Was Franz von Papen Really Innocent?

Was Franz von Papen Really Innocent?

Franz Von Papen is one of the very few Nazi big-wigs to which a benefit of a doubt is not unreasonable. After all, he became Hitler's ambassador in Ankara, Turkey, in April of 1939--well before the systematic genocide began--and remained there until August of 1944, when Turkey broke off relations with Germany. Upon arriving back in Germany, Hitler awarded him the Knight's Cross of the Military Merit Order for his service, and then--it must be born in mind that this was immediately after the July 20 business, and thus the climate was not conducive to any anti-regime actions or discussions--put him under Gestapo guard due to the fact that he never had really trusted him.

Under such conditions, he had little opportunity to have contact with anyone able to inform him of the facts of the Holocaust. Thus, he did have a measure of plausible deniability not one of his fellow defendants could match. While it is not completely unlikely that he could have learned of the Holocaust while in Turkey, there is not one documented piece of evidence that he did indeed gain such knowledge. The Tribunal, who to a man despised the slimy diplomat, were forced to acquit him because of this total lack of evidence against him.

The reason that this is significant is that, had any evidence been found and presented that Papen was in any way aware of the facts of the Holocaust, his voluntary return to Germany would have been difficult for him to explain. Any knowledge of the Holocaust gained before his return would probably have been interpreted as, at the very least, a tacit admission that he shared in the genocidal aims, and thus the collective guilt, of the top leadership.

It is problematic that he could have been quite as blissfully unaware of the murder of 6 million innocent souls as he claimed. But evidence is evidence, and since none has ever been uncovered that would implicate him, the Tribunal's final judgement is defensible, if not very satisfying.

But, even though the Tribunal acquitted him, this does not mean he was declared innocent. His acquittal only meant that the Prosecutors failed to find him Guilty in the sense of the Indictment. The problem von Papen then faced was that there was dual jurisdiction. The Nuremberg Tribunal was a military tribunal set up under a four-power agreement quite separate from the post-war German government, which also had jurisdiction.

Even in civil courts--at least here in the United States--if a defendant is acquitted in, say, a murder trial, he can still be sued under a lesser court for wrongful death. This is, in fact, exactly what happened in the famous OJ Simpson trial; he was acquitted of murder but subsequently convicted in a wrongful death suit.

In Papen's case, the Allies charged him with Crimes Against Peace, of which he was acquitted, but the German authorities then convicted him as a Major Offender and sentenced him to eight years, of which he only served a total of few months anyway. Such an action following his acquittal by the Tribunal was perfectly legal, and morally defensible as well.

From The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials by Telford Taylor:

Franz von Papen, like Schacht, was indicted only on Counts One and Two. He was also the second defendant to be acquitted, but this had been more generally expected. However, the Tribunal was sharply divided, and the acquittal came on a two-to-one vote. Those who wanted Papen convicted responded to the pressure of his reputation as a conniver and his support for Hitler's appointment as Chancellor. No doubt the ultimate consequences of Hitler's ascension to power were catastrophic, but Papen's actions were not war crimes. No doubt, too, his actions as Minister to Austria were tilted toward Anschluss, but here, too, that was no war crime. Proof of knowledge and support of Hitler's plans for ultimate aggressive wars was lacking. Fyfe had done his best to blacken Papen as a person, and Nikitchenko and de Vabres had voted for conviction. But, at least in my opinion, the Tribunal was right [in acquitting Papen].

In the eyes of anti-Nazi Germans, these are the crimes Papen was considered to be guilty of:

1. Papen was Hitler's vice-Chancellor, and many Germans considered Papen primarily responsible for Hitler's seizure of power.

2. Papen was instrumental in the Concordat with the Catholic Church--the single most important legitimizing event in Hitler's consolidation of power.

3. He also helped diplomatically pave the way for the Anschluss.

The Allies did not in the end consider that these acts constituted guilt under the Charter, and rightfully so. The de-Nazification proceedings were under a different jurisdiction with entirely different charges that he was indeed found to be guilty of.

The three actions by Papen listed above were defensible as political acts, and not in themselves crimes. The Tribunal certainly did not believe that they were criminal acts. The major problem the de-Nazification courts--as well as the Soviets"--had with Papen is that, as early as his 1934 Marburg Speech, Papen was well aware of the nature of the regime he was supporting with his reputation and expertise. In fact, two of his collaborators on this famous speech were subsequently murdered by the regime of which he was co-Chancellor. It was only by Goering's largesse that he escaped with his life. And even after that experience he still willingly assisted Hitler in his aims till close to the end.

It is probably safe to say--and this is purely a subjective judgement call--that he continued to serve Hitler not primarily to mitigate Nazi designs from within, as he claimed, but because otherwise this spotlight-loving, prestige-seeking personage would have been permanently sidelined for as long as Hitler's Nazis were in charge. He was perhaps among the first to realize that that would last a very long time, and did not want to be isolated from the center of power during his prime years. His undiscerning ambition alone made him a Major Offender under de-Nazification charges, and he got off easy as regards actual time spent paying for his crimes.

Von Papen was released in 1948, having spent most of his imprisonment in various camp hospitals. He published his 'Memoirs' in 1952, and was made an honorary papal secret treasurer (Papal Chamberlain) by Pope John XIII in 1959. He fully enjoyed his freedom until his death on May 2, 1969.

Conclusion: Even though Papen was found to be Not Guilty by the Tribunal, he was in no way innocent. The best that can be said of him is that he was one of the least guilty major Defendants in the first trial (only Schacht was in reality Not Guilty; Schacht was, in fact, a member of the Resistance, an under-appreciated fact, both then and now).
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