Franz von Papen (1879-1969) was one of the conservative German politicians whose fear of social unrest and hostility toward the democratic Weimar Republic led them to support the rise of Hitler. Although never a believer in the more extreme doctrines of National Socialism, he helped prepare the way for the Third Reich.
Von Papen came from a landowning Westphalian Catholic family which belonged to the lower nobility. Like many young men of his social class he entered the officer corps, and in 1914 he became the German military attaché in Washington. He was recalled late the following year, however, because of his involvement in secret sabotage activities. He then fought on the Turkish front, but left military service in 1918, unable to accept the new republican regime. Entering politics, he assumed leadership of the conservative, monarchist wing of the Catholic Center Party. The onset of the Depression in 1929 convinced him that the time had come to replace the democratic government with an authoritarian, hierarchical system. Leaving the Center Party, he became one of the leaders of the right-wing politicians who plotted the downfall of the hapless Weimar Republic.
His big chance came in July 1932 when President Hindenburg, whose confidence he enjoyed, made him chancellor. He had hoped that the disastrous state of the economy would produce popular support for his program of elite rule and conservative policy. But he completely misjudged the country's political mood. The chief beneficiaries of the economic crisis were the parties of the radical right and left, the National Socialists and the Communists. Two elections, one in July and the other in November, failed to win any significant support for him in the Reichstag, and early in December he was replaced as chancellor by Kurt von Schleicher, an ambitious army officer whose tactics may have been different, but whose political principles were essentially the same. Von Papen now decided to work for the appointment of a Hitler cabinet, in which the charismatic Fuhrer would mesmerize the masses, while behind the scenes he himself would make the important decisions. He persuaded Hindenburg of the wisdom of this plan, and on January 30, 1933, a new ministry took power, with Hitler as chancellor and von Papen as vice-chancellor.
The latter soon discovered, however, that it was easier to conspire with the Fuhrer than to control him. At first von Papen worked loyally for the new order, organizing support for it in the elections of March 1933 and negotiating a concordat with the papacy in July. But the growing brutality of the regime and its increasingly reckless policies gradually alienated von Papen. The National Socialists came to regard him as unreliable, and after the "blood purge" of June 1934, when hundreds of critics of Hitler's program were summarily executed, von Papen was forced out of the cabinet. Ultimately that proved a blessing, but at the time he found himself relegated to minor diplomatic posts. He became ambassador to Austria, helping to prepare the way for the absorption of that country by Germany in 1938, and then served as envoy to Turkey, whose neutrality in World War II he managed to secure until 1944. By the time the Third Reich collapsed, he was almost a forgotten man.
The victorious allies did remember him well enough to include him among the defendants tried at Nurenberg in 1945-1946 before the International Military Tribunal. However, the fact that he had not been involved in the formulation of German national policy during the preceding ten years led to his acquittal. Though tried again by a German denazification court and sentenced to eight years imprisonment, he was released in 1949 and spent the last two decades of his life in obscure but comfortable retirement. Von Papen belonged to that influential group of conservative political leaders whose fear of the democratic principles underlying the Weimar Republic blinded them to the danger of totalitarianism. Like the sorcerer's apprentice, he invoked the aid of demonic forces in German national life which he was then unable to exorcise.
Further Reading on Franz von Papen
After World War II von Papen published his Memoirs (translated in 1952), full of rationalizations and excuses which do not shed much light on the crucial events in which he played a part. There is no biography of him in English, but there are several works on German history during the interwar period which examine his public career. See, for example, the older account by S. William Halperin, still readable and perceptive, entitled Germany Tried Democracy (1946). Among more recent books two in particular deserve mention: John W. Wheeler-Bennett, The Nemesis of Power: The German Army in Politics, 1918-1945 (1964), and Gordon A. Craig, Germany, 1866-1945 (1978). Finally, there is a work by the leading authority on the Third Reich in which von Papen appears prominently: Karl Dietrich Bracher, The German Dictatorship: The Origins, Structure, and Effects of National Socialism (translated in 1970).