stalin the Eastern portion of Poland and influence over the Baltic States, two things the moralistic allies could never countenance doing. Thus, on August 23rd, von Ribbentrop and his Soviet counterpart Vyacheslav Molotov -- who is rumored to have received the job in anticipation of von Ribbentrop's visit simply because his predecessor, Maxim Litvinov, was a Jew and thus unpresentable -- signed the agreement and put off Hitler's crusade to smash Bolshevism for two more years. Unfortunately, von Ribbentrop neglected to inform Hitler that he had earlier made personal assurances (he knew to be false) to Benito Mussolini that no war would begin before 1942 and he had routinely told Hitler that neither France nor England would lift a finger to help Poland. While Germany's closest ally was totally unprepared for war (as the Italians had made all their plans with 1942 in mind), her two biggest threats were quite ready. Von Ribbentrop had been dead wrong and he was now an outcast.

Throughout the war, von Ribbentrop did little to reclaim his position of influence in the party. According to Wikipedia (for what it's worth), Hitler played a practical joke on von Ribbentrop around this time by presenting him with a large box whose contents were supposed to honor him for contributions to Germany. Upon discovering the box's emptiness, von Ribbentrop looked to Hitler for an explanation, causing the Führer to burst into laughter before explaining that there was not a single treaty he had made had not been broken. He in no way endeared himself to influential party members like Göring or his counterparts in other states. He went on a browbeating tour of Germany's allies in Eastern Europe, alternately begging them to stand by Hitler and then threatening them with severe consequences if they did not. He wanted a {relatively} strong Vichy France and pursued a bizarre carrot-and-stick policy in the Middle East that never really bore fruit. By 1943, Hitler was tired of him.

The following year, a group of German officers and government workers staged an attempt coup d'état from which Hitler escaped relatively unscathed. However, much of the plotting revolved around the foreign office, immediately casting suspicion on von Ribbentrop (who actually wasn't involved). Hitler avoided von Ribbentrop for the rest of the war and kept him on a fairly short leash. After his birthday in 1945, Hitler fired von Ribbentrop and replaced him with the Austrian Nazi leader Arthur Seyss-Inquart.

Von Ribbentrop was arrested pretty quickly later by the Allies and was a defendant at the Nuremberg Trials. His conviction was a foregone conclusion; of all the members of the Nazi leadership, only Hitler and Goebbels were more bellicose than von Ribbentrop. Not only that, von Ribbentrop couldn't even be bothered to lie during the trial and made several incriminating remarks that pretty much sealed his fate. Von Ribbentrop was the first one executed and apparently, it took him nearly 20 minutes to die from strangulation since his neck didn't break when the floor was pulled out from under his feet. But die he did, ending his life with a nonsensical appeal for world peace.


The thing about von Ribbentrop is that his whole life between 1932 and 1939 seems to have been one accident of luck after another. Like Adolf Eichmann and Reinhard Heydrich, von Ribbentrop was the worst kind of Nazi: he had no ideology beyond his own personal advancement and played perhaps the most integral role in launching the world into the most destructive war it had ever seen. And for what? Most of his initiatives aside from the Naval treaty and the Anti-Comintern Pact were absolute failures and he must have known that all the crap he was feeding Hitler would eventually come back to bite him on the ass. Joachim von Ribbentrop lived exactly as he died: through an accident and for far too long.

Höhne, Heinz. "The Order of the Death's Head: the Story of Hitler's SS."
Read, Anthony. "The Devil's Disciples: Hitler's Inner Circle."