The Nuremberg Interviews: A Book Review

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Started reading The Nuremberg Interviews: An American Psychiatrist’s Conversations with the Defendants and Witnesses.  A chilling book.

Leon Goldensohn, an American physician and psychiatrist, was the prison psychologist in charge of monitoring the two dozen Nazi officials on trial for genocide.  Here, for the first time, are a collection of his exhaustive notes and interviews.

Reading these interviews is unsettling, to say the least.

The majority of Nazi officials pled ignorance of Hitler’s plan to exterminate Jews, claiming the Nazi party was a haphazard, wildly disorganized bureaucracy with little communication between officers and higher ups.  No, no they didn’t know Hitler was massacring millions of Jews; they were only “doing their jobs.”  

My conscience is clear,” Karl Doenitz, grand admiral and commander in chief of the navy, told Goldensohn, “I did not participate in the brutalities or criminal actions.  My aiding Hitler in carrying on a war for my Fatherland does not make me subject to the criticism that I helped him annihilate Jews.  It is just not the case.”  

Karl Doenitz

What’s chilling about his testimony is that his logic is sound.  He didn’t directly commit a crime: he never shot a Jew, never sent a Jew to the gas chamber.  But what he (and the majority of Hitler’s henchman) failed to recognize is that-by doing nothing to stop these atrocities-they became complicit parties.  To say “my conscience is clear”- knowing the extent of the horror and destruction the Third Reich (and, in effect, you) caused- is nothing short of disturbing.  When questioned, Doenitz, along with the other two dozen or so Nazis on trial, tended to either be evasive or shift blame.  When asked whether he believed the defendants were guilty of anything or if they could just transfer all blame to Himmler and Hitler, Doenitz responded:

Let me put it this way.  I assume responsibility for the German submarines from 1933, and of the German navy from 1943.  But to make me responsible for a conspiracy is false.  Each man must be responsible for his share.”

So matter-of-fact.  So methodical.

Doenitz’s telling response opens the Holocaust up to some interesting questions: when, in fact, are we responsible?  Like Doenitz, are we only responsible for our assigned tasks, for carrying out the orders of those above us?  Or do each of us possess a weightier responsibility, a responsibility to speak out against all villainy and evil?

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