Nuremberg was a haunted city in November 1945 as teams of Allied prosecutors and the world press converged on its bombed-out ruins for the first in a series of historic war crimes trials. The Allies had chosen Nuremberg to put the Third Reich on trial for its aggression and crimes against humanity because the city had been the main stage for Hitler’s pageantry, playing host each year to the Nazi Party’s extravagant propaganda spectacles. Film director Leni Riefenstahl memorialized the 1934 Nuremberg festival inTriumph of the Will, her paean to Hitler’s highly choreographed militarism. In Riefenstahl’s film, the city of medieval spires and cobblestone streets was transformed into a fascist fairyland. Every building was draped with exquisite precision in Nazi bunting. Every golden youth in the teeming crowd was filled with adoration as Hitler rode by, standing erect in his open car and returning the lusty cheers with his own rather limp salute.
But by 1945, Nuremberg had been reduced to rubble. On January 2, Royal Air Force and U.S. Army Air Force bombers swarmed over the city and destroyed the glories of its medieval center in just one hour. More raids followed in February. And then, in April, U.S. infantry divisions attacked the heavily defended city, finally taking it after fiery building-to-building fighting.
When Rebecca West arrived in Nuremberg that fall to cover the war crimes trial for The New Yorker, she found only a ruined landscape and hordes of scavengers. Making her way over the rubble one day, she was forced to hold her breath against “the double stench of disinfectant and of that which was irredeemably infected, for it concealed 30,000 dead.” There was little food or fuel to buy in the shops—and no money for transactions, only cigarettes. At night, a Stygian blackness fell over the ghost city, relieved only by an eerie constellation of flickering candles in shattered windows.
That November, twenty-one prominent representatives of the Nazi regime that had brought Europe to this ruin faced their own moment of retribution as they sat in the defendants’ galley in Nuremberg’s Palace of Justice, one of the few official buildings left standing in Germany. Hitler and Himmler were already gone, as was the Reich’s master propagandist Joseph Goebbels, escaping the executioner by their own hands. But the Nuremberg prosecutors had managed to assemble a representative spectrum from Hitler’s glory days, including Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, at one time the second-highest-ranking member of the Nazi Party and Hitler’s designated successor. Goering was joined in the dock by dignitaries such as Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s half-mad deputy who had flown to Scotland in 1941 in a wild bid to cut a peace deal with Britain; Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Himmler’s grim, scar-faced executioner, the highest-ranking SS leader to be tried at Nuremberg; Hjalmar Schacht, the brilliant and arrogant international banker who had financed Hitler’s military rise; Albert Speer, the architect of Hitler’s imperial dreams and master of his weapons assembly line; and Julius Streicher, the unhinged politician and publisher who had parlayed his virulent brand of anti-Semitism into a thriving media empire based in Nuremberg.
Nuremberg, which enshrined the legal principle of personal responsibility for one’s actions, even in war, was a showcase of Nazi denial. When Hitler’s wily foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, was asked by an interrogator whether he was aware that millions had been murdered in the Nazi death camps, he had the gall to exclaim, “That . . . is an astounding thing to me . . . I can’t imagine that!” It was as if he were suddenly waking from the bad dream of his own life. The defendants had long before abdicated all of their will to the Führer. As defendant Wilhelm Frick, the Reich’s minister of the interior, declared in 1935, “I have no conscience; Adolf Hitler is my conscience.”
The most egotistical defendants, like Goering and Schacht, struck defiant poses. At times, Reichsmarschall Goering mugged for the courtroom, laughing at the prosecutors’ mispronunciation of German names and puffing his cheeks indignantly when they made errors about the Nazi chain of command.
The Reichsmarschall had not even bothered to run from the advancing American troops in the war’s final days, convinced that he would be treated as the eminent representative of a defeated but noble people. His first hours in captivity surely encouraged his optimism, as the U.S. 36th Infantry Division soldiers who came for him at his quarters in southern Bavaria chatted amiably with him and treated the well-fed Nazi to one of their chicken and rice dinners from a tin can. Goering had no idea that he would be tried as a war criminal. At one point he blithely asked an American commander, “Should [I] wear a pistol or my ceremonial dagger when I appear before General Eisenhower?”
But the Reich’s crimes would not be easily dismissed at Nuremberg. The very name of the city conjured not only Nazi triumphalism, but the race laws that Hitler ordered to be written in 1935—laws that, by criminalizing Jewishness, led inexorably to the butchery that followed. The city and its Palace of Justice had long been drenched with blood.
Nine days into the trial, the dead would make a dramatic appearance in the courtroom, conjured in a twenty-two-minute documentary called Death Mills. The documentary was made by Hollywood director Billy Wilder, an Austrian-born Jew who had fled Hitler, who compiled it from scraps of film taken by U.S. Army Signal Corps cameramen during the liberation of several Nazi concentration camps. In his opening statement, Robert Jackson, the chief U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg, warned the courtroom that the film “will be disgusting and you will say I have robbed you of your sleep.”
But nothing could prepare those who viewed the film for what they would see that day: the piles of shriveled corpses and the walking skeletons that greeted the stunned and sickened American liberators, the mangled remains of someone who had been experimented on by Nazi doctors (“This was a woman,” intoned the narrator), the mounds of human ash to be sold as farm fertilizer, the pyramids of human hair and boxes of gold dental fillings to be sold for wigs and jewelry—the final value extracted from the victims of the Reich. One of the most punishing images was not grisly, but it would stay fixed in the mind’s eye—a close-up shot that lingered on a bin of children’s shoes, well worn from play.
As the film unreeled in the darkened courtroom, low lights were aimed at the defendants so the courtroom could see their reaction. From this point on, there was no place to hide. “The hilarity in the dock suddenly stopped,” noted one courtroom witness. While the terrible images flickered on the screen, one criminal mopped his brow; another swallowed hard, trying to choke back tears. Now one buried his face in his hands, while another began openly weeping. (“These were crocodile tears. They wept for themselves, not for the dead,” observed a British prosecutor.) Only the most arrogant remained impervious, with Schacht, Hitler’s banker, turning his back to the screen, and Goering “trying to brazen it out,” in the words of assistant U.S. prosecutor Telford Taylor.
Afterward, Goering complained that the film had ruined the show he was putting on for the courtroom: “It was such a good afternoon too, until they showed that film. They were reading my telephone conversations on the Austrian [annexation] and everybody was laughing with me. And then they showed that awful film, and it just spoiled everything.”
The Nuremberg trial was a moral milestone, the first time that top government officials were held accountable for crimes against humanity that in earlier days would have likely been dismissed as the natural acts of war. During the war, Allied leaders had issued a “full warning” that Nazi war criminals would be pursued “to the uttermost ends of the earth . . . in order that justice be done.” But it took a heated debate within Allied diplomatic circles before the international tribunal was finally established in Nuremberg. And even after it was up and running, the process was fraught with political maneuvering.
President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill were so intent on meting out a fitting punishment that they originally favored taking the law into their own hands and summarily shooting Hitler’s top military, ministerial, and party ranks—Churchill estimated the number would be somewhere between fifty and a hundred men. The prime minister thought that once the proper identifications were made, the killing could be completed within six hours. In one of history’s deeper ironies, it was Joseph Stalin who insisted that the Nazi leaders be put on trial, lecturing his Western allies on the merits of due process. “U[ncle]. J[oe]. took an unexpectedly ultra-respectable line,” Churchill wrote Roosevelt after meeting with Stalin in Moscow in October 1944. The Soviet premier told Churchill that “there must be no executions without trial; otherwise the world would say we were afraid to try them.”
Roosevelt finally came around to the idea of an international war crimes tribunal. But once again he had to face stiff opposition from within his own State Department. Future foreign service legend George Kennan, who was a junior diplomat in the U.S. embassy in Berlin when war broke out, was one of those who took a strong stand against punishing Nazi war criminals. Purging these leaders from German society would not only be greatly unpopular with the German people, Kennan argued, it would be hugely disruptive. “We would not find any other class of people competent to assume the burdens [of leading postwar Germany],” he insisted. “Whether we like it or not, nine-tenths of what is strong, able and respected in Germany” carried the taint of Nazism.
It was not until late 1943 that a small, underfunded international commission began the urgent work of trying to define the barbaric new crimes emerging from World War II and compiling a list of war criminals for prosecution as soon as peace permitted. FDR appointed an old friend named Herbert Pell as the U.S. representative to the United Nations War Crimes Commission. (The United Nations was yet to be founded, but this is how the Allies sometimes referred to themselves during the war.) Pell, a fellow New York Brahmin and ardent New Deal supporter, quickly found himself in a political vortex, besieged by State Department bureaucrats who did not consider an international tribunal necessary and were determined to sabotage Pell’s efforts.
At six feet five inches and 250 pounds, Pell was a towering man—and, raised in the rarefied societies of Tuxedo Park and Newport Beach, he had more than enough self-confidence to hold his own among his Washington foes. The Pells had inherited a tobacco fortune, their forefathers had been granted the land that would become the Bronx and Westchester County by the British crown, and there was no need for “Bertie” Pell to do a thing with his life if he had so chosen. Indeed, with his waxed mustache and pince-nez glasses, he seemed like a throwback to the Gilded Age. But inspired by the rambunctious reformism of Teddy Roosevelt, Pell leaped into the grubby fray of American politics, albeit in Manhattan’s silk stocking district on the Upper East Side, which, despite its long aversion to Democrats, briefly elected him to Congress. By the time his old Harvard classmate Franklin Roosevelt ran for president in 1932, Bertie Pell was a full-on renegade from his class, which he dismissed as a sybaritic and selfish lot whose “piglike rush for immediate profits” had brought ruin to the country in the crash of 1929.
Those who snubbed him at the clubhouse in Tuxedo Park—a rolling estate of woods, lakes, and citadels for America’s gentry located in Orange County, New York, some forty miles outside of New York City—were too stupid, in Pell’s not-so-humble opinion, to realize that Franklin Roosevelt was trying to save their bacon from a revolution that was rumbling right outside their gates. “I am almost the last capitalist who is willing to be saved by you,” Pell wrote Roosevelt in 1936 in a letter beseeching the president to draft him for the New Deal cause. The following year, Pell wrote again, praising FDR’s accomplishments: “Your administration has made possible the continuance of American institutions for at least fifty years. You have done for the government what St. Francis did for the Catholic Church. You have brought it back to the people.”
Roosevelt finally did put Pell to work, sending him to Portugal and then to Hungary as U.S. ambassador in the late 1930s, from where he watched with growing alarm the rise of fascism. By the time Pell was chosen for the war crimes commission in June 1943, he knew the full depths of the evil that had taken hold of Europe. He was eager to get to London, where other commission members were already beginning to meet, but Pell found himself ensnared by State Department bureaucracy. His principal nemesis was the State Department legal adviser, a fussy and officious man named Green Hackworth.
The two men clashed immediately, on a personal as well as political level. “Hackworth was well named,” Pell recalled later. “He was a little, legal hack of no particular attainments. He was manifestly not born a gentleman and had acquired very few of the ideas of a gentleman on his way up in the world. His manners were bad, his fingers were dirty [and] he was clearly unused to good society.”
More important, Pell’s mission abroad was strongly opposed by Hackworth, who took a narrowly legalistic approach to the war crimes question. War was not subject to a moral calculus, in the eyes of State Department officials like Hackworth, who rejected the very idea that the international community might hold heads of state responsible for atrocities against their own people. This traditional view was rendered obsolete by the Nazi inferno in Europe, but men like Hackworth seemed oblivious to the new world around them.
Pell, in contrast, was intent on bringing to justice not just Nazi Party high officials, but also the German business elite who had profited from Hitler’s rule and even the rank-and-file Gestapo men who, unless they were severely punished, Pell feared, would go home to their villages and brag about what they had gotten away with. “The first thing is to make clear to every last German in the world that war is not a profitable business,” Pell wrote to Secretary of State Hull in 1943. Pell’s zeal for justice—and his broad definition of German guilt—sent alarms through the U.S. Foreign Service and Wall Street circles, where the primary concerns were related to postwar German stability.
Green Hackworth and his colleagues successfully conspired to hold up Pell’s departure for months. Finally, after FDR intervened on his behalf with Hull, Pell was able to set sail for London on the Queen Mary in December 1943—a full six months after his appointment to the war crimes commission. Pell arrived in a frigidly cold, war-torn London, where heating fuel was in short supply. Fortunately, he had sent word ahead to his English tailor, who was able to supply him with woolen long underwear that fit his large frame.
Pell was shocked by London’s widespread war damage: every block seemed to have at least one demolished building. Three of the friends in his small London social circle were killed by German bombs. One was blown up, along with the rest of the congregation, while attending Sunday church. Only the minister survived. Pell toughed it out during air raids, staying aboveground instead of descending into the crowded, badly ventilated shelters. At age fifty-nine, he thought he was more likely to die from catching the flu than by being blown up by a German bomb or a Doodlebug, as the British called the V–1 flying bombs whistling overhead. When the Luftwaffe bombers roared over London, they dropped huge flares to illuminate their targets, and the city was cast in a spectral glow just before the explosions began. As the president’s man in London, Pell thought it was important to carry on with his life in the same plucky manner as the Brits. One afternoon, he took a visiting cousin for tea at the exclusive Athenaeum Club. Although every one of the club’s windows had been blasted out, the waiters still made their rounds with the same crisp and aloof manner as they had before the war.
As the war crimes commission went about its work through 1944, Pell, despite his lack of legal experience, took a leadership role, developing prosecutorial guidelines for the postwar tribunal that would try Germany’s war criminals. While some commission members were uncertain how to categorize the Nazi brutality against the Jews, Pell vehemently argued that this violence, even if conducted away from the battlefield, must be regarded as a prosecutable war crime, and the commission came to agree with him.
But Pell was unable to finish his work with the war crimes commission. In December 1944, he returned to America for the wedding of his only son—future U.S. senator Claiborne Pell—and to consult with the State Department. Once they had him back in Washington, his political enemies were determined to never let him return. Again, Pell appealed to his old friend in the White House to help him overpower the State Department hacks. But this time, Roosevelt’s health was failing and he could not muster the energy to rescue Bertie. On February 1, the State Department announced Pell’s dismissal.
In early April 1945, Henry Morgenthau went down to the presidential retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia, where FDR was convalescing, to urge him to directly confront the State Department cabal that seemed hell-bent on appeasing the country’s German enemies and antagonizing its Soviet allies. Sitting down for cocktails with the president, Morgenthau was shaken by the president’s “very haggard” appearance. “His hands shook so that he started to knock the glasses over. . . . I found his memory bad and he was constantly confusing names.” After drinks and dinner, Roosevelt seemed to rally and he asked Morgenthau what he had in mind. The Treasury secretary told him it was time “to break the State Department” and replace the old guard with loyal New Dealers. FDR assured Morgenthau he was with him “100 percent.” The next afternoon, April 12, Roosevelt died after suffering a massive cerebral hemorrhage.
That same day, Pell was scheduled to meet in Washington with the new secretary of state, Edward Stettinius Jr., to discuss being reinstated on the war crimes commission—a meeting that had been brokered by FDR. After he had been fired, Pell had fought on, working the Washington press and stirring up outrage over his treatment at the hands of the State Department. The public controversy put Pell’s enemies on the defensive. But in the wake of Roosevelt’s death, Pell was politically isolated, and by September 1945 he finally admitted defeat.
There were two reasons he was targeted for political destruction, Pell told a group of sympathetic lawyers who had rallied around him: “One is anti-Semitism, which is, to a large extent, prevalent in the State Department.” He also antagonized his powerful enemies, he explained, by going after “German industrialists whose plight arouses the class loyalties of their opposition numbers in Great Britain and the United States. We cannot forget [for example] that one of the big war factories in Germany was the Opel Company which was owned and financed by the General Motors Corporation, a company in which Secretary Stettinius had a great interest. The biggest electric company in Germany was owned and financed by the General Electric Company of New York. We have here very potent reasons why a large and important group in this country is trying to pipe down on the serious investigations of [corporate Germany’s collaboration with the Nazis].”
In the end, Pell would triumph. Because of the uproar in the press over his dismissal, the State Department was finally forced to recognize the inevitability of a war crimes trial. In a statement released in the midst of the Pell melee, the department acknowledged that President Roosevelt had repeatedly made clear his intention. As the first war crimes trial got under way in Nuremberg in November 1945, the spirit of FDR and the president’s justice warriors—men like Pell and Morgenthau—hovered over the legal forum.
But the political foes who had opposed Roosevelt’s day of reckoning for the Nazis did not fully surrender. They remained determined to control the proceedings at Nuremberg and to protect valued members of Hitler’s hierarchy.
In May 1945, Allen Dulles and OSS chief Bill Donovan met in Frankfurt with Supreme Court associate justice Robert Jackson, who had just been named chief U.S. war crimes prosecutor by the new president, Harry S. Truman. During their meeting, Dulles underlined the various ways that he could be of use as Jackson prepared his case, including providing German witnesses for the prosecution as well as secret enemy documents. Jackson was delighted by Dulles’s offer of assistance, noting in his diary that it was a “God send.” Donovan further reinforced the relationship with Jackson’s team by putting a number of OSS agents on his staff. But as the weeks went by, Jackson developed the sinking feeling that he had fallen into an OSS “trap.” It became clear to the Nuremberg prosecutor that Donovan and Dulles harbored ulterior motives and agendas that did not always mesh with the interests of justice at Nuremberg.
The tensions between Donovan and Jackson began to grow in July when the OSS chief moved to take over what Nuremberg prosecutors referred to as the trial’s “economic case.” As Wall Street lawyers, Donovan and Dulles considered themselves uniquely equipped to take charge of the case against the industrialists and bankers who had financed Hitler’s regime. But such a role would have given the two OSS men the ability to control the legal fates of German business figures who had strong ties to their own Wall Street circles—including infamous former clients of the Dulles brothers.
Robert Jackson was a strong New Dealer who had risen through FDR’s Justice Department, where he had taken on powerful corporate interests like the Mellon family and fought tax evasion and antitrust battles. Well aware of the corporate conflicts of interest that Donovan and Dulles brought to the Nuremberg case, Jackson stunned the OSS chief by informing him that he would not be leading the prosecution of Hitler’s financiers at Nuremberg.
Jackson quickly discovered that his concerns had been well founded. As the trial’s start date approached that fall, Donovan began communicating with Goering and Schacht, whom he recognized as the two most financially astute men among the accused. Goering had amassed huge economic power under Hitler’s regime, organizing state-run mining, steel, and weapons enterprises and taking control of heavy industries in the countries overrun by the Nazis. And Schacht, for his part, had remained a well-respected figure in New York, London, and Swiss banking circles even after selling his soul to Hitler. (Schacht later fell out with the Führer and spent the final days of the war in the VIP section of Dachau, where prisoners received relatively lenient treatment.) The banker knew where much of Nazi Germany’s assets were hidden, which continued to make him a valued man in global financial circles.
Behind the scenes, Donovan took the shameless step of working out a deal with these two prominent defendants, offering them leniency in return for their testimony against the other accused Hitler accomplices. When the OSS chief informed Jackson and his legal team that he had cut a tentative deal with Schacht and with—of all people—Goering, the prosecutors were aghast. Telford Taylor, Jackson’s assistant prosecutor, later called Donovan’s actions “ill conceived and dangerous . . . Goering was the surviving leader and symbol of Nazism. To put him forward as the man who could tell the truth about the Third Reich and lay bare the guilt of its leaders, as Donovan appeared to expect, was nothing short of ludicrous.”
On November 26, a few days after the trial began, Jackson wrote a letter to Donovan, making it clear that their views were “far apart” and there was no role for the OSS chief on the Nuremberg team. By the end of the month, Donovan was gone.
But Allen Dulles was a more subtle practitioner of the art of power than Wild Bill Donovan. He would continue to play a crafty role in the dispensation of justice—or its opposite—not only during the first trial but through the eleven subsequent Nuremberg trials, which stretched from 1946 to 1949. In all, some two hundred accused German war criminals were prosecuted at Nuremberg, and hundreds more would be tried in military and civilian courts over the following decades. But due to Dulles’s carefully calibrated interventions, a number of Europe’s most notorious war criminals—men who should have found themselves in the dock at Nuremberg, where they almost certainly would have been convicted of capital crimes—escaped justice. Some were helped to flee through “ratlines” to Franco’s Spain, the Middle East, South America, and even the United States. Others were eased into new lives of power and affluence in postwar West Germany, where they became essential confederates in Dulles’s rapidly growing intelligence complex.
Near the end of 1945, Dulles returned home to New York, where, on December 3—a few days before leaving government service—he was asked to talk about postwar Germany at a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations. He felt at home in the council’s headquarters in the historic Harold Pratt House on Park Avenue, and his remarks were frank and unfiltered that day. The first Nuremberg trial had just begun and Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech was months in the future, but Dulles was already sounding the themes of the future Cold War era.
The United States must not go too far in its efforts to cleanse Germany of its Nazi past, Dulles told the meeting. “Most men of the caliber required to [run the new Germany] suffer a political taint,” he said. “We have already found out that you can’t run railroads without taking in some [Nazi] Party members.”
Dulles went on to explain why it was essential to ensure a strong West Germany. Signs of Soviet perfidy were already glaringly apparent. In Poland, he warned, “The Russians are acting little better than thugs. . . . The promises at [the Allied leaders’] Yalta [conference] to the contrary, probably eight to ten million people are being enslaved.”
For Dulles, the wartime alliance that had defeated Hitler was already dead. In fact, he had been planning throughout the war for this moment when the Western powers—including elements of the Third Reich—would unite against their true enemy in Moscow.
On October 1, 1946, after nearly a yearlong trial, the fates of the twenty-one Nuremberg defendants were finally read aloud in the stuffy courtroom. Three were acquitted, including the well-connected Schacht. Seven received prison sentences ranging from ten years to life. Like many convicted Nazi criminals in the early Cold War years, a number of the Nuremberg defendants sentenced to prison were later the beneficiaries of politically motivated interventions and early releases; few of the some five thousand convicted Nazis were still in prison after 1953. A number of the interventions on behalf of fortunate war criminals could be traced to the quiet stratagems of Allen Dulles.
Eleven of the original Nuremberg defendants did face swift and final justice, sentenced to hang by the neck until dead. Among them was Goering, whom not even Bill Donovan had been able to save. The Reichsmarschall had predictably proclaimed his innocence to the end. “The only motive which guided me was my ardent love for my people,” he told the court in his bombastic final statement. This proved too much even for one of his fellow defendants, Hitler’s former vice chancellor, Franz von Papen, who angrily confronted Goering later during a court lunch break: “Who in the world is responsible for all this destruction if not you? You haven’t taken the responsibility for anything!” Goering simply laughed at him.
Goering feared death by the noose, and he requested a soldier’s honorable exit by firing squad. When this last request was denied, Goering resorted to the favorite Nazi means of self-annihilation, cracking a glass capsule of cyanide with his teeth. (For men who had callously dispatched millions to their deaths, the Reich’s high officials proved exquisitely sensitive about their own methods of departure.) According to Telford Taylor, it was likely one of Goering’s American guards, a strapping Army lieutenant named Jack “Tex” Wheelis, who smuggled the poison capsule into the condemned Nazi’s cell. Years after Tex Wheelis’s own death, his widow showed a visitor a small trove of treasures, including a solid gold Mont Blanc fountain pen and a Swiss luxury watch, both inscribed with Goering’s name, that had been bestowed upon the American soldier by his German “friend.”
Goering’s evasion of the gallows proved wise. The following morning, the ten remaining men who had been sentenced to death filed one by one into a gymnasium adjacent to the courtroom, where three black-painted wooden scaffolds awaited them. With its cracked plaster walls and glaring lighting, the gymnasium—which had hosted a basketball game just days before between U.S. Army security guards—provided a suitably bleak backdrop. The chief hangman, a squat, hard-drinking Army master sergeant from San Antonio named John C. Woods, was an experienced executioner, with numerous hangings to his credit. But, due to sloppiness or ill will, the Nuremberg hangings were not professionally carried out.
The drop was not long enough, so some of the condemned dangled in agony at the end of their ropes for long stretches of time before they died. Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel, Hitler’s war minister and the second-highest-ranking soldier after Goering to be tried at Nuremberg, suffered the longest, thrashing for a full twenty-four minutes. When the dead men were later photographed, they looked particularly ghoulish, since the swinging trapdoors had smashed and bloodied their faces as the men fell—another flaw, or intentional indignity, in the execution process.
Julius Streicher, defiant to the end, screamed a piercing “Heil Hitler!” as he began climbing the thirteen wooden steps of the scaffold. As the noose was placed around his neck, he spat at Woods, “The Bolsheviks will hang you one day.” The short drop failed to kill him, too, and as Streicher groaned at the end of his rope, Woods was forced to descend from the platform, grab his swinging body, and yank sharply downward to finally silence him.
After the first executions, the American colonel in charge asked for a cigarette break. The soldiers on the execution team paced nervously around the gymnasium, smoking and speaking somberly among themselves. But after it was all over, Woods pronounced himself perfectly satisfied. “Never saw a hanging go off any better,” he declared.
The hangman never expressed any doubt about his historic role at Nuremberg. “I hanged those ten Nazis . . . and I am proud of it,” he said after the executions. A few years later, Woods accidentally electrocuted himself while repairing faulty machinery at a military base in the Marshall Islands.
The sectors of Germany occupied by the United States and its allies tried to quickly forget the war. Hollywood musicals and cowboy adventures—and their escapist German equivalents—flooded the movie theaters in West Germany. But in the Soviet-controlled East, there was a cinematic effort, though generally party-directed and heavy-handed, to force the German people to confront the nightmare and its consequences. In the early postwar period, there was a barrage of such dark movies, known as Trümmerfilme, or “rubble films.” One of the more artful rubble films,Murderers Among Us, grappled disturbingly with the Nazi ghosts that still haunted Germany. Produced in 1946 by DEFA, the Soviet-run studio in East Berlin, Murderers Among Us was directed by Wolfgang Staudte, a once-promising young filmmaker who had made his own moral compromises in order to continue working during Hitler’s rule. Staudte’s film reverberates with guilt.
In the film, Dr. Hans Mertens, a German surgeon who had served with the Wehrmacht, returns to Berlin after the war. The city is a monument to rubble; it seems to have been deconstructed stone by stone, brick by brick. Staudte needed no studio back lot or special effects. Demolished Berlin was his sound stage. Dr. Mertens, who wants to forget everything he has witnessed during the war, wanders drunk and obliterated through the city’s ruins. But his past won’t release him. He comes across his former commander, Captain Bruckner, a happily shallow man who, despite the atrocities he ordered during the war, has returned to a prosperous life in Berlin as a factory owner.
“Don’t look so sad,” Bruckner tells the doctor as the two men pick their way through the rubble one day in search of a hidden cabaret. “Every era offers its chances if you find them. Helmets from saucepans or saucepans from helmets. It’s the same game. You must manage—that’s all.”
Dr. Mertens’s bitterness deepens as he observes Berlin being profitably revived by the very men who destroyed it. One day, fortified by drink, he comes across a lively nest of vermin, scurrying about in the rubble. “Rats,” he says to himself. “Rats everywhere. The city is alive again.”
By the end of the film, Mertens has emerged from his drunken anesthesia and has begun to consider a path of action. How do you make a better world after a reign of terror like Hitler’s? Should he kill a man like Bruckner? Should he try to bring him to justice?
Murderers Among Us ends on a hopeful, if fanciful, note. Mertens imagines Bruckner behind bars—no longer looking smug, but stricken. “Why are you doing this to me?” he screams, as images of his victims float ghostlike around him.
When the movie was produced, the first Nuremberg trial was still under way, and it looked to the world as if justice would indeed prevail. But as the years went by, a surprising number of men like Bruckner not only escaped justice but thrived in the new Germany. Thanks to officials like Dulles, many Bruckners shimmied free from their cages. The rats were everywhere.