BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's Foreign Office played a far more active role in the Holocaust than previously known and remained a haven for former Nazi diplomats for decades after the war, according to a new book to be released on Thursday.
"Das Amt und die Vergangenheit" (The Office and the Past) chronicles how the foreign ministry was aware of the Nazi mass murder of Jews and was "actively involved," debunking a myth that most diplomats had managed to keep their hands clean.
The book, which was causing a media stir in Germany ahead of its Thursday release, also shows how former Nazi officers and sympathizers kept their jobs after the war and how the respected foreign ministry managed to cover up the dark past for decades.
Even though Germany has subjected the Nazi era to intense scrutiny at different stages since 1945, the foreign ministry was largely immune. That changed in 2005 when then-Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer demanded the examination.
"The Foreign Office took part in Nazi crimes and was, as an institution, even involved in the murder of Jews," said Eckart Conze, one of four historians commissioned by Fischer to study the ministry's Third Reich history for the new book.
"You can indeed say that the Foreign Office was a criminal organization," Conze told news magazine Der Spiegel on Monday. He said everyone in the ministry, known as "foreign office" in German, knew that Jews were being murdered in eastern Europe.
Fischer set up the historians' commission after he was criticized by retired diplomats for banning obituaries in the ministry's internal newsletter for former Nazis after it ran a tribute to a retired foreign service officer, Franz Nuesslein.
A Nazi prosecutor who signed death warrants in occupied Czechoslovakia, Nuesslein rose through the ranks after 1945.
More than 100 retired and current diplomats were outraged when the ministry newsletter later refused to publish an obituary for another ex-diplomat with a Nazi past, Franz Krapf.
The probe of the ministry's history was also sparked by a 2004 book about a mid-tier diplomat named Fritz Kolbe.
After the war Kolbe was denied his job at the ministry and branded a traitor because he had been a spy for the Allies. The ministry officials who denied Kolbe a job were former Nazis.
Kolbe, who passed 1,600 secret Nazi documents to U.S. spies, was named the most important spy of the war by an ex-CIA head.
Fischer, who called Kolbe's post-war treatment shameful, told Der Spiegel that reading the new book made him "feel ill."
In the new 880-page book to be presented at the foreign ministry, the historians found that "the diplomats were in the picture about the policies toward Jews at all times," and were "actively involved" in mass murder "across Europe."
Conze said one diplomat wrote on his expense report the purpose of his journey: "Liquidating Jews in Belgrade."
"Everyone in the accounting department at the ministry knew what was going on," Conze said. He said ministry officials, for instance, were involved in negotiations to deport Jews in countries such as Greece, France, Serbia and Hungary.
The authors found that post-war West German leaders from Konrad Adenauer to Willy Brandt allowed diplomats with Nazi pasts to remain in their posts. Many were often posted to Arab nations or Latin America because public protests were rare.
According to Conze, in 1950-51 more than 40 percent of the ministry's top posts were filled by ex-Nazi party members -- more than there had been in 1938-39. In 1943, 573 of the ministry's 706 top officials were party members, he added.
Fischer and the book were praised by the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants.
"Germany has taken an honest and painful look at its past," said Elan Steinberg, vice president of the U.S. organization, said in a statement. "Previous efforts to whitewash the role of the foreign ministry and its personnel in the crimes of the Holocaust are now categorically refuted."