The Auswärtiges Amt, Berlin, c. 1935
The uproar started in May 2003, when an 84-year-old Marga Henseler wrote a letter to Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister and head of the foreign office (Auswärtiges Amt, or AA). In it, she expressed her indignation about an obituary in the AA newsletter Intern AA honouring the diplomat Franz Nüsslein. She reminded the foreign minister that Nüsslein had been responsible for many executions by refusing any reprievals following Germany’s annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1938.

Fischer asked his staff to brief him about the rules concerning obituaries in his ministry. He learned that it had been the custom to honour former ambassadors and other leading figures of the AA with obituaries, despite the fact that many of them had played significant roles in the Holocaust. Trying to stop this practice, the minister ordered that no former member of the SA, SS or Nazi Party should be granted an obituary. But the so-called Mumien (mummies) – the elder generation of diplomats and high-ranking members of the AA – started to campaign against Fischer’s decision. They stated that among party members there had also been many who resisted Hitler’s regime, claiming further that the AA had been a centre of opposition: the few who supported atrocities and the killing of Jews had been National Socialists and had no adherence to the traditional structure of the AA. In this conflict between minister and mummies, Fischer decided to convene an international commission of historians to examine the role of the AA during the Third Reich and the Holocaust as well as in the postwar Federal Republic.

When the report of the commission was published in October 2010 it caused uproar not only among politicians and historians but also with the wider public. It provoked disputes about politics and historiography, about institutional and personal guilt and its remembrance. The renowned daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) made the 900-page report Das Amt, compiled by a team led by historians Eckhart Conze, Norbert Frei, Peter Hayes and Moshe Zimmermann, a major topic. FAZ publisher, Frank Schirrmacher, expressed his shock and indignation that the AA had created and maintained for decades the image of a conservative and aristocratic reservoir of traditional German values that resisted as much as possible the pressure of Hitler’s party. Das Amt reveals the role of the foreign ministry under Konstantin von Neurath and especially Joachim von Ribbentrop in accepting National Socialist policies and to some extent conducting killings and deportations during the Holocaust. Moreover, in its second half, the book paints a picture of how members of the AA invented and propagated the myth that the core of its most important sections, made up of traditional staff with aristocratic backgrounds, did everything to minimise, counteract and resist antisemitic policies. One of the main pieces of evidence in support of this image was voiced by an active participant in the July 20th, 1944 plot against Hitler, Adam von Trott zu Solz, who was quoted by a colleague as saying that the AA had been clean to its core and that many of its older staff could be employed after the end of the Hitler regime.