How I Didn’t Kill Hermann Goering

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Sitting in the front row of the spectators’ gallery, at a distance of perhaps ten yards beyond and above the defendants’ box, I was stunned at this, my first sight of the Hitler gang in person and alive. As a newspaperman I had written hundreds of times about these legendary monsters. But seeing them face-to-face, I could not for the first moments believe that they actually existed. I had come over the years to think of them, in their incredible evil, as fictitious creatures out of one of the more gruesome German fairy tales.

Oh, but they did exist, and chat among themselves, and even take the witness stand, where one of them was at the moment defending himself with justifications from the smoky Nazi mythology. As he droned on, a sudden observation struck me with the blinding light of St. Paul’s epiphany on the road to Damascus. No one had bothered to frisk me as I had entered the courthouse and made my way down the corridors past several roadblocks where the photo on my ID card was matched against my face. Furthermore, the heavily armed MPs standing guard in the balcony with .45s in their hip holsters were anything but alert. The trial was now weeks along, and the inevitable boredom had set in among the guards. They were lounging, yawning, half-dozing on their feet.

There immediately followed the thought that the dozen Nazis—had I brought my arsenal with me—were completely at my mercy if I should start shooting with both weapons at once, spraying the defendants’ box with eighteen rounds from the two automatic clips. Before the MPs could possibly move in on me, or even shoot me down, I would have done a noteworthy moment’s work.

And I suddenly realized that by the one deed I could make myself modestly immortal. I would go down in history books for all time —even if only as a footnote—as the man who assassinated one or more of the Nuremberg defendants. And history, liberal history, might not frown on the deed. After all, these evildoers had death coming to them. I could even turn out, in the end, a kind of popular, esteemed footnote.

Of course, on a perfectly rational level, there was no pressing need for early execution of the Hitler gang. It was a certainty they would get what was coming to them from the panel of international jurists trying them. And the reasoned purpose of the trials was to spread out the record of all the monstrous things they had done, the enormities they had committed against mankind—in the defendants’ own words, defiant or penitent.

But for me, from the viewpoint of my personal career and ambitions, the major consideration was the ease with which I could purchase renown. Renown, or the hope of it, was a vital matter to me at that stage in my life. What I had to look forward to, just then, was to finish my tour of duty some seven or eight months later, return stateside, and attempt to support a family by picking up the raveled strands of my profession as a newspaperman or radio writer, in neither of which the prospects for fame were great.

I could seize immortality in a bold instant before a world audience, much of which would applaud the performance. A death sentence for the benign crime would be beyond the thought of possibility. A prison sentence with a pardon after a few years at the most.

The next day, when I came back to the Nuremberg courthouse, again I passed through the weak, crumbling wall of security. Again, after a mere glance at my uniform and ID card, I was waved through. And again my opportunity lay spread out before me, overwhelmingly tempting.

But exactly like Herr Schwingenstein, I achieved only a theoretical triumph. I had brought no weapon with me.

Why not?

Something was missing in me after all. Overnight my violent fantasy had been displaced by thoughts about family responsibilities and other bloodless, more conventional possibilities for celebrity. In fact, I did get my moment in the spotlight, for a novel that grew out of my German experience, but I will never become a footnote in history. What was lacking, I can see now, was a true dedication to the possibility of immortality. And there I fell far short of the single-mindedness of those assassins who did shoot their way into history.