Nuremberg, Time And Memory

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On our last night in Nuremberg we dine at the Heilige Gleis Spital, a restaurant that manages to combine size with Gemütlichkeit . The aura of defeated Germany intrudes again. Our waitress is attractive in a brassy, hardfaced, bleached-blonde way. She could not have been born until at least a decade after the war-crimes trial ended. Yet I see in her a 1945 Nuremberg prototype, recalled from a dozen interviews, a young woman in a city essentially without its young men. Clad in a skirt made from a U.S. Army blanket with a desperate touch of red piping added, she is supporting her family through feminine wiles and PX largess garnered in GI liaisons. That person could have been this woman’s mother, or her aunt, as they struggled for daily survival after the war.

Most landmarks of shame are obliterated or given over to uses that conceal their past. The site of the former Gestapo headquarters in Berlin was, by 1991, an empty lot, a tangle of weeds, sealed off by fencing. Hitler’s Reich chancellery, designed by Albert Speer, was now the site of construction begun after the Berlin Wall came down. Zeppelin Field, just outside Nuremberg, however, remains exactly what the historian hopes for, a recognizable ruin.

We enter the stadium through a crumbling archway. Not another soul appears on a field where a quarter of a million Nazis gathered in annual Parteitag displays of chilling conformity. The massive grandstand, constructed of tiers of concrete seats, is chipped and broken. Weeds sprout in the cracks. Scars are still visible at the top of the grandstand, where American troops blasted a crowning swastika to bits. I walk out onto a small platform ringed by a rusted rail. Time dissolves. Adolf Hitler is standing on this very spot, intoxicating the party faithful with his brew of Aryan pride and racial hate. Every defendant whose life I am tracing stood with Hitler on these stone ramparts: Goering swollen in girth and ego; Hess ablaze with manic zeal; Alfred Rosenberg, the party “philosopher”; Speer, choreographer of the rallies, whose shallow genius conceived cathedrals of light thrown up against the night sky by hundreds of searchlights, billowing banners taller than three-story buildings, and thousands of torchbearers painting a hellish glow on the horizon. I hear a quarter-million voices shouting an incantation that washes in waves over the stadium, “ Ein Volk! Ein Reich! Ein Führer !” How empty and silent the stadium is now! Zeppelin Field is the perfect shrine to Nazism, the overwhelming and the overbearing brought low, vainglory in decay. A dead place.

Cracow had two purposes: to provide clues to the life of the Nuremberg defendant Hans Frank and to serve as a jumping-off point for Auschwitz, some thirty miles away. Frank has a certain perverse appeal. Among the defendants here was one whose motivations could be grasped, if not admired, in familiar terms. My first lead had surfaced in a file box I found at the National Archives labeled “Dossiers.” Among the dry data on places of birth, parents’ names, schools attended, posts held, wives, children, and party members, I discovered the English translation of notes a Polish journalist had taken during a 1945 interview with Frank’s mistress, Lilli Gau. In these yellowed pages the man materialized. Frank, just out of law school, had been denied the hand of his beloved Lilli because she was rich and aristocratic and he was the middle-class son of a disbarred shyster. Frank set as his goal to win those badges whose absence had cost him his true love—wealth, power, and respectability—but the route he chose tended to corrode as much as elevate. His climb up the slippery pole began before the Nazis came to power when Hitler made Frank the party’s lawyer, defender of Brown Shirt bullies and race-baiting zealots. When the Nazis took over, Frank became Germany’s minister of justice and president of the German Academy of Law, all by age thirty-three. He lived in sumptuous villas surrounded by servants and had his children chauffeured to exclusive schools. With the Nazi victory over Poland in 1939, Frank announced to his wife, Brigitte, that she was going to become a “queen.” Hitler had named Frank governor-general of the conquered Poles.

We are standing in the courtyard of Cracow’s Wawel Castle on a bitter-cold November morning. A few feet-stomping, ruby-faced postcard peddlers line the cobblestone approach to the castle. Except for a handful of tourists, the grounds are nearly empty. Yet I hear a Daimler-Benz touring car roar into the courtyard, staff vehicles trailing in its dust. Poland’s new ruler jumps out, uniform crisp, boots gleaming, hands clasped behind his back, neck craning as he gazes at the swastika flying from the castle’s highest turret. From this palace, once the seat of Polish kings, Frank will rule with as much power as any absolute monarch.