The most influential Swiss in Nazi Germany is the subject of a new biography by historian Marco Wyss.
A protege of military commander Heinrich Himmler, Franz Riedweg stood only two ranks below his mentor in the central office of the SS – an elite quasi-military unit of the Nazi party, which served as Adolf Hitler’s personal guard – and was entrusted with extensive power and authority.
Wyss spoke to swissinfo.ch about his book, “Un Suisse au Service de la SS-Franz Riedweg 1907-2005 “ (A Swiss in the Service of the SS).
Long seen as public enemy number one in his homeland, Riedweg was the brains behind the idea of the Waffen-SS (Armed SS) as a military-political elite in a Europe ruled by Germany.
The Swiss was entrusted with organising the recruitment and political education of Waffen SS volunteers in the “Germanic” countries of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Holland, Belgium, France, the Baltics, Croatia, Hungary and Switzerland.
He also tried, unsuccessfully, to organise a Swiss SS.
In 1938, Riedweg married the daughter of General Field Marshal Werner von Blomberg and acquired German citizenship.
He remained an unrepentant Nazi until his death.
swissinfo.ch: What was the decisive factor in Riedweg’s stellar rise within the SS?
Marco Wyss: The contention that he owed his high position to his marriage to General Field Marshal von Blomberg’s daughter is false. In fact, von Blomberg lost his position as war minister in 1938.
Initially, Riedweg had anti-Communist circles to thank for his swift rise to protege of Himmler… A further factor was that Riedweg was a non-German but still a “Germanic” man of learning. His tremendous political motivation enabled him to acquire considerable power in the SS in very little time.
swissinfo.ch: As the head of the Germanic SS panzer corps, Riedweg was very close to Himmler. How influential was Riedweg in 1942 and at the beginning of 1943, the apex of the war?
M.W.: His influence was fairly substantial, due to his connections to people of influence in different circles, not only the SS, but also the Prussian aristocracy, the Nazi Party, and the Wehrmacht, the armed forces of the Third Reich.
He expanded the recruitment of volunteers for the SS and the Waffen SS from Germanic and non-Germanic occupied lands, broadening this enterprise to include political content. His direct access to Himmler enabled him to implement his initiatives more forcefully.
Even so, his power was limited in that he was dependent on his direct superior, Gottlob Berger, who held the rank just below Himmler. So it was not always possible for Riedweg to report directly to Himmler.
swissinfo.ch: As an intimate of Himmler, how much did Riedweg know about the Holocaust?
M.W.: He probably didn’t know everything, but he must have known about 99 per cent of what was happening. First, he moved in the highest SS circles. Second, he received regular reports from his headquarters in occupied lands, reports which included, among other things, details of the persecution and deportation of Jews from western Europe to the east.
Moreover, the concentration camps were guarded by divisions which were partially integrated in the Waffen SS. Riedweg also visited SS troops fighting in the east many times. He must have known about the Holocaust, from Himmler either mentioning it directly or indirectly. He was clearly in the know. These and other Nazi atrocities seem not to have disturbed him.
swissinfo.ch: After the Nazis were defeated, Riedweg did not break with his ideals or express regret over the persecution of Jews. How would you characterise him?
M.W.: He had ideals as a young man, proved by his participation in the Coudenhove Movement, which advocated the unity of Europe. Later, he moved further and further to the right. His vehement anti-Communism brought him closer and closer to the ideals of Nazi Germany, until he finally crossed the line to become a fully-fledged Nazi.
What’s worse, he never disavowed his beliefs after the war. Instead, he attempted to find a new ideological home on the side of the west in the staunchly anti-Communist climate of the Cold War.
Riedweg never questioned his deeds or the racist aspects of Nazi ideology. So I would characterise him as an incorrigible Nazi.
swissinfo.ch: In 1948, Reidweg was sentenced in absentia in Switzerland to 16 years in prison for treason. Why did the Swiss not attempt to extradite him?
M.W.: First, there was the influence of supporters like politician Heinrich Walther, as well as Riedweg’s brother, who was a lawyer. As late as the 1950s they were attempting to get him pardoned.
In addition, there were politicians and civil servants in Bern, and envoys in Berlin, who had a certain interest in not having Riedweg come to a trial which could prove problematic for them or others. This is just a guess. But the indications point in that direction.
After the war Riedweg was imprisoned by the British, who would have extradited him, if Switzerland had demanded. Bern, however, never submitted an extradition request. This begs the assumption that certain high-level personalities did not want their relationship to Riedweg before or during the war to come to light.
Riedweg in Switzerland
A native of Lucerne, Riedweg grew up in a prosperous family.
At 16, he was a follower of the Coudenhove Movement, which called for a united, federal Europe under Christian leadership as an antidote to the Bolshevik threat from the East.
Riedweg, a medical student, was cofounder in 1937 of Swiss National Action against Communism, in which he held office as cabinet minister Jean-Marie Musy’s “lieutenant“.
He co-produced the film “Die rote Pest“ (The Red Plage) in Munich, the most expensive Swiss film in history at the time. After it was finished, Riedweg stayed on in the Third Reich.
The film was immediately banned in Switzerland.
In December 1947 he was sentenced in absentia by the Federal Criminal Court to 16 years prison for treason.end of infobox
Riedweg and the Nazis
1934: introductions to the Prussian aristocracy in Berlin
1938: After completing the film “Die rote Pest“ (The Red Plage) in Munich, he joined the SS
1938: marriage to the daughter of General Field Marshal von Blomberg, the war minister, and acquisition of German citizenship.
1939: active as an SS doctor in the invasion of Poland, went to France in early 1940
1940: Himmler entrusts him with the founding and leadership of the Germanic Volunteer Recruiting, which organisied the recruitment and political education of Germanic SS.
1943: removed from his position
1944: went to the front in eastern Europe in his capacity as a doctor, wearing his ensignia of SS Obersturmbannführer
1945: arrested by American troops but released after making false statements
1946: rearrested by the British. After appearing before a de-Nazification court two years later, he was released after paying a fine of 2,000 marks.end of infobox
Marco Wyss works for the Center for Security Studies at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.
His book, “Un Suisse au Service de la SS“ is available in French from the publisher Verlag Editions Alphil-Presses Universitaires Suisses Neuenberg.end of infobox
(Adapted from German by Kathleen Peters), swissinfo.ch