Nuremberg Diary

| July 14, 2012 | 0 Comments

By Gustave M. Gilbert

Review by Jonathan Marin (Copyright 2001)

Da Capo Press Paperback – Reprint edition (September 1995)

Ordinary Men, Extraordinary Crimes

The author, Gilbert, was an American intelligence officer who in his capacity as prison psychologist at the Nuremberg Jail had unlimited free access to the top Nazi leaders throughout their trial. He produced an invaluable book. With few exceptions, the top Nazis reveal themselves as ordinary men promoted to higher positions than their abilities merited, and willing to do or at least tolerate pretty much anything in order to hold onto them. What they say privately about each other gives a unique perspective on the interplay of personalities and motivations that produced the Nazi regime and its horrors.

Foremost among those exceptions is Hermann Goering. Goering’s character is rich and multifaceted. The facets can hardly be reconciled as belonging to the same person. So much about him is appealing – his intelligence, his sense of humor, his expansive good-natured bonhomie, his childlike responses to praise or reprimand. But a man can smile and smile and still be a villain. Goering uses the weaker defendants to pressure the more independent ones to toe his “party line” of maintaining loyalty to Hitler. He offers to trade or withhold testimony, inveigles his lawyer into intimidating a witness, and even threatens retaliation by the Feme kangaroo courts. In part because the author’s duties required him to prevent that sort of behavior, he spent more time with Goering than with any of the other defendants. In part, though, I think he just found him fascinating.

The author’s duties as psychologist required that he spend considerable time with Streicher, whose leering, lascivious, bigotry probably indicated mental illness. Streicher’s anti-semitism was obsessive – it was the only subject he talked about – and he incessantly lobbied anyone who would listen. Gilbert also had to monitor Hess (Bormann’s predecessor) and Ribbentrop (Foreign Minister) because of Hess’s recurrent amnesia and Ribbentrop’s descent into depression. Hess was empty-minded even when his memory was intact. Ribbentrop was an endless stream of rationalizations, denials, evasions, and lies – truly a washrag of a man. These entries become tedious, but are instructive as an antidote to the Hollywood image of the hard, focused, strong-willed Nazi. So too with Keitel, the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces High Command whom the author fairly describes as having no more backbone than a jellyfish, and with Hans Frank, Governor General of Occupied Poland. When with the author, Frank was all introspection and contrition, but in the dock with his fellow war criminals, he joined freely in their stock rationalizations.

The author is sympathetic toward those defendants – Speer, von Schirach, Jodl, Fritsche – who passionately wanted the world to learn as much of the truth as possible about the Third Reich and its crimes. He usually but not always manages to restrain his animosity toward those who persisted in rationalizing or denying their guilt, particularly the vicious anti-semite Rosenberg (Nazi philosopher and Reich Commissioner for Eastern Occupied Territories) cold callous Frick (Minister of Interior) and the unspeakable Kaltenbrunner (Chief of RSHA – SD and Gestapo).

A story related by Funk (President of the Reichsbank) is especially revealing. After Kristalnacht, his wife wanted him to resign from the government. She said that the whole antisemitic business was just disgraceful, and they should have no part in it. He felt she was right. But to give up the status and luxury that went with his position and go live in a three-room flat? He just couldn’t do it. Funk was no monster. Of his own volition, he wouldn’t have hurt anybody. But step by step he went along, until he was accepting deposits of dental gold from the camps.

Active malice is rare. This book makes clear that although great evil may originate from active malice, its success in this world depends upon weakness – human, understandable, and frighteningly common weakness.

Copyright (C) 2001 by Jonathan Marin

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