RIBBENTROP SOLD HIS BOSS ON STALIN AND THEN ON WAR
(Originally published in LIFE Magazine, March 11, 1940)
by WILLIAM D. BAYLES
To Joachim von Ribbentrop belongs the distinction of having committed the most egregious faux pas ever made at the Court of St. James's. Ribbentrop was Germany's Ambassador to London and his English valet had turned him out in faultless tails for George VI's first Court. The etiquette on such an occasion is rigid. The guest bows, advances to within two paces of the throne, bows again and passes on unless the King indicates by a sign that he wishes the guest to pause. When Ribbentrop's turn came, he advanced to within the proper two paces, then thrust his arm into the air and barked, "Heil Hitler!"
Everyone stood stock still. The King answered the greeting with a slight bow and regarded Ribbentrop with a meager smile. Then the horrified diplomats were treated to a lesson in how a German wine salesman breaks down sales resistance. Advancing a pace, Ribbentrop clicked his heels, stiffened his arm and again cried, "Heil Hitler!" His Majesty continued to smile quizzically. Ribbentrop advanced to his third assault, shouted a third "Heil Hitler!", seized the King's limp hand and pumped it.
If Ribbentrop was trying to fluster the new king into heiling Adolf Hitler, he failed, but papers from Capetown to Singapore headlined "Nazi Insults King." Even the German Foreign Office called it a grosse Dummeit (great boner), and the British Foreign Office informed Ribbentrop that unilateral violations of Court etiquette would not be tolerated. The British sense of humor then triumphed over the British sense of outrage and Hitler's envoy, rechristened "Brickendrop," became the favorite butt of jokes and stage skits.
The incident is important because from it dates Ribbentrop's hatred of England. The laughter of the British, added to the mortification of a reprimand, was too much, and Ribbentrop, who up to that time had been a famous Anglophile, returned to Germany a violent Anglophobe. He got his revenge when, as foreign minister two years later, he advanced the arguments that persuaded Hitler to venture war with England.
Ribbentrop's predecessor as foreign minister was Baron Constantin von Neurath. When that old-school Prussian nobleman learned that "Rib" was to replace him, he snorted: "That commoner has always peddled his wares to the highest bidder. May God have mercy on the Reich!"
Ribbentrop is a wine salesman who gamed his knowledge of foreign affairs in the night clubs and salons of post-War Europe. A typical product of the German inflation, he sat down in Bismarck's chair convinced that foreign policy is merely a matter of selling the goods. As sales manager of Hitler & Co., he has built up a super-sales organization that operates under the motto: "We know the world does not love us but we have compelled the world to respect us, and now we shall compel the world to love us, too." He closed his biggest deal when he sold Stalin to Hitler, and the outcome of the war will decide whether he collects his commission.
He began life as plain Joachim Ribbentrop in the small town of Wesel on the Rhine, the son of Richard Ribbentrop, a retired Army officer. His father's attempts to make a soldier of him failed from the start and caused such a strained home atmosphere that young Ribbentrop presently went forth in quest of his own fortune. His first years are still recalled by the old vintners of Wesel, who declare that even at the age of 10 he was the plague of the village because he coaxed the other boys to drink new Rhine wine in order to acquire a taste for it, and then encouraged them to steal trinkets and money from home with which to buy wine from him.
Seeing her nephew engaged in activities not designed to improve his character and noting his father's inability to control him, Ribbentrop's aunt by marriage, the widow of a titled Prussian officer, advanced the money for sending him abroad to boarding school at Grenoble. There he learned to speak French fluently and met the sons of influential French families. Then he tired of France and threatened to run off to America, but the aunt again came to the rescue by offering him the opportunity of going to London, which he eagerly grasped. He was given his first job as a clerk and errand boy in the London office of a German importing company, but he found English life tedious and in 1910 carried out his original threat of seeking his fortune in America.
The next period of his life he describes in the German Who's Who as "four years in Canada as an independent merchant." Among various other jobs, he did sell wine for Rhineland companies but, as 1914 approached, anti-German sentiment increased and the demand for Rhine wines decreased. When news of the assassination at Sarajevo reached Ribbentrop, he was working with a railway gang laying track in the province of Manitoba. He lost little time in quitting the hostile New World, taking a Dutch boat from New York. When the British inspectors came aboard, Ribbentrop hid under the coal in one of the bunkers.
His War career is the subject of another entertaining entry in Whos Who. It reads: "In the beginning of September 1914, entered the regiment of hussars No. 12 as a volunteer. Standard bearer. Lieutenant since 1915. West and East front.'' While he did see service at the front, he won his rank in a routine office job in the War Ministry. He was sent to Turkey early in 1918 as an adjutant to the plenipotentiary of the war office and there met Franz von Papen, arch intrguer and, for many years after, his ideal of the perfect German diplomat. Neither he nor Papen could prevent the collapse of the Turkish front and he was again in Berlin at the War Ministry when the Armistice was signed.
He makes a fortune in champagne
Because of his knowledge of French and English, he was sent to the Peace Conference as an adjutant to the German delegation. In Paris he renewed his acquaintance with the erstwhile enemies of his country and spent more time in the salons of curious French society matrons, who were eager to see a Boche again in the flesh, than in the endless parleys of the peacemakers.
The occupation of the Rhineland by French troops, an act regarded by most Germans as the supreme humiliation of the Reich, was to Ribbentrop a golden opportunity to make money. With French wines and champagnes entering the occupied area duty-free, it was no difficult task for a clever man to come to terms with the indifferent and corrupt customs officials, and to set up a lucrative importing business while cheating his own Government. In Germany a new class of war profiteers, grafters and adventurers offered an almost unlimited market for superior French wines. Taking tips from his customers, Ribbentrop also speculated in the skyrocketing mark and gained a tidy fortune through the economic collapse of his country. At that time he was an ardent Socialist, a supporter of the Stressemann Government and a member of the pacifist group that denounced everything tainted by militarism.
His wine-selling activities brought him into contact with the established Jewish banking families—the Rothschilds, Goldschmitts, Gutmanns and others—and his knowledge of languages, combined with his ability to engage in small talk and petty gossip about the society of Paris and London, soon made him a welcome member of the prominent Jewish salons, then the centers of society in Berlin, Frankfort and Cologne. The few remaining Nazi idealists refer contemptuously to this "Jewish phase" of Ribbentrop's life. It was under the tutelage of Madam Rothschild that he became an Anglophile. At her salon in Frankfort, effete English society comedies of the Oscar Wilde era were presented and Ribbentrop was in demand to play the part of English gentlemen.
His present Chief de Protocol, Baron von Dornberg, who is 6 ft. 6 in. tall, redheaded and always present at the Berlin railway stations when foreign notables arrive, also dates from Ribbentrop's "Jewish phase" and Madam Rothschild's salon. He always played the part of the butler in the English society comedies, and, when Ribbentrop was required to select a master of ceremonies for his Foreign Office, he chose von Dornberg, the impeccable, imperturbable prototype of an English butler.
He raises himself to the nobility
The early 1920's marked two important events in Ribbentrop's life—his marriage to an heiress of champagne millions in 1910 and his self-ennoblement in 1916. Becoming a baron by the Ribbentrop method could have been accomplished only at a time when Germans were starving by the million, when bread cost a billion marks a loaf and when military decorations and government posts were being sold for a dollar bill. He prevailed upon his then senile aunt, who had sent him to Grenoble and London, to adopt him as her son. Having obtained her consent, Ribbentrop easily carried the matter through the indifferent courts and suddenly emerged among his friends as Herr von Ribbentrop. His salon associates dubbed him "Ribbensnob" and Madam Rothschild crossed his name from her invitation list.
His marriage to Annelies Henkell, whose father is Germany's largest producer of sparkling wines, made him a partner in the mammoth concern of Henkell & Co. His father-in-law gave him control of the French export trade and sent him to Paris, but Ribbentrop was not satisfied. By 1917 he was back in Berlin haunting the luxurious Potsdam residence of the rich Jewish banker Herbert Gutmann, trying to interest him in a company for importing French wines and spirits. Here again he succeeded and the Impegroma Importing Company was founded largely upon capital advanced by Gutmann. Ribbentrop still holds controlling interest in this company.
While becoming richer and richer, Ribbentrop became less and less confident of the future of the Weimar Republic and, in 1918, he took the decisive step of his life by joining up with Hitler. Former friends recall Ribbentrop's boasts that he would soon crush his Jewish competitors in the wine business through political pressure and would take over their establishments. The Nazis' first victim was the great Jewish importing firm of Sichel & Company of Mainz. Herr Sichel, who had at one time employed Ribbentrop as a salesman and had started him on his career as an importer, was compelled to flee to France rather than face trumped-up charges of smuggling. His business, valued at four and one-half million marks, went to Ribbentrop for a sum reported to have been less than one hundred thousand marks.
From his Rhineland industrialist and importer friends, Ribbentrop wangled the first real financial support enjoyed by Hitler. In January 1933, he arranged the famous interview between Hitler, [Franz] von Papen and the prominent banker, Franz von Schroedcr. Von Papen, who had the ear of senile von Hindenburg, had assured Schroeder that he could engineer the entrance of the Nazis into the Government while still keeping Hitler under control, and Ribbentrop convinced him that the Nazis never forgot a benefactor. Schroeder finally agreed to advance the millions necessary for financing the final step into the Government.
Collision with London society
In return for helping Hitler, Ribbentrop had received a promise of a high Government job but, during the first years of the Nazi regime, he had to be content with the paradoxical post of Commissioner for Disarmament in a government pledged to rearm. He spent his time organizing the Ribbentrop Bureau, a private department of investigation and espionage, and serving as roving ambassador. In 1936 Hitler appointed him Ambassador to the Court of St. James's.
The impact of his first collision with London society is still recalled with restrained shudders by British society matrons. Convinced that diplomacy was merely a matter of intrigue and champagne, each served in copious quantities and in proper surroundings, Ribbentrop decided to let the fresh and super-modern air of National Socialism into the quaint old German Embassy on Carleton House Terrace. Demanding dining rooms for 100 persons and ballrooms for 1,000, he imported a crew of German workmen to change the 18th Century English decor into cubes and parabolic curves. A clash with the English Society for the Protection of National Monuments was inevitable because the fine frescoes, ceilings and mantelpieces, which had been the pride of former German ambassadors, were protected by law against the whims of each new incumbent. A compromise was finally achieved whereby the frescoes and ceilings were left but hidden behind temporary walls of white plaster.
Frau von Ribbentrop also clashed with the English sense of harmony by demanding that the century-old sod in front of the Embassy be dug up and replaced by a German rock garden. The Commissioner for Parks and Lawns informed her that she would have to have the approval of everyone living on the street, well knowing that no one would approve. No one did and the lawn remained.
Other small incidents arose constantly to inhibit the Anglo- Ribbentrop relations. His son was turned down by Eton and he himself was unable to gain admittance to any of the exclusive London clubs. He found his Carleton House Terrace neighbors unfriendly and unwilling to co-operate by lending him their sections of the terrace to accommodate the overflow of guests at his numerous parties. He even accused the British of deliberately encircling him in his embassy and complained officially to Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax that England was showing him an exceedingly cold shoulder.
While resenting these various small incidents, which he attributed to the incomprehensible English temperament, he was nevertheless having the time of his life in the midst of the only culture for which he had acquired a taste. He sent his son to Westminster School, employed an English valet and butler and ordered his clothes in Bond Street. In his mannerisms and conduct he made a deliberate attempt to ape British impassivity and, when Dr. Ley, the Nazi Labor Front leader, returned from a visit to London, he remarked to his low-brow friends in Berlin that Ribbentrop had become so British that he even spoke German with an English accent. He found a reception in certain society circles that for political or business reasons were willing to cultivate relations with Nazi Germany. And taking advantage of the unholy fear of Communism that lodged in the hearts of elderly English spinsters of both sexes, he preached Hitlerism at the weekend parties at Cliveden and Guildford as an antidote.
Then came the "Heil Hitler" incident at the Court and Ribbentrop the Anglophile turned suddenly into Ribbentrop the Anglophobe. His absences from his post grew longer and more frequent until Feb. 4, 1938, when Hitler became impatient of von Neurath's cautious policies and made Ribbentrop foreign minister.
From that day, Ribbentrop's principal aim was to cure Hitler of his naive admiration for England and his fear of British armed strength. He argued that the English were a decadent race and could be cowed by a show of force. His endlessly repeated formula was: "But, my Fuehrer, the English are much more degenerate and effete than you think. German policy has hitherto suffered from a complex of admiration for the universal power of England. You, my Fuehrer, must release Germany from these fetters, which restrict the German conscience in its true force. England is today merely a pretense which must be brushed aside."
This tragic game continued between Ribbentrop and Hitler for over a year before Hitler was even partially convinced. When Hitler was seized with panic over the prospect of tackling a Britannic giant that might merely be dozing and not dead, Ribbentrop had difficult moments restoring his confidence. A foreign diplomat who sat next to him at a luncheon in March 1939 remarked that Ribbentrop appeared to be unusually tired. "Yes," replied Ribbentrop, "I am tired. I've spent the past two nights with the Fuehrer and have not slept at all." This statement puzzled the diplomat at the time but it became clear when the German troops entered Czechoslovakia two days later.
Hitler: "What? You dare lie to me?"
His influence upon Hitler is profound and dangerous but the Fuehrer has even now not reached the point of trusting the judgment of his Foreign Minister implicitly, and the past years have been a long cries of crises and uncertainties for Ribbentrop. At one time in 1938, Hitler was practically ready to shut Ribbentrop out and turn his ear to the military staff. This crisis reached its climax when the treasurer of the Nazi party, Franz Schwarz, complained to Hitler about the astounding sums "Rib" was spending on the Ribbentrop Bureau. Schwarz had discovered that Ribbentrop was employing 350 men for this work and urged Hitler to curtail expenses by eliminating it. Calling Ribbentrop to him, Hitler inquired: "How many persons are you employing in the Ribbentrop Bureau?" "One hundred and fifty, my Fuehrer," replied Ribbentrop. "What? You dare lie to me?" bellowed Hitler and fell into one of his violent rages.
Ribbentrop discreetly left Hitler to his rage and the next that was heard of the affair was the summary dismissal of 100 functionaries and the disappearance of the Ribbentrop Bureau. The 150 remaining members were taken into the Foreign Office to the indignation of the older members of the staff who had gained their posts through years of routine service rather than proficiency at heiling and denouncing.
The two factions in the Foreign Office, pre- and post-Ribbentrop, are evident at any Government function. The latter are alert, smiling, with a hand half raised in greeting, a heel half ready to click; the former are disinterested, bored, reminiscent of tired penguins with their wings flopping at their sides.
Ribbentrop introduced a garrison regime at the Foreign Office, putting his entire staff in gray-green uniforms with epaulets and rank designations, and holding a military inspection each morning in the courtyard, where everyone from doormen to undersecretaries had his buttons examined and received Ribbentrop's orders of the day. His ministry is today the surliest and most disagreeable of the Government departments, and no minister is more hated by his subordinates.
His enemies in the Government are led by Goring and include both Hess and Rosenberg. Ribbentrop has always regarded Goring as a direct rival in influencing the decisions of Hitler and, as soon as he felt sure of his own position, he lost no time in emphasizing to Goring that his field of endeavor was the air force and not foreign policy. Ribbentrop's triumph came last spring when Goring embarked on a cruiser from Genoa, bound for Spain to congratulate Franco on his victory. In Berlin, Ribbentrop visited Hitler, accused Goring of interfering and demanded that he be ordered to keep away from Spain. Succumbing once more to Ribbentrop's arguments, Hitler dispatched the telegram and Goring returned to Berlin two days later roaring with rage.
Goring outshines him
Goring and Ribbentrop have not met in many a day. Goring's gutter names for the foreign minister, bawled through the corridors of the Air Ministry, led Ribbentrop to remark that he had no desire for further association with such a Grobian (lout). When the Soviet Embassy in Berlin celebrated the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, formerly a black day on the Nazi calendar, a ticklish situation arose because Ribbentrop was obliged to convey the greetings of the Fuehrer while Goring announced that he did not intend to pass up so much caviar and whipped cream, and would also be present. Knowing how things stand between these two worthies, thousands of spectators who packed Unter den Linden to watch arrivals speculated on whether they would meet. First came Ribbentrop, flanked by 30 officials from his Foreign Office. For ten minutes he was the lion of the party. Then shouts were heard from the street and in came bulbous Hermann, resplendent in a dark blue uniform, glittering medals and a wide scarlet ribbon across his front. While all eyes were on Goring, Ribbentrop slipped out of the Embassy, ran across the sidewalk and jumped in his car.
Just as the axis with Italy was a triumph for Goring, the Soviet pact was Ribbentrop's supreme victory. The simple-minded salesman, unburdened by any load of principles, saw through the ideological mist that had hidden the logic of a German-Russian alliance from abler diplomats. But when he followed this up by urging Hitler into marching on Poland, he overplayed his hand. For Ribbentrop said that England would not fight and England did fight. Hitler is now turning to Goring and his generals for advice. Ribbentrop was absent from the important military parleys at the Chancellery in December and the forces of destruction in the Reich, headed by Ribbentrop, Ley and Himmler, are now being superseded by those of caution and reason, with a puzzled and disillusioned Fuehrer swaying like a pendulum in a void of uncertainty.
In his personal activities and private life, Ribbentrop is still an addict to English customs and mannerisms. In dealing with foreigners he maintains an air of autocratic austerity and taciturnity, although it is easy to draw him out into reminiscences of his years in France or England. On such occasions he mentions with lofty casualness his numerous contacts with Lord X, Lady Y, la Princcssc dc A, le Baron B and lc Comte de C, giving the impression that his associations abroad were confined to aristocracy.
English life at Dahlem
His Dahlem mansion is run on English lines but has none of the warmth of an English home. From the tennis court in the rear to the English marmalade on the table at tea time, everything is posed and unnatural. Visiting his home one afternoon when he invited the diplomats and press to an English garden party, I particularly noticed his 17-year-old son Rudolf reclined picturesquely on the front terrace reading an uncut copy of Mein Kampf. Calling again the following autumn when he entertained Count Ciano, I was surprised to see the son in the same picturesque position on the terrace reading the same book, still uncut, and assumed that he too was merely part of the carefully posed picture.
There is an interval of ten years between the older and younger Ribbentrop children. After the birth of Rudolf in 1921 and Bettina in 1911, the family had no children until after Ribbentrop became an active ally of Hitler, when his wife gave birth to two more boys and a girl. Upon the youngest of these, Ribbentrop's determination to play every political card led him to impose the name of Adolf. Now the Ribbentrops are in constant competition with the Goebbels' in presenting charming family scenes for the benefit of a sentimental Fuehrer.
The growth of his self-esteem can be measured by the size of his car and the grandeur of his entrance into his ministry. Once he was content to drive into town in an ordinary limousine. Now, seated in a huge black Mercedes compressor limousine equipped with a blue police spotlight to announce his approach to traffic policemen and to insure the right of way, he is followed by a second open car with six black-uniformed guards who gaze fixedly at each side of the street as though looking for prospective assassins. His arrival at the Foreign Office, with its shabby entrance and narrow, dark corridors, is a distinct anticlimax, alleviated somewhat by the uniformed guards who stand at stiff attention. Soon, however, the former Presidential Palace, which is being remodeled and has been renamed "Palace of the Foreign Minister," will be ready for him and the old Foreign Ministry will follow the old foreign policy—into the archives.
In Germany, Ribbentrop is referred to as "the chameleon" because his ideological coat changes from brown to red at a moment's notice. In London, when orchestras strike up the familiar tune from Snow White in cabarets and night clubs, Britons sing:
Whistle while you work;
Ribbentrop's a twerp,
Hitler's a bit whiny
So's his army,
Whistle while you work.
See: The Propagander! Biography of Joachim von Ribbentrop.
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