Franz von Papen was born to a wealthy Catholic family in Westphalia. He served as a soldier on the Turkish front in World War I. Returning to Germany, he entered politics, joining the Catholic Centre Party, in which the monarchist Papen formed part of the far right wing. On June 1, 1932, he was plucked from relative obscurity when President Paul von Hindenburg chose him as Chancellor to replace Heinrich Brüning, the leader of Papen's own party. This was largely due to the influence of General Kurt von Schleicher, at the time Hindenburg's closest advisor.
Papen, who was expelled from the Centre Party for his betrayal of Brüning, had practically no support in Reichstag except from the Conservative German National People's Party (DNVP). Papen ruled in an authoritarian manner, launching a coup against the Social Democratic led government of Prussia, and repealing his predecessor's ban on the SA as a way to appease the Nazis, whom he hoped to lure into supporting his government. Ultimately, after two Reichstag elections only increased the Nazis' strength in the Reichstag without substantially increasing Papen's own parliamentary support, he was forced to resign as Chancellor, and was replaced on December 4, 1932 by Schleicher, who hoped to establish a broad coalition government by gaining the support of both Nazi and Social Democratic trade unionists.
As it became increasingly obvious that Schleicher's maneuvering to find a Reichstag majority would be unsuccessful, Papen and DNVP leader Alfred Hugenberg came to an agreement with Hitler to allow him to become Chancellor of a coalition government with the Nationalists, and with Papen serving as Vice-Chancellor. Papen used his personal ties with the aged Von Hindenburg to persuade the President, who had previously vowed never to allow Hitler to become Chancellor, to fire Schleicher and appoint Hitler to the post on January 30, 1933.
Once Hitler was in power, Von Papen and his allies were quickly marginalized, and he retired from the Vice-Chancellorship in 1934, following the Night of the Long Knives, when many of Hitler's enemies inside and outside the party (including Schleicher) were murdered. Von Papen was arrested and put under house arrest for three days but his secretary, Herbert von Bose, and his speech writer, Edgar Julius Jung, were murdered. Later, Papen served the Nazi government as Ambassador to Austria from 1934 to 1938 and Ambassador to Turkey from 1939 to 1944.
Papen was captured by the allies after the war and was one of the defendants at the main Nuremberg War Crimes Trial, but was acquitted.
He tried unsuccessfully to re-start his political career in the 1950s.
He was made a papal Geheimkämmerer by Pope John XXIII in 1959.