How I Didn’t Kill Hermann Goering

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My father, David Davidson, wrote about serving as a journalist attached to the U.S. Army in immediate postwar Germany, publishing a well-received novel, The Steeper Cliff , in 1947 and a memoir in American Heritage (June 1982). That time in Germany always remained fresh in his mind, and not long before he died in 1985, he committed to paper this recollection of the Nuremberg trials.

—C.D.

It was not only Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, the number-two man of the Thousand-Year Reich and Hitler’s own onetime choice for his successor, that I refrained from assassinating on a leaden December day. I also had in my sights—potential sights—Hess, Streicher, Rosenberg, Frank, Speer, von Schirach, et cetera. In short, the whole Nazi top command, except for those who had escaped the Nuremberg trials by suicide and Martin Bormann, who was tried in absentia .

They were easy targets, the infamous defendants, over weeks and months, because of an astonishing laxness of security rivaling that during Lee Harvey Oswald’s short captivity in 1963. And at Nuremberg I gave considerable thought to the possibility of doing away with at least a couple of brace. That ultimately I did not go through with it was because there was missing from my makeup a certain factor that enabled not only Oswald but assassins like Sirhan Sirhan and James Earl Ray to see their opportunities through. I did, however, travel far enough along their path to give me, I believe, a rather special and disconcerting understanding of the compulsions that led them to kill as they did.

The possibilities of mass assassination that opened to me in December 1945 came about, one way or another, through the work I was doing with the U.S. Army as a civilian specialist in Bavaria. My job was to help find and recruit dedicated anti-Nazis (and there were some) to serve as editors and publishers of a new German press that could be trusted to publish without censorship (and from which grew a number of distinguished dailies that flourish in Bavaria to this day.)

It was the publisher of the Munich newspaper, the now greatly esteemed Süddeutsche Zeitung , who first turned my thoughts to assassination. A hot-tempered 110-pound bantam rooster, Herr August Schwingenstein was a deeply devout man who quit all press work during the Nazis’ twelve-year rule, choosing instead to labor at every kind of odd job rather than compromise one inch.

One day the name of the Munich native who most flourished under Hitler came up: Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, chief of the secret police, the SS, Security Service, and so forth.

“For long,” Herr Schwingenstein recalled, “I had been brooding about the fact that so beautiful and Christian a lady as the empress Elisabeth of Austria could have fallen victim to the assassin’s blade, yet a beast like Himmler could live such a charmed life. Again and again I heard it said that Himmler was guarded by so many thousands of his troops that he was even more assassin-proof than Hitler himself.

“It tortured me to think of that. Was it really true? Could nobody ever get within murdering distance of Himmler?

“I kept all this on a completely theoretical plane until one day it happpened that Himmler’s mother came to the end of her years. She was as saintly a lady as her offspring was a beast, as, in fact, was all the family Himmler with the exception of the single monster it had spawned, and even he gave his mother an undying respect.

“So it was that a thought suddenly seized me. Without a doubt Himmler would be coming to Munich to attend his mother’s funeral. Here, then, was my opportunity to test whether it was possible to kill him.

“On the morning of the funeral I went to the church where a mass was to be said. Hopeless. I got as far as the door of the church to find a wall of SS men blocking the way. Without a special pass there was no admittance. Just then the coffin was brought out, a long string of limousines drew up along the curb, and various civilian officials—dressed like myself in black frock coats and tall silk hats—began getting into automobiles. Suddenly I heard my name spoken by some civil servant I had known from schooldays. ‘Schwingenstein,’ he called, ‘let’s go out to the cemetery together.’

“When we reached the Waldfriedhof cemetery, where are buried centuries of the families of Munich, I walked in some fifty meters or so behind Himmler, drawing closer and closer. By the time his mother was being lowered to her rest, I was standing directly behind him. I could have killed him ten times over. But I had not brought a weapon with me. Not a pistol. Not a hunting knife. I had proved—such a victory!—that in theory Himmler could be murdered. And I let him walk away with not a hair of his head out of place.”

It was a day after that that the chief of our Nuremberg detachment, David Manby, phoned to say he could get me a pass to attend the Nuremberg trials. At this time there was still talk of possible “were-wolf” ambushes from diehard Nazis (they never materialized), so I drove the bomb-shattered road to Munich wearing a “liberated” Luger 9 mm in a shoulder holster under my jacket and carrying a trim little Walther automatic in my pants pocket.

“Weapons will definitely not be worn” was Manby’s firm instruction as we set out for the courthouse the morning after my arrival. “You can understand why.”