Ernst von Weizsäcker

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Ernst von Weizsäcker
Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1979-093-29, Ernst v. Weizsäcker.jpg
Secretary of State at the Foreign Office
In office
Preceded byHans Georg von Mackensen
Succeeded byGustav Adolf Steengracht von Moyland
Ambassador to the Holy See
In office
Preceded byDiego von Bergen
Succeeded byWolfgang Jaenicke (1954)
Personal details
Born25 May 1882
Stuttgart, German Empire
Died4 August 1951(1951-08-04) (aged 69)
Lindau, West Germany
Military career
Allegiance German Empire
 Weimar Republic
 Nazi Germany
Service/branch Imperial German Navy
Flag of the Schutzstaffel.svg Schutzstaffel
Years of service1900–1920, 1938–1945
Battles/warsFirst World War
Second World War
AwardsIron Cross (1st class)
Iron Cross (2nd class)

Ernst Heinrich Freiherr von Weizsäcker (25 May 1882 – 4 August 1951) was a German naval officer, diplomat and politician. He served as State Secretary at the Foreign Office of Nazi Germany from 1938 to 1943, and as its Ambassador to the Holy See from 1943 to 1945. He was a member of the prominent Weizsäcker family, and the father of German President Richard von Weizsäcker and physicist and philosopher Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker.

Early life[edit]

Weizsäcker was born in 1882 in Stuttgart to Karl Hugo von Weizsäcker, who would become minister president (the equivalent of prime minister) of the Kingdom of Württemberg and raised to personal nobility in 1897, and to Paula von Meibom. In 1911 he married Marianne von Graevenitz, who belonged to the old nobility. In 1916 he became a Freiherr (Baron), as his father and his family were raised to the inheritable nobility, less than two years before the fall of the Württemberg monarchy.

Naval career[edit]

In 1900, Weizsäcker joined the Imperial German Navy to become an officer, serving mainly in Berlin. In 1916, he served as Flag Lieutenant to Admiral Reinhard Scheer aboard the German flagship SMS Friedrich der Grosse during the Battle of Jutland. In 1917, during the latter portion of the First World War, he earned the Iron Cross (both classes) and was the next year was promoted to Korvettenkapitän (corvette captain) (equivalent to the British and American rank of lieutenant commander).

He was a member of the Naval Staff led by Admiral Reinhard Scheer from August 1918. From June 1919 to April 1920, he served as naval attaché to The Hague.

Diplomatic career[edit]

Weizsäcker joined the German Foreign Service in 1920. He was appointed as Consul to Basel in 1921, as Councillor in Copenhagen in 1924 and was stationed in Geneva from 1927. He became head of the department for disarmament in 1928 and was appointed as envoy to Oslo in 1931 and to Bern in 1933. In 1936, as ambassador to Bern, Weizsäcker played a key role in stripping Thomas Mann of his German citizenship.[1] He became Director of the Policy Department at the Foreign Office in 1937 and the following year he was appointed as Staatssekretär ("State Secretary") -- the second ranking official after the Foreign Minister in the German Foreign Office.

He was encouraged by his superior to join the ruling National Socialist German Workers' Party (German: Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or NSDAP), which he did in 1938, and he was also awarded an honorary rank in the Schutzstaffel (SS). In 1938, Weizsäcker was opposed to the general trend in German foreign policy of attacking Czechoslovakia for fear that it might cause a general war that Germany would lose. He had no moral objections to the idea of destroying Czechoslovakia, only the timing of the attack.[2] Weizsäcker had some contacts with members of the German opposition, but during his interrogations after the war, he never claimed to be a member of the resistance.[3] It was only after he was brought to trial that Weizsäcker first claimed to be an anti-Nazi working with all his heart and might to overthrow the Nazi regime.[3]

On 19 August 1938, Weizsäcker wrote in a memo to Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop:

"I again opposed the whole theory of (an attack on Czechoslovakia) and observed that we should have to wait political developments until the English lose interest in the Czech matter and would tolerate our action, before we could tackle the affair without risk".[3]

Weizsäcker never sent his memo to Ribbentrop.[3] Together with the Abwehr chief, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, and the Army Chief of Staff, General Ludwig Beck, Weizsäcker was a leader of the antiwar group in the German government, which was determined to avoid a war in 1938 that it felt Germany would lose. The group was not necessarily committed to the overthrow of the regime but was loosely allied to another more radical group, the "anti-Nazi" faction centred on Colonel Hans Oster and Hans Bernd Gisevius, which wanted to use the crisis as an excuse for executing a putsch to overthrow the regime.[4] The divergent aims between these two factions produced considerable tension.[5] The historian Eckart Conze stated in a 2010 interview:

"An overthrow of Hitler was out of the question. The group wanted to avoid a major war and the potential catastrophic consequences for Germany. Their goal wasn't to get rid of the dictator but, as they saw it, to bring him to his senses".[1]

Weizsäcker was promoted to SS-Brigadeführer on 30 January 1942.

Ambassador to the Vatican[edit]

After the German defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943 and the changing German war fortunes, and following his own request, Weizsäcker resigned as State Secretary and was appointed German Ambassador to the Holy See from 1943 to 1945.

When received by the Cardinal Secretary of State Luigi Maglione on 6 January 1944, Weizsäcker stated, "If Germany as a bulwark against communism should fall, all of Europe will become communist". To this, Maglione replied, "What a misfortune, that Germany with its antireligious policies has stirred up such concerns".[6] Similar representations were repeated by Weizsäcker to Monsignore Giovanni Battista Montini, later Pope Paul VI.

Weizsäcker's record at the Vatican was mixed. In Berlin, he had refused to accept a papal note protesting the treatment of occupied Poland.[7] During the German occupation of Rome, Weizsäcker did little to stop the deportation of Jews although he helped individuals to avoid persecution, and helped to free Rome from all German military bases in an effort to discourage Allied bombing of the city.[8]

He also advised the Foreign Office that drafting Jews for labour camps inside Italy would be less likely to draw a papal protest than deporting them.[9] According to Richard J. Evans, Weizsäcker shared the opinion of Ulrich von Hassell that the Final Solution was a "devilish campaign".[10]

"His messages and documents to Berlin were nothing but lies," his coworker Albrecht von Kessel later said.[11] In those messages to Berlin, Weizsäcker purposely painted Pope Pius XII as mild, diplomatic, indecisive and pro-German to help the Pope and to avoid anti-German sentiment in Italy.[11] Like the commanding Waffen SS General Karl Wolff, Weizsäcker was clearly opposed to Hitler's plan to occupy the Vatican during which Weizsäcker feared the Pope being shot "fleeing while avoiding arrest".[11]

Weizsäcker continued to present the Vatican with anticommunist slogans, and he both threatened a separate Soviet-German peace[6] and requested from Monsignore Domenico Tardini the immediate mounting of a papal peace initiative to end the war in the West so that Germany could finish communism in the East.[12] Tardini saw that as a transparent effort to obtain a military solution.[13]

Like several other German officials, Weizsäcker attempted to negotiate the survival of some segment of the government and to avoid the unconditional surrender of Germany, but his efforts failed in bringing up the subject of "a German transition government, and the likelihood of his being a member of it".[14]


Ernst von Weizsäcker (right) with son Richard at post war trial

After the end of the war, Weizsäcker initially remained in the Vatican City with his wife, as a guest of the Pope and a member of the diplomatic corps. He did not return to Germany until 1946.

Weizsäcker was arrested on 25 July 1947 in Nuremberg and was put on trial in the Ministries Trial, also known as the Wilhelmstrasse Trial, after the location of the German Foreign Office in Berlin. The Ministries Trial was one of 12 trials conducted by Nuremberg Military Tribunals in the American occupation zone. The American military tribunals started before and finished during the Berlin blockade confrontation with the Soviets and proceeded without participation of the Soviet Union and were also much more lenient in conduct and outcome than the first series of war crimes trials in 1946. No European judges were involved in the trial.

Weizsäcker's supporters claimed that he had been closely associated with the anti-Nazi resistance and a moderate force at the Foreign Office during the war.[citation needed]

Weizsäcker was charged with active cooperation with the deportation of French Jews to Auschwitz, as a crime against humanity. Weizsäcker, with the assistance of his son, the future German President Richard von Weizsäcker, who appeared as his assistant defence counsel (Richard was a law student during the trial), claimed that he had no knowledge of the purpose for which Auschwitz had been designed and believed that Jewish prisoners would face less danger if they were deported to the East.[citation needed]

In 1949, Weizsäcker was found guilty and sentenced to 7 years in prison. Winston Churchill called his sentence a "deadly error".[15] The same year, the sentence was reduced to 5 years. In October 1950, after 3 years and 3 months of detention, he obtained an early release from prison in Landsberg after a new examination of his case by the Legislative Affairs Office of the US High Commissioner for Germany, John J. McCloy.[16] Weizsäcker subsequently published his memoirs, written in prison, in which he portrayed himself as a supporter of the German Resistance.

Death and legacy[edit]

Weizsäcker died of a stroke on August 4, 1951 at the age of 69. He was buried in his Nazi diplomatic corps uniform, complete with swastika armband.

In 2010, the historian Eckart Conze assessed the belief that the German Federal Foreign Office had no involvement with war crimes in an interview:

"The legend stems from individuals associated with the Weizsäcker defense. Former diplomats, such as the brothers Erich and Theo Kordt, played a key role in the effort, as did other members of the traditional upper class, which Weizsäcker represented. One of them was his defense lawyer, Hellmut Becker, the son of the Prussian culture minister, Carl Heinrich Becker, and another was Marion Gräfin Dönhoff, a young journalist who sharply criticized the trial in Die Zeit. They all knew that if they succeeded in exonerating Weizsäcker, they would have rehabilitated the national conservative, aristocratic and bourgeois upper class."[1]


  1. ^ a b c Conze, Eckart (October 27, 2010). "Hitler's Diplomats Historian Calls Wartime Ministry A 'Criminal Organization'". Der Spiegel. Retrieved 2011-07-07..
  2. ^ Wheeler-Bennett, John, The Nemesis of Power: The German Army in Politics, 1918–1945, 2nd ed. repr. London: Macmillan, 1967, pp. 416–17.
  3. ^ a b c d Wheeler-Bennett, p. 417.
  4. ^ Müller, Klaus-Jürgen, "The Structure and Nature of the National Conservative Opposition in Germany up to 1940", in Aspects of the Third Reich, ed. H.W. Koch, London: Macmillan, ISBN 978-0-333-35272-4, pp. 133–78, pp. 162–63, 166–67.
  5. ^ Müller, p. 170.
  6. ^ a b Blet, Pierre, Pius XII and the Second World War: According to the Archives of the Vatican, tr. Lawrence J. Johnson, New York: Paulist Press, 1999, ISBN 978-0-8091-0503-8, p. 256.
  7. ^ Blet, pp. 89–90.
  8. ^ Blet, pp. 219–24.
  9. ^ Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich at War, London: Allen Lane, 2008, repr. New York: Penguin, 2009, ISBN 978-1-59420-206-3, p. 475.
  10. ^ Evans, p. 630.
  11. ^ a b c von Kessel, Albrecht, "Der Papst und die Juden", in Summa iniuria, oder, Durfte der Papst schweigen? Hochhuths "Stellvertreter" in der öffentlichen Kritik, ed. Fritz J. Raddatz, Rororo Taschenbuch 591, Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1963, p. 168.
  12. ^ "Notes de Mgr. Tardini", Actes et Documents du Saint Siège, p. 505.
  13. ^ Blet, p. 269.
  14. ^ Blet, p. 257.
  15. ^ Heisenberg, Professor Dr. Martin (January 16, 1992). "Letter to the Editors: The Heisenberg Case: An Exchange, reply by Jeremy Bernstein". The New York Review of Books. Reichenberg, Germany. Retrieved December 18, 2012.
  16. ^ "Ernst von Weizsäcker". die Zeit (in German). October 19, 1950. Retrieved January 29, 2015. This is the first case in which a convicted at Nuremberg obtained his early release not by "good behavior" but after an in-depth examination of his case by the Legislative Affairs Office of the US High Commissioner.

Further reading[edit]

  • Chadwick, Owen. 1977. "Weizsäcker, the Vatican and the Jews of Rome". Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 28(2): 378.
  • Hill, Leonidas. 1967. "The Vatican Embassy of Ernst von Weizsäcker, 1943-1945". The Journal of Modern History. 39(2): 138–159.
  • Weizsäcker family

External links[edit]

Diplomatic posts
Preceded by German Ambassador to the Holy See
Succeeded by