After The Air Raids

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The time was the spring of 1945, as the war in Europe was ending. And the mission was war-related: to assess how effective America’s bombing had been in defeating Germany. Now, John Kenneth Galbraith recalls for the first time the whole experience—how he and his most unmilitary staff of economists operated, how they reacted to the defeated Nazis and to their destroyed country, how they ferreted and schemed and improvised to dig out the facts of Germany’s wartime economy, and how, in the end, our government reacted to their findings.

Galbraith—economist, teacher, critic, novelist, diplomat, adviser to Presidents—has written his memoirs, A Life in Our Times, which will be published by Houghton Mifflin Company in May. The following article is excerpted from this forthcoming book.

 

I think of the European part of World War II as ending in a resort hotel in Luxembourg. The hotel, once modestly fashionable, was long, low, white, with a veranda running full length along the front. Before it was a waterless fountain and pool with a sun-baked water nymph in the middle. All around was a high barbed-wire fence covered top to bottom with a greenish yellow camouflage cloth. There were guards and machine guns. A sergeant at the gate told an applicant for admission one day that he had to have “a pass from God, and someone to verify the signature.” It was that rarity among jails, one far easier to leave than to enter.

It had been the principal hotel of Mondorf-les-Bains in Luxembourg, a few miles southeast of Luxembourg City on the French border. One evening in the early summer of 1945 we had finished interrogating the inmates for the day and were waiting inside on the central stairway for our transport. On one side below was the main lounge of the hotel, on the other, to the left, the dining room. A heavy thunderstorm was lighting the rooms from outside—great vivid flashes that were followed almost instantly by the crashing thunder. The faces of the men now waiting for dinner, some reading, some chatting, some standing alone, some sitting quietly on the lounge chairs, were all familiar. Angry, expostulative, barbaric, fearsome, they had dominated the newspapers for fifteen years. Julius Streicher, after Himmler the most appalling of the Hitler acolytes, was there. Also Dr. Robert Ley, the head of the Arbeitsfront [National Socialist Labor Front]; Joachim von Ribbentrop, the foreign minister; and Walther Funk, the head of the Reichsbank. Present in slightly dismantled uniforms were Hitler’s immediate military staff—Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and Colonel General Alfred Jodl, men whom Albert Speer a little earlier had called the “nodding donkeys.” Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz was also there and Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the last commander on the Western front. As we waited for our car and they waited for their dinner, the lightning and thunder continued, and a colonel standing with me had a sudden, astonishing, and valid thought: “Imagine anyone back in 1940 risking a play—A Hotel in Luxembourg in 1945—with this cast and setting. It would have been laughed out of town.”

The hotel at Mondorf was the place of detention for the highest Nazis. Code names in those days had acquired a certain archness, and the spa was called Ashcan. It was under U.S. Army direction; a British counterpart near Frankfurt for more technical prisoners, including Speer and the alleged financial genius Hjalmar Horace Greeley Schacht, was called Dustbin. (Our interrogations of Schacht showed him to be a man by then impervious, except to financial cliché, and with almost no knowledge of what had been going on.)

Hermann Goering was not with the men awaiting dinner but in a bedroom upstairs. A large mattress had been spread on a narrow army cot to make him more comfortable, and it hung out over the sides. Goering, his vast, loose bulk collapsed on the bed, gave the impression of sagging farther over the mattress edges. He was suffering from drug withdrawal, my only encounter with this torture or, indeed, in a sheltered life, with drug addiction. His commitment, like that of the late Howard Hughes, had been to codeine, and he had an ample stock when taken prisoner. The U.S. Army cure had involved only abrupt confiscation.

Others also were undergoing rehabilitation. Ribbentrop, Funk, and Ley had been continuously drunk for months, a natural enough recourse for shallow, even primitive men who still, when sober, were able to see the inevitable. Drink was escape. Albert Speer in earlier interrogations had said, “In the last months one had always to deal with drunken men.” He went on to guess that when the history of the Third Reich was written, it would be said that it drowned in a sea of alcohol. (It wasn’t, in fact, ever said; even Speer’s memoirs omitted mention of the drunkenness.) Ribbentrop had on his person when taken prisoner two last-minute appeals to the British for peace which were of his own composition and reflected the general Nazi hope for common action against the Russians. They were addressed to the Honorable Vincent Churchill. One thought of a letter to Albert Hitler.