Nuremberg Trials interviews delve into Nazi mindset

A revealing document from the Holocaust era has come to light with the publication of Dr. Leon Goldensohn’s “The Nuremberg Interviews: an American Psychiatrist’s Conversations with the Defendants and Witnesses.” The book is especially relevant as the 60th anniversary of the start of the Nuremberg Trials took place on Nov. 20.

Goldensohn was a prison psychiatrist at the 121st General Hospital of Nuremberg in 1946. While there, he interviewed 33 high-ranking Nazi war criminals, hoping to learn “what made them tick.”

His interviews and observations have been edited, abridged, annotated and published by Robert Gellately, professor of history at Florida State University and author of several books on Nazism.

“Nuremburg” is a rogues’ gallery, each interview headed by a photograph of the subject, a list of his manifold titles and crimes under the Third Reich, and his fate — in half the cases, being hanged.

Gellately’s introduction assumes an attitude of moral superiority toward Goldensohn, who “shared the belief of the time in the ‘pathology’ of the leading Nazis and, though gentle in his approach, was especially interested in trying to account for their ‘depravities.'” The psychologist’s notes indicate that while he hated the Nazis’ crimes, the perpetrators were mostly nice, normal people.

That was, at least, the impression the convicts strove to convey in their interviews. Most of them served in World War I and embraced Nazism in the 1920s and early 1930s — out of ambition, the lure of Adolf Hitler’s charisma or “patriotism.” They uniformly blamed most of their country’s troubles, of course, on the Jews. It was chiefly on that subject that the doctor focused his most relentless questioning.

For example, he asked Rudolf Hoess to tell him how many people were executed at Auschwitz while he was its commandant, between 1940 and 1943.

“Hoess: ‘About 2.5 million Jews.’ Goldensohn: ‘What do you think of it?’ Hoess (looking blank and apathetic): ‘I had my personal orders from [Heinrich] Himmler … ‘ ‘Did you ever protest?’ ‘I couldn’t do that.’ ‘Don’t you have a mind or opinion of your own?’ ‘Yes, but when Himmler told us something, it was so correct and so natural we just blindly obeyed it.’ ‘Do you have any feelings of guilt for this?’ ‘Yes, now naturally it makes me think that it was not right.'”

While Goldensohn recorded the words of his interviewees in a neutral manner, he etched their portraits with an acid wit. Of Erhard Milch, field marshal and armaments chief of the Third Reich’s Air Force, he wrote: “He is a shrewd, Napoleonic, short man, who is very affable, but as poisonous as hell with his affability.”

“The Nuremberg Interviews” is ultimately fascinating, although some of the conversations prove to be excessively long and repetitious and thus may only be of interest to the discerning reader. Gellately’s notes act as a moral compass; Goldensohn’s strictly neutral approach to such mass murderers could have left a whole generation adrift, headed for another shipwreck.

“The Nuremberg Interviews: An American Psychiatrist’s Conversations with the Defendants and Witnesses” by Leon Goldensohn, edited by Robert Gellately (490 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, $35).