You had enough of sorrow before death
Yeats, “To A Shade”
These are the notes of a Prussian who talked for years about finding some alternative to Hitler, but never succeeded.
Starting soon after his recall by Hitler from his posting as ambassador to Italy (1932-38), Hassell kept this diary of his meetings over the next six years with those of similar feeling. His position with the Mitteleuropäischer Wirtschaftstage (Middle-European Economic Conference) enabled him to travel to other countries and keep track of current events. The impression on the reader is of an old German, one who tried to accommodate with the existing regime (he joined the Nazi party when he became ambassador) while remaining true to the best traditions of his country as he saw them. The diary also records extremely valuable impressions of events as they were occurring, though filtered through the author’s own limitations of bias and opportunity to investigate. From the beginning, the diary records the beliefs of many that the Nazi regime could never last because of its official proclamation of “immoral principles.” (11) Hassell was not yet of this mind.
After Kristallnacht, he wrote on November 25, 1938: “Not since the World War have we lost so much credit in the world. But my chief concern is not with the effects abroad, not with what kind of foreign political reaction we may expect–at least not for the moment. I am most deeply troubled about the effect on our national life, which is dominated ever more inexorably by a system capable of such things.” (20) On December 20, 1938, he wrote that Goering had “condemned the progrom most sharply and openly before all the Cabinet ministers and Gauleiters,” but would not take a public stand against the SS. (25)
Throughout 1938 and 1939, a constant theme is the financial precariousness of the regime. The annexation of the Sudetenland brings in “Czech gold,” (41) but economic conditions worsen. In July, Hassell visited with former Cabinet ministers and discussed “the necessity of preparations in the event of a Nazi collapse.” (51) There were shortages of gasoline, raw materials, and food. (55) In August, he wrote: “Some people believe we must go through the catastrophe of a world war, in which the chances of defeat are 80 per cent, in order to achieve healthy conditions here at home. I cannot share this view, and consider the whole business an irresponsible adventure, both from the National Socialist point of view and from that of an enemy of the Nazi regime.” (58)
When war came, Hassell blamed England, France, and Poland itself for failing to avoid it. Remarkably, he writes that “Mussolini did all in his power to avoid war. His mediation proposal of September 2 offered no more hope of success because England no longer could or would back down.” (71) Hassell saw as early as October 11, 1939, that Hitler “secretly plans to attack Russia later.” (72) At this stage, Hassell was meeting to discuss a possible coup by the generals, Brauchitsch the most involved, with Goering as the replacement head of government, at least for a temporary period. (72) Reports of atrocities were immediately circulating, as early as October 1939. “When people use their revolvers to shoot down a group of Jews herded into a synagogue one is filled with shame.” (76)
Hassell records jokes that circulated, as always under an oppressive state: “Why doesn’t the Fuehrer visit the front any more? Because on his departure the soldiers would cry: ‘Fuehrer, we will follow you!'” (104) “[T]he temperature is still being measured according to the foreign standards of Celsius and Réamur. Hitler orders that in the future measurements be made according to the ‘German’ Fahrenheit. We thereby gain 65 degrees of heat and automatically solve the coal shortage!” (159)
In February 1940, Hassell took the audacious step of meeting with an Englishman and handing him a memo with a statement of principles for a negotiation of peace and “reconstruction of Europe,” including “principles of Christian ethics,” “justice and law as fundamental elements of public life,” and “liberty of thought, conscience, and intellectual activity,” all of which were of course lacking under Nazi control. (111)
Hassell deplores “[t]he systematic and uncontrolled killing of the so-called ‘criminally insane'” as early as November 1940. (147) In April 1941, he writes, “The Army is an incredibly brilliant instrument, with all the stronger characteristics of the German people, and filled with absolute self-confidence. It is tragic! With this magnificent instrument the destruction of Europe is being accomplished to perfection.” (171)
He records the conflict among church leaders about how to react to the attacks on religion and whether to speak out against atrocities. Bishop Galen of Münster and other “proponents of drastic action” were in the minority; the majority were opposed to open struggle. (203) Hassell’s view in 1941 was that protests had an effect, citing a protest by the Evangelical Pastors’ Association against a decree that would expel all clerics from the Red Cross because of its “interconfessional nature.” (203) Still, “The morals of the people have deteriorated through the battle against Christianity as well as through the spreading corruption and various other sinister phenomena.” (204)
Things turn personally grimmer for Hassell with the diary entry for April 27, 1942, where he records a meeting with Foreign Minister Ernst von Weizsäcker, who “carefully closed the windows and doors, and announced with some emphasis that he had a very serious matter to discuss with me. . . I had no idea, he said, how people were after me (the Gestapo). Every step I took was observed. I should certainly burn everything I had in the way of notes which covered conversations in which one or another had said this or that. Apparently he meant himself.” (232) By April 1943, Hassell knew that his phone was tapped. (269)
June 1943: “[T]he unhappy remnants of the Jews prepared to defend themselves, and there is heavy fighting which will certainly lead to their complete extermination by the SS. It is Hitler’s achievement that the German has become the most loathed animal in the whole world.” (272)
His last diary entry is July 13, 1944. He was rounded up in the investigation of the plot of July 20, 1944, and sent to Ravensbrück. His case went before the People’s Court of the notorious Judge Roland Freisler. Hassell was hanged on February 2, 1945, along with Johannes Popitz and Jesuit Fr. Delp, none of whom were directly involved in the plot.