Nuremberg, Time And Memory

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With the Mexican lode finally worked out, I returned to the United States to face my chief concern. What new could be said about Nuremberg? Serendipity helped again. Alumni of the trial had just held a forty-fifth anniversary reunion in Washington, D.C. and in so doing had prepared an alumni directory. I managed to obtain a copy. The trial turned out to have been largely a young person’s game, and a gratifying number of prosecutors, researchers, law clerks, interpreters, and translators were still alive; few had ever talked to an author about the trial. Former guards described to me seeming eternities spent staring through portholes into the cells of Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and Albert Speer, breaking the monotony by obtaining their charges’ autographs and selling them to souvenir seekers. The bodyguard of the U.S. chief prosecutor, an infantry sergeant, Moritz Fuchs, who had been wounded in the Battle of the Bulge, told me how what he heard day after day in the courtroom influenced his calling to the priesthood. The prison commandant’s secretary described the turmoil in her chief’s office the day one defendant, the Nazi labor chief, Dr. Robert Ley, managed to commit suicide. Talking to these people, I began to feel the aura of the courtroom, to sense the confines of the jail cells, and smell the bombed-out corpse of the city chosen for the trial.

Today the bulk of Nuremberg documents is housed in the National Archives in Washington, maintained by the Center for Captured German Records. I liked that name. It transported me to still-smoking battlefields or a Wehrmacht Hauptquartier seized yesterday, not half a century ago. Archives officials led me past 1,171 Nuremberg file boxes, each somewhat larger than the Manhattan phone book, stored on steel shelves and spread over two floors of the building. What did all this represent? Fields plowed to the point of depletion? Plots still able to yield a respectable harvest of history? With luck, some unworked virgin patches?

Files marked “Miscellaneous” should never be bypassed. In one I found a typed, single-spaced twelve-page report. Three names leaped from it, men then young, later to become well-known figures in America: John Kenneth Galbraith, George Ball, and Paul Nitze. In 1945 they were involved in the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, trying to assess the impact of the air offensive against the Third Reich. They had interviewed a prize witness, Reich minister for armaments and war production, Albert Speer, at a point before Speer knew that he would become a Nuremberg defendant. The German people, the patrician Speer explained, had been cheated of victory by leaders largely of humble origins, men unaccustomed to power and luxury and temperamentally ill equipped to handle either. God, displeased by this wayward lot, therefore took sides, Speer told the Americans. The deity inflicted an unusually harsh winter on the Russian front in 1941–42, fogged in Stalingrad to prevent air resupply of the encircled German armies in 1943, and cleared the skies over the Ardennes in 1944 so that Allied air power could blunt the German offensive in the Battle of the Bulge. This document helped me decipher Speer and presaged the defense strategy he would employ at Nuremberg. It displayed his gift for saying what people wanted to hear and for making it all sound sincere, as this technocrat turned himself into a moralist, largely, I came to suspect, to save his skin.

The research path led me to Columbia University’s oral history collection. There, in Butler Library, I pored over the reminiscences of Robert H. Jackson, the Supreme Court associate justice, America’s chief prosecutor at the trial. As I left the campus, I passed by students, Walkmans plugged into their ears, listening to God knows what. In my ears the almost nineteenth-century cadences of Jackson’s language were still ringing, as he described how he went about writing his opening address to the tribunal, a masterpiece of courtroom oratory: “The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.”

From documents at the Franklin Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, I could listen in as FDR’s confidant and speechwriter Samuel Rosenman tried to persuade the President that a trial was preferable to Roosevelt’s early inclination to shoot war criminals out of hand. Rosenman had been in England arguing the same point with Winston Churchill, who also favored drumhead justice, when FDR died suddenly on April 12, 1945.

I had come to Hyde Park particularly to research the papers of James Rowe, one of Roosevelt’s determinedly anonymous White House aides, who later became a key adviser to the American judge on the Nuremberg court, Francis Biddle. I felt a shiver of foreboding while reading Rowe’s memos to his chief recommending death for certain defendants. Of Albert Speer, Rowe wrote that he had shown “complete ruthlessness and unfeeling efficiency in the application of a program which took five million into slave labor and countless numbers to their death.” Biddle had apparently been swayed by the argument. On the first ballot he voted to hang Speer, deadlocking the count at 2–2. Even with the outcome known, the suspense was undiminished. What would Biddle do on the next ballot? We learn that he later changed his vote, and Speer was spared death, though given a twenty-year sentence.