By Mark Weber
Hitler, we're told over and over again, set out to conquer the world, or at least Europe. At the great postwar Nuremberg Tribunal the victorious Allies sought to prove that Hitler and his "henchmen" had engaged in a sinister "Conspiracy to Wage Aggresive War." The most important piece of evidence produced to sustain this charge was and is a document known as the "Hossbach Protocol" or "Hossbach Memorandum."
On 5 November 1937, Hitler called a few high officials together for a conference in the Reich Chancellery in Berlin: War Minister Werner von Blomberg, Army Commander Werner von Fritsch, Navy Commander Erich Raeder, Air Force Commander Hermann Goering, and Foreign Minister Konstantin von Neurath. Also present was Hitler's Army adjutant, Colonel Count Friedrich Hossbach.
Five days later, Hossbach wrote up an unauthorized record of the meeting based on memory. He did not take notes during the conference. Hossbach claimed after the war that he twice asked Hitler to read the memorandum, but the Chancellor replied that he had no time. Apparently none of the other participants even knew of the existence of the Colonel's conference record. Nor did they consider the meeting particularly important.
A few months after the conference, Hossbach was transferred to another position. His manuscript was filed away with many other papers and forgotten. In 1943 German general staff officer Colonel Count Kirchbach found the manuscript while going through the file and made a copy for himself. Kirchbach left the Hossbach original in the file and gave his copy to his brother-inlaw, Victor von Martin, for safe keeping. Shortly after the end of the war, Martin turned over this copy to the Allied occupation authorities, who used it to produce a substantially altered version for use as incriminating evidence at Nuremberg. Sentences such as those quoting Hitler as saying that "The German question can only be solved by force" were invented and inserted. But over all, the document presented at Nuremberg is less than half the length of the original Hossbach manuscript. Both the original written by Hossbach and the Kirchbach/Martin copy have completely (and conveniently) disappeared.
According to the Hossbach document presented at Nuremberg and widely quoted ever since, Hitler told those present that his remarks were to be regarded as a "final testament" in case of his death. The most incriminating section quotes Hitler as saying that the armed forces would have to act by 1943-45 at the latest to secure the "living space" ("Lebensraum") Germany needed. However, if France became weakened by internal crisis before that time, Germany should take action against Czechia (Bohemia and Moravia). Or if France became so embroiled in war (probably with Italy) that she could not take action against Germany, then Germany should seize Czechia and Austria simultaneously. Hitler's alleged references to German "living space" refer only to Austria and Czechia.
When Hitler came to power in 1933, Germany was militarily at the mercy of hostile foreign states. Rearmament had begun slowly, and in early 1937, because of a raw materials shortage, the three armed service branches had to cut back. A furious dispute broke out between the branches for the remaining allocation.
Contrary to what the Hossbach protocol suggests, Hitler called the conference of 5 November 1937 partially to reconcile the squabbling heads of the military branches and partially to revive the German rearmament program. Foreign policy was only a subsidiary issue. Hitler sought to justify the need for rebuilding German armed strength by presenting several exaggerated and hypothetical foreign crisis cases which would require military action, none of which ever occurred. Hitler announced no new course in German foreign policy, much less a plan for aggressive war.
At Nuremberg Goering testified that Hitler told him privately just before the conference that the main purpose in calling the meeting was "to put pressure on General von Fritsch, since he (Hitler) was dissatisfied with the rearmament of the army." Raeder confirmed Goering's statement.
Like some other aristocratic and traditionalist conservatives, Hossbach became a bitter opponent of Hitler and the National Socialist regime. He was an intimate friend of General Ludwig Beck, who was executed in 1944 for his leading role in the conspiracy which tried to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the government. Despite his postwar denial, it is virtually certain that Hossbach prepared his slanted version of the conference at Beck's urging for possible use in discrediting the Hitler regime following a coup d'etat. Hossbach was also close to Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of military intelligence, and General Ziehlberg, both of whom were also executed for their roles in the 1944 assassination plot. Even in early 1938 Hossbach, Beck and Canaris were in favor of a coup to forcibly overthrow Hitler.
The Hossbach memorandum is frequently cited in popular historical works as conclusive proof of Hitler's plans for aggressive war. A good example is William Shirer's best-selling but unreliable Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which alleged that the protocol recorded "the decisive turning point in the life of the Third Reich." At this critical conference, Shirer wrote, "… the die was cast. Hitler had communicated his irrevocable decision to go to war. To the handful of men who would have to direct it there could no longer by any doubt." Like many other Germanophobe publicists, Shirer deceptively cites the Hossbach memorandum as a reliable record. He even distorts the actual wartime importance of the conference participants. Of the five top officials present, three (Blomberg, Fritsch, Neurath) lost their high positions within months of the meeting. Raeder was replaced as Navy Commander in January 1943. Only Goering was really close to Hitler.
The important role of the fraudulent Hossbach protocol at the Nuremberg Tribunal is another damning confirmation of the illegitimate, show-trial character of this most extravagant judicial undertaking in history. On the basis of the protocol, which became Nuremberg document 386-PS, the Tribunal indictment declared: "An influential group of the Nazi conspirators met together with Hitler on 5 November 1937 to discuss the situation. Once again it was emphasized that Germany must have living space in Central Europe. They recognized that such a conquest would probably meet resistance that would have to be beaten down with force, and that their decision would probably lead to a general war." U.S. prosecutor Sidney Alderman told the Tribunal that the memorandum ("one of the most striking and revealing of all the captured documents") removed any remaining doubts about the guilt of the German leaders for their crimes against peace. It was also the basis for the conclusion of the Nuremberg judges that the German "Conspiracy to Wage Aggressive War" began at the conference of 5 November 1937. The document was crucial in condemning Goering, Neurath and Raeder for their roles in the "criminal conspiracy." The spurious Hossbach protocol is all too typical of the kind of evidence used by the victorious Allies at Nuremberg to legitimize their judicial imprisonment and murder of defeated Germany's leaders.
There is now no doubt that the Hossbach protocol is worthless as a historical document. After the war both Hossbach and Kirchbach declared that the U.S. prosecution version is quite different than the document manuscript they recalled. Hossbach also testified at Nuremberg that he could not confirm that the prosecution version corresponded completely with the manuscript he wrote in 1937. And in his memoirs, he admitted that in any case, Hitler did not outline any kind of "war plan" at the meeting. At Nuremberg, Goering, Raeder, Blomberg and Neurath all denounced the Hossbach protocol as a gross misrepresentation of the conference. (Fritsch was dead.) The protocol deals only with the first half of the meeting, thereby distorting its true character. The memorandum concludes with the simple sentence: "The second half of the conference dealt with material armaments questions." No details are given. In 1968 Victor von Martin characterized the memorandum with these words: "The protocol presented at the Nuremberg court was put together in such a way as to totally change the meaning [of the original] and can therefore be characterized only as a crude forgery."
When he wrote his path-breaking study, The Origins of the Second World War, A.J.P. Taylor accepted the Hossbach memorandum as a faithful record of the meeting of 5 November 1937. However, in a supplementary "Second Thoughts" added to later editions, the renowned British historian admitted that he had initially been "taken in" by the "legend" of the document. The allegedly significant conference was actually "a maneuver in domestic affairs." The protocol itself, Taylor noted, "contains no directives for action beyond a wish for increased armaments." He ruefully observed that "those who believe in political trials may go on quoting the Hossbach memorandum." H.W. Koch, a Lecturer at the University of York (England), further dismantled the legend in a 1968 article which concluded that the infamous protocol would be "inadmissible in any other court except the Nuremberg tribunal."
Dankwart Kluge has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of the origins of the Second World War. His study will stand for many years as the most authoritative dissection of a great documentary fraud. This attractive work includes the complete text of the Hossbach protocol as an appendix, four photos, and a comprehensive bibliography. The author was born in 1944 in Breslau (Wroclaw), Silesia. Since 1974 he has worked as an attorney in West Berlin. Kluge has done an admirable job of assembling his material, which is drawn not only from all the available published and documentary sources, but also from numerous private interviews and correspondence with key witnesses. Kluge argues his case compellingly, although the narrative style is somewhat weak. This important study leaves no doubt that the highly touted protocol is actually a forged revision of an uncertified copy of an unauthorized original, which has disappeared. Harry Elmer Barnes, to whom the work is dedicated, would have welcomed it heartily.
– Mark Weber