On September 1, 1939, the Second World War began as the German army invaded Poland as part of Adolf Hitler’s quest for world domination. Britain had warned Germany that any military action against Poland would result in England coming to the aid of its ally. Interestingly, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) did not want to go to war with England, preferring to accomplish the annexation of Poland through diplomatic methods after having successfully partitioned Czechoslovakia in what is infamously referred to as the “appeasement at Munich”. But if Hitler did not want to wage war against Britain, knowing their intention to save Poland, then why did he give approval to the invasion that plunged the world into a major conflict? The answer to that question lies in the story of his Foreign Minister and Nuremberg defendant, Ulrich Friedrich Wilhelm Joachim von Ribbentrop (1893-1946).
In the annals of the Third Reich, perhaps no other figure is as glanced over as Joachim von Ribbentrop. Standing next to nefarious characters such as Hermann Goering (1893-1946), Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945) and Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945), he is often an afterthought. Semi-illiterate but able to speak fluent English, he was one of the few officials in the Third Reich with extensive exposure to the culture of the west. And the time he spent in London early in his life, made him the right choice by Hitler for the position of Ambassador to Great Britain. By all accounts, no one found him to be enjoyable company but incredibly, he maintained a position close to Hitler’s ear with the Führer listening intently and in some cases implementing Ribbentrop’s suggestions. Their unusual relationship would have dire consequences in 1939 at Hitler set his sights on Poland. It is here in this phenomenal biography that we learn another part of the story behind the Poland invasion and Ribbentrop’s critical role in the events.
At first glance, it is easy to write of Ribbentrop as “non-essential” to the story of the Third Reich. And although he is mentioned in many books about the Nazi regime, his role is typically minor in the grand scheme of events. But make no mistake, his advice and misconceptions about foreign nations, played pivotal roles in the rise and fall of the Third SS Reich. Bloch has capture Ribbentrop’s life beautifully in this biography that tells the story of the former Foreign Minister for all to see. In comparison to the other figures of the Nazi regime, his personal life could be considered average. But his entry in the Nazi party and actions thereafter, helped changed the course of history. As I was reading the book, I could not help feeling mystified as to how a figure such as Ribbentrop maintained the confidence of Hitler as each blunder piled up. Admittedly, Hitler did not consult him on every foreign policy matter, apparently realizing his many shortcomings. But he did trust Ribbentrop enough on some of the most important decisions to be made, many of which changed the course of world history and produced a mark on the history of Germany which can never be erased.
Notwithstanding his restricted voice in Hitler’s government, he was an important figure in Hitler’s vision of a Anglo-German unification. In fact, Ribbentrop’s actions towards and with the British government are the crux of the book. Naturally, his positions as Ambassador and later Foreign Minister, resulted in his constant communication with the Ambassadors of England, Italy and Japan. However, his close position to the Führer did not earn him the envoy of others but rather their wrath. Hitler was known to pit subordinates against each other, using the divide and conquer technique. Their fights and attempts to sabotage each other take center stage in the book as they compete for Hitler’s approval, the elimination of enemies and advancement in rank. The story reveals a terrible cast of characters drunk on power and filled with venom for competitors and the Jews of Europe. Standing center among these characters was the sad Ribbentrop, the man often the butt of jokes and contempt, who was rarely seriously. Having finished the book, I am dumbfounded as to how Hitler’s administration functioned at all. The decisions they reached and methods used were simply surreal and Ribbentrop plays a direct part in many of them.
On October 14, 1946, Ribbentrop was the first to be executed after Goering committed suicide in his cell the night before. He left behind a widow and four children, all of whom are still alive today. Decades have passed since their father’s death and in the passage of time, their lives will also reach a conclusion. But they remain witnesses to a time in history in which the world was on the brink of complete anarchy as Adolf Hitler set out to dominate the planet. Next to him was his fanatically dedicated Foreign Minister. This is the definitive biography of the life and death of Joachim von Ribbentrop.