Nuremberg—Voices from the Past
Leon Goldensohn was an American physician and psychiatrist at the time the United States entered the Second World War. In 1943 he joined the U.S. Army and was soon posted to France and Germany, where he served in battles in the European theater. Not long after the war ended, he became prison psychiatrist at Nuremberg, the location of the first postwar trials of the major Nazi war criminals. Goldensohn arrived in Nuremberg in early January 1946, about six weeks into the trials, and remained there until late July of that year. As a trained psychiatrist he had responsibility for the mental health of the nearly two dozen German leaders who had survived the war and who were now fighting for their lives before the International Military Tribunal. As a medical doctor who saw the prisoners nearly every day, he also kept careful track of their physical problems. Over a period of seven months in Nuremberg prison he spoke on a regular basis with many of the twenty-one prisoners who were there when he arrived, and he carried out formal and extended interviews with most of them. In addition, he interviewed a large number of defense and prosecution witnesses, some of whom had also been significant Nazi officials.
This book publishes for the first time a broad selection of the interviews Goldensohn conducted during his time in Nuremberg. They represent an important addition to the record of the trials and of the Third Reich. They are unique in that they are systematic interviews conducted by a trained psychiatrist, and they offer new testimony about the mentality and motives of the major Nazi perpetrators.
Background to the Nuremberg Trials
The Nuremberg trials came into existence out of a multitude of political and judicial concerns, but are seen by many today as a landmark in international law. They were by no means inevitable, however, and might never have taken place. During the war, as Allied leaders learned about the vast scale of the Nazi atrocities, President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the United States, Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill of Great Britain, and General Secretary Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union at one time or another all considered summary execution as the more appropriate response to Nazi crimes.
The concept of the trials was apparently first suggested by Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov as far back as October 14, 1942. On that date Molotov wrote to several East European governments in exile in London about Moscow’s inclination to try the most prominent leaders of “the criminal Hitlerite government” before a “special international tribunal.” Moscow was evidently upset that Britain was not willing to try Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, who had flown to Scotland in May 1941, and the Soviets harbored fears that their allies might even conclude some kind of deal with Germany. For their part, the western Allies gave little thought to postwar trials, but continued to lean toward some kind of summary execution. Their immediate priority was winning the war.
Nevertheless, on November 1, 1943, all three Allies finally issued a joint statement about what should happen to the war criminals, in the so-called Moscow Declaration. It stated several general principles. For example, the declaration laid down that those who had committed crimes would be returned to the localities where these had taken place and be “judged on the spot.” Trial and punishment would follow the laws of the land in each locality. There would be different treatment for the major war criminals, however, whose crimes were seen as not restricted to any particular geographic area. The Moscow Declaration left up in the air precisely what ought to happen to these men and did not say whether there would be a trial or summary execution.
Churchill’s own views were far from benign. He thought, as he said behind closed doors of a cabinet meeting on November 10, 1943—just prior to the Tehran Conference—that there was some point to drawing up a short list of specific war criminals. He was inclined to believe that dealing with this group summarily might shorten the war insofar as the named individuals would become isolated figures in their own country. This strategy required that the Allies avoid the entanglements of legal procedures, and Churchill himself favored a list of perhaps fifty to one hundred or so Nazi leaders. Once the list was reviewed by some sort of international committee of jurists, these men would be declared “outlaws” and thus fair game for anyone who wished to kill them. For Churchill, if there was to be anything like a trial for the major war criminals, its job would be to verify the identity of these “outlaws.”
One of the most remarkable exchanges on the topic of summary executions took place at a Roosevelt-Churchill-Stalin meeting during the Tehran Conference (November 28–December 1, 1943). Over dinner on November 29, Stalin suggested in passing that if at the end of the war about fifty thousand leaders of the German armed forces were rounded up and liquidated, then Germany’s military might would be ended once and for all. Churchill was taken aback by the scale of the liquidations envisioned by Stalin. He said simply that the British Parliament and public would never accept such mass executions. But Roosevelt responded to Stalin more warmly, and when Churchill became upset (or so Churchill recalled), FDR said that the Allies should execute not fifty thousand, but “only 49,000.” Elliott Roosevelt, the president’s son, who happened to be present, chimed in to say he was sure the United States Army “would support it.”
The drift of this conversation bothered Churchill so much that he left the room, but he was chased down by a jovial Stalin, who said that he was, of course, only joking. If we look at the evidence of later discussions, however, and consider that Stalin had already instigated the liquidation of thousands of his own people and even many in the Soviet officer corps, there is reason to believe that had Churchill been in agreement that evening, an important decision might have been taken. Whether this step would have culminated in a large number of executions remains open to speculation and debate. Certainly, Churchill had his doubts that Stalin and Roosevelt were just pulling his leg on the evening in Tehran. Although he let himself be persuaded by Stalin to return to dinner, he was not “fully convinced that all was chaff and there was no serious intent lurking behind.”
Inside the government of the United States there was deep division about what should be done about Nazi war crimes. One of the most powerful voices in favor of executions over a trial of any kind was articulated on September 5, 1944, when Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr. proposed a plan that would have permanently crippled Germany. In the context of that plan he wanted Nazi leaders summarily executed, and on a scale that looked closer to what Stalin had mentioned at Tehran, and not the more “modest” one that Churchill had in mind. U.S. secretary of war Henry L. Stimson, fortunately, offered a voice of reason on the American side.
The seventy-six-year-old Stimson would not accept the notion that Germany’s economy should be deindustrialized or destroyed, supposedly in order to save the world from another war, and he was also completely opposed to Morgenthau’s approach to war criminals. Stimson insisted, to the contrary, on the need for due process, which had to embody “the rudimentary aspects of the Bill of Rights.” In a memorandum of September 9, 1944, he sagely noted that it was not a matter of being hard or soft on Germany, but of adopting an appropriate method for dealing with the Nazi criminals. The approach had to be a product of “careful thought and well-defined procedure.” He believed the United States should participate in some kind of international tribunal, one that would charge the main Nazi officials with offenses against “the laws of the Rules of War in that they committed wanton and unnecessary cruelties in connection with the prosecution of the war.” He noted that these rules had been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and ought to be “the basis of judicial action against the Nazis.”
Roosevelt, however, much to Stimson’s consternation, continued to side with Morgenthau—who was also a personal friend—and the position of summary execution, without trial, by the military. Indeed, in the wake of the Quebec Conference (August 11–24, 1944), Roosevelt and Churchill issued a statement that said a judicial process was inappropriate for “arch-criminals such as Hitler, Himmler, Goering, and Goebbels.” As they put it, “Apart from the formidable difficulties of constituting the Court, formulating the charge, and assembling the evidence, the question of [the Nazi leaders’] fate is a political and not a judicial one. It could not rest with judges however eminent or learned to decide finally a matter like this, which is of the widest and most vital public policy. This decision must be ‘the joint decision of the Governments of the Allies.’ This in fact was expressed in the Moscow dec-laration.”
Roosevelt and Churchill came to the conclusion that on balance it would be best to execute certain Nazi leaders without any trials, and this was a point of view that Stalin also seemed to share. Churchill was somewhat surprised, therefore, to learn on a visit to Moscow in October1944 that evidently Stalin had changed his mind. He and other Soviet leaders now favored a trial, along the lines of an international tribunal as originally suggested by Molotov. It is also possible that once Stalin saw for himself that Churchill would never go along with the liquidation of tens of thousands of the German elite, he went over to the idea of holding a trial of the major war criminals, which could be used for propaganda purposes. Perhaps Stalin also thought that in advocating trials, he might be able to polish his tarnished image in the West.
In the meantime the Soviets were taking steps of their own to settle scores with the invaders. As they liberated their land from the Nazi yoke in the summer of 1943, they began carrying out their own trials, including trials of their own citizens, for participation in Nazi war crimes. In the first such trial (July 14–17, 1943), at Krasnodar, the Soviets made public to the world one of the first cases of mass murder of the Jews. There were eight death sentences, which were carried out in the city square in front of a crowd estimated at thirty thousand people. In August and September some smaller Soviet trials followed, but in Kharkov on December 15–18, another large and public trial took place, with a similar result. It culminated in the hanging of those found guilty, in the market square before an estimated fifty thousand. The event was widely publicized by special news films as well as on the radio and in the press. Such proceedings reminded some western observers, as well they might, of the show trials that were a prominent feature of the Soviet Great Terror in the late 1930s. The Soviets used these first trials of Nazi sympathizers to appeal to world opinion as well as to strengthen morale. Soviet practice, therefore, began to favor some kind of trial over summary execution. The Soviets’ intention, of course, was to use the format of a trial to demonstrate the guilt of the accused.
The governments of the United States and Great Britain were concerned about these Soviet show trials just behind the lines. They were especially worried lest the proceedings set off Nazi retaliations and lead to the execution of American and British prisoners of war who were in German captivity. Indeed, Hitler was incensed, and in response he ordered his own show trials, not of Soviet prisoners of war but of what he called “English-American war criminals” and especially “Anglo-Saxon terror bombers.” Hitler’s orders were in fact followed up, but eventually came to nothing, as often happened to many of his more destructive orders by war’s end.
The U.S. government, prodded by Stimson, gradually came to accept the view that judicial proceedings were preferable to summary executions. Stimson could not simply voice his opposition to Morgenthau, who seemed to have the support of President Roosevelt; he had to come up with an alternative. In September 1944 he gave the task of looking into such a plan to his assistant secretary John J. McCloy, who passed it down the chain of command. Eventually Colonel Murray C. Bernays produced what turned out to be a key document in the evolution of American policy.
Bernays was a lawyer in civilian life. He drew up a paper on what he called the “trial of European war criminals,” in which he made strong arguments in favor of due process. He claimed that a trial would have enormous advantages over mere political condemnation—such as had followed the end of the previous war. Bernays argued that the Nazis could and should be charged with conspiracy to commit crime. Moreover, he maintained that certain organizations (such as the Nazi Party, the Gestapo, and the SS) could be indicted, not just a few individual leaders. Such organizations would also be charged with being part of a criminal conspiracy. It would not be necessary to charge every single person in the organization, just “representative individuals.” Once the organization was tried and convicted, an individual member could be judged as a criminal coconspirator, and given a summary trial by the Allies. It is important to note, however, that contrary to what some of the defendants said when they spoke with Goldensohn, Article 10 of what became the charter of the International Military Tribunal did not simply declare certain Nazi organizations to be criminal. That decision was left to the tribunal to determine. Moreover, any particular member of those organizations that the tribunal eventually found to be criminal was not automatically deemed to be criminal. Each had the right to a trial.
The political and judicial position of the American administration in favor of trials, along with the conspiracy/organizations approach, was endorsed by Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, and Stimson. On November 11, 1944, they sent a memorandum to President Roosevelt with a view to providing him with guidance for the upcoming Yalta Conference.
Roosevelt was surprisingly slow to come around, however. At Yalta (February 7–12, 1945), the president apparently made no mention of the changed position of his administration. He and Churchill still seemed to prefer summary executions, but no decisions were taken.
It was Stalin and the Soviets who perhaps ultimately did most to persuade the other Allies that some sort of “judicial procedure was the way forward.” Stimson and others kept trying to move the president in that direction. They continued to insist on the need to avoid the impression that the Allies were seeking vengeance. That view was accepted by the new president, Harry S. Truman, after he took over when Roosevelt died suddenly on April 12, 1945.
Excerpted from The Nuremberg Interviews by Leon N. Goldensohn Edited and with an Introduction by Robert Gellately. Copyright © 2005 by Leon Goldensohn. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.