Friday, 12 April 2013

Nuremberg Diary, Gustave Gilbert

This is a fascinating and unique book.  It is an account of the Nuremberg war crimes trials written by the US Army psychologist who was assigned to watch over the defendants.

There is a certain fascination in reading what the former luminaries of the Third Reich said to each other and to Gilbert while in prison, and there is something oddly absorbing about the Nazi office politics which continued even after the regime had been pounded into the dust.  Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels were dead by this time, and their absence left a gaping hole in the dock and changed the dynamics of the proceedings fundamentally.  The trials were Hamlet without the prince.

The defendants' responses to the charges against them were often predictable.  They hadn't known about the atrocities.  They couldn't have been expected to believe the wild rumours about death camps.  They had stuck to their own areas of responsibility.  All the bad stuff was down to Hitler and Himmler.  Anyway, the victors were in no position to moralise.  Their conduct was hardly beyond reproach - and if they hadn't tried to humiliate Germany with the Treaty of Versailles after the last war, they would never have heard of Adolf Hitler.  Some of this may have had some truth in it, but at times the protestations of innocence stretch credulity.  It was hardly open to the leaders of the Third Reich to claim that they had no idea that Hitler had been bent on war or that they hadn't really hated Jews.

The most senior surviving Nazi in the dock was Hermann Goering, the commander of the Luftwaffe and Hitler's de facto deputy.  An arrogant and amoral man, Goering approached the trials with his customary bombast.  He affected the persona of a jovial realist, a man who had played for high stakes and accepted his defeat with good humour.  He knew that he was facing victors' justice, he said, and he was prepared to go to his death and await the verdict of history.  He tried to act as the defendants' commanding officer until the prison authorities separated him from the others.  He relished being the centre of attention, and Gilbert was struck by his boundless egotism, as highlighted by his delighted reaction to his success on an IQ test which Gilbert gave to him.  He was irritated when Hjalmar Schacht (of whom more later) told the judges that he had dressed up in a Roman toga and sandals on special occasions.  At one point, Gilbert managed to provoke him to fury by mentioning the former SA leader Ernst Roehm.  This triggered a deluge of vituperation against the "dirty homosexual swine" and the "perverted bandits" of the SA, whom he had purged 11 years before in the Night of the Long Knives.  Only when the shadow of death finally approached did his emptiness and impotence really hit home.  A prison chaplain refused to give him the last rites before he committed suicide.  For all his aggression and swagger, Gilbert judged him to be fundamentally a coward.

Some of the defendants were so appalling that they were ostracised even by their fellow war criminals.  There was Julius Streicher, the purveyor of antisemitic gutter propaganda, whose scandal-sheet Der Stuermer was depraved even by Nazi standards.  He remained morbidly obsessed with Jews and sex right to the very end, though he was impressed that the Zionists had taken up arms to wage war in Palestine.  And there was Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the most senior surviving SS leader in captivity.  Kaltenbrunner was a deeply sinister character.  He knew rather more about what had gone on in the death camps than most of the other men in the dock - but, amazingly, he still tried to brazen it out, even suggesting that his signature on incriminating documents had been forged.  His lawyer called as a witness a man whom Gilbert considered frankly psychotic - Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, who was subsequently hanged by the Poles after a later trial.  Hoess's matter-of-fact descriptions of the mechanics of genocide still have the power to shock and chill (apparently, the killing was easy - it was the incineration of the bodies that was the difficult bit).

Then there were the less interesting figures.  There was Joachim von Ribbentrop, a rather pathetic and one-dimensional man who was still banging on about Hitler's charisma and trying to lie his way out of trouble.  There was Baldur von Schirach, former head of the Hitler Youth, another second-rate man who seemed to have a somewhat exaggerated sense of his own importance.  And there was Rudolf Hess, who was clearly suffering from serious mental illness, and lapsed in and out of amnesia and conspiracy theorising.

Several of the defendants were career soldiers or sailors, including the deposed German head of state, Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz.  These men were predictably - and apparently sincerely - preoccupied with old-style Prussian ideas of military honour, and they affected disdain for the scheming politicians who had got them into their present predicament.  They advanced the famous Nuremberg Defence, claiming that they had been bound to obey their orders.  Some of them seemed more guilty than others, with Doenitz and General Jodl making perhaps a better impression than Field Marshal Keitel and Grand Admiral Raeder.  In the event, Keitel and Jodl were hanged (much to their chagrin - they would have preferred to be shot), though a German court later posthumously cleared Jodl.  Doenitz and Raeder were given prison sentences.

Overall, only three of the defendants were acquitted, and only one of these was a card-carrying Nazi - Hans Fritzsche, an obscure official from the propaganda ministry.  Several of the Nazis expressed repentance, but only a couple gave the impression of grasping the enormity of what their regime had done.  Hans Frank, the former governor of Poland, claimed to have rediscovered his religious faith and became a devout Catholic.  He observed sardonically that he seemed to have been the only one who had known that the Holocaust was going on.  Another was Albert Speer, who was candid about his guilt and, after his prison sentence was over, went on to make something of a career out of being the Nazi who said sorry.  Both men's motives seem to have been open to some degree of question.

Fritzsche aside, the tribunal acquitted two other defendants, Hjalmar Schacht and Franz von Papen.  Schacht was an outstandingly clever man who rivalled Goering for arrogance, and seemed surprised and affronted at finding himself on trial.  A banker by profession, he had served as Minister of Economics and President of the Reichsbank in the 1930s, raising the money that Hitler spent on war and genocide.  He protested a little too much that he had never been a true believer in the man.  Papen was a second-rate conservative politician who had briefly served as Reich Chancellor in 1932.  His bungled plotting and attempts to get back into power had opened the door for Hitler to be appointed as Reich Chancellor in January 1933.  Papen was then rapidly sidelined, but he continued to work for Hitler in one capacity or another until 1944.

This book is a fascinating and immensely valuable testimony from a uniquely well-placed insider.  If there is one criticism, it is that he generally avoids engaging in any deep psychological analysis of the defendants.  He prefers to let them speak for themselves rather than putting them on the couch.