Wednesday, February 02, 2005
"This fight has nothing to do with soldierly gallantry or principles of the Geneva Convention. If the fight against the partisans is not waged with the most brutal means, we will shortly reach the point where the available forces are insufficient to control the area. It is therefore not only justified, but it is the duty of the troops to use all means without restriction, even against women and children, so long as it ensures success." -Wilhelm Keitel, chief of staff of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces of Germany, Dec. 16, 1942.
Coincidental with America's tortuous debates over the issue of prisoner abuse in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay is the appearance of an extraordinary new book containing in-depth conversations with defendants at Nuremberg in 1945-46. Compiled from transcripts by American psychiatrist Leon Goldensohn, who was assigned to monitor the mental health of the defendants during their war crimes trials, The Nuremberg Interviews: An American Psychiatrist's Conversations with the Defendants and Witnesses (Knopf) is a mesmerizing book about war, remembrance, and the distressingly bland face of evil. It also casts a haunting shadow across our country from a regime we once thought was moral light years away.
Leon Goldensohn's conversations with jailed leaders of the Third Reich elicit astonishing denials and rationales for atrocities. While some members of the military, most notably Generals Kesselring and Ewald von Kleist, honorably shouldered responsibility for their wartime actions, others were less than forthcoming.
"Everything is now blamed on Hitler, Himmler and Borman," Goldensohn wrote bemusedly at one point, noting that Reich leaders Adolph Hitler, Heinrich Himmler and Martin Borman were dead. Julius Streiche, founder of the anti-Semite journal Der Sturmer, claimed to know nothing about even the existence of Auschwitz, "until this trial." Oswald Pohl, administrator of all Nazi concentration camps, provided this astonishing disclaimer: "Although I am responsible for the camps, and the extermination program took place within these camps, I am not responsible for the extermination program itself." Said Hanz Frietzsche, senior minister in Joseph Goebbels's Ministry of Propaganda: "I can defend myself in one sentence, 'I did it as a German patriot.'"
Others tried to appeal to common sense and sportsmanship. "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 gone too far with Hitler, we did it in good faith and as German citizens," said Joachim von Ribbentrop, German foreign minister from 1938-45. Von Ribbentrop nevertheless was hanged on Oct. 16, 1946 along with nine Nuremberg co-defendants.