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December 26, 1945
Fort Dix, New Jersey
Benjamin Ferencz is finally out of the army. It is seven months almost to the day that the war ended, and almost as long since Heinrich Himmler killed himself. Discharge papers in hand, the scrappy twenty-five-year-old Harvard-educated attorney steps out into the pale midday light of this military demobilization center, eager to return home to New York City.
Though just five feet tall, Sergeant Ferencz served as an active duty enlisted man throughout the war. Ferencz survived the Normandy D-day landings, the Allied advance across France, and the Battle of the Bulge before the army began making use of his legal background. In 1945, he was reassigned from his artillery unit to the headquarters of Gen. George S. Patton's Third Army. A brand-new unit known as the War Crimes Section was being formed. Benny Ferencz was one of the first recruits.
Ferencz is known for being openly defiant of authority. "I am not occasionally insubordinate," Ferencz corrected an officer, who noted that description of his behavior in an official file. "I am usually insubordinate. I don't take orders that I know are stupid or illegal."
It was that independent streak, however, that allowed Ferencz to do a job few men would tackle. The New York native traveled by himself in a jeep with the German words "Immer Allein" (Always Alone) painted across the hood. His gruesome mission was to enter concentration camps immediately after their liberation and compile evidence of atrocities.
Benny Ferencz was born a Jew in the Transylvania region of Romania. If not for his parents' decision to immigrate to the United States just before his first birthday, Ferencz would most likely have been rounded up and sent to a death camp. In that respect, Benny Ferencz is lucky, for the United States would soon turn a blind eye to the growing German suppression of the Jewish population. Between 1933 and 1943, just 190,000 Jews were allowed to immigrate into America — a small fraction of the millions seeking asylum.
Ferencz has an active imagination, and as he drives alone through the hostile German countryside, he imagines himself to be a military version of the Lone Ranger.
In fact, the Brooklyn native is something far more daring: the world's first Nazi hunter.
* * *
"They were all basically similar," Ferencz will later write of entering the death camps. "Dead bodies strewn across the camp grounds, piles of skin and bones, cadavers piled up like cordwood before the burning crematoria, helpless skeletons with diarrhea, dysentery, typhus, TB, pneumonia, and other ailments, retching in their louse-ridden bunks or on the ground with only their pathetic eyes pleading for help. Few had enough strength to muster a smile of gratitude. My mind would not accept what my eyes saw. It built a protective barrier to enable me to go on with my work in what seemed an incredible nightmare. I had peered into Hell."
Though Ferencz was not a trained investigator, his role required him to approach his job with the keen eye of a detective. His first stop at each camp was the Schreibstube — camp office — to pore over official files. The German penchant for detailed record keeping proved to be their undoing: the date and cause of death for each inmate was dutifully recorded. All too often the notation "auf den flucht erschosssen" — shot while attempting to escape — would appear next to a name.
"In English," Ferencz will write, "they would call it murder."
Thanks to the meticulous files, Ferencz learned when trains arrived in a camp, which country they came from, and how many prisoners were on board. At first, the job was intense but satisfying after three years of combat duty. However, over time, the gruesome work drained the young attorney.
"There is no doubt," Ferencz will later write, "that I was indelibly traumatized by my experiences as a war crimes investigator of Nazi extermination centers."
The camp at Ebensee has left the most haunting impression. Upon liberation, "some inmates caught one of the SS guards as he was trying to flee; judging by the violence of the assault, he may have been the camp commandant. First he was beaten mercilessly. Then the mob tied him to one of the metal trays used to slide bodies into the crematorium. There he was slowly roasted alive, taking him in and out of the oven several times.
"I watched it happen and did nothing," Ferencz will later write. "It was not my duty to stop it, even if I could have. And frankly, I was not inclined to try."
Ferencz's labors will make headlines on November 21, 1945, when the first Nazi war criminals are put on trial in Nuremberg, Germany. But that is none of his concern. All Benny Ferencz wants to do is go home. So the day after Christmas 1945, the war finally over and his discharge complete, Ferencz puts Nazi hunting behind him. He makes plans to marry Gertrude, his longtime sweetheart. What will happen after that, Benny Ferencz does not know. Like ten million other American soldiers just home from the war, he is out of a job and hoping to find work fast.
Of one thing, Ferencz is certain: he will never return to Germany as long as he lives.
He is wrong.
* * *
On the same date of Heinrich Himmler's death, Gen. Otto Ohlendorf, former leader of the Einsatzgruppen mobile death squads, is detained by the Allies in the town of Lüneburg. Ohlendorf had separated from Himmler shortly before the Reichsführer's capture. It is the general's bad luck that he is captured by the British instead of Americans. The United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS) is not aggressively pursuing war crimes prosecutions. Instead, it is recruiting members of the Nazi Party to spy against the Soviet Union.
The American OSS station chief in Switzerland, the aristocratic Allen Dulles, is in fact actually subverting the work of Benny Ferencz and giving assistance to a number of leading Nazis. Incredibly, Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, finds sanctuary with the OSS.
In March, at a time when Germany and America were still very much at war, another high-ranking SS official, Gen. Karl Wolff, made his way to Zurich, Switzerland — a neutral country. There he enjoyed a scotch with Dulles to discuss the early surrender of German forces in Italy. But Wolff also had a secondary goal of impressing upon Dulles that the Nazi SS general might be of assistance to the American spymaster once Germany finally surrendered.
But Gen. Otto Ohlendorf, SS badge number 880, has no such connection to the OSS — and thus, no protection from the legal fury of Benny Ferencz.
Which will soon come with a vengeance.
October 1, 1946
The hangman awaits.
This morning begins the final day of what will go down in history as the Nuremberg Trials. The purpose of the proceedings is not only to prosecute the highest echelon of Nazi war criminals but also to reveal to the world once and for all the true extent of their depravities.
The Nazi defendants sit in the docket of the great courtroom at the Justizpalast — Palace of Justice. Behind them stands a row of white-helmeted American guards, hands clasped behind their backs. This security detail does not carry handguns, fearing that one of the accused might somehow gain possession of a weapon and open fire in the courtroom. Instead, each guard clutches a short billy club, prepared to maintain order if force is needed.
The chief prosecutor for the United States is Supreme Court Justice and former U.S. attorney general Robert H. Jackson. "The trial began on November 20, 1945, and occupied 216 days of trial time," Jackson will summarize in his report to American president Harry S. Truman. "Thirty-three witnesses were called and examined for the prosecution. Sixty-one witnesses and nineteen defendants testified for the defense; 143 additional witnesses gave testimony by interrogatories for the defense. The proceedings were conducted and recorded in four languages — English, German, French, and Russian — and daily transcripts in the language of his choice was provided for prosecuting staff and all counsel for defendants. The English transcript of the proceedings covers over 17,000 pages. All proceedings were sound-reported in the original language used. In preparation for the trial over 100,000 captured German documents were screened or examined and about 10,000 were selected for intensive examination as having probable evidentiary value." More than twenty-five thousand captured still photographs were brought to Nuremberg, together with Hitler's personal photographer, who took most of them. More than eighteen hundred were selected and prepared for use as exhibits. The tribunal, in its judgment, states: "The case, therefore, against the defendants rests in large measure on documents of their own making."
The trial has been a phenomenon captivating the world. Four hundred spectators are on hand each day. Correspondents from more than three hundred media outlets from twenty-three countries chronicle the testimony.
The most anticipated testimony begins on March 13, 1946, when Hermann Göring is called to testify. He was arrested on May 9, 1945, by the U.S. Seventh Army's 636th Tank Destroyer Battalion. Wrongly believing that he could negotiate his freedom directly with Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, Göring turned himself over to American troops at the former SS headquarters at Fischhorn Castle in the mountains of Bavaria. As the most powerful Nazi figure to stand trial, his appearance is eagerly anticipated. The head of the German air force — the Luftwaffe — Göring has lived a full life. He grew up in a castle just thirty miles from where he now sits, the son of a cuckolded government official whose wife openly slept with the castle's owner. Young Hermann was sent to boarding school as a boy, then on to a military academy. He seemed destined for a career in the infantry, but Göring's sense of daring led him to the world of aviation. Initially passed over for a spot in flight school, Göring ended World War I as one of Germany's top fighter pilots, an ace credited with twenty-two aerial kills. By then, he had risen to become commander of Jagdgeschwader 1, nicknamed the "Flying Circus."
But the arrogant Göring was deeply bitter about Germany's defeat, believing that Jews and a weak German government had betrayed the German people. Eventually, Göring witnessed a speech by a young former soldier who shared these views. Adolf Hitler was just thirty-three when Hermann Göring heard him speak in Munich in 1922. Göring believed so completely in the platform of Hitler's Nazi Party that he joined the next day. Hitler reciprocated by giving Göring command of the Sturmabteilung (SA), the fledgling paramilitary wing of the party. As Hitler's power grew, so did Göring's.
"I liked him," was Hitler's simple explanation for the series of promotions.
Between 1941 and 1945 Göring served as vice-chancellor of Germany, making him the second-most-powerful man in the country. In addition to being Reichsminister of the German air force, Göring was also in charge of forestry and economics. In 1940, shortly after the fall of France, Hitler named Göring Reichsmarschall des Grossdeutschen Reiches, or Reich Marshal of the Greater German Reich, the highest military rank in Nazi Germany. Over the years, the dashing young fighter pilot of World War I bloated into "der dicke Hermann"— Fat Hermann — in the words of many Germans. Göring ate and drank with abandon. He kept lions as pets, confiscated great works of art, and designed his own elaborate uniforms. He was the bon vivant to Hitler's ascetic, underestimated only by those who did not know of Göring's great intellect and lust for power.
* * *
Göring does not disappoint on the stand. He alternately charms and philosophizes. It is a performance so full of bluster that it earns him the contempt of his fellow defendants.
Former Nazi armaments director Albert Speer will write: "Hermann Göring, the principal in the trial, grandiloquently took all responsibility, only to employ all his cunning and energy to deny that he bore any specific guilt. He had become a debauched parasite; in prison he regained his old self and displayed an alertness, intelligence, and quick-wittedness such as he had not shown since the early days of the Third Reich."
Nine days after taking the stand, Göring finally steps down. No other defendant will testify as long. "The only motive which guided me was my ardent love for my people, its happiness, its freedom, and its life. And for this I call on the Almighty and my German people to witness," he states in his closing remarks, rising to his feet just before delivering the statement.
When the verdicts are finally read on October 1, twelve of the defendants are sentenced to death, three are sentenced to life in prison, four are sentenced to jail terms of ten to twenty years, and three are acquitted.
"I've never been cruel," Göring will confide to a court psychologist one morning. "I'll admit I've been hard. I do not deny that I haven't been bashful about shooting 1,000 men for reprisal, or hostages, or whatever you please. But cruel? Torturing women and children ... that is so far removed from my nature.
"Maybe you think it is pathological of me, but I still cannot see how Hitler could have known about all those ugly details. Now that I know what I know, I wish I could just have Himmler here for ten minutes to ask what he was pulling off there."
By 10:30 p.m. on October 15, 1946, fourteen days after the verdict, Hermann Göring has already been served his final meal. The former Nazi leader sits alone in his cell here at the Palace of Justice. The prison gymnasium is just a short thirty-five-yard walk away from Göring. There, U.S. Army master sergeant John C. Woods oversees the gallows where Hermann Göring is scheduled to be hanged in less than three hours. Three black scaffolds now await the former Reichsminister and ten other Nazi leaders fated to die tonight. Each gallows is eight feet high and eight feet square, with thirteen steps leading to the platform. Ropes dangle from crossbeams supported by two posts.
Sergeant Woods has no expertise as a hangman — indeed, he fabricated a prewar history as an executioner in order to get the job. He is an unkempt alcoholic with yellow teeth and chronic bad breath. But the heavyset thirty-five-year-old Kansas native and his assistant, military policeman Joseph Malta, will soon adjust thick hemp nooses around the necks of Göring and the other convicted Nazi war criminals. Woods will then release the trapdoor, commencing their final drop to death. In the case of a normal hanging, the victim's neck would snap at the bottom of the drop and death would occur almost instantly. But Woods's inhumane methods leave the neck unbroken and the victim slowly strangling to death, a process that can take more than ten minutes.
Hermann Göring has no intention of taking that plunge. He has already requested that he be shot by firing squad, believing this a more suitable ending for the head of the German air force — the Luftwaffe. But that request was denied two days ago.
Once widely lampooned for his obese figure, the former president of the Reichstag has lost sixty pounds since surrendering to the Allies on May 7, 1945. The time in prison has also seen Göring kick his longtime morphine addiction. Ironically, Hermann Göring is the healthiest he's been in decades.
Meanwhile, Col. Burton C. Andrus, the American officer serving as security commandant, is marching across the prison yard to death row. He will once again read the official sentence of death that was conferred on Göring two weeks ago. Once that is done, Göring's hands will be shackled and he will be led to the gallows.
However, as was the case with Heinrich Himmler, Hermann Göring's death will come at the time and place of his own choosing — and that time is now. An American guard stands outside his cell, ordered to watch Göring's every move. The security detail's shift is just two hours long in order to preclude boredom. So Göring knows to be cautious with his movements.
The significant weight loss has shrunk his torso, leaving great folds of loose skin hanging off his frame. In time, some investigators will believe that the Reichsmarschall hid a cyanide capsule under his skin. In fact, Göring refused to take a shower for more than two weeks before his pending execution.
Excerpted from "Killing the SS"
Copyright © 2018 Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard.
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