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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
Testifying, Goering was at his very best, speaking twenty-one hours on the stand without notes, touching lightly but effectively on his own youth—his father had been an intimate friend of Cecil Rhodes in South Africa; he had been the top German ace in World War I after von Richthofen was killed. He described in detail the demoralized and poverty-stricken Germany that he and his comrades returned to when the First World War ended. Germans had never had experience of a democracy, they did not want one; and in any event, the Allies deserted the Weimar Republic after it had been foisted on the country. The German principle had always been authority from above downward, and responsibility from below upward. Was it not natural that, looking about for patterns to follow, they should select two outstanding models? He paused, and let his eye travel over the bench. “The Roman Catholic Church,” he continued, “and the U.S.S.R.”
If Hermann Goering was the prime exhibit of Nazi evil, Albert Speer was the most humane and decent of the defendants. His straightforwardness and honesty, his calm and reasonable bearing, his awareness of the moral issues involved, impressed the members of the Tribunal. Speer, who was forty-one when he was tried, must have been a highly impressionable young German, idealistic and prone to hero worship, when he joined the party in 1932. Soon he became Hitler’s personal confidant, and lavished a passionate admiration on his chief, if one can judge by the denth and bitterness of his ultimate disillusion.
A man of striking ability, Speer took charge of all war production. He was one of the few men trusted by Hitler. It was not until the last days that Speer began to question the character of his leader. Doubts had of course begun to cross his mind; but, working continually at his immense production job, aloof from the chicaneries and plots that eddied around the seat of power, he seemed, like so many other idealists, to have been unwilling to face a reality which was bound to destroy the faith that had meant everything to him.
Unlike the other men in the dock, he cared about Hitler primarily because he believed that the Fuehrer had led the German people out of their despair and impotence, and placed their feet on the path to recovery of national greatness. Speer was serious, deeply thoughtful, without humor, patient, his shoulders bowed under the shame of his people and the moral degradation to which he had helped to lead them. It was no wonder that hatred burned between him and Goering.
In the prison and in the lunchtime recess and when the defendants exercised, the moral struggle continued. Goering wanted the Nazi myth to persist. Even if they were to be found guilty, they could go down to posterity as heroic Übermenschen —supermen. He cornered poor, cowardly little Walter Funk in the exercise yard and told him he must reconcile himself to his fate, that he must stand by Goering and die a martyr’s death. He need not worry because some day—even if it took fifty years—the German people would rise again and recognize them as heroes, and even move their bones to marble caskets in a national shrine.
But little Funk was not the martyr type, and cared little about what might happen to his bones. He blubbered a good deal. “I assure you,” he confided to Dr. Gilbert, “I don’t have the stuff for heroism. I didn’t then and I don’t now. Maybe that is the trouble.” “I always came up to the door,” he testified wistfully, “but was never allowed to enter.” He was an unimportant little man. As president of the Reichsbank, he had made an agreement with Himmler to receive for deposit and handle the gold and jewels and currency that the SS brought in. “I was never told about gold teeth placed in my vaults,” he whined on the stand. “How was I to know they included teeth wrenched from corpses?” Great carloads of the personal belongings of murdered Jews were brought to the bank from Auschwitz and Mauthausen; and there they were neatly sorted and arranged. The jewels and watches were sent to the Municipal Pawn Shops; the gold which had been extracted by a special detachment of SS men from the teeth of the corpses before they were cremated and the gold spectacle frames, to the Prussian mint, where they were melted into bars and returned to the Reichsbank. The notes and coin stayed in the bank. A systematic banker, little Funk. …
Day after day, as the trial went on, the horrors piled up—tortures by the Gestapo in France; “experiments” on prisoners, who died in agony; the gas chambers; the carefully planned liquidation of the Jews- hour on hour the twenty-one men in the dock listened, and the shame spread. Documentary films of concentration camps, showing bulldozers piling up huge stacks of naked, unidentifiable bodies, clearly unmanned most of the accused. After one day’s evidence, the radio propaganda chief, Hans Fritzsche, was physically ill in his cell. And after the onetime Governor General of occupied Poland, Hans Frank, took the stand to make his cheap, dramatic confession—”a thousand years will pass and still this guilt of Germany will not have been erased”—Schacht observed to Gilbert that Goering’s united front of loyalty and defiance seemed to have collapsed.