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Save the Monsters for Halloween

By Betsey Culp

If he and all the other defendants had been degraded perverts, if all of the leaders of the Third Reich had been sadistic monsters and maniacs, then these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake or any other natural catastrophe.

—Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

Nearly every day for seven months, Leon Goldensohn, the son of Jews who had emigrated from Lithuania, sat face to face with the likes of Rudolf Hess, Hermann Goering, Julius Streicher and Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, where world leaders last week marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the death camp.

The papers reveal a man who interviewed these monsters with the probing and mostly dispassionate demeanor of a journalist, noting their mannerisms and moods as well as their words. He tried to drill through to the pieces of the men that might offer some answers about how and why, about the nature of evil.

— San Francisco Chronicle (January 30, 2005)

In this world of inflated language, monsters are everywhere. Generally, the ones with capital letters are pretty benign fellows. A quick survey of children’s books turns up a Sea Monster, a Garbage Monster, and a Monster of Manners, as well as a Monster in the Closet and Monster under the Bed. Want a quick boost? Drink Monster Energy Drink. Need to bulk up? Monster Food is just the ticket. And of course, there’s the Bay Area’s newly christened sports arena, Monster Stadium.

Lowercased monsters are harder to find. They’re the scary guys. They used to lurk in the corners of myths, inhuman creatures whose horrendous deeds sent chills up the spine of listeners and storytellers alike. But nowadays, they usually hang out in tabloid reports of child molesters and serial killers. And, it turns out, in major-media stories about Nazi leaders.

Last October Knopf published The Nuremberg Interviews, a collection of interviews that American psychiatrist Leon Goldensohn recorded with Nazi defendants and witnesses during the Nuremberg Trials of 1945-46. Newsweek, which reviewed the book under the headline “Monsters on the Couch,” noted, “The prison at Nuremberg was a hospice for spiritual incurables, beyond the help of psychiatry.” Welcome to the tabloid world of child molesters and serial killers!

There’s a local angle to everything, even monsters. Last week the San Francisco Chronicle brought home the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz with the story of how a son rediscovered his father. The son, Dan Goldensohn, is a San Francisco schoolteacher; his father, Leon, died in 1961. The occasion for their reunion was the publication by Knopf of Goldensohn père’s interviews. The Chronicle article — a front-page column, not a news story — follows Newsweek’s lead. It describes the interviews as encounters between “monsters” and “a man… with the probing and mostly dispassionate demeanor of a journalist.”

It was not always thus.

Flash back to 1961, when Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg burst onto the scene, exploring the complicated world of post-war Germany and presenting movie audiences with the first chilling film clips of the Nazi concentration camps. The movie is an anachronism — 3 ½ hours of dialogue, mostly courtroom speeches, filmed in black and white. And it’s gripping.

Judgment at Nuremberg is all about assigning responsibility — who brought such misery and devastation not only to Germany but to all of Europe? For the defendants, it’s obviously a life-and-death question. But it was a question that the other participants were wrestling with as well. The issues facing Germany in the 1930s and 1940s — racism, economic and political unrest, fear of foreign invasion — belonged to the entire world. How far should people go to ensure that their homeland will survive?

Despite the Chronicle’s characterization, the defendants at Nuremberg were not “charged with carrying out genocide.” It’s telling that, as Samantha Powers demonstrates in A Problem from Hell, the powers of the world did not recognize “genocide” as a crime in 1945. And the Nuremberg defendants were indeed charged with crimes.

The Charter of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg outlines the charges against each defendant. They're worth taking the time to read. They list the kinds of actions that the Allies — the victors in World War II — to be against the law. And by law, their perpetrators were punishable as criminals.

(a) Crimes against Peace: namely, planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression, or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances, or participation in a Common Plan or Conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the foregoing;

(b) War Crimes: namely, violations of the laws or customs of war.  Such violations shall include, but not be limited to, murder, ill-treatment or deportation to slave labor or for any other purpose of civilian population of or in occupied territory, murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity;

(c) Crimes against Humanity: namely, murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war, or persecutions on political, racial, or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of domestic law of the country where perpetrated.

The issue was not whether a person actually pulled the trigger, but who was in charge:

Leaders, organizers, instigators, and accomplices participating in the formulation or execution of a Common Plan or Conspiracy to commit any of the foregoing crimes are responsible for all acts performed by any persons in execution of such plan.

These are moral issues. But the Nuremberg Tribunal, and Judgment at Nuremberg, recognized that the morality of governments exists on a plane apart from personal morality. In the film, the chief judge responds to a defendant’s argument that his concern was for the survival of his country:

Survival as what? A country isn’t a rock. It’s not an extension of oneself. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult.

The issues at stake were not personal; they were political. And they could only be settled by political means. To belabor the obvious, issues like these were the reason that human beings instituted governments.

So… what about all those Nazi “monsters”? The word choice is unfortunate, but it’s not really the fault of Newsweek or the Chronicle. The usage merely reflects a general tendency to personalize (or in this case, non-personalize) political actions and actors. It takes its cue from the White House, from a president who embarked on his second term by saying,

The public interest depends on private character — on integrity, and tolerance toward others, and the rule of conscience in our own lives. Self-government relies, in the end, on the governing of the self. That edifice of character is built in families, supported by communities with standards, and sustained in our national life by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran, and the varied faiths of our people.

When the political becomes personal, it leaves a big empty space for monsters. And if you're little and weak, no "edifice of character" can protect you from their insatiable appetite. As "spiritual incurables," monsters are outside the law.

You know the old story. They came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist. Gulp! They were gone. They came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew. Gulp! They were gone. Gulp! They came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant. Gulp! They were gone. And they came for me.