John Weitz on Hitler's Diplomat

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: John Weitz
Title: “John Weitz on ‘Hitler’s Diplomat’”
VTR: 10/9/92

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And when today’s guest first joined me here many years ago I began our program by noting that for most of the nearly four decades now that I’ve been broadcasting, I’ve – wisely I think – focused on news and politics, about which I know something, on science occasionally and on literature, too, as they touch on familiar patterns of public affairs. But only occasionally have I had the temerity to step outside these bounds. Once in a great while with extraordinary people from fields that for me are essentially uncharted and unknown. People like humorists Alan King and, back a long time ago, Fred Allen, or film producer David Brown, or popular novelist Judy Krantz, or women’s magazine editor Helen Gurley Brown, or musician Isaac Stern. And today a man best identified with renown in a world I obviously know nothing about: the world of fashion. Indeed, I dress the part.

But fashion designer John Weitz is so outrageously eclectic in his tastes and temperament, and I have been so taken by a comment he had made to me about “catering to people’s vanities” that I asked him here to explain that phrase. And he did. Brilliantly. And there was, of course, so much more to our conversation that day because there is enormously much more to John Weitz that even his outstanding success in the world of fashion concerns.

For what my audience may now know is how much Mr. Weitz distinguished himself in working for the OSS in European theater in World War II.

Born into Berlin’s privileged classes, he and his family fled from the Nazis in 1938…but his interest in Hitler’s Germany never slackened, and I want largely to focus our discussion today on his compelling new Tichnor and Fields book about Von Ribbentrop, entitled Hitler’s Diplomat. So, John, welcome back to THE OPEN MIND.

Weitz: Delighted. I must at once demur…you’re one of the most fashionable hosts on television.

Heffner: Oh, now, now, now…

Weitz: …quite able to deal with small-timers like me.

Heffner: I wore my one good jacket today, just in honor of you, John. Look…one of the reviews in the San Francisco Examiner said, said something that, that made me feel I wanted to ask you about this. It said, “Weitz’s book seems especially timely with the recent resurgence of Neo-Nazism in Germany”, and I wondered whether your attention paid to Hilter’s diplomat, to Von Ribbentrop, was in any way motivated by what you saw, perhaps some many years ago, when you began your work on the book, by a sense, on your part, of a resurgence of Nazism?

Weitz: Truly, not. It’s just that the world of Adolph Hitler and the time of Adolph Hitler have stayed so completely within the reach of everyone’s interest that when somebody said to me, several years ago, “Are you going to write another book about the Hitler period?”, all I said was, “The day that an American newspaper appears without mention of Adolph Hitler’s name, I’ll stop being interested in it”. People are fascinated by that awful period in which a great people fell under the spell of a foreigner, since Adolph Hitler was not German, he was Austrian, and ended up debauching, debasing, hurting itself…taking itself outside of the realm of the great nations. So, that in itself is, to me, the point of interest. Ribbentrop, the man who was his Foreign Minister, his Ambassador to Britain before then, is simply a keyhole through which I can look at the Hitler time. Because Von Ribbentrop was a man who was very modern in these…in today’s terms. As a matter of fact, Tom Wolfe did the foreword exactly for that reason. Tom, when I first gave is the outline of this particular book, said “This is radical chic, this is a modern man. This is a man who lives in today’s world”. And, indeed, he did live in a world that was very much like the 1980s of New York. And Berlin was very much like New York.

Heffner: And the fires in Berlin at the end of the war, the bonfire of the vanities?

Weitz: The bonfire of the vanities not only at the end of the war, but in the 20s and 30s when the Hitler era came to be, that really was the bonfire of the vanities. Later on there was the bonfire of the books.

Heffner: John, you, you said “a great people fell under the spell of Hitler”. There are many people who would take exception to that notion. Is this a function of your own background in Germany?

Weitz: Are you talking about Germany as a great people?

Heffner: Yes.

Weitz: I’m talking about the country of Einstein, and the country of Goethe, and of Schiller. Talking about the country of Nietzsche, the country of Beethoven. It is not a country that can be ignored. The country of Richard Wagner.

Heffner: But, you see, you take from my question that I am questioning the matter of a great people. No, I’m…

Weitz: Oh, then I misunderstood…

Heffner: …questioning the matter of…”feel under the spell”. Now there is a kind of explanation…

Weitz: “Fell under the spell” is exactly to me the right form of the events in that they were ready to fall under a spell. Germany…the, the terrible thing about writing anything that has to do with history, is that on this you set the scene completely. And I’ll try, in very few words…the country that had just been beaten in a war had been subject to one of the harshest peace treaties of modern times, the Versailles Treaty, was in desperate financial disarray, was in industrial disarray, was not sure that it had…should have lost the war since Germany at the time the peace treaty came, had not a single German soldier on German soil. The German troops were abroad. And to the average German, the idea of Germany defeated was not at all clear. It certainly was in 1945. It was not in 1918 by any means clear that Germany lost the war. She, therefore, designed a “stab in the back” theory which became one of the key points of Hitler’s program saying “You didn’t lose the war, you got stabbed in the back by…”, and then he trotted out a series of villains. Anything from the Jews to the profiteers, to the international Communist conspiracy, etc., etc. It was unending. I think it was falling under the spell. I think it was somebody who was ready to go, quite different from today’s Germany. Today’s Germany has had 40 years not only of democracy, carefully maintained, but enormous wealth and success. The Germany of 1933 was a Germany that had a miserably unsuccessful republic which desperately tried to keep pace with the rest of the world, but couldn’t because the sanctions imposed upon it since the First World War were almost unmanageable…12 governments in 13 years…picture that one. How can a people really believe in that sort of a governmental system? Besides which they were not unique. If you remember during the 30s, the concept of democracy was by no means universally accepted. There was the time of corporate government, if you remember. How many democracies were there in Europe? Portugal wasn’t. Turkey wasn’t. Italy wasn’t. Hungary wasn’t. Japan on the other side wasn’t. And there were France and Britain which were distinct democracies, many others weren’t.

Heffner: But we’re not…when we think about Nazi Germany…do we so much think of a country that did not, any longer, in the 30s and 40s, have democratic institutions of any kind? But rather of an aggressive, nationalistic, almost barbarian country in terms of its crusades against the Jews, against the gypsies, against eh homosexuals, etc.

Weitz: All true, but let’s talk about the Germany of 1918 to 1933. The German Republic, called the Weimar Republic, which was the breeding ground for Adolph Hitler…Now those years between 1918 and 1933 were disastrous years for Germany. Great men tried hard to get Germany on track, but couldn’t, because imposed upon them was a, a treaty…the Versailles Treaty…imposed upon them were sanctions, reparations which were unbearable. And every German Prime Minister who was appointed, because they weren’t elected, would go out and try and do battle with the Allies, and usually came away with his nose bloody. Until Hitler. It was astonishing to realize that the most vulgar international approach worked. And there are a series of German statesmen who later on wrote, “Isn’t it disgusting to realize that the great democracy of the world would not listen to us when we had a democratic form, but when Hitler sent out his international political thugs, his tough guy diplomats who would say ‘take it or leave it’, the democracies folded and say ‘okay’”.

Heffner: Weren’t they given that lesson by George Bernard Shaw, don’t you refer to that?

Weitz: Well, I, I refer to that fact that Ribbentrop, when one day he visited England, and tried to make some sort of deal, was told by George Bernard Shaw, “young man, don’t talk to them of peace, talk to them of murder and mayhem, and they’ll fold up”, meaning the British government. And, in fact, in 1935 when Ribbentrop negotiated the famous Anglo-German Naval Agreement in which they fixed the number of tons each country would have, he simply sat down and said, “This is our deal…take it or leave it…there’ll be no arguments”. One senior British statesman walked out in disgust. Two days later the Admiralty sent to the hotel where Ribbentrop was staying, a delegate who said, “We have good news for you. We have a nice, nice surprise”. And when he came to the Admiralty, they said, “We’ll take it”. He thought that had taught them a lesson. It didn’t.

Heffner: You know…a moment ago, when you introduced this matter of understanding that if you talk tough, and if you act tough you can achieve a great deal in international relations. You said “surprisingly”…what’s surprising about that?

Weitz: Because the, the business of international intercourse…happy term…is very formalized. It’s a dance, like tennis. And, and what you do is you stand here to serve and you go there to accept serve. The scores are counted in certain ways…is there any sense at all in the 15, 30, 40 and final for the game? None. But it is formalized that way. And in the same way the business of diplomacy is conducted in a most formal matter. For instance, a protest is not called a protest, it’s called a demarche…even to this day, and you suddenly hear a diplomat saying “I believe my country has, is about to launch a demarche…which is a 1840…

Heffner: Wonderful.

Weitz: …term…

Heffner: Right.

Weitz: …you know. So, when these amateurs appeared on the scene, like Ribbentrop, acting if they were foreign ministers and started talking like businessmen, the diplomats on the other hand, didn’t know what to do about it. They were completely stunned and startled. All amateurs can succeed eminently in most fields until somebody finds out that they’re amateurs, and the whole thing collapses.

Heffner: John…

Weitz: I’m hoping, by the way, that doesn’t apply to all of my years of writing, but I’m trying to find out.

Heffner: It doesn’t. Wonderfully written book.

Weitz: (Laughter)

Heffner: But, but there’s one thing about the book that puzzles me, and that is how a man of such impeccable taste, as you could spend the kind of time that you did writing about someone in whom you seem to find no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Weitz: Oh, I do. I find in…

Heffner: What?

Weitz: Well, first of all, he was the man in the next Concorde seat. He ws a chic and attractive man, with city house, country house, friends, London, Paris, attractive children, private schools, a rich wife. And that I find most understandable. Not necessarily laudable, but I understand that. And I used exactly that as a keyhole into the Hitler time because to understand the psychopaths around Hitler, the Goering, Goebbels, Himmler, Heydrich group means an effort in psychology that I cannot either factually or professionally render. However, I can understand a Ribbentrop and to find out why a man like this would be besotted with Hitler, and to get a look at Hitler from his point of view, was the reason I wrote the book. That’s the reason Tom Wolfe wrote the foreword, because he saw that it was a modern story, and a man we can understand.

Heffner: And he remains for you…

Weitz: By the way, he was magnificently tailored. He used my father’s tailor…or my father used his tailor. He once flew his private airplane back from London, a big three engine thing…he asked the pilot to go back because the wrong cologne had been picked up for him in Berlin. And he didn’t know how to face the world, including the Court of England, without the right cologne.

Heffner: I can understand that would appeal to you, John.

Weitz: There you are.

Heffner: I can understand…

Weitz: …there you are a superficialist…

Heffner: No, no, no. Now, you’ve answered that question. What you haven’t answered is again this, this first question. “I wanted to write about the debauch of an entire country through the eyes of a man who I and many Americans would understand”. As you say, “the man sitting next to you on the Concorde”. You don’t relate the book at all to what is called here, and what you and I can recognize as the recent resurgence of Neo-Nazism in Germany. Do you want to reject that? Do you want to say it’s not happening?

Weitz: No, no, no. Let us address ourselves to that point. And, as heaven knows, it’s a valid question.

Heffner: And, excuse me…and this not after a Treaty of Versailles…

Weitz: No.

Heffner: …not after deprivation…

Weitz: No.

Heffner: …untold…

Weitz: No. There’s a major error in thinking of a united Germany. It is actually not a united Germany. It is a large, forceful capitalist country, called the Federal Republic of Germany, which swallowed, gobbled, took over precipitously and quickly the small, dictator-ridden country called East Germany. East Germany has the following history…the cities in East…the countries of East Germany have been under the domination of the Kaiser, who let them down, the Weimar Republic, which let them down, Adolph Hitler who let them down, and the Soviet bloc, which let them down. Therefore, for over 100 years, these people have had nothing but governments they could distrust. They are commercially and industrially far behind the times because like all Communist bloc countries, they produced stuff that was sold not because it was good, but because it was swallowed. There would be a man who’d say “we need 230,000 toothbrushes of this kind at this time in this place”. And the man who manufactured those was considered a hero of the revolution. He had his 230,000 toothbrushes ready on time at this cost…out. If it was a good toothbrush or not, was none of his business. The fact that it was sold is all that he cared about. Where did it go? Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania…some barter agreement…who knows. The Army needed 230,000 toothbrushes. The fact is that German industry in the East is as unlike industry in the West, as eh Chinese industry is unlike the American industry, in that they have to learn the business of the marketplace, which they haven’t got to. Now, that little corner of Germany, called East Germany is probably a quarter of Germany, at this point, is in a position where had it not been taken over, it would have been the first nasty little fascist country in Europe. Fully established. It had everything in place. It looked down upon university, therefore, it has an inferiority complex. It is broke. It has high unemployment, it has nothing. The same guy who ran the factory yesterday, is today told, “You don’t know anything. The people who work for you don’t know anything, and your factory is way out of date. Go away”. And what Germany will have to do is to take each one of these people and re-train them. They’ll have to spend money to take them and bring them to West German industry. Yesterday I had a German visitor who said to me, “It’s the damndest thing. I look at somebody and they sound German, just as I do. And they wear clothes that are recognizably German, and they seem to be like us…they walk like a duck and quack like a duck…but they’re not ducks. They’re not like us at all”.

Heffner: What are they, John?

Weitz: They’re East Germans. A new breed that came out of the Communist bloc.

Heffner: Now you’re suggesting, or you’re inferring that Neo-Nazism is limited to East Germans?

Weitz: No. It grew up there. And what it did is it produced in young Germans the same utter sense of helplessness, hopelessness and disgust…the same…”the heck with it, we’ll blow up the world” attitude that has happened in Los Angeles during the riots. Where suddenly you look at a young man and say, “he knows there’s no future, and therefore, he’ll do anything…anything at all to tell the world to go to Hell. And that is what is happening now.

Heffner: But…

Weitz: The fact that they’re adopting swastikas doesn’t make them into National Socialists. Most of them couldn’t be elected to the party. Most of them are not Aryan, are not anything, are in no way applicable to National Socialism. They love the picture of Adolph Hitler standing around, and they love the idea of the storm troops, but they, themselves, are acceptably not Nazis because they wouldn’t even be accepted in the Nazi Party.

Heffner: Not enough to frighten you, John?

Weitz: Sure.

Heffner: Not enough to be of great concern?

Weitz: All activism frightens me. Certainly it frightens me. The fact that there are other young people who think it’s “kicky” to do so frightens me. It also frightens me that David Duke was around. It also frightens me that any activist group of that kind is around. But it cannot be construed, at this point of the game…I’ll tell you when I will get frightened. If you told me tomorrow that David Duke ahs appeared in East Germany and has held 10 rallies, and has had attendance of hundreds of thousands of people and has said those disgusting things like, “I’m only saying what you’re thinking”, and the forgets to add, “and what you’re thinking you ought to be ashamed of”. That would frighten me. If there were leadership. That would frighten me. If Mr. LePen in France had decided that he would have a universality of right wing groups, that would frighten me.

Heffner: But, Von Ribbentrop, by himself was meaningless…you, you indicate that.

Weitz: Well, I don’t know. He was, he was the appointed foreign minister.

Heffner: No, no, no, no. I mean your picture of Von Ribbentrop is not an attractive one. Certainly is, is not even of an attractive rouge. It is of a man who, for some reason, was under the spell, to use your phrase, of Adolph Hitler…

Weitz: Yes.

Heffner: …who served his master…

Weitz: Yes.

Heffner: …and what you discovered in your researches doesn’t lead to a concern as to what’s happening in Germany today.

Weitz: No.

Heffner: That’s good.

Weitz: Because it only leads to a concern with what happened in Germany. And whatever lessons those are for the future, given the same set of conditions, most of the time historians can only concern themselves with what did happen. It’s like the old intelligence service where somebody would say, “tell me what they’ll do”, and then you remember the intelligence service rule which was, “it is not my job to tell you intentions, it’s only my job to tell you capabilities”. So in the same way here, all that you can do is try to apply a set of similar conditions. For instance, the Marshall Plan was the brilliant antithesis of the end of the First World War. Therefore, we don’t have to worry about that. We don’t have to worry about the fact that a peace treaty was imposed upon Germany that will make her an obstreperous enemy tomorrow morning.

Heffner: There are those in this country who would say now, we do have to worry about the exact opposite. We have to worry about having fashioned a new Germany that is so incredibly wealthy, an incredibly potentially militarily powerful. No?

Weitz: Militarily…not at all.

Heffner: Why not?

Weitz: Economically…yes. Because she doesn’t wish it. She doesn’t need it. Nor does Japan need it. I think that what we have to do then…

Heffner: Can, can we…bet on that, John?

Weitz: …is get on our horses as Americans and produce better stuff. And sell better stuff, and compete with them. That’s the idea of an open society. And I’m not very frightened for America. She’s competed very successfully with an awful lot of people.

Heffner: John, you’re, you’re very hopeful. You offer assurances…I hope, personally…

Weitz: I don’t offer assurances…what I don’t do is bemoan the present, and to look with, with great fear at the immediate future.

Heffner: John, I don’t think anyone is bemoaning the, the present…

Weitz: Good.

Heffner: …as much as looking back at the past…the past you describe so incredibly well in Hitler’s Diplomat, and worrying about the very, very pages that you have written. It scares me. You seem to find no connection…

Weitz: No, it is the conditions…

Heffner: …between that Germany and this one.

Weitz: The conditions are very unalike. I think that if the great General Marshall hadn’t been there, and if his ideas had not been accepted, then we would have to worry about that kind of a Germany…the swastika Germany. As for East Germany and its Neo-Nazis…Neo-Nazis, what a term…I guess they’re Nazis, they think…no Nazi would think they’re Nazis, but they think that they’re Nazis because they’re wearing little swastikas and beating heads. What do they call the British soccer thugs…are those Nazis too?

Heffner: No, no. They’re the Skinheads…and the…

Weitz: Yeah, Skinheads, right. So we have descriptions for disaffected young people. We describe them, I notice that the New York Times had written that Buchanan, who I am no great fan of, had said that when the Blacks moved into…but that isn’t what Buchanan said…he said “When the mob moved into the Los Angeles riots”. Well, I can understand how the New York Times might have thought that that’s what he said, but that isn’t what he said. We love descriptions of people who misbehave, and who are thugs. But I don’t believe that this present expression of swastika wearing idiots is any more a danger from an international Nazi standpoint, than was Mr. Duke.

Heffner: John, we have one minute left. I wanted to ask you…

Weitz: Okay.

Heffner: …when you were a young man in the OSS…and landing secretly in Germany and making your connections with the Resistance, did you feel as you do now?

Weitz: No. At that point of the game I had a job to do which was to try to help the 10,000 other agents all over the world to get as much information about Hitler as we could, so that we could do away with him. That was my job. I got my Germany back though with the people…my Germany back with the people who did the resisting…they were wonderful people. Even though they often were opportunists who said, “It’s late, but now we’re still willing to risk our lives to get rid of him”.

Heffner: Not before, not then.

Weitz: No.

Heffner: John Weitz, thank you for writing Hitler’s Diplomat, and for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.

Weitz: Delighted.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. In the meantime, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.

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