Ernst von Weizsäcker:  Last Victim of Germany’s Vengeful Conquerors

Published: 2020-11-20

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German State Secretary Ernst von Weizsäcker worked tirelessly for peace and had never wanted Germany to enter into World War II. Weizsäcker fell out of favor with Adolf Hitler toward the end of the war, and might have been executed if he had not been in Allied-occupied Rome. Treacherously, he was charged and convicted as a war criminal by the Allies after the war. 

Weizsäcker Works for Peace

Ernst von Weizsäcker served as state secretary in the German Foreign Office from April 1938 until his resignation in April 1943. Establishment historians such as Joachim Fest state that Weizsäcker sought peace and gave tacit support to resistance cells against Hitler within his own office.[1] Anton Gill writes that Weizsäcker was “a courageous man who fought the Party from within, and under whose aegis contacts abroad were maintained and developed.”[2] Historian Peter Hoffmann writes that Weizsäcker remained in office in order to restrain Hitler as much as he could.[3]

Professor Carl Jacob Burckhardt, the League of Nations high commissioner for Danzig, wrote in his memoirs that he spoke to Weizsäcker on September 1, 1938 on how to defuse the Czechoslovakian crisis. Weizsäcker thought that some blunt, undiplomatic British general might confront Hitler and get Hitler to listen. Burckhardt stressed that by saying this, Weizsäcker was “conspiring with a potential enemy for the purpose of preserving peace—a double game of the utmost peril…Even as early as this, Weizsäcker was making no secret of his view that the preservation of peace and the salvation of Germany were only possible if the one ruinous figure, in whose hands all power was concentrated, should disappear.”[4]

Weizsäcker also attempted to preserve peace by derailing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Peter Hoffman writes:

In the summer of 1939 Erich Kordt also went to London to try to stop the Hitler-Stalin pact. This he did with the backing of Weizsäcker who throughout July and August was trying to sabotage Hitler’s and Ribbentrop’s foreign policy by warnings and procrastination. In August, among other things, he reiterated his request of summer 1938 to the British government that a general be dispatched to Hitler who could talk to him privately “man to man,” in other words issue a threat which would be unmistakable and credible even to Hitler.[5]

Historian Klemens von Klemperer wrote concerning Weizsäcker’s position in the German resistance movement:

Weizsäcker’s position was in many ways analogous to that of Admiral Canaris. His naval background (1900-20) gave him a special sense of affinity and intimacy with the intelligence chief [Canaris]. Both Weizsäcker and Canaris chose to stay rather than to resign. As a matter of fact, it was General Beck who pleaded with his colleague in the Foreign Office to stay since in his official capacity he could do something for peace “up to the last moment.” Also, like Canaris, Weizsäcker, while not in the strict sense belonging to the Widerstand [German resistance to the National-Socialist regime], offered obstruction from within and resisted through “feigned co-operation” which amounted, in his own terms, to “conspiracy with the potential enemy for the purpose of ensuring peace.”[6]

Anton Gill writes:

Ernst von Weizsäcker, another leading Resistance figure who worked as a principal servant of the Nazi State, was, like Admiral Wilhelm Canaris of the Abwehr, responsible for a team of conspirators. After Hitler had appointed Joachim Ribbentrop as Foreign Minister in 1937, Weizsäcker was given the post of State Secretary to the Foreign Office. He was never a sympathizer with the regime, but like [Johannes] Popitz he believed that it was better to work against it from within and try to limit its evils than to tackle it from the outside. His most important contribution, similar to that of Canaris, was to provide a “safe area” in which conspirators could operate, but the latter’s work was of greater significance than his.[7]

Vatican Ambassador  

Weizsäcker resigned his post as state secretary in the German Foreign Office at the end of April 1943, and became the German ambassador to the Vatican. Weizsäcker was glad to leave his post since he despised German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and was disenchanted with Hitler’s war policies. His assignment in Rome gave him a new opportunity to work for peace.[8]

Weizsäcker met with Pope Pius XII and was impressed by his intensely spiritual personality and real love of Germany. Weizsäcker wrote that the pope has a burning desire for peace, and suffered from the fact that the contending parties refused to listen to him. The German Embassy in the Vatican successfully worked to allow the priests of all enemy states who were in Rome to remain there. Weizsäcker wrote that there were masses of refugees in the monasteries, and the city of Rome at the time was harboring almost 1 million more people than usual. Numerous people thanked the German Embassy for keeping these people in Rome and away from potential harm.[9]   

The German Embassy also worked with Gen. Albert Kesselring to preserve churches, art works, and to prevent the bombing of Rome. Weizsäcker wrote:

Of course, the most important thing was that Rome itself should not be bombed, but should be declared an “open city.” Field-Marshal Kesselring, to whom I conveyed this anxious wish on the part of the Vatican, had reasonable objections from a military point of view. But he put these on one side and reduced the occupying force in Rome to a ridiculously small minimum, I think to one battalion. He forbade the troops to march straight through Rome, and instructed them to go round the city by complicated detours. It was not the Germans’ fault that nevertheless a few Allied bombs fell on the city because, so it was said, Rome had become an important base for the German armed forces…

From June 1943 to June 1944 I had not been able to achieve anything in Rome in the field of general politics. But we members of the Vatican Embassy were with some reason credited with having played a part in the limited sphere of the protection of the Eternal City and of the Church.[10] 

Weizsäcker was in Rome when the failed assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler occurred on July 20, 1944. During questioning before his trial, Adam von Trott mentioned Weizsäcker as a leader of the opposition group in the Foreign Office. Since the Allies had occupied Rome in June 1944, however, Weizsäcker could have been recalled to Germany only with the cooperation of the Allies, and they denied this .[11]

Weizsäcker stayed on as a private guest of the Vatican after the war until the end of August 1946. He was allowed to travel to Germany to give testimony in defense of Admiral Erich Raeder, Konstantin von Neurath and others at the main Nuremberg trial. Weizsäcker returned to Rome until he was called back to Nuremberg in March 1947 for questioning. To Weizsäcker’s surprise, he was arrested by American officials in July 1947 for alleged war crimes. Weizsäcker was named as the lead defendant in the so-called Wilhelmstrasse or Ministries Trial.[12]

The Ministries Trial

The Ministries case was filed November 15, 1947. The court proceedings ended in November 1948, but because of the voluminous evidence resulting from 21 German government officials being named as defendants, the court took five months to file its 833-page judgment. Sentences were not imposed until April 14, 1949, making it the last Nuremberg trial to conclude.[13]

Robert Kempner was the American chief prosecutor in the Ministries Trial. Kempner was a German Jew who had lost his job as chief legal advisor to the Prussian police department because of National-Socialist race laws. He emigrated first to Italy and then to the United States. Kempner was bitter about the experience and was eager to prosecute and convict German officials in government service.[14] 

Kempner bribed Under Secretary Friedrich Wilhelm Gaus, a leading official from the German foreign office, to testify for the prosecution in the Ministries Trial. The transcript of Kempner’s interrogation of Gaus reveals that Kempner induced Gaus to exchange the role of defendant for that of collaborator with the prosecution. Gaus was released from isolation two days after his interrogation. A few days later a German newspaper reported a long handwritten declaration from Gaus in which he accused the German government service of collective guilt. It was subsequently revealed that Kempner had leaked Gaus’s accusations to the newspaper.[15]

Many people became critical of Kempner’s heavy-handed interrogation methods. In the case of Friedrich Gaus, for example, Kempner threatened to turn Gaus over to the Soviets if Gaus did not cooperate with the prosecution.[16]

American attorney Charles LaFollete said that Kempner’s “foolish, unlawyer-like method of interrogation was common knowledge in Nuremberg all the time I was there and protested by those of us who anticipated the arising of a day, just such as we now have, when the Germans would attempt to make martyrs out of the common criminals on trial in Nuremberg.”[17]

Kempner also attempted to suborn Ernst von Weizsäcker during the Ministries Trial. However, Weizsäcker steadfastly refused to cooperate. Richard von Weizsäcker, who helped defend his father at the trial, wrote: “During the proceedings Kempner once said to me that though our defense was very good, it suffered from one error: We should have turned him, Kempner, into my father’s defense attorney.” Richard von Weizsäcker felt Kempner’s words were no more than pure cynicism.[18]

American attorney Warren Magee, who served as defense counsel in the Ministries Trial, thought the Nuremberg trials were extremely unjust. Magee wrote to Pope Pius XII:

We all know Jews suffered much under Hitler. We also know that Christian tenets of “humility, and charity which, together with the Church, have their source in the Heart of Christ” have no real place in the hearts of many Jews. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is the driving force behind the prosecutions at Nuremberg. While it grieves me to say this, the prosecution staff, its lawyers, research analysts, interpreters, clerks, etc. is largely Jewish. Many are Germans who fled their country and only recently took out American citizenship. Jewish influence was even apparent at the first trial, labeled the IMT. Atrocities against Jews are always stressed above all else…With persecuted Jews in the background directing the proceedings, the trials cannot be maintained in an objectivity aloof from vindictiveness, personal grievances, and racial desires for revenge…Basic principles have been disregarded by “new” Americans, many of whom have imbedded in their very beings European racial hatreds and prejudices.[19]

Weizsäcker was convicted of waging aggressive war for aiding in the invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. He was also convicted of complicity in deporting Jews to alleged German extermination camps such as Auschwitz. Weizsäcker was sentenced to seven years in prison.[20]

Unjust Conviction    

Ernst von Weizsäcker was unjustly convicted at his trial of waging aggressive war and deporting Jews to alleged German extermination camps. In fact, if he had not been in the Vatican in July 1944, Weizsäcker could have been convicted and hanged for treason as were Admiral Wilhelm Canaris and other members of the German resistance.

Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker was extremely upset that the Americans were trying his father. Edward Teller wrote in his memoirs about his conversation with Carl Friedrich in the latter part of 1948:

I met Carl Friedrich in a small room full of law books. He was worried about his father, who had been charged with war crimes by the Nuremberg tribunal. That was the only time I ever saw Carl Friedrich upset. He said, “If the Americans had come in and shot every tenth German, I could have understood it. I could have called it justice. The Americans had every reason to be angry. But I cannot accept ex post facto laws. They have nothing to do with justice.”[21]

Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, who was a highly intelligent and well-regarded physicist, showed his ignorance in this quote of the situation in postwar Germany. The Americans had already murdered every tenth German by the time he made this statement, primarily through mass starvation instead of the use of bullets.[22] Germany also never had a program of genocide against European Jewry as Carl Friedrich implied in this statement that it had.[23]

Ernst von Weizsäcker’s conviction for crimes against peace was reversed on December 12, 1949 after a series of post-trial defense motions. The new tribunal majority stated: “After a careful examination of the entire record concerning his conviction with the aggression against Czechoslovakia, we are convinced that our finding of guilt as to that crime is erroneous. We are glad to correct it. The judgment of guilt against the defendant von Weizsaecker as to Count 1 is hereby set aside and he is hereby acquitted under Count 1.” Weizsäcker’s sentence was reduced from seven to five years.[24]    

In mid-October 1950, after three years and three months of imprisonment, Weizsäcker obtained an early release from prison after a review of his case by John J. McCloy of the Legislative Affairs Office of the U.S. High Commission for Germany. McCloy biographer Kai Bird writes: “Von Weizsäcker’s aristocratic lineage and his resume as a respected member of the old-guard German diplomatic establishment made him a popular candidate for clemency.”[25]

Weizsäcker died of a stroke less than a year after his release from prison on August 4, 1951 at Age 69.[26]


Ernst von Weizsäcker never should have been convicted of any crime by the American tribunal at Nuremberg. He had always worked for peace, and certainly was never involved in any plan of genocide against European Jewry. Like many other Germans, Weizsäcker was victimized by an American-run trial that was organized primarily for revenge purposes rather than to dispense impartial justice.


[1] Fest, Joachim, Plotting Hitler’s Death: The Story of the German Resistance, New York: Metropolitan Books, 1994, p. 5.

[2] Gill, Anton, An Honorable Defeat: The Fight against National Socialism in Germany 1933-45, London: Mandarin Paperbacks, 1994, p. 4.

[3] Hoffmann, Peter, The History of the German Resistance 1933-1945, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1977, p. 81.

[4] Ibid., p. 64.

[5] Ibid., p. 108.

[6] Von Klemperer, Klemens, German Resistance against Hitler: The Search for Allies Abroad, 1938-1945, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 26.

[7] Gill, Anton, An Honorable Defeat: The Fight against National Socialism in Germany 1933-45, London: Mandarin Paperbacks, 1994, pp. 80-81.

[8] Weizsäcker, Ernst Von, Memoirs of Ernst von Weizsäcker, Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1951, pp. 283-285.

[9] Ibid., pp. 286, 290.

[10] Ibid., pp. 291, 293.

[11] Ibid., pp. 295-296.

[12] Ibid., pp. 305-310.

[13] Ehrenfreund, Norbert, The Nuremberg Legacy: How the Nazi War Crime Trials Changed the Course of History, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007, p. 103.

[14] Weizsäcker, Richard von, From Weimar to the Wall: My Life in German Politics, New York: Broadway Books, 1997, pp. 92, 97.

[15] Ibid., pp. 97-98.

[16] Maguire, Peter, Law and War: International Law & American History, New York: Columbia University Press, 2010, p. 117.

[17] Frei, Norbert, Adenauer’s Germany and the Past: The Politics of Amnesty and Integration, New York: Columbia University Press, 2002, p. 108.

[18] Weizsäcker, Richard von, From Weimar to the Wall: My Life in German Politics, New York: Broadway Books, 1997, pp. 98-99.

[19] Remy, Steven P., The Malmedy Massacre: The War Crimes Trial Controversy, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2017, p. 134.

[20] Ehrenfreund, Norbert, The Nuremberg Legacy: How the Nazi War Crime Trials Changed the Course of History, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007, p. 104.

[21] Teller, Edward, Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics, Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Publishing, 2001, p. 244.

[22] Bacque, James, Crimes and Mercies: The Fate of German Civilians under Allied Occupation, 1944-1950, 2nd edition, Vancouver, British Columbia: Talonbooks, 2007, pp. 123-124.

[23] Wear, John, Germany’s War: The Origins, Aftermath and Atrocities of World War II, Upper Marlboro, Md.: American Free Press, 2014, pp. 340-389.

[24] Maguire, Peter, Law and War: International Law & American History, New York: Columbia University Press, 2010, pp. 161-162.

[25] Bird, Kai, The Chairman: John J. McCloy & the Making of the American Establishment, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992, pp. 362-363.


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Author(s): John Wear
Title: Ernst von Weizsäcker:  Last Victim of Germany’s Vengeful Conquerors
Published: 2020-11-20
First posted on CODOH: Nov. 20, 2020, 9:39 p.m.
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