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Books of the month - Not exactly normal men

The defendant wants to take over the defense of the dead Adolf Hitler before the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal. His name is Hans Frank, and as Governor General of the Occupied Polish Territories he was responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of Poles, for the confiscation of their property and for the deportation of around a million Polish workers to German factories. He also organized the deportation of Polish Jews to ghettos. Hans Frank is threatened with death by hanging.

He sits in his cell and thinks about the fact that, as Hitler's former legal advisor, he must defend the "Führer". Because, according to Frank, no Hitler legend should arise among the Germans, following the pattern: The poor absent main defendant had no defense. After all, it was not possible in the process to "utter a single meaningful word in favor of this man". All the blame is put on Hitler so that the Nuremberg defendants should appear less guilty. Hans Frank wants to explain Hitler. The tribunal, however - the wandering Frank is well aware of this - would have to reply only one word to all the defense's statements: Auschwitz - and "Hitler's legend would be over once and for all".

So the defendant Frank talks and talks his way into the eventualities of an imaginary trial and enjoys a double role: as Hitler's lawyer and Germany's savior.

In search of the abnormal

The stage for his somewhat confused considerations, however, was not primarily the courtroom, in which protagonists of the National Socialist regime were judged from autumn 1945. Frank's fantasy world rather arose word for word in conversations with the American psychiatrist Leon Goldensohn, who was commissioned by the court to determine the psychological state and structure of the 22 prisoners. In addition to Goldensohn, the psychologist Captain Gustave M. Gilbert was also concerned with illuminating the souls of those people who had millions of people killed. Both hoped to gain scientific knowledge about the connection between psychological abnormalities and the politics of violence.

While Gilbert published his Nürnberger Tagebuch in the early sixties, Leon Goldensohn's much more detailed notes only appeared in the United States last year and are now available in an abbreviated version in German, edited and extensively edited by the American contemporary historian Robert Gellately - on the right Time it seems. The “Nuremberg Interviews” do not snap for shadows like some current approaches. Rather, they hold each and every one of the accused as a person before they vanish from posterity.

The weakness of wanting to be strong

The interviews with 19 defendants and five who were only questioned as witnesses in the volume offer something unique: the catalog of models of mental attitudes and justifications in the face of a crime against humanity, drawn up by the defendants themselves. And the monstrous that the psychiatrist was looking for - it is most likely to be found here: in the weakness of wanting to be among the strong, even if only nominally. It seems as if constant selection pressure, even within the regime, has prevented any moral-political defensive reaction and any ego strength. Just don't get out of the magic circle of the center, just don't appear superfluous.

And now, in court, the process is going in the opposite direction: Nobody wants to have belonged to the center of power. Every accused sits on the sidelines, and the reader involuntarily wonders where the center has ever been. Always somewhere else, is the answer, so that one's own responsibility also became a moving matter at the political loading station. In individual psychological terms, the monstrous reveals itself as an interplay of denial of the ego and egomania, which only justifies the sheer criminal, as it later prevents insight into one's own role in National Socialism.

Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, for example, whom Hitler had named his successor in his last will, knows only two categories in conversation with Goldensohn: orders and "good of the nation"; he merely admits that Hitler “showed too little consideration for other peoples”. This auto-suggestive stupidity is the crime itself because it is always just smart enough to find a justification for everything.

A first plan: shoot Germans

The fact that one comes so close to the fabric of moral bankruptcy and perfidy is no doubt related to Goldensohn's diligence, who in most cases is extremely cautious about his own psychological classifications. In addition, the situation is unique in every respect. A good year before the end of the war, the Allies discussed at the Tehran conference the vague plan of punishing the Germans with "summary" shootings; it should be fifty thousand once. After all, the fate of the Nazi leaders is a political and not a legal question.

The fact that some men of the National Socialist leadership did finally come to a regular trial is mainly thanks to the American Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, who prevailed against Henry Morgenthau and others. After Roosevelt died in April 1945, under the new President Harry S. Truman a direction prevailed that wanted not only punishment but also clarification. Would one find psychological deformations that legitimately lead to sadism and annihilation rage?

Now the big criminals were not lying dead on some execution site, but sat opposite the psychologists in the Nuremberg prison, complaining about their rheumatism, their prostate or the noise of the guards. But not only that. They also talked to Leon Goldensohn about their childhood and youth, about National Socialism, the crimes and their own part in them.

They well knew that Goldensohn was not subject to medical confidentiality. In contrast to Gilbert, Goldensohn instilled a certain trust in the defendants, mainly because he made notes during the conversations and was therefore very close to the wording of what was said in his notes. Therefore, despite the editing by an editor, one can clearly hear the differences in the diction of the defendants: for example between the fanatical anti-Semite Julius Streicher, the Minister of Economics Walther Funk or the Foreign Minister of National Socialist Germany, Joachim von Ribbentrop.

Even if the defendants tried to put themselves in the most favorable light possible in these conversations, as they did in court, the long conversations lead into a world of unintentional internal monologues. In the end, the defendants find or invent reasons for their behavior, excuses, or justifications.

The meaningless Albert Speer

The interviews with Hermann Göring, the “second man” in National Socialist Germany, are particularly detailed - who makes himself important as a savior and unimportant as a perpetrator and believes the Germans love him. And how literally meaningless one side is about Albert Speer - who still functions as the favorite witness for the Germans to this day: zealously active for the regime, but without knowledge of the crimes; politically guilty but personally innocent. In the “Nuremberg Interviews”, however, our subsequent interests and media excitement - like the one about Speer recently - do not play a role. That alone should make the reader curious about this volume.

There are only two editorial omissions that are regrettable: Unfortunately, the reader does not find out where the cuts have been made compared to the American edition; and no doubt a more detailed "guilt biography" of each defendant would have been helpful in comparing the statements of the defendants at a glance with what can be considered reliable historical knowledge.


Michael Jeismann is editor of the FAZ and teaches new and contemporary history at the University of Basel. Most recently he published “Goodbye Yesterday. The German past and the politics of tomorrow ».


Leon Goldensohn
The Nuremberg interviews. Conversations with defendants and witnesses
Artemis & Winkler, Düsseldorf 2005. 458 pp., € 29.90