Was Neurath justly convicted at Nuremberg?

Constantin von Neurath was one of only four defendants at the Nuremberg to be found guilty on all charges. The crimes of which he was accused and convicted are similar to many of leading Nazi figures who were tried at Nuremberg. They included crimes against humanity, "acts of aggression" against Austria and Czechoslovakia, promotion and assistance of the Nazi party and engagement in a "nazi conspiracy for consolidation in preparation for war"1. At the outset, we must asks ourselves was Neurath really as heinous a figure as a Goering, Ribbentrop, Keitel or Rosenberg, the other men found guilty on all counts by the court?

Did he really share the same kind of wholehearted commitment to the Nazi ideology and the regime that these men did? And if he didn't, should he have been tried for war crimes at all? Admittedly, Neurath received a lighter sentence, fifteen years in prison, than the others who all received the death sentence. However, we can go further. When one looks at his actual record in service of the third Reich, it is noticeable that he advocates and implements consistently more moderate policies, in a wide range of areas, than his co-defendants at Nuremburg.

Upon further examination of documents of the period and recent literature, you could conclude that Neurath was not justly convicted at all. Against this, we still have the overriding fact that Neurath was an active participant in a aggressive, expansionist, racist and genocide regime that which embarked on a conquest of Europe that killed, injured, persecuted and dislocated millions of people. Guilt by association becomes very apparent. Similarly, it can be argued that whatever mitigating evidence has emerged in favour Neurath, he was still guilty and received the appropriate sentence.

I will demonstrate the merits and demerits of both arguments and attempt to reach some form of conclusion as to which is the most valid. "I have never been anti-Semitic. My Christian and humanitarian convictions prevented that. A repression of the undue Jewish influence in all spheres of public and cultural life, as it had developed after the First World War in Germany, however, I regarded as desirable. But I opposed all measures of violence against the Jews, as well as propaganda against them.

I considered the entire racial policy of the National Socialist Party wrong and for that reason I fought against it. "2 Such was the testimony of Neurath when questioned about two of the defining aspects of the Nazi regime and ideology; its general racism and, specifically, anti-Semitism. If one takes his testimony at face value, it seems to show a man distant from some of the more extreme and criminal aspects of third Reich policy. He made himself out to be a 'decent' German, which in his opinion meant a patriotic, conservative, nationalist and, above all, loyal servant of the German state.

During the first three days of his trial, which he spent giving a verbose account of his upbringing and career, he stated that his childhood was 'one of extreme simplicity … with particular emphasis laid on the duty of truthfulness, responsibility, patriotism, and a Christian way of life and tolerance of other religions'3. Having ascertained Neuraths own version of his political beliefs, we must ask does his conservative and patriotic ideology clearly disassociate him from nazi ideas of racist thought?

Robert Cecil puts across the view that every nineteenth century political tradition, including the conservative one that Neurath claimed to adhere to, can be associated with a degree of anti-Semitism. He cites Nolte, who writes that 'every significant ideology of the nineteenth century had its own brand of anti-Semitism'4. We can see that Neurath was no different, the statement quoted at the top of the paragraph shows he believed in the same type of xenophobic paranoia that many Germans did- that Jews had gained 'undue influence in all areas of political and cultural life'.

Certainly Nazism has at least some kind of link with 19th century and early 20th century conservatism in Germany. But there is much more to Nazi thought than anti-Semitism. Cecil also calls attention to Fritz Sterns concept of a 'Germanic ideology' a tradition, which, according to Cecil, all Nazi leaders had in common. This ideology was primarily anti-liberal. It attacked industrialisation and urban civilisation and harked back to a 'primitive Urdeutsch [German] past' which valued tribal 'blood' ties above Modernism and materialism5.

There was also an element of anti-Christian thought, combined with the Social Darwinism (which specifically attacked Slavs) that was to become such a feature of Nazi thought. Figures like Hitler, Rosenberg and Eckhart took this Germanic ideology and added a new virulence of anti-Semitism, the 'stab in the back theory' of German betrayal at the end of World War One and subsequent Versailles treaty, as well as a new hatred of Marxism. The result was what Cecil calls the 'death potion' of Nazi political thought.

While the patriotic nationalists of the 19th and early 20th century, to which Neurath claimed to be aligned, did display reactionary tendencies, certainly in their attitudes toward democratic government, they certainly were not anti-Christian in the Nazi form. They could hardly be said to have held the same virulence of anti-Semitism that permeated the nazi regime. The social darwinist element, did however, hold general currency in much of the German aristocracy and governing classes.

The tradition which Neurath claims he attached to at Nuremberg, while sharing some of the less radical elements of Nazi ideology, cannot be held to completely synominous with it. What then, does the fact that Neurath can not be seen as the definitive propagator and holders of nazi ideology have to do with whether he was justly convicted? The answer lies in the fact that the prosecution considered Neurath just such a figure and based part of their case on implying that he knowingly participated in and agreed with plans for the 'Germanization' of Czechoslovakia that were congruent with Nazi racial policy.

For them, he was a nazi. Their crucial piece of evidence was a memorandum that Neurath wrote to Hitler on August 31st 1940. In it, Neurath stated that successful Germanization of the Czechs would "be a case on the one hand, of keeping those Czechs who are suitable for Germanization by individual selective breeding, while on the other, expelling those who are not useful form a racial standpoint or are enemies of the Reich, that is the intelligentsia"6

David Maxwell-Fyfe, the chief prosecutor, equates this policy with the charge of genocide, contained in the indictment. Also within this memorandum, Neurath used Nazi racist rationale to suggest the Czechs were racially suited to live within the third Reich. "One is surprised at the great number of fair-haired people with intelligent faces and well-shaped bodies, people who would not compare unfavourably even in the Central German and south German area… in view of the strong mixture of blood strains with Germanic peoples during the past thousand years…

A large portion of the population may be allowed to remain in Bohemia". There is no doubt that the August 31st memorandum can be used to illustrate an intention to perform a kind of cultural genocide- that is to say systematic elimination of a nation's cultural traditions and language and the holders of those traditions. The main holders and propagators of culture were the intelligentsia. This is exactly what Maxwell-Fyfe did. But can it be said that such cultural genocide cannot really constitute a war crime?

Given that the Allied nations conducting the tribunal had all, at one time or another, practised what Maxwell Fyfe defined as 'destroying the [Czech] people as a national entity with their own language, history and traditions, and assimilate them into a greater German Reich". The United Kingdom, the USSR and France all could be said to to be guilty of this. Neurath's own explanation of the memorandum was that his comments were taken out of context and that all he hoped to was 'bring about co-operation' so as to have peace and order.

Certainly, if only the first part of the memorandum had been submitted as evidence, he might have had a much stronger defence than that which emerged. Neurath recommends that complete repatriation of all Czechs, which Hitler favoured, was unachievable. He also recommends retention of the autonomy that the Czechs had in protectorate government, keeping the present administrative structure and opposes partition of the Protectorate. Neurath asserts that his purpose in writing the document was to make "impractical suggestions so as to declare them absurd later on ….

[they were] a purely tactical maneveur to get at Hitler, because I was afraid that he would follow the radical suggestions made by Himmler and his associates"7 If one accepts this statement, then indeed the memorandum may not be a blueprint for cultural genocide. But it is difficult to know what explanation for the memorandum can be taken at face value. In what seems to be highly dubious testimony, Neurath at first suggested that he did not write any of the memorandums submitted under his name and that they originated from Frank, his secretary of state.

Also, Neurath officially endorsed a second memorandum (enclosure 2), which Frank did in fact write, which was much more hard-line than the document attributed to Neurath himself. It called, amongst other things, marriage policy based on racial examination, severe police methods, which exile and 'special treatment' for all saboteurs, the abolition of Czech autonomy, administration, and the 'extermination of the Czech historical myth"8. Neuraths reaction was to assert that he later disassociated himself with these proposals and recommended his own.

Maxwell-Fyfe produced a document that convincingly shows that is untrue, by showing that Hitler had approved a plan for Germanization based jointly on Franks and Neuraths proposal . Neuraths rebuttal was that this evidence, a report on meeting attended by Frank, Neurath, Hitler and Gi?? rtner, had been taken out of context. Puzzlingly, he also says seem that when dealing with the proposal of subordinates 'then you to might find some proposal which you afterward rejected". This begs the question Why did he a sign a letter saying he agreed with Franks proposals if he did not agree with them?

Whatever spin you place on the August 1940 memorandum, Neurath is showing signs of being back into a corner by the prosecutor and his explanations are not particularly coherent or convincing. He admits there is no direct suggestion that the document implies what he says it does- that his meeting with the Fi?? hrer was not simply to 'decide the question of the protectorate'9'. Perhaps the crux of what Neurath is trying to suggest was his idea the memoranda that he wanted the Czechs to 'incorporate themselves more closely into the Reich".

This is the definition he attaches to the word assimilation, when Maxwell-Fyfe asserts that with the memorandum he was suggesting policy for post war Bohemia and Moravia. I will explore how convincing this definition in the context of his attitude toward to Czechs later on. Regardless of this, Neuraths behaviour seems to contemporary observer to the behaviour of someone who has been caught out. Heinemann asserts that such behaviour was simply the result of Neuraths physical and mental deterioration. He cites Han Fritzche, who was of the opinion that "Neurath lacked the ability to disentangle all this contradictory evidence".