Key Point: Papen became effectively trapped in a powerless position under Hitler.
On May 31, 1932, Franz von Papen achieved the pinnacle of a long career serving his country when, in a surprising move, the aging President Paul von Hindenburg named him Chancellor of Germany. The hand of fate had taken an unusual route in guiding this career diplomat and spy to the helm of Germany. Intent on preserving peace while contending with unstable political and economic situations domestically, Papen’s six-month administration as chancellor instead was dominated by controversy and international intrigue. Both characteristics seemed to follow Papen throughout his career, before and after his term as chancellor.
Born October 29, 1879, in Werl, Westphalia, Franz von Papen was the son of a wealthy landowner. Like many young men of the day, he decided upon a career in the military. By World War I he had risen to become the military attaché to the German Embassy in Washington, D.C. Papen had married the niece of a French marquis, who taught him to speak almost perfect French. The couple had grown quite popular among the Washington diplomatic corps by 1915 when Papen was declared persona non grata by the U.S. government and ordered home to Germany.
His unofficial job while in America had been that of spymaster. Charged with overseeing German espionage agents and their activities concentrated on preventing American armaments from reaching England, Papen was given a considerable budget to fund the operation. Dummy corporations were established which then took all the orders they could for Allied armaments. With no intention of filling the orders, their customers were continually given excuses about the endless delays, thus helping Germany’s cause.
Other fictitious firms created by Papen bought all the gunpowder available in the United States under the guise that these fabricated companies were manufacturing grenades and artillery shells destined for England. Instead, the gunpowder languished in warehouses never to see use during the war at all.
Though these two operations were relatively successful in assisting Germany’s war effort, other efforts were not, primarily because of the ineptitude of Papen’s subordinates. In particular was one Heinrich Albert, an attaché at the embassy who inadvertently left his briefcase on a train in New York. The case was promptly seized by an American intelligence agent. It contained sensitive documents, and their eventual publication in American newspapers caused significant embarrassment to the German diplomatic corps, particularly Papen.
Incidents such as this increased the tension between Franz von Rintelen and Papen as well. Sent from Berlin to coordinate sabotage efforts in the United States, Rintelen was intent on blowing up military installations and warehouses. Rintelen’s approach to espionage vastly differed from that of Papen, who preferred quieter, more sophisticated methods of harassing Germany’s enemies. Papen was of the opinion that Rintelen’s “loose cannon” approach was not only reckless in its own right, but it potentially endangered the plans implemented by Papen as well.
While Rintelen was busy funding sabotage operations against U.S. merchant vessels and the 1917 explosion at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in San Francisco (in which 16 children were killed), Papen was consistently cabling the Abwehr (Germany’s intelligence agency) insisting that his more flamboyant associate be recalled to Germany.
Papen got his way, and Rintelen was indeed ordered home to Germany. However, instead of being allowed to continue assisting the war effort by using his own methods, Papen was placed in the position made vacant by Rintelen’s departure, that of supervising sabotage in the United States. While he never ordered acts of overt terrorism in the United States like his predecessor, Papen evidently did authorize such activities in Canada.
He dispatched men to blow up crucial portions of the Canadian Pacific Railway, thus preventing troops from reaching the transports destined to take them to England. However, Canadian authorities and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were able to thwart this mission. While he was coordinating these activities, he also supervised operations preparing forged identification papers for German citizens who were eager to return to Germany and fight for their homeland.
Papen was Charged with Tracking Down Arab Guerrillas Under the Command of T.E. Lawrence, the Now Famous “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Papen’s activities finally caught up with him and caused his ejection from America. Specifically, the attempts to sabotage American armament production and a conspiracy to blow up Canada’s Welland Canal were the ultimate causes. These events would resurface in the American press when Papen became German chancellor in 1932, and in his autobiography he attempted to clear up his part in the activities. Much of the evidence against Papen in 1915 was supplied by British agents who were not completely unwilling to manufacture information implicating a German national during wartime. It was under this cloud that Papen headed home to Germany, but he would not remain there very long.
Sent to Spain briefly in 1917, Papen was serving again as military attaché when he reportedly had contact with the ill-fated German spy, Mata Hari. In 1918, mainly because of his bungling attempts at espionage in the United States and a less than stellar performance in Spain, Papen was sent to Palestine where he was to serve as the chief of staff of the 4th Turkish Army. Leading a ring of spies for the Turks in their war against the British, he was charged with tracking down Arab guerrillas under the command of T.E. Lawrence, the now famous “Lawrence of Arabia.” Here too, he was unsuccessful. During this period he also implemented clandestine operations that encouraged rebellion in both India and Ireland, as well as more sabotage in the United States.
With the end of World War I, the devoutly Catholic Papen returned to Germany and embarked on a career in politics, joining the Catholic Centre Party. In 1921 he was elected to the Reichstag, the German parliament, settling into a position as an unexciting but wealthy member of his party, and ultimately serving as a party deputy. By 1932, the suave, well-mannered Papen had attracted the attention of party leaders. At the time, former German Chancellor Heinrich Bruning was leading the Catholic Centre Party. President Hindenburg had been nurturing Bruning as his protégé, but Bruning was dropped from this role. With Hindenburg lacking a favorite, Papen was offered up as replacement for Hindenburg’s support.
It was General Kurt von Schleicher, Hindenburg’s chief adviser, who orchestrated Papen’s ascendance to German chancellor. In late May 1932, Schleicher posed Papen to Hindenburg as a patriotic German who would answer the call of his country to serve, even at the expense of offending his own party. At the president’s insistence, Papen accepted the role reluctantly.
The government Papen presided over was a strict one and tolerant, if not favorable, to Nazi ambitions. In June 1932, he rescinded the ban on the Nazi Party’s paramilitary SA (Sturm Abteilung or Storm Section, also known as the Brownshirts) and deposed Prussia’s Social Democratic government. One positive accomplishment of his administration was that he did manage to get Germany’s war reparation debts cancelled, but it was not enough to validate his other actions. Papen’s attempts to disregard the Weimar constitution and implement his authoritarian rule had managed to alienate one of the key men who had helped place him in power, Schleicher.
General Schleicher then took matters into his own hands by convincing several cabinet ministers to flout Papen’s initiatives, and the chancellor resigned in December 1932, only to be replaced by Schleicher himself at the direction of President Hindenburg.
It was this series of events that led Papen, still stinging from his apparent betrayal by Schleicher just weeks prior, to seek out Adolf Hitler in January 1933 and forge an agreement with him. This now infamous arrangement would see the aging Hindenburg appoint Hitler as chancellor on January 30, 1933, with Papen as vice chancellor. Papen had been successful in persuading Hindenburg that he could prevent Hitler from enacting many of the extremist Nazi programs he was anxious to implement.
In this scenario, Papen envisioned his own return to power, believing that Hitler would be malleable to behind-the-scenes manipulation. Vice Chancellor Papen quickly learned that Hitler was not so easily swayed from the aims of his Nazi agenda. Although Papen was not as extreme as Hitler in pushing the persecution of German Jews, his attempts to justify that discrimination were apparent in a speech delivered in Gleiwitz in 1934. “There can certainly be no objection to keeping the unique quality of a people as clean as possible,” Papen had stated, “and to awaken the sense of a people’s community.”
Papen Narrowly Escaped Death When as Many as 400 Members of the SA Were Purged
Papen was now effectively trapped in a powerless position. As vice chancellor for almost 18 months, he was unable to sway Hitler from his extremist plan, but so desperate to hold on to any shred of power was Papen that the alternative of resignation and possessing no power at all was even worse. If in his present situation he was powerless, his proximity to Hitler meant he was relatively safe.