Sixty years ago, these men stood trial for crimes the world had never seen. Now, their excuses are in words the world has never heard.
By Frank Stephenson
When it comes to shooting 90,000 innocent men, women and children, it’s best to have standards.
“Those Jews stood up, were lined up, and were shot in true military fashion. I saw to it that no atrocities or brutalities occurred.”
Put in this lightby SS Lt. Gen. Otto Ohlendorf in a chat with his prison psychiatristmass murder, properly done, can be seen as downright chivalrous.
“The Jews were shot in a military manner in a cordon. There were fifteen-man firing squads. One bullet per Jew...fifteen Jews at a time. All I had to do was see that it was done as humanely as possible...you will agree it’s best to have good people present to prevent bad executions.”
Clearly a man of principles, Ohlendorf confessed that he kept the unpleasant parts of his day job secret from his wife, lest she be disturbed by the details. Also, he “didn’t think it was good conversation for a woman.”
So, his inquisitor pressed, it’s OK to shoot women, but not OK to talk to women about shooting them?
Ohlendorf was quick to correct his questioner: “I didn’t shoot women. I merely supervised.”
Such is the essence of the seamlessly perverse codes of conduct that made for the most efficient butchery of humans the world has ever seen. And now, on the 60th anniversary of the opening of the most famous trial of Nazi war criminals ever held, comes chillingly fresh testimonynever before heardfrom some of the most powerfuland powerfully deludedhelpers in Adolf Hitler’s bestial campaign to solve the “Jewish question.”
Since its introduction last year by Alfred A. Knopf Publishers, The Nuremberg Interviews has become a worldwide publishing phenomenon. By August of this year, the book was selling in 14 languages in stores from Brazil to Japan. More translations are said to be forthcoming, and film rights to the book have been sold to documentary filmmakers in Europe.
Six decades after the close of World War II, it’s apparent that the world’s thirst for insight into Nazi Germany and the Holocaust is as keen as ever. Edited by Robert Gellately, an authority on Nazi Germany and Earl Ray Beck professor in Florida State’s history department, Nuremberg doesn’t disappoint. The book contains 33 finely drawn psychiatric profiles of 19 defendants at the International Military Tribunal (IMT), called to order Nov. 14, 1945, in Nuremberg’s Palace of Justice, plus those of 14 key witnesses, including Ohlendorf, all of whom were awaiting trials of their own.
The key to the book’s appeal, Gellately believes, lies in the extraordinary, “you-are-there” clarity and candor in the voices painstakingly recorded by an Army psychiatrist who daily visited the prisoners in their cells over the course of the historic, nine-month-long trial.
Leon N. Goldensohn was an Army major who had fought his way across France and into Germany as Berlin fell. Trained as a physician and psychiatrist before the war, Goldensohn suddenly found himselfat 34picked by the Army to minister to the physical and psychological needs of the most celebrated pack of Nazi elite ever captured.
Goldensohn was no fool. With nearly unfettered access to individuals whose hands literally touched the helm of Hitler’s horror machine, he realized that he was staring at the professional opportunity of a lifetime. All the world was wondering the same thing: What made these Nazis tick?
Goldensohn was determined to make the best of his incredibly lucky situation. The Army had picked him for the job simply because he had the right training, had ended the war at the right place and time, and was desperately needed at Nuremberg. Just as the tribunal was getting formed, two key Nazis set for trialDr. Leonardo Conti, former Reich minister of health, and Robert Ley, Hitler’s labor chiefhad hanged themselves in their cells. The incidents were a wake-up call to U.S. and British tribunal officials who suddenly realized that if something wasn’t done, they could soon wind up with nobody to try.
Goldensohn wasn’t the only specialist hired by the Army to keep a watchful eye on the Nuremberg defendants’ mental health. Joining the prison’s staff in January 1946, Goldensohn met Maj. Douglas M. Kelly, a psychiatrist, and Gustave Gilbert, an Army intelligence officer and trained psychologist who spoke fluent German. The three knew well that any mental health specialist of any stripe in the world would give his or her eyeteeth for their jobs. Kelly and Gilbert talked openly of co-authoring a book once the trial was over. Goldensohn, too, approached his Nazi “subjects,” as he called them, with his own book in mind.
As it turned out, after the trial Kelly and Gilbert went their separate publishing ways. Kelly’s book was something of a stillborn effort of limited historical value while Gilbert’s Nuremberg Diary (1948) is still in print.
Goldensohn, meanwhile, returned to the states, hung out his psychiatrist shingle in Manhattan, and proceeded to sit on a mother lode of typed interviews he’d made during his Nuremberg days, apparently confident that one day he’d get around to writing that book. The day never came. In 1961, just five days after his 50th birthday, Goldensohn was killed by a heart attack.
Thirty-three years later, Goldensohn’s older brother Eli, of New York, collected Leon’s notes from his family and brought them to the attention of a Manhattan-based publishing company.
Opening a Vault of Nazi Voices
In 2001 Gellately had just seen the publication of his second book investigating the inner-workings of Hitler’s political apparatus (Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany, 1933-1945, Oxford University Press) when he got a call from an agent with Knopf Publishing in New York. The agent revealed to Gellately what was in his possessionboxes full of typed interviews made by a prison psychiatrist working for the U.S. Army during the International Military Tribunal in 1946. Would Gellately be interested in editing the material for a book project?
“My initial reaction was that I didn’t want to do it,” Gellately recalled. “I thought it might be too much work, and I already had another book to do.”
But, his curiosity piqued, he asked to be sent some samples of the transcriptions to see for himself exactly what the Knopf agent was talking about. What he received intrigued him, and it seemed like a project that wouldn’t take a huge bite out of his time. He agreed to take it on.
But when he got all the material, he realized what he was up against. To make any sense out of the stacks of papers was going to require a major commitment of time and energy. Goldensohn’s note-taking, though meticulous, was replete with references to obscure people, places and events. Gellately was staring at a big puzzle with lots of missing pieces, an editing nightmare.
“To start with, editing is totally different work than composing,” he said. “You’re trying to find out who these people are (who are) being talked about. Just many, many riddles. I had to search high and low to find out who (some of) these people were.”
For three years, Gellately pored through the material, researched the historical links that shaped it into a coherent body of work, weeded out factual errors made both by Goldensohn and the people he interviewed, tossed out redundant and irrelevant material (some of the Nazis jabbered on and on about their mothers, or trips abroad or other such trivia) and finally hammered together a publishable manuscript. The result is an almost seamless narrative that, for better than 450 pages, eerily evokes the astounding evil of the Third Reich in a bracing, starkly fresh new way.
“This isn’t your normal history book,” Gellately said. “It doesn’t necessarily bring us any new facts or figures about Nazi Germany that we didn’t already know. The remarkable thing about this book is (its revelation of) the fresh voices that have been in a bottle, so to speak, for more than half a century, and now, suddenly, here are these historical figures speaking directly to us for the first time.”
Gellately said that Goldensohn’s interviewing style and note-taking techniqueto say nothing of his self-disciplineeasily set his work apart from the books published by his colleagues Kelly and Gilbert. Instead of jotting down summaries of his talks with prisoners after the fact, Goldensohn emulated a human tape recorder.
Not versed in the German language, Goldensohn depended heavily on his translators to give him precise renditions of prisoners’ responsesno matter how long-winded or bellicose they may beto his many questions. He took great pains in writing down every word his translators said, and then soon afterward typing up his notes himself. The startling result is almost as if a German-speaking stenographer had sat in every cell with Goldensohn and faithfully recorded every word said.**
“He recorded everything he could (that he thought might be) of psychiatric and human interest,” Gellately said. “That included details about the defendants’ personal historiestheir childhoods, relations with their parents and siblings, career ambitions and so forth.”
An almost daily visitor to most of the prisoners, Goldensohn also took careful note of his “subjects’” physical conditions, their personal mannerisms and appearances, their habits and, in particular, their attitudes during each visit. He proved himself to be an astute interpreter of body language and an extraordinary listener.
In most casesthough not allhis “subjects” grew to appreciate Goldensohn’s professionalism and personal style and didn’t hesitate to use him as a sounding board for their plights. Goldensohn encouraged this at every opportunity, knowing full well what the common denominator was among all the prisoners’ testimoniesthey were fighting for their lives. Interestingly, even though many, if not most of the prisoners regarded the tribunal as a “show trial” where their fates were predetermined by “the victors,” most were still eager to say anything that might help save them from the gallows or life imprisonment.
In their chats with Goldensohn, the Nazis had no idea how their words would be used, either by him or the prosecution (they never were). Tribunal rules didn’t permit any sort of protection against self-incrimination or doctor-patient confidentiality, nor demanded attorneys of the accused be present at interrogations. Nonetheless, with Goldensohn the Nazis saw an opportunity to try out their defense strategies before their turns at the dock, and in some casesnotably the trial’s “biggest fish,” Hermann Goeringto cement their “rightful” places in the annals of National Socialism and more specifically, to lay claim to their innocence for posterity.
Not surprisingly, what Goldensohn recordedand what ultimately appears in the book (thankfully in edited form)are common themes of benign ignorance (no one had a clue what Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler was really doing with all those cattle-cars of Jews), denial of personal responsibility (anything bad was done by somebody elsemost often Hitler, Himmler and Bormann) and rationalization (“I didn’t want to do it but was only following orders.”).
In other words, they commonly lied through their teeth.
Goldensohn knew he was often being lied to, Gellately said, and often he pressed the prisoners on statements that conflicted with known facts and at times, even their own testimony before the tribunal. “In some of these exchanges, Goldensohn was harder to satisfy than the prosecutor in the court,” Gellately wrote in his introduction.
For example, Goldensohn couldn’t resist “cross-examining” one witness he interviewed, Oswald Pohl, the SS officer who was chief administrator for 11 of Himmler’s worst concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Pohl’s repeated denials of having any responsibility for what went on in the camps pushed Goldensohn’s button. The psychiatrist, who typically kept his cool throughout his talks with the prisoners, couldn’t resist making Pohl squirm:
“I asked Pohl (again) if he considered himself in any way responsible or guilty...in the murder of the 5 million Jews in the concentration camps, and the countless other thousands of internees who perished through disease, neglect, starvation, beatings, hangings and shootings. (Pohl) was beginning to get an inkling, at least, of one individual’s view of his activities. He replied, ‘In no way am I responsible or guilty for the murder of the 5 million Jews or the deaths of others in the concentration camps...The fact that I was in charge of all the concentration camps in Germany from 1942 until the end is beside the point.’”
But empty denials and packs of lies weren’t all Goldensohn heard in those Nuremberg cells.
“Some of the testimonies he heard were shockingly truthful,” said Gellately. “Some of these people admitted the murders right down to the number of people they killed.”
‘I Didn’t Personally Murder Anybody.’
Easily the most notorious, self-confessed mass-murderer to appear before the tribunal was Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Hoess, the SS lieutenant colonel who was commandant of Auschwitz from the day it opened for business (summer 1940) to December 1943.
Called to the stand on April 15, 1946, as a witness for the defense, amazingly enough, Hoess shocked the court and the world’s conscience with his icily delivered account of the orchestrated killings at his command of millions of men, women and children by shooting and gassing. He had been caught by British troops only a month before, hiding out on a farm in Northwest Germany, turned in by his own 16-year-old son.
Seven days before he took the witness stand, Hoess, 46, sat on his cot in his Nuremberg cell, soaking his feet in a tub of cold water, and talked at length with Goldensohn for the first time. The Brits had treated him badly, he said, taking his shoes and socks and tossing him, naked but for a blanket, into a freezing prison cell. The cold water eased the ache of frostbite.
It’s not clear from Goldensohn’s account of his first encounter with Hoess whether he knew the details of the man’s hideous career. But from his notes, it’s evident that Goldensohn had heard the horror stories, the depths of depravity that have long since made “Auschwitz” a synonym for evil on an incomprehensible scale.
“Hoess said that while he was commandant of Auschwitz, soap was not manufactured from human fat. ‘We cut the hair from women after they had been exterminated in the gas chambers. The hair was then sent to factories, where it was woven into special fittings for gaskets.’
Was this hair also from men and women? ‘No, in 1943 I received the first orders to do it. We cut the hair only from women and only after they were dead.’
Did you supervise gas chamber murders? ‘Yes, I had the whole supervision of that business. I was often, but not always, present when the gas chambers were being used.’
You must be a hard man. ‘You become hard when you carry out such orders.’
It seems to me you must be hard to begin with. ‘Well, you certainly can’t have soft feelings, whether it is shooting people or killing them in gas chambers.’
Didn’t it bother you to kill children of the same ages as your own? ‘It was not easy for me or other military SS men but we were convinced by the orders and the necessity of these orders. If I had not had…reasons for the orders, I would have been unable to carry them through on my own initiativeto send thousands, millions of people to death.’
Hoess went on to provide Goldensohn with details about the killing operation he supervised at Auschwitz. He recounted his role in designing the gas chambers (he’d been the first to experiment with the popular disinfectant, Zyklon B, a commercial form of hydrocyanic acid, and had found it highly effective in killing prisoners; it also had been his idea to install peepholes in the chamber doors so that the dying process could be properly observed), and in the camp’s large crematoria, built directly above the gas chambers and conveniently linked by elevators for the rapid removal of the dead. He described the entire extermination process, from the arrival of the railcars packed with Jews and the “selection” of those for immediate gassing, to the gruesome mechanics of removing dental gold from bodies and burning mounds of corpses. He was loaded with statistics:
“Burning two thousand people took about twenty-four hours in the five stoves. Usually we could manage to cremate only about seventeen hundred to eighteen hundred. We were thus always behind in our cremating because as you can see it was much easier to exterminate by gas than to cremate, which took so much more time and labor.”
For all anyone can tell from reading Goldensohn’s account, Hoess might just have well been talking about how to win a baking contest at a county fair. On a follow-up visit to his cell a few days later, Goldensohn found Hoess sitting on his cot, this time wearing shoes, with a “transfixed facial expression with hands clasped together, cracking his knuckles...”
“I asked him today what he had been thinking about, and he had the same usual puzzled, apathetic expression and gazed at me to the wall and back to Mr. Triest, the translator, in a doleful manner, and then answered, ‘I haven’t been thinking of anything in particular.’ "
Goldensohn felt compelled a final time to ask Hoess about remorse.
“Does the fact that you put the phenomenal number of 2.5 million** men, women and children to death, not to mention your supervision of exterminations and excursions in all of the other camps that you supervised since 1943does that fact not upset you a little at times?”
Hoess replied: “I thought I was doing the right thing, I was obeying orders, and now, of course, I see that it was unnecessary and wrong. But I don’t know what you mean by being upset about these things because I didn’t personally murder anybody. I was just the director of the extermination program in Auschwitz.”
A few days later, Hoess would carry his cool demeanor, frankness and profound recall of statistics before the tribunal and put it all on the record. “The ‘final solution of the Jewish question’ meant the complete extermination of all Jews in Europe,” he testified. “We were required to carry out these exterminations in secrecy, but, of course, the foul and nauseating stench from the continued burning of bodies permeated the entire area, and all of the people living in the surrounding communities knew that exterminations were going on at Auschwitz.”
One of the last questions Goldensohn put to Hoess was about nightmares. Did he ever have any?
The only son of a devout Catholic father, who once had committed his boy to the service of God, instantly replied: “Never.”
Hoess and othersmost notably Otto Ohlendorf, commander of Einsatz (“action”) Group D that shot and gassed 90,000 Hungarian Jewsprovided the tribunal with more than enough graphic details for drawing the true, ghastly dimensions of Hitler’s madness.
Yet for all their ghoulish confessions, these cold-blooded SS thugs represented, of course, only the spear-point of the diabolical machine that created them. In stark contrast to most of the defendants in the trial, Hoess and his fellow henchmen hid nothing about the lethal nature of their work and freely acknowledged, both to Goldensohn and the court, the blood on their hands, albeit the mere consequence, they maintained, of being good soldiers who faithfully followed orders.
Not one of the 20 defendantsall of whom pleaded “not guilty” to their indictmentsshared any such willingness to confess their sins to their prison psychiatrist, much less their judges. Despite overwhelming evidence of their being involved up to their necks in the dirty business of the Reich, such “star” defendants as Goering, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Albert Speer, Alfred Rosenberg, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Hans Frank, Alfred Jodl and Walther Funk steadfastly denied any personal responsibility for any war crimes or crimes against humanity, as defined by the tribunal.
Goldensohn’s notes reveal a rich and colorful vein of deceit running through the talks he had with these former high-ranking Nazi officials. The following excerpts illustrate the elaborate dodges, self-delusions, convoluted rationalizationsand bald-faced liestrotted out as typical defenses, along with glimpses of Goldensohn’s impressions of each defendant:
Hermann GoeringCommander in Chief, Luftwaffe; President of the Reichstag; Prime Minister of Prussia
15 March, 1946? (not recorded): Hermann Goering is up and downcheerful usually, on other occasions definitely glum, chin in handchildlike in his attitudes, always playing to the public...A general question about the trial evokes a tempest of pettifoggery. “The damned courtthe stupidity. Why don’t they let me take the blame and dismiss these little fellowsFunk, Fritzsche, Kaltenbrunner? I never heard of most of them until I came to this prison! What do I care about danger? I’ve sent soldiers and airmen to death against the enemywhy should I be afraid?”
On his anti-Semitism: “No, no, I was never anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism played no part in my life...I never had any feeling of hatred toward the Jews. I realize that (statement) looks stupidthat it is hard to understand how a person like myself who made anti-Semitic speeches and who participated as number two man in a regime that exterminated 5 million Jews can say that he was not anti-Semitic. But it is true.”
On his establishment of Germany’s first concentration camps: “Yes, I frankly admit (the creation of) concentration camps for Communists and other enemies of National Socialism at that time, but certainly not with the idea of killing people or of using them as extermination camps.”
On his habit of stealing art from invaded countries: “Of all the charges which have been revealed against me, the so-called looting of art treasures by me has caused me the most anguish. But it was not done in the spirit of looting. I like nice things about me. I didn’t want them for myself in the final analysis anyway. They would have gone to the museums of Germany for posterity. If I had not taken them they would be in the hands of those damn Russians for the most part.”
On his knowledge of the genocide: “Certainly, as second man in the state under Hitler, I heard rumors about mass killings of Jews, but I could do nothing about it and I knew that it was useless to investigate these rumors and to find out about them accurately, which would not have been too hard, but I was busy with other things, and if I had found out what was going on regarding the mass murders, it would simply have made me feel bad and I could do very little to prevent it anyway.”
On the killing of innocents: “I have a conscience and I feel that killing women and children...is not the way of a gentleman. I don’t believe that I will go to heaven or hell when I die. I don’t believe in the Bible or in a lot of things which religious people think. But I revere women and I think it unsportsmanlike to kill children.”
On how his outlook on the value of human life compared to Hitler’s: “In the early years, Hitler pardoned many people who were sentenced to death. Later he didn’t do that. I myself was always strict in cases of treason and rape, but in other cases I pardoned people. Women I always pardoned and never sentenced to death.”
On his relationship with the Fuhrer: “I played a vital role in his eventual rise to power. I am convinced that...if I had not been displaced in Hitler’s confidence by such inferior people like (Martin) Bormann and (Heinrich) Himmler, I could have influenced Hitler further and perhaps averted a war...I was always closer to the hearts of the people than Hitler, but he was a great leader and I subscribe(d) to his program completely.”
On the war itself: “I said in court and I repeat to you that this war was not started by Hitler or Germany but by the Allies. Your country obliged England to go to war when we invaded Poland.”
On his personal responsibility for the war and its outcome: “I take all the responsibility for what happened in National Socialist Germany but not for the things I knew nothing about, such as the concentration camps and the atrocities.”
Ernst KaltenbrunnerChief, Reich Security Main Office (RSHA)
March-June 1946: “His manner is restrained, his voice well modulated and soft-spoken, and it seemed to me that he was striving to give the impression that he was not the ferocious police chief and successor of Himmler that he had been reputed to be in the press. Nevertheless, the meekness, calmness and well-mannered attitudes seemed indicative of a capacity for harsh, ruthless action...”
On Germany’s attack on Russia: “The Russians had troops on the Russian border of Hungary and Romania, which proves beyond any question of a doubt that the Russians intended an aggressive war in the Balkans... (Now) if...you learn of your opponent’s inention to attack you, and then you attack first, you are still the defender and not the aggressor. That was the case with Germany against Russia...Now, the Russians sit in the same court indicting us for a declaration of aggressive war when they really planned it.”
On Germany’s war with the U.S.: “(The prosecution) insist(s) that Germany declared war against America. That I consider true only technically because Americans shot first against us at sea without any declaration of war. If you recall, there was an order of Roosevelt’s for American boats to carry arms and to shoot against German submarines. Because of these things, the indictment of conspiracy for aggressive war against all these countries is repeatedly proven false.”
On Hitler’s political philosophy: “Hitler did not completely condemn democratic principlesin fact, he favored a certain type of democracy...Hitler’s final aims were a completely parliamentarian systemwell, not complete; there would always be the leadership principle, like the president of the United States, but that leader would use largely democratic principles.”
On his knowledge of the genocide: “Do you realize that I learned most about what went onthe atrocities, the concentration camps, the mass murders, the gas chambers, the terrorization of the partisans, and the terrible methods of the police itself against the German peopleI learned most about it here, because I only worked in Berlin as chief of the RSHA since 1943?...I am thought of as another Himmler. (Smiles.) I’m not. The papers make me out as a criminal. I never killed anyone.”
Wilhelm KeitelGeneral, Field Marshal, Chief of Staff of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (OKW)
6 April 1946: “Keitel is the wooden soldier, the wooden ingratiating smile, yet suffering from the human woes of attention, desire for approval.”
On his role in Hitler’s military machine: “I had no authority. I was field marshal in name only. I had no troops, no authorityonly to carry out Hitler’s orders. I was bound to him by oath. One of Hitler’s prime ideas was that each minister and functionary was to mind his own business. That’s why I learned about some of the (war-crime) business for the first time in this court.”
On his personal responsibility for anti-Semitism in the army: “As for Jewish measuresI tried to keep the army clear of anti-Semitism. Hitler decreed that World War I veterans who were Jews would be safe. But even that went to pieces. What could I do?...I was in it up to my neck by the time I realized the way things were going. What could I do? I could not resign in time of war; if I refused to obey I would be killed. Or I could commit suicide. On three different occasions I thought of resigning, but it was impossible.”
On Hitler’s brutality: “I often had the sharpest and harshest clashes with Hitler. But had I taken my life, I wouldn’t have improved things, because this demon went ahead with whatever he wanted and succeeded.” Did he consider Hitler a demon? “Yes. He was a demonlike man, possessed of inordinate willpower, who, whenever he had something in his mind, had to accomplish it. Hitler had charm, loved children, charmed women. But in political respects he would stop at nothing...However, I never heard of the brutality during the war. There was never a word of the Jewish persecutions or murders. Hitler was a great psychologist in that instance. He knew he could not ask such things of a gentleman and an officernot even mention the ideas.”
Walther FunkMinister of Economics, President of the Reichsbank
31 March 1946: “Walther Funk is a fat little man, roly-poly in appearance, with an indeterminate air, given to sentimental phrases and platitudes...When the question of his political activity is approached he becomes tearful or defensive or both, and reiterates in various ways his theme: ‘I was only a small man and I had no idea of what was going on.’
On his relationship with Jews: “Some of my closest friends were Jews...I had many Jewish friends, socially and in business. I never adhered to any racial theory. I thought, as did so many others, at first that the anti-Semitism of the Nazis was (only) a political point....(But) I did not foresee the mass murders or the extermination programs. Furthermore I personally assisted many Jews who would have been excluded from economic or cultural life...”
On the charge that as president of the Reichsbank he accepted such items as eyeglasses, watches and gold teeth collected from corpses: “I knew nothing about it. Of course, I knew the Reichsbank had a deposit from the SS, but where the gold came from I never knew... My God, if I had known such things!...I would have refused the deposit in the Reichsbank.”
On his defense: “Now, the prosecution will probably bring up (Otto) Ohlendorf, who worked for me and who admitted before this tribunal he killed ninety thousand Jews. I was quite upset when I heard Ohlendorf. I didn’t know things like that existed. And secondly, I didn’t know Ohlendorf was involved.”
On stripping Jews of property and jobs: “When the prosecution states that dispossessing the Jews economically was the first step in a planned extermination of the Jews, they are wrong. I just had nothing to do with exterminating a single Jew. Anyway, as Goering said, he was responsible for anything that came from my office...”
On his feelings of guilt: “I am guilty of one thingthat I should have cleared out and not had anything to do with these criminals in the first place. Later, it was too late. I was in it up to my neck. But as for the atrocities, I had not a thing to do with them.”
Joachim von RibbentropForeign Minister
27 January 1946: “He is a handsome man who appears to be in his late forties or early fifties. There is an air of superficial depression about him, though he frequently smiles or grins agreeably. He speaks excellent English with a faint British accent... The dominant theme of his recital (it amounted to that...) was how puzzled and astounded he is by the turn of events...Could Hitler have known of the atrocities, and if so, let them go on? No, it hardly seems possible. Hitler was such a good man, so ascetic, never ate meat, called Ribbentrop and his other close associates ‘eaters of dead flesh...’ ”
On understanding Hitler’s hatred of Jews: “I think the only way one can arrive at an understanding of his anti-Semitism growing all the time is because in America your Mr. Roosevelt had his brain trust which was made up of so many Jews; Felix Frankfurter, Claude Pepperwas it Pepper? ... It made Hitler feel more and more that an international conspiracy had caused the war, with the Jews behind it.”
On preventing the genocide: “The American Jews and others obviously hated the Nazi regime. They refused to cooperate in preventing President Roosevelt and his brain trust from lending assistance to England. Lend-lease continued and the whole American atmosphere toward Germany was hostile. If only these American bankers had intervened and threatened England, forced her to accept Hitler’s peace offersand we were prepared to make a peace with England in 1940all these terrible exterminations of the Jews could have been prevented.”
On his fascination with the Fuhrer: “I was truly under Hitler’s spell, that cannot be denied...He had terrific power, especially in his eyes...What I shall never comprehend is that six weeks before the end of the war he assured me we’d win by a nose. I left his presence then and said that from that time forth I was completely at a lossthat I didn’t understand a thing. Hitler always, until the end, and even now, had a strange fascination over me.”
On his personal responsibility for war crimes: “I fully intended to commit suicide when I was captured. I had poison on my person... I feel now that I must face the music, as you say in English. I must accept responsibility even though I had no power as foreign minister because it was a dictator state. (In) my defense...I stand up for the foreign policy of Germany from 1938 to the end, but regarding the atrocities, the actions in domestic politics, or the actions in occupied territories I can take no responsibility.”6
On the tribunal itself: “To the German people, we will always remain their leaders, right or wrong, and in a few years even you Americans and the rest of the world will see this trial as a mistake....The Allies should take the attitude, now that the war is over, that mistakes have been made on both sides, that those of us here on trial are German patriots, and that though we may have been misled and gone too far with Hitler, we did it in good faith and as German citizens. Furthermore, the German people will always regard our condemnation by a foreign court as unjust and will consider us martyrs.”
Julius Streichereditor of the anti-Semitic journal Der Sturmer (The Storm)
24 January 1946: “Streicher is a short, almost bald, hook-nosed figure of sixty-one years...He smiles constantly, the smile something between a grimace and a leer, twisting his large, thin-lipped mouth, screwing up his froggy eyes, a caricature of a lecher posing as a man of wisdom...He seems to me to be a man of probably limited normal intelligence, generally ignorant, obsessed with maniacal anti-Semitism, which serves as an outlet for his sexual conflicts, as evidenced by his preoccupation with pornography. Circumcision is a diabolical Jewish plot, and a clever one, he said, to preserve the purity of the Jewish stock. Christ, a Jew, was born of a mother who was a Jewish whore...(But) He denies any personal animosity toward the Jews.”
On the publication of Der Sturmer: “My publication was for a fine purpose. Certain snobs may now look down on it and call it common or even pornographic, but until the end of the war I had Hitler’s greatest respect, and Der Sturmer had the party’s complete support. At our height we had a circulation of 1.5 million. Everybody read Der Sturmer, and they must have liked it or they wouldn’t have bought it. The aim of Der Sturmer was to unite Germans and to awaken them against Jewish influence which might ruin our noble culture.”
On his role in fomenting the genocide: “Why, I had nothing to do with it! Since 1940, I lived as a gentleman farmer in Furth. Hitler must have decided to exterminate the Jews in 1941, because I knew nothing about it. Hitler probably felt that ‘they caused the war, now I will exterminate them.’ I think that it was the wrong policy.”
On the guilt of his fellow defendants in the genocide: “I am absolutely convinced that no one sits on the defendants’ bench who wanted these mass murders. The charge that I have something to do with having stirred up the populace by propaganda or by my speeches to commit such atrocities is false.”
On his conscience: “Major...if everyone had as clear a conscience as I have, nobody in the world would have to take sleeping pills or visit doctors. My conscience is as clear as a baby’s.”
Value in the Voices
Sixty years on, what possible good can come out of resurrecting the plaintive, vile hate-speech of long-dead Nazis in a book such as this? It’s a fair questionwhat the defendants disclosed to Goldensohn in those dank Nuremberg cells hardly revolutionizes historians’ understanding of Nazi Germany.
But for those who are still trying to come to gripsemotionally and intellectuallywith the awful events of the Third Reich, the book holds enormous intrinsic value, Gellately believes.
Response from the book has been “amazing,” he said. As word of the book’s release has spread, he’s lost track of the letters he’s received from people all over the world, and keeping up with e-mailed questions, he said, “is impossible.”
“People really want to understand, and this is heartening. Even after 60 years, people aren’t just fascinated with the evil (of the era) but they are trying to understand itwhat gave rise to it and why.”
Readers don’t necessarily need to know a great deal about Hitler or Nazism to benefit from the book, he said.
“It’s entirely possible to read this book without knowing anything about Nazi Germany and understand a lot of itnot all of it, but a good bit of it. Here’s this doctor asking the questions for the reader. You don’t need a Ph.D. to figure out that there’s something really rotten going on here.”
Then, too, for those whose appreciation of the Holocaust and its legacy can stand some honing, the book serves as a primer of sorts. It frankly reveals the critical importance of anti-Semitism to the rise of National Socialism, Gellately said. Since the war, revisionists have argued that anti-Semitism was little more than a gaudy sideshow to Hitler’s bid for political power. Not so, Gellately argues: “Anti-Semitism was the Alpha and Omega of National Socialism, period. Historians who play this down have not done their research.”
If nothing else, words that “dripped like tears of blood” (as one tribunal reporter put it) from the mouths of mass murderers Hoess and Ohlendorf help mute the puerile noise coming from revisionist camps. Goldensohn: “How did you figure a six-month-old Jewish infant must be killed?” Ohlendorf: “In the child we see the grown-up.”
Finally, the book is a sobering reminder of two important, often overlooked realitiesone historic, one possibly genetic. Goldensohn’s work underscores the importance to the world of the legal precedent set by the International Military Tribunal. While “the big Nazi trial” of 1946 still wears the stigma of a “show trial” and it obviously failed abysmally to stop genocide, it nonetheless marked the first time in history that nations formally declared the practice illegal and subject to prosecution under the law (see The Nuremberg Legacy).
But these revived voices of long ago may carry their most powerful message in what they say about human nature. In Gellately’s view, too many people are too quick to label Hitler and his killers as “monsters” or “demons”rare, other-wordly beasts born with an obscene taste for blood. That’s wide of the mark, he said.
Aside from Julius Streicher and Rudolf Hesscharacters he calls “genuine nutcases”the Nuremberg defendants weren’t either demons or crazy, Gellately said. To the contrary, they were normal people. Chillingly normal.
“What I find so interesting about the trial (and Goldensohn’s interviews) is that they show how ordinary peoplepeople like you and me, law-abiding, clean, well-educated, intelligent, rationalcan do such unspeakable things to other human beings.
“They show us how, in the name of ideology, they were willing to kill God knows how many people.
“And if they had the chance, they’d be doing it today.”
|* In 1946, the technology for portable audio recording devices was in its infancy, and therefore not available for Goldensohn’s use. |
|** This figure—which Goldensohn got from Hoess’ own testimony— is inflated. Though Hoess laid claim to that many killed under his command at Auschwitz, the most definitive estimate—by Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg—puts the number at around 1 million. Hilberg puts the total number of European Jews killed by the Nazis from 1939 to 1945 at more than 5.3 million. The figure does not include an estimated 5 million others (e.g. non-Jewish Poles, partisans, Gypsies, P.O.W.s) who died in Hitler’s concentration camps, either through extermination, starvation or disease. |
|†Not to be confused with Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz. Hess, deputy leader of the Nazi Party from 1932 to 1941, spent the war in an English prison after making a bizarre solo flight to Britain in May 1941 purportedly aimed at talking Churchill into accepting a peace treaty. |
|1 Numerous documents brought before the tribunal bore evidence of Goering’s long-standing anti-Semitism. From the earliest days of the National Socialist movement, Goering eagerly supported Hitler’s racial policies. In the mid-1930s, Goering, acting on orders from Hitler, led a massive campaign to remove Jews from the German economy. By his own admission, he also made many prominent anti-Semitic speeches parroting the Nazi party’s line against Jews. |
|2 In his testimony to Goldensohn, Goering said: “If I really felt that the killing of the Jews meant anything, such as that it meant the winning of the war, I would not be too much bothered by it.” |
|3 In the final days of the war, Hitler ordered Goering’s arrest and execution, although Goering managed to escape. In his “final political testament,” Hitler expelled Goering from the Nazi party.|
|4 As successor to Reinhard Heydrich, the notorious SS chief under Himmler, Kaltenbrunner had direct control over the Gestapo, the SD, the chief Nazi intelligence service, and later, the RSHA. Eyewitness testimony presented at the trial linked Kaltenbrunner to Mauthausen death camp where he witnessed the gassing of Jews. |
|5 Shortly after his capture, Funk broke down and admitted to his jailer, Col. Burton Andrus, his complicity in the recovery of gold teeth from the victims of death camps such as Auschwitz. Subsequent testimony at the trial by Oswald Pohl, SS administrator of Auschwitz and 10 other camps, confirmed Funk’s full knowledge of and support for this policy. |
|6 Documents presented at the trial showed that Ribbentrop eagerly participated in plans to implement Hitler’s demands for the expansion of German territory as early as January 1938 and also established his role in pushing for the elimination of Jews in occupied territories. In an April 1943 meeting with Hitler and Hungarian leader Miklos Horthy to discuss the deportation of Jews from Hungary, Ribbentrop told Horthy that the “Jews must either be exterminated or taken to concentration camps.”—Editor|