The Nuremberg Diary: A front row seat to evil

70 years after the trials of major Nazi war criminals, a German-to-English translator recounts harrowing interviews with some of history's most evil men.

Chief American prosecutor Robert H. Jackson addresses the Nuremberg court on November 20, 1945 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Chief American prosecutor Robert H. Jackson addresses the Nuremberg court on November 20, 1945
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
One day not long ago, I opened a desk drawer in my home office and carefully removed a small, spiral-bound diary that I wrote in Nuremberg, Germany, fully seven decades ago. When I started it in 1945, I inscribed on the cardboard cover, in fountain pen ink, a one-word title: “SECRET.” Inside, I wrote candidly of experiences I was having while participating, as a staff member of the Office of the US Chief of Counsel for the Prosecution of Axis Criminality, in the trial of the most incriminated former leaders of the defeated Nazi regime.
Seventy years ago this week, just a few days before Thanksgiving 1945, in a packed courtroom in Nuremberg, the first session of the true “Trial of the Century” was opened. During the ensuing 10 months, 23 former Third Reich officials stood trial in that war-ravaged city’s imposing Palace of Justice before a panel of judges from the US, England, the Soviet Union and France. Ultimately, all but three of the defendants were convicted of, variously, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes against peace (that is, waging “aggressive war”). Ten of the men were executed, and Hermann Goering committed suicide shortly before he was to be hanged.
Tried in front of the specially created “International Military Tribunal,” this was the landmark trial – and this was the court – in which international criminal law was born. “Nuremberg,” to use the now-common shorthand, was thus the progenitor of the International Criminal Court and other tribunals that were created after the Cold War ended to try the perpetrators of genocide and other atrocity crimes perpetrated in such places as Rwanda and Bosnia. The Nuremberg trial’s revelations about the scope and depravity of Nazi crimes – and world leaders’ continuing failure in this new century to prevent, or sometimes even to halt, the perpetration of large-scale atrocity crimes – weigh heavily on the conscience of humankind to this day.
A vast body of literature exists about the trial, and also about the 12 follow-up trials that US occupation authorities conducted in Nuremberg against lower-level perpetrators of such grotesque crimes as lethal human experimentation. The record of what transpired in Courtroom 600 at the first trial is widely available. Indeed, most of the trial was filmed and can now be viewed online, with the audio of the English-language simultaneous interpretation intact. (Simultaneous interpretation made its world debut there as well.)
However, many of the most dramatic and important developments occurred outside the courtroom, especially during the interrogations of the perpetrators.
Those confrontations remain little known, in part because journalists were not present and no audio or film recordings were made. Having served as the sole German-English interpreter during many such questionings (as well as an interpretation “monitor” inside the courtroom), I am one of the last surviving participants and therefore one of the last eyewitnesses. I had a front-row seat, so to speak, as such monstrous evildoers as Goering, the perverted anti- Semitic propagandist Julius Streicher, former Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp commandant Rudolf Hoess, and Otto Ohlendorf, a senior commander of one of the notorious Einsatzgruppen mobile killing units, were confronted during their interrogations with incriminating evidence, often in the form of captured wartime documents that they themselves had signed. Most of the men eventually admitted to us the basic facts of their involvement in the Nazi machinery of annihilation and despoliation.
Very disturbingly, however, many also tried to justify their actions, particularly on the basis that they were “obligated” to follow orders, even criminal ones.
In the diary I wrote at Nuremberg, and in a letter to my aunt in New York, I recorded some of the more horrifying and significant statements of the men we questioned, along with my personal reactions and observations. Sometimes I quoted the prisoners verbatim in the original German.
From time to time, I return to my Nuremberg notebook. Whenever I do so, memories that have scarcely faded despite the passage of seven decades are vividly, often painfully, revived.
I HAD seen much horror prior to arriving at Nuremberg, during combat from the time I landed with the 104th Infantry Division at Normandy (a week after the bloody initial June 6, 1944 invasion) until fighting ended in Europe in May 1945, and especially when my unit liberated the nightmarish Nordhausen concentration camp on April 12, 1945. Yet the contents of my Nuremberg diary still shock and even haunt me. The stenographic transcripts of the interrogations have survived, to be sure, and confessions that we obtained can be heard being quoted when they were offered in evidence at the trial. But the typed transcripts cannot possibly convey the full, terrible reality of what it was like to participate in these proceedings. Despite the fact that I now have more than 50 years’ post-Nuremberg experience as a clinical psychologist behind me, I continue to wrestle with what the perpetrators did, what they said to us under questioning, and how they said it.
NAZI WAR criminal Rudolf Hoess. ‘He is one of the most depraved degenerate types of character it has ever been my misfortune to meet,’ the author wrote in a letter to his aunt. (Wikimedia Commons)
I was just 22 years old when I came to Nuremberg in October 1945 (I am 92 now). As a young German Jewish refugee from Hamburg whose studies were interrupted when I was drafted during my freshman year at Columbia University, I was proud to have served in the Allied armed forces that brought the Nazi reign of terror to an end, and I felt deeply privileged to take part in the unprecedented effort subsequently launched at Nuremberg to secure a measure of justice on behalf of the Hitler regime’s many millions of victims.
I was one of some 30 language specialists employed by the US prosecution team. Most of us were recently discharged soldiers or officers who had served in military intelligence and who were now civilian employees of the War Department. We were given captured German documents to translate into English and some of us were also assigned to interpret at interrogations and in court during the trial. During the trial sessions, we interpreted various languages into English, French and Russian, and we also interpreted the various languages into German, primarily for the defendants and their attorneys. All present – including journalists and other observers – were given headphones and could “dial up” whichever of the four interpretation languages they preferred.
Many of the documents were of great historical importance and many were also highly incriminating. These included, for example, an order from defendant Karl Doenitz that sailors from torpedoed American and British ships not be rescued, orders linking Goering to the summary execution of captured Allied airmen, and a 1941 order from Goering in which he directed senior SS officials to bring about “a complete solution of the Jewish question in the German sphere of influence in Europe.”
WE OFTEN had to interrupt our document translation work because we were called in to interpret at an interrogation. The individuals interrogated included both defendants and witnesses. The questioning was usually conducted by a prosecutor, who was typically an attorney who was also a military officer.
The interpreter had to be fully multilingual and also possess knowledge of the organization of the German state and military, the Nazi Party, the SS and the Gestapo. Also present was a court reporter, who utilized a stenotype machine to prepare complete transcripts in English. Each transcript was checked for accuracy by the interrogator, the interpreter, and the defendant or witness, who was then directed to sign it. Security was provided by two white-helmeted military policemen bearing side arms.
I had seen, up close at Nordhausen, some of the almost indescribably ghastly results of Nazi barbarism, and I already possessed considerable experience questioning captured Nazis, through my work as a member of a US Army Prisoner of War Interrogation Team, for which I had received training in the Army’s military intelligence program at Camp Ritchie, Maryland. But nothing prepared me for what I was to encounter at Nuremberg. Nothing. My time there – much of it spent in “conversation” with some of the most infamous and bloodthirsty figures in human history – sometimes seems almost unreal to me, as though it could only have happened in another life.
The contents of captured documents that I translated at Nuremberg and interrogations there at which I interpreted were deeply unsettling. On April 2, 1946, I wrote to my aunt that the facts that were being revealed at Nuremberg about atrocities “are sometimes so horrible and gruesome that they surpass anything the human mind can imagine.” Our interrogations of Rudolf Hoess about his experiences supervising the operation of the largest killing site in human history were certainly of this awful character. “He is one of the most depraved degenerate types of character it has ever been my misfortune to meet,” I wrote her the day after interpreting at an interrogation of Hoess. “[T]he accounts this beast of a man gave in the most matter-of-fact tone of voice of brutal, sadistic acts” at Auschwitz “made me feel physically ill.”
Like the others, Hoess voiced no apologies when we questioned him. Instead, he offered a rationalization – one that conveniently shifted all blame to others.
Hitler, Hoess told us, had ordered the mass murder of the Jews and had communicated that instruction to SS chief Heinrich Himmler, who in turn passed the order on to him and to other SS officers. In fact, Hoess told us, Himmler had shared with him exactly what Hitler said – words that were supposed to remain secret but that Hoess was now eager to repeat to us, perhaps in the naïve hope that doing so might save his own life. In keeping with common practice, our stenographer transcribed only my English-language interpretation. But in both my letter to my aunt and in my diary, I wrote down, in German, the precise, chilling, words that Hoess attributed to Hitler: “Wenn wir jetzt nicht die Jüdische Rasse volkommen ausrotten, wird die Jüdische Rasse das Deutsche Volk vernichten.” In English: “If we do not exterminate the Jewish race completely now, then the Jewish race will annihilate the German people.”
HAVING MADE my post-Nuremberg career as a practicing psychologist, I today recognize at once the thought process that operated in Hitler to yield this homicidal fantasy. In psychology, we call it “projection” – defending against thoughts and impulses that would ordinarily generate guilt feelings by denying their existence in oneself and by simultaneously attributing them to others.
Hoess “completed” his own defense by insisting that he and others truly believed what Hitler was saying about the Jews, because, as he told Dr. Gustave Gilbert, a US Army psychologist who interviewed him in the Nuremberg prison, “we SS men were not supposed to think about these things; it never occurred to us. Besides, it was something already taken for granted that the Jews were to blame for everything... It was not just [in] newspapers like the [Streicher-published] Stürmer, but it was everything we ever heard.”
Hoess’s confession, which included minute details of the mass killing and incineration operations he oversaw, was soon repeated in court. “The killing was easy,” he testified, because the victims who were about to be gassed were deceived into thinking that they were going to take showers, “but it was the burning [of the bodies] that took all the time.” Hoess’s confession did not achieve the result for which he hoped.
After he testified at Nuremberg, he was delivered to Poland, where he was soon tried and convicted. In April 1947, he was hanged – fittingly, at the site of the former Auschwitz camp.
Otto Ohlendorf, like Hoess, exhibited a calm, impassive, almost clinical demeanor as he recounted his role in the mass murder of thousands of men, women, children and even babies. In the courtroom on January 3, 1946, he comported himself in the same disturbing manner, acknowledging in seemingly dispassionate fashion that his men had shot to death no fewer than 90,000 unarmed persons, mostly at killing pits in the Soviet Union. His testimony stunned the courtroom into silence.
Hermann Goering’s courtroom manner was characterized by Chief United States prosecutor Robert H. Jackson as “arrogant and contemptuous.” Goering presented himself the same way when we questioned him. Despite being a prisoner, he remained a menacing figure who dominated our sessions. I recall being glad that he was guarded by two military policemen and that I was seated on the opposite side of the table from him! Goering sought to portray himself as someone who had tried to persuade Hitler against various excesses, such as the fire-bombing of London. “I told him time and time again that we must destroy the English war industry instead of wasting our bombs by dropping them on that stupid London,” he told us. “What good would it do us if a few hundred more houses would go up in flames?”
IT IS to the great credit of our wartime and postwar leaders and their advisers, and it is emblematic of the far-sightedness and wisdom of presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S Truman and then-General Dwight D. Eisenhower that we did not seek to collectively punish the German people for starting World War II, but instead helped them, especially through the Marshall Plan, to rebuild their economy.
NOTES BY George Sakheim in his Nuremberg diary. The page is open to notes from the interrogation of Rudolf Hoess. The author’s army picture is at the right. (Courtesy George Sakheim)
We turned the German people into friends and allies. Germany has become a reliable democracy that vigorously protects civil and human rights.
As I wrote to my aunt during the trial, some of my experiences at Nuremberg left me with “a feeling of supreme futility.” “What’s the use of it all?” I wrote her in reference to the Holocaust in particular. “Nothing we can do will bring those six million people back to life.”
But there was, after the trial ended, reason for optimism. First of all, justice had been done; after 435 court sessions in which 33 witnesses for the prosecution and 61 witnesses for the defense testified and in which thousands of documents were reviewed and entered into the record, 20 of the 23 men on trial were convicted. Defendants were found complicit in, among other outrages, carrying out the Nazi seizure of power, subjugating Germany and German- occupied countries to police state rule, preparing for and waging wars of aggression, conducting warfare in total disregard of international humanitarian law, enslaving and plundering populations in occupied lands, and persecuting and exterminating Jews. The fact that judges from different countries and legal systems found unanimously that such acts amounted to crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity constituted a truly monumental achievement in the development of international law.
I well recall the satisfaction I felt, particularly as a Jewish boy who had fled Nazi Germany, that I was able to take part in my adopted homeland’s historic pursuit of justice in post-Nazi Germany. We “Nurembergers,” as we eventually came to call ourselves, were further encouraged by the adoption of the Convention Against Genocide just two years after the trial ended. (It was at Nuremberg that the word “genocide,” coined by Professor Rafael Lemkin in 1944, was spoken for the first time in a court of law.)
As an American, however, it was deeply frustrating and yes, embarrassing, to watch as the United States resisted ratifying the Genocide Convention for literally 40 years, until 1988, when we became the last major Western country to do so. Those unhappy feelings are rekindled when I contemplate the fact that Congress’s repeated failure to enact a crimes against humanity law – a crime that the United States and its wartime allies famously and successfully prosecuted at Nuremberg so long ago – has again made the US an outlier in the community of democratic nations.
I BELIEVE that most of us who participated in the grand experiment at Nuremberg in bringing national leaders to the bar of justice for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes against peace assumed that no one would ever again dare to perpetrate such crimes, at least on a large-scale basis. After all, as prosecutor Jackson predicted in his justly celebrated opening address on November 21, 1945, the crimes that were prosecuted at Nuremberg were “so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.”
But repeated they have been. Even genocide, the so-called “crime of crimes,” has been repeated. Plainly, we overestimated the deterrent effect that the trial would have. Just as tragically, we greatly underestimated man’s continued propensity for evil. We simply could not have imagined that governments would perpetrate such crimes again or that groups would arise, such as ISIS and Boko Haram, that would not only commit atrocity crimes on a systematic basis but would openly boast of doing so, brazenly disseminating the proof of their atrocities to a vast worldwide audience.
GEORGE SAKHEIM, at left, in front of judges at Nuremberg Trial, 1946. The photo was signed by British and American judges. (Courtesy George Sakheim)
Fully 70 years have passed since the Allied Powers made good on their 1943 public warning to the perpetrators of “atrocities, massacres and cold-blooded mass executions” that “most assuredly the three Allied Powers will pursue them to the uttermost ends of the earth and will deliver them to their accusers in order that justice may be done.” Soon, there will be no remaining “Nurembergers” to teach the lessons that they learned firsthand at Nuremberg. There will be no one left who can read aloud from a diary in which he or she recorded that which must never be forgotten. But those lessons – especially that the propagation of hatred can produce murderous results and that no nation’s leaders can expect immunity when they criminally violate the bedrock precepts of civilization and humanity – must not, despite the passage of seven decades, be consigned solely to the history books.
In a world still plagued by the commission of mass atrocity crimes, they are, still, of literally life-and-death relevance to imperiled peoples across the globe.
The author was an interpreter at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg from October 1945 through April 1946. In a 2009, he was one of nine US World War II veterans awarded France’s highest decoration, as a Chevalier of the Order of the French Legion of Honor. A retired clinical psychologist, he and his wife reside in Gwynedd, Pennsylvania.