Nuremberg: Infamy on Trialby Joseph E. Persico
"A vivid reconstruction of the actions of the wartime allies and the Nazi elite at Nuremberg. Persico eaily carries us into a deeper understanding of the trials."New York Newsday.
- Penguin Publishing Group
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After a hiatus of nearly half a century, Nuremberg is again on people's lips. After over one hundred wars, insurrections, civil conflicts, and revolutions that have racked the world over the past forty-five years and claimed more than 21 million lives, after hardly a breath of outrage over atrocities committed in the name of ideology, liberation, independence, and religion, people at last have begun to cry out for justice that can penetrate national borders, for a Nuremberg-style prosecution of war criminals. The cry arose in 1990 after Saddam Hussein seized Kuwait, then bloodily suppressed Iraq's Shiite and Kurd minorities. The cry for justice, for a new Nuremberg, became full-throated with the black-and-white images of Auschwitz and Buchenwald updated in color in Serbian concentration camps in the former Yugoslavia, with accounts of mass deportation, calculated extermination, and organized rape, with the campaign of "ethnic cleansing" of Bosnian Muslims, an echo of Adolf Hitler's call to "cleanse the world of Jewish poison."
Finally, the family of nations acted. On February 22, 1993, the United Nations Security Council voted to create an international tribunal to prosecute war crimes committed in the crumbling lands that once formed Yugoslavia. In May, the court was established. Another Nuremberg.
But what was Nuremberg? What happened in that shattered city between 1945 and 1946? Were lessons learned or lost after the trials of Nazi leaders? Why did its hope blaze so brightly and then burn out, the flame of its example reduced thereafter virtually to historic ash?
It would be convenient to say that this bookwas written in response to the current interest in Nuremberg, to invoke history's guidance in dealing with war criminals in our time. Actually, the book has older, more personal roots. Its impetus has been an image lodged in my memory for nearly fifty years, a photograph that appeared in newspapers in October 1946: Hermann Goring, his face contorted in death, just after he committed suicide on the eve of his scheduled execution as the leading surviving Nazi war criminal. To one too young to have fought in World War II, but old enough to have been shaped by that cataclysm, the trial and execution of the major Nazi leaders has a riveting fascination. The trial seemed to say that good must triumph over evil, a perception perhaps stronger in a boy then sixteen than in a man now in his sixties.
Through the years I dipped casually into the story. What I encountered was a considerable literature dealing with the legal dust kicked up by the trial of the Nazis before the International Military Tribunal of Nuremberg. Most of these books made a contribution to understanding. Some were outstanding in dissecting the juridical controversies. What they whetted the appetite for, but failed to satisfy, was my curiosity about the human drama that must have been unfolding in Nuremberg during 1945 and 1946. As I was to discover when I began my research, beneath the legal battle pitting prosecution against defense lay several simultaneous conflicts. Nuremberg set defendants against defendants. Hermann Goring, for example, wanted his fellow Nazis to go down with the swastika flying; Albert Speer preached confession and contrition. Speer, in turn, vied against Fritz Sauckel to see which one would have to bear the heaviest guilt for the Nazi slave labor program. Robert Jackson, the American prosecutor, on leave from the U.S. Supreme Court, battled professionally and personally with Francis Biddle, the American Nuremberg judge. Biddle, disappointed at being deprived of the chief judgeship ([hmp2]Jackson's doing), maneuvered the other judges to try to make himself de facto head of the IMT. The representatives of the four nations the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France that made up the court fought to see whose system of jurisprudence would prevail, the Anglo-Saxon or the Continental. The prison commandant was determined to maintain an escape-proof jail, only to lose three prisoners to suicide. The prison psychiatrist and psychologist, who had unlimited access to the defendants, turned this unprecedented opportunity into a race to see who could publish the first insider book on the psyche of war criminals. In the testy relations between the staffs representing the Western Allies and the Soviet Union, we see intimations of the coming Cold War in microcosm in a Nuremberg courthouse. And outside the courthouse, while American prosecutors inside were trying defendants for the murderous consequences of Nazi racism, white GIs brawled with segregated black GIs, importing America's own brand of racism.
Overarching all these subdramas was the major theater, the Nuremberg trial itself. Was it victors' vengeance or the authentic pursuit of justice? Indeed, can a just court be created to try acts which have not been defined as crimes until after the fact? The charge of ex post facto law was to haunt the IMT from its first day to its last. How valid is the jurisdiction of a court that permits a British prosecutor to try a German national before a Soviet judge for crimes committed in Poland? If aggression was on trial at Nuremberg, then what were Soviet judges doing on the bench? Their nation had invaded Finland and conspired with Germany to divide up Poland. And, granted that Nazi atrocities dwarfed the misdeeds of other belligerents, had not war crimes been committed on all sides? Why were only those on the losing side tried?
These anomalies raise the age-old distinction between law and justice. They are not the same. If the law at Nuremberg was flawed, does it follow that the justice meted out was flawed as well? Before, during, and after the trial, respected voices argued that honest vengeance was purer and preferable to rickety legality. Winston Churchill was but one of many who wanted the top Nazis shot out of hand with minimal legal fuss.
This work is an attempt to reveal these intersecting dramas. That I was able to proceed was largely the result of serendipity. In Washington, D.C., in March 1991, alumni of the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal held a forty- fifth-anniversary reunion. The reunion answered a question I had posed to myself. What fresh perspectives could be brought to a trial that ended in 1946 and has since been written on voluminously? To my good fortune, the reunion organizers had published a directory of persons still living who had been involved in the trial. But for a few protagonists, Nuremberg turned out to have been largely a young person's game. Many participants were still available to provide firsthand accounts of their experiences. I was able to interview people who had never before talked about Nuremberg: prosecutors, interpreters, researchers, journalists, jailers, secretaries, drivers, and bodyguards, whose individual contributions are recognized in the acknowledgments section.
The most moving part of the research was an odyssey to the sites where the story took place: to work in the same courtroom where Hermann Goring displayed his perverse brilliance (a longhaired, slack-jawed drug dealer was on trial during my visit); to stand on the podium from which Hitler whipped the Nazi faithful to a frenzy during Parteitagen (Party Days) at Nuremberg's Zeppelin Field; to pore over letters the defendants wrote to their families on the last days of their lives and to see unpublished photographs of their executions at the Berlin Documents Center; to go through Auschwitz, the scene of events so exhaustively exposed at the trial, with a party of Austrian Jews, all of whom had family ties to the Holocaust and some of whom were survivors.
One question I pondered was how to deal with the massive and sickening evidence of atrocities introduced during the trial. Though it may not seem so to the reader, I have chosen to keep such material to a minimum, just enough to communicate the nature and magnitude of these depredations. To include more would risk numbing rather than quickening the reader's sensitivities.
Nuremberg stands as a powerful drama in its own right in its own time. But what does it say to our time? Beyond punishing the guilty, the dream of those who championed this historic experiment was to set precedents, to give would-be aggressors pause, and to hold future aggressors accountable. Until virtually this moment, that dream has failed abysmally. Does Nuremberg offer lessons, a usable matrix that can be salvaged from the bin of history and put to good service to deal with war crimes in our era? Given the UN's recent actions, we may be about to find out.
My treatment of the trial is intended for the lay reader and general student of history more than for the academic or legal historian. For that reason, I have chosen a strongly narrative style, hoping to interest a new generation in an old but important story. The style does not influence the factual foundations of the book. In light of recent controversies and court actions, there has arisen in publishing a heightened sensitivity to the authenticity of words and thoughts attributed to figures in works professedly of nonfiction. When I have described subjects of the present work as thinking, saying, or doing something, I have drawn from their own writings, letters, oral and written histories, and from other books, archival documents, contemporary press accounts, the above- mentioned interviews, and the forty-two-volume transcript of the trial itself. The account is narrative supported by historic fact.
Nuremberg, October 15, 1946
Willi Krug cocked an eye at the battered alarm clock he kept within arm's reach on the floor. Five-thirty, still dark out, with only the pewter light of the moon angling down from the barred window and spilling through the open doorway of his cell. The rare sound of a truck revving and pulling out of the prison yard had awakened him. Earlier his sleep had been broken by the noise of hammers banging and the muffled shouts of GIs. He had fallen back to sleep until the truck woke him again.
Willi swung his legs out of the cot and planted his feet on the cold stone floor. He started pulling on his clothes, cast-off U.S. Army fatigues dyed black for prison staffers like himself. He left his cell and paused on the catwalk. An uneasiness swept over him. The hammering in the night, the sound of the departing vehicle. This could be the day. Ever since the sentences had been handed down, two weeks before, on October 1, the unknown had hung over the prison like a cloud.
He began making his way down a stairwell strung with chicken wire to prevent suicide leaps. He had made this dawn descent every day for nearly fourteen months, ever since the defendants had been sent here for trial. Krug was not a reflective man, or he might have pondered the odd existence he led confined to prison yet not a prisoner, something more than a trusty, but still something less than the well-fed American jailers for whom he worked.
In the last days of the war, he had been a corporal attached to a field kitchen in General Wenk's Twelfth Army, which had been deployed to halt the Russian advance on Berlin. Willi's immediate concern had not been whether they could stop the Red Army. That hope was forlorn. His aim had been to keep himself out of Russian hands. He had eventually succeeded, along with hundreds of thousands of his comrades, thanks to a man now caged in this prison, Grand Admiral Karl Donitz. Donitz had succeeded Adolf Hitler at the end, and with all lost, had determined to drag out the surrender negotiations the few precious days that allowed Germans like Willi to flee West and entrust their fate to the expectedly more tender mercies of American and British captors. Willi had once tried to express his gratitude to the old man, but something stiff and forbidding in Donitz's manner had held him back.
After his surrender to the American Ninth Army, Willi had been herded into a cage at Bad Kreuznach near the Rhine, one of two hundred American pens holding over four million defeated Germans. They had been left out in the open, rain or shine, fed half rations and one cup of water a day. In those POW cages, Willi's comrades, who had survived the heat of North Africa and the winters of Russia, died by the thousands. And they call Germans war criminals, he and his comrades had complained.
He had survived through the cunning of the desperate. Willi had picked up a smattering of English while working as a waiter before the war, and managed to have himself selected to serve as a trusty at an improvised prison in Bad Mondorf, Luxembourg. There he was astonished to find himself among German leaders whom he would have once considered as remote as the stars. When over a dozen of them were shipped to Nuremberg to be tried as war criminals, Willi was given a choice. He could be released and go home, or else work for the Americans in the Nuremberg prison. For Willi Krug home was the bombed-out shell of what had been an apartment building in Schweinfurt, rubble that had entombed his wife and child. He had been offered what amounted to a roof over his head and regular meals more than millions of his countrymen could now hope for. But he would have to live in the Nuremberg prison. Willi gratefully seized the offer.
On the main floor of the cellblock he looked out on a familiar scene. On each side of the corridor stood the GI guards, one to a cell, condemned to stare through a square porthole, never taking their eyes off their charges, two hours on and four hours off, for twenty-four-hour stretches. Usually they greeted him, "Hey Willi, wie geht's, you old Kraut," and other fractured German gibes as he passed by. His morning arrival was the signal for the guards to turn off the spotlights that they directed through the portholes onto the sleeping prisoners' faces. But this morning's air of anxiety had tempered even these brash young Americans, and they let him pass with bare nods.
He headed for the basement to fill the tin washbasins that he brought to each cell every morning. En route, he passed cell 5 and glanced in. He briefly caught sight of the Reichsmarschall's square face, defiant chin, long sharp nose, and thin lips. Hermann Goring lay there, hands resting outside the blankets, regulation style, so the guard could see them. Willi hurried by. He was required only to dispense cold water for washing up. But whenever he had time, he liked to heat the water for the Reichsmarschall, particularly this morning when he wondered if he might ever perform this small kindness again. The corporal posted at the end of the cellblock waved him down the basement stairway to the kitchen. Willi smiled. He always smiled, even at their taunts. The truth was that he did not much like the guards. They were like badly brought-up children. Their behavior toward the prisoners, addressing once-powerful leaders of the Reich by first names, even nicknames, shocked him.
He checked the stairwell carefully as he descended. It was the GIs' habit to grab an unauthorized smoke on the stairs, and it was a rare morning on which he did not find a treasured butt or two.
Hermann Goring had not been asleep when Willi Krug passed by. He had slept fitfully that night. The Amytal and Seconal pills that Doctor Pfluecker always gave him had failed. He too felt the foreboding, and with far more reason than Krug had. The guard snapped off the hated light and Goring allowed his eyes to open. His exposed hands felt cold. He felt scant desire to rouse himself, and closed his eyes again.
He might well have been recalling the last days of the other war, the war of his early manhood. One memory always stood out as crisply as the sun on that July morning in 1918. Three months before, their squadron commander, the living legend Baron Manfred von Richthofen, creator of the Flying Circus, single-handed destroyer of eighty enemy planes, had himself been shot down and killed over France. Goring, with twenty-one kills to his credit, holder of the Pour le Merite, the coveted "Blue Max" presented personally by the Kaiser, and with enough panache to rival the Red Baron, fully expected to be his successor. Instead, the squadron went to a by-the-book flying bureaucrat, Wilhelm Reinhardt. Goring, impatient and impetuous, had been judged lacking in the steadiness required of a commanding officer.
That July morning, he and Reinhardt had been sent to Adlershof field to meet Anthony Fokker, the Dutch-born builder of German warplanes. On the way out of the officers' mess, Goring spotted an awkward-looking biplane in a corner of the airfield. What was that? he asked Fokker. Just an experimental craft, Fokker said. He wanted to fly it, Goring announced. It had been insufficiently tested, Fokker warned. Goring insisted. After a quick explanation of the controls, he found himself bumping along a grassy runway and nursing the aircraft aloft. He beat up the field, flying at times almost at zero altitude. He looped and spinned and yawed and finally, after a breathtaking pass down the runway on canted wings, brought her in and jumped out of the cockpit before an astonished crowd.
Reinhardt's pride demanded that he too take up the plane. He was, after all, commander of the Richthofen Flying Circus. The spectators watched Reinhardt streak toward the sun. And then it happened: a resounding crack, audible from the ground. The left wing simply drifted away from the fuselage. That was how Hermann Goring, at the age of twenty-five, became commander of the Flying Circus.
Two weeks later, he stole from behind a cloud, locked his guns on a British Spad, and shot down his twenty-second plane. It was the last time he would experience the pure adrenaline joy of the kill. After that, it all fell apart. The Kaiser fled to Holland. The despised Communists paraded down Berlin's Unter den Linden. On November 11, a courier handed Goring a dispatch. Germany had surrendered. He was to turn over his squadron at a French airfield near Strasbourg. They could go to hell, he answered. His commanding officer threatened a court-martial. Goring sent a few token aircraft to the French and led the rest of the squadron back to a field at Darmstadt. As he neared the end of the field, he slewed the plane around until the wingtip struck the ground. He kept churning until the Fokker was ground to junk. The other pilots followed his lead.
A polite tapping on the cell door broke Goring's reverie and he sat up with a start. Framed in the porthole was the sad, smiling face of Willi Krug, announcing that he had brought the Reichsmarschall his water. Goring reluctantly threw off the covers and took the wash basin. He set it on the table opposite his cot. Despite all the power and glory that had followed, those days in the van of the Flying Circus had been the acme of his life. This day was certainly the lowest and possibly the last of the mad adventure he had lived. He had managed to cheat the victors of his planes at the end of the last war. All he wanted now was to cheat them of the vengeance they expected to exact from him. He began to unbutton his blue silk pajamas, bent over, and splashed the water over his face. It was, he noted, agreeably warm.
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Excellent book to study the issues and politics in the first international war crimes tribunal. The story was developed into a made-for-television movie and reading the book makes a person want to see the production. I was suprised that the author presented the Nazi's as more intriguing characters than were the allied lawyers. Hermann Goering was truly an amoral opportunist but he also had his disturbed sense of honor and a form of sadistic courage. The problem I have always had with the trials at Nuremberg is the fact that the Soviets sat beside the democracies as judges. It is true that the Russian people suffered terribly during the war but Stalin's regime was every bit as monstorous as Hitler's. The fact that the Bolsheviks sat in as prosecutors and tribunes tainted the ideals for which the war was fought. The democracies should have proceeded with their own evidence, witnesses, and documentations. The verdicts would have came out the same and the ideals would truly have been a benchmark for civilization to strive toward.