Goldensohn, Leon. The Nuremberg Interviews: An American Psychiatrist's Conversations with the Defendants and Witnesses.
In his opening statement of November 21, 1945, at Nuremberg's Palace of Justice, seven months after Germany's surrender, Robert H. Jackson, chief of counsel for the United States, delivered the following stark and sobering assessment of the International Military Tribunal proceedings against the some twenty accused Nazi war criminals in the dock: "What makes this inquest significant is that these prisoners represent sinister influences that will lurk in the world long after their bodies have returned to dust. They are living symbols of racial hatreds, of terrorism and violence, and of the arrogance and cruelty of power" (Jackson, The Niirnberg Case, 1947, p. 31). Nearly sixty years after the Nuremberg Trials, echoes of Germany's past come back to haunt us once again in this selection from Dr. Leon Goldensohn's remarkable series of thirty-three interviews which he conducted in an attempt to understand a mentality that wrought incalculable destruction and human suffering.
Goldensohn was a U.S. Army physician who, in 1946, replaced Major Douglas Kelley as psychiatrist at the Nuremberg prison. He was responsible for evaluating and maintaining the mental health of some of the most notorious Nazi leaders and their subordinates, many of whom were subsequently hanged. During the course of this assignment, which lasted seven months, Goldensohn faithfully recorded his conversations with the prisoners, preserving them in several notebooks. He had intended to publish this material, but the project came to an abrupt halt when Goldensohn suffered a fatal heart attack in 1961.
Goldensohn's interviews followed along the lines of psychologist G. M. Gilbert's Nuremberg Diary (1947), but differed in several important respects from this classic study, with the result being that Goldensohn's accounts were more accurate and comprehensive. First, whereas Gilbert never took notes while speaking to the prisoners, but reconstructed from memory the content of his conversations with them, usually at the end of the day, Goldensohn always took detailed notes as he spoke with the prisoners, often through an interpreter. Second, while the Gilbert study was limited to the major Nazi war criminals, Goldensohn also interviewed lesser-known officials, including members of the German armed forces, the Gestapo, the SS, and even Hitler's interpreter, Paul O. Schmidt. Generally speaking, what made Goldensohn's approach unique was his inclusion of detailed biographical data about the defendants and witnesses, as well as his attempts to conduct lengthy structured interviews with them.
In his earlier study of the major Nuremberg defendants, Kelley wrote: "Medical men know that when they isolate the germ or virus that causes disease among men, they can prepare a vaccine or serum that will protect us against it. I had at Nuremberg the purest known Nazi-virus cultures--22 clay flasks, as it were--to study ... " (22 Cells in Nuremberg, 1947, p. 12). There can be no doubt that Goldensohn shared this view of the prisoners as medical and psychological specimens to be probed, prodded, and analyzed. Yet in spite of this, by virtue of his professionalism and ingratiating manner, he achieved a certain degree of rapport with them. Indeed, with the possible exceptions of Rudolf Hess (who was incompetent), Erich Raeder, and Albert Speer, the isolated Nuremberg defendants looked forward to Goldensohn's visits, freely volunteering information about their life stories and how they became attracted to Nazism, and their opinions about Hitler and the Nazi state.
In reading these interviews, one is struck by Goldensohn's non-judgmental attitude toward the prisoners. Yet on many occasions he described them with irony and amused contempt, as the following examples clearly show: Of Hjalmar Schacht, president of the Reichsbank until 1939, Goldensohn wrote: "It becomes obvious in talking to Schacht that he is attempting to devise two distinctly paradoxical pictures of himself; the one, that he was a harmless old man who had been inactive since 1939; the other, a picture of a great national German patriot who worked ceaselessly for Hitler's downfall and frustration, and was actively a participant in the assassination attempt of July 20, 1944" (p. 218). Goldensohn characterized Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler's foreign minister from 1938 to 1945, as " ... [having] the air at times of a ham actor taking the part of a great statesman who has become a little foggy because of all he has undergone in the past few years" (p. 185). Justifiably, Goldensohn was less restrained in his caustic assessment of Julius Streicher, editor of the anti-Semitic Der Sturmer, whom he described as ".... a caricature of a lecher posing as a man of wisdom. He requires no stimulation to embark on his unique and favorite topic, anti-Semitism, which has been and remains his raison d'etre.... Streicher impresses me as an old psychopathic personality with sexual and other conflicts, whose inadequacy found expression in an obsessive preoccupation [with anti-Semitism], which for the past twenty years has filled the narrow stream of his life" (pp. 252 54).
A recurring subject which Goldensohn touched upon during the course of interviewing the prisoners was their attitudes toward German anti-Semitism and its horrendous consequences. The responses he obtained were as varied as they were disturbing. Hermann Goering (who had instituted the first concentration camps in the 1930s) claimed that he was never anti-Semitic, and it was not anti-Semitism that attracted him to the Nazi party, but rather its political agenda. To this assertion the former Reichsmarschall added: "Of course, if one joined the Nazi party one had to adopt all the points of the party more or less, including anti-Semitism" (p. 116). One of the most chilling of Goldensohn's interviews was with the notorious Otto Ohlendorf, commander of Einsatzgruppe D which was responsible for murdering 90,000 Jews in Russia. It was Ohlendorf who especially aroused Goldensohn's prosecutorial vitriol. Exasperated, Goldensohn wrote: "Ohlendorf ... feels no remorse now except nominally. He looks like a burned-out ghoul, and his conscience, if it can be called such, is clean as a whistle and as empty" (p. 390). Goldensohn was especially interested in the genesis of Ohlendorf's anti-Semitism which, he ascertained, dated back to the latter's memberships in the Bismarck Youth and then in the anti-Semitic German National People's party of newspaper mogul Alfred Hugenberg.
In sum, the Goldensohn interviews offer a compelling oral chronicle of the Nuremberg trials that illuminate the economic and political forces and factors which contributed to Germany's descent into dictatorship and inhumanity.
Harold M. Green
Liberty, New York
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|Author:||Green, Harold M.|
|Publication:||International Social Science Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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