Were German Diplomats Complicit in the Holocaust?

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A document from German diplomat Franz Rademacher says the purpose of his visit to Belgrade in October 1941 was the "liquidation of Jews." A new report busts the myth that the Foreign Ministry resisted the Nazi regime

One of the pillars of Germany's political establishment, the Foreign Ministry, was a "criminal organization" during the Nazi era, and the country's diplomats played a far more active role in the Holocaust than was previously acknowledged. Those are some of the troubling findings of a new 880-page government-sponsored report, called "The Ministry and the Past: German Diplomats in the Third Reich and the Federal Republic," which has shaken the nation. Drawn from thousands of historical documents, the report, due to be officially released on Thursday, makes for uncomfortable reading as it debunks a long cherished belief that Germany's Foreign Ministry was a hive of resistance to the Nazi regime and that German diplomats were not involved in the mass extermination of millions of Jews in Nazi death camps.

"The sheer scale of the participation of Germany's Foreign Ministry in the Holocaust is bewildering. It wasn't just one department; it was the whole institution," Eckart Conze, a professor of modern history at the Philipps University of Marburg and one of the authors of the report, tells TIME. "The ministry collaborated with the Nazis' violent policies and took part in all aspects of the discrimination, deportation, persecution and genocide of the Jews."

Conze points to one file that he says is "typical" of what he and the other three co-authors of the report unearthed. The document, dated April 1943, alludes to a trip that Franz Rademacher, head of the Foreign Ministry's so-called Jewish desk, made to Belgrade in October 1941 to help organize the extermination of Jews in Eastern Europe. Conze says the document includes details of Rademacher's travel expenses and that the purpose of his journey is described in a hand-scribbled note as the "liquidation of Jews in Belgrade." "This document makes it clear that all officials in the Foreign Ministry — including low-level office clerks — knew about the mass persecution of Jews and were actively involved in the Holocaust," says Conze. "It was an open secret." The report found that by 1943, 573 of the ministry's 700 top officials were Nazi Party members.

Other documents in the report show that the Foreign Ministry's involvement in Nazi-era crimes could be traced back to even before the war. According to the authors, some historical records reveal that ministry officials visited the concentration camp of Dachau near Munich as part of their training in the 1930s — before the outbreak of World War II in 1939 — and dropped in on Adolf Hitler at his mountainside retreat in Obersalzberg in the Bavarian Alps.

While Germany's Nazi-era past has been subject to intense scrutiny since the end of the war, the country's Foreign Ministry has until now largely escaped public censure. It was only in 2005 when then Green Party Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer set up a commission to produce the report after a row over his banning of the publication of obituaries for former employees with a Nazi past in the ministry's newsletter. The historians had unprecedented access to more than 30 foreign archives, including collections in Berlin, Paris and Washington, and pored over thousands of documents. As Fischer read the final report, he was "more and more horrified," he told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Oct. 24.

But why did it take 65 years to investigate the Foreign Ministry's role during the Nazi regime? "After the Second World War, there was a widely held view that Germany's Foreign Ministry was a bastion of anti-Nazi resistance — diplomats who wanted their jobs back created this powerful myth, which was accepted and wasn't challenged by society," says Norbert Frei, a professor of modern history at the Friedrich Schiller University in the city of Jena and another of the report's co-authors.

Other historians say the report is long overdue. "It is now ... beyond any doubt that German diplomats had not been carving out a niche of know-nothingism, or even of resistance, in the Foreign Office, but that the whole office — and very many high-ranking individuals in it — had been actively involved in war crimes," Paul Nolte, a professor of contemporary history at the Free University of Berlin, tells TIME. But Nolte claims that the findings are not that surprising, as they come in the wake of previous debates over the role of the wartime German army — the Wehrmacht — in the Nazi regime. The report, he says, "underscores what we had learned already: there is no distinction between a small Nazi elite who carried out the murder of the European Jewry and the 'normal' functioning of the state apparatus."

On Thursday, the report will be presented to Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who has said he's considering making the study a must-read for future generations of German diplomats. "The report and its findings represent an important contribution to understanding the role played by the German Foreign Ministry during the Third Reich," a ministry spokesman tells TIME, adding that the conclusions of the report "will be taken very seriously." But as many historians have stressed, the Foreign Ministry is only the first German government institution to carry out a comprehensive critical analysis of its Nazi history. It may yet serve as a wake-up call for other government ministries and institutions to look into their own dark pasts.