July/August 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 4
My father, David Davidson, wrote about serving as a journalist attached to the U.S. Army in immediate postwar Germany, publishing a well-received novel, The Steeper Cliff , in 1947 and a memoir in American Heritage (June 1982). That time in Germany always remained fresh in his mind, and not long before he died in 1985, he committed to paper this recollection of the Nuremberg trials.
It was not only Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, the number-two man of the Thousand-Year Reich and Hitler’s own onetime choice for his successor, that I refrained from assassinating on a leaden December day. I also had in my sights—potential sights—Hess, Streicher, Rosenberg, Frank, Speer, von Schirach, et cetera. In short, the whole Nazi top command, except for those who had escaped the Nuremberg trials by suicide and Martin Bormann, who was tried in absentia .
They were easy targets, the infamous defendants, over weeks and months, because of an astonishing laxness of security rivaling that during Lee Harvey Oswald’s short captivity in 1963. And at Nuremberg I gave considerable thought to the possibility of doing away with at least a couple of brace. That ultimately I did not go through with it was because there was missing from my makeup a certain factor that enabled not only Oswald but assassins like Sirhan Sirhan and James Earl Ray to see their opportunities through. I did, however, travel far enough along their path to give me, I believe, a rather special and disconcerting understanding of the compulsions that led them to kill as they did.
The possibilities of mass assassination that opened to me in December 1945 came about, one way or another, through the work I was doing with the U.S. Army as a civilian specialist in Bavaria. My job was to help find and recruit dedicated anti-Nazis (and there were some) to serve as editors and publishers of a new German press that could be trusted to publish without censorship (and from which grew a number of distinguished dailies that flourish in Bavaria to this day.)
It was the publisher of the Munich newspaper, the now greatly esteemed Süddeutsche Zeitung , who first turned my thoughts to assassination. A hot-tempered 110-pound bantam rooster, Herr August Schwingenstein was a deeply devout man who quit all press work during the Nazis’ twelve-year rule, choosing instead to labor at every kind of odd job rather than compromise one inch.
One day the name of the Munich native who most flourished under Hitler came up: Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, chief of the secret police, the SS, Security Service, and so forth.
“For long,” Herr Schwingenstein recalled, “I had been brooding about the fact that so beautiful and Christian a lady as the empress Elisabeth of Austria could have fallen victim to the assassin’s blade, yet a beast like Himmler could live such a charmed life. Again and again I heard it said that Himmler was guarded by so many thousands of his troops that he was even more assassin-proof than Hitler himself.
“It tortured me to think of that. Was it really true? Could nobody ever get within murdering distance of Himmler?
“I kept all this on a completely theoretical plane until one day it happpened that Himmler’s mother came to the end of her years. She was as saintly a lady as her offspring was a beast, as, in fact, was all the family Himmler with the exception of the single monster it had spawned, and even he gave his mother an undying respect.
“So it was that a thought suddenly seized me. Without a doubt Himmler would be coming to Munich to attend his mother’s funeral. Here, then, was my opportunity to test whether it was possible to kill him.
“On the morning of the funeral I went to the church where a mass was to be said. Hopeless. I got as far as the door of the church to find a wall of SS men blocking the way. Without a special pass there was no admittance. Just then the coffin was brought out, a long string of limousines drew up along the curb, and various civilian officials—dressed like myself in black frock coats and tall silk hats—began getting into automobiles. Suddenly I heard my name spoken by some civil servant I had known from schooldays. ‘Schwingenstein,’ he called, ‘let’s go out to the cemetery together.’
“When we reached the Waldfriedhof cemetery, where are buried centuries of the families of Munich, I walked in some fifty meters or so behind Himmler, drawing closer and closer. By the time his mother was being lowered to her rest, I was standing directly behind him. I could have killed him ten times over. But I had not brought a weapon with me. Not a pistol. Not a hunting knife. I had proved—such a victory!—that in theory Himmler could be murdered. And I let him walk away with not a hair of his head out of place.”
It was a day after that that the chief of our Nuremberg detachment, David Manby, phoned to say he could get me a pass to attend the Nuremberg trials. At this time there was still talk of possible “were-wolf” ambushes from diehard Nazis (they never materialized), so I drove the bomb-shattered road to Munich wearing a “liberated” Luger 9 mm in a shoulder holster under my jacket and carrying a trim little Walther automatic in my pants pocket.
“Weapons will definitely not be worn” was Manby’s firm instruction as we set out for the courthouse the morning after my arrival. “You can understand why.”
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.
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.