The Nuremberg Interviews by Leon Goldensohn (Knopf), 490 pages, $50 cloth. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
At this moment dictator Slobodan Milosevic faces prosecution for slaughter in the Balkans; elsewhere, in Rwanda and Sierra Leone, practitioners of genocide sit in courtrooms, and Truth Commissions dig into mass graves and bulging file cabinets, hoping to find proof to prosecute the military conspiracies who ruled their countries for their crimes. These modern investigations owe their existence and philosophy to the trials that took place in Nuremberg following the second world war.
Author Leon Goldensohn, a psychiatrist and physician, spent numerous hours with high-ranking Nazi killers and henchmen who survived the war. His conversations, collected in The Nuremberg Interviews, explore how a group of immature, delusional, vicious and often ignorant men were able wage a world war and mass genocide.
When stripped of their uniforms and power, these officers come across as whiners and cowards, small men with petty complaints who felt mistreated by a cruel and vengeful world.
Only Julius Streicher, editor of the Jew-baiting porno sheet Der Stürmer, admitted that he may have had something against Jews. Most of the war criminals clung to something one called "innocent guilt," claiming they were part of a criminal regime yet did not know the extent of its crimes. Even Goering, the second-in-command who set up the first concentration camps, said he was kept in the dark about the death prerogative.
This strategy doesn't work for Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz. When asked what he thought of his part in the murder of 2.5 million innocent people, he replied that Himmler, chief of the German police, ordered him to do it.
The rationale was that otherwise, the Jews would exterminate the Germans. When Goldensohn asked him how that would be possible, Hoess replied, "Himmler didn't explain."
A consistently fascinating and disturbing book. Reading it is an excellent way to mark this month's Holocaust remembrance.