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Nuremberg: The Fall Of The Supermen
Even as the horrors unfolded, it seemed difficult to connect them with the shabby figures in the prisoners’ dock. And yet, these contemptible shadows had once been among the most powerful and corrupt men on earth. In a rare view from the bench, the U.S. judge at the war crimes trial of the twenty-one top Nazis records the last chapter of their evil careers. It is adapted from Mr. Riddle’s forthcoming autobiography. In Brief Authority , to be published by Doubleday this fall.
August 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 5
Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel was impressed with the great man’s knowledge of operations, of strategy, of organization, of the details of armament, of the equipment of all the armies, of the classic authorities on the science of war—Clausewitz, Moltke, Schlieffen. But General Alfred Jodl, summarizing his views in a last speech, said that the Wehrmacht was confronted with the impossible task of conducting a war they did not want, under a commander they did not trust, to fight a war with troops and police forces not under their command- by no means an inaccurate description.
We watched the defendants day after day, these drab men once great, most of them now turning on the Fuehrer who had led them to their brief spasm of violent triumph. A few were still loyal. Some felt that it was not “correct” to attack a dead man who had been head of the state. Others transferred their guilt to the man who, they said, was alone responsible, from whom, they pleaded, orders came that had to be obeyed; theirs but to do or die, they argued; how could there be a conspiracy, a meeting of the minds, as the prosecutors claimed, when one man’s mind commanded all the others? …
Before long there developed, among the twenty-one accused, two groups under different leaders. The majority, particularly at first, before the worst of the testimony came out, followed Goering, from whom still emanated something of the old charm, the compelling ruffian power. Goering sustained the vanishing legend of the Reich, the intoxicating dream of a superior race that in the early days had clouded their minds and swollen their hearts with the excitement of the primitive, the barbaric romance of lawless men.
The prison psychologist, Dr. G. M. Gilbert, described the two rival groups in his book, Nuremberg Diary. He was with the prisoners constantly, talking to them between sessions of the Tribunal and in the evening. Dignity and stoicism was Goering’s line, or at least a part of it, for he was a many-sided actor: the man of culture, bully, hunter of big game, buffoon, hero, mountebank; brilliant, eloquent, funny; tough, realistic (particularly in the eyes of the weak men), his vision even in his last days playing with the great future of a New Germany.
He detested, he asserted, anything that was undignified, but wished they all had the courage to confine their defense to simple defiance. And the others would laugh when he said: “Aggressive war? Ach! Fiddlesticks! What about the grabbing of California and Texas by the Americans? That was plain aggressive warfare for territorial expansion. When it is a question of the interests of the nation, morality stops. …” And his audience would nod, and smile; and their sense of guilt seemed less hard to bear with this comforting assumption that all nations were alike.
But there was a second group who despised Goering. Jodl pictured Goering in the last two or three years of the war as disappearing from time to time, hunting, collecting art treasures, living his soft life at various castles. Admiral Erich Raeder, in a statement made while a prisoner of the Russians, said that “the person Goering had a disastrous effect on the fate of the German Reich"; that his vanity was unimaginable, his ambition immeasurable. He was always showing off, running after popularity—untruthful, selfish, greedy, jealous. The oldline diplomats, Baron von Neurath and Franz von Papen, considered Goering a bully and an upstart, and referred to him as “the fat one.”
Goering liked to play one defendant against another, intriguing with these forlorn shadows as he had intrigued when they were great with power. When Ribbentrop had finished testifying, Goering whispered to Raeder: “He’s all washed up.” But, when the Tribunal recessed, he congratulated Ribbentrop on his performance. He could threaten his companions as well as encourage them, and most of them were afraid of him. When Albert Speer testified that in April, 1945, Hitler had told him that he had known for some time that Goering had failed, known that he was corrupt, known that he was a drug addict; and yet, cynically caring nothing for what might happen to the German people, had said that he was willing to let Goering negotiate the capitulation, Goering was furious. In a manner calculated to have Spccr overhear him, he told some of the defendants in the dock that even if Specr came out of the trial alive, the Feme would assassinate him for treason, meaning the Femegerichte , the secret and brutal kangaroo courts organized after the First World War to punish persons suspected of informing on those working for the secret rearmament of the Reich. Speer laughed a little nervously when he repeated this in his cell to Gilbert.