Save the Monsters for Halloween
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
(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:
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
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
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.