Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Conscience of a Nazi Judge

At The New Rambler, Charles Reid has a fascinating review of Konrad Morgen: The Conscience of a Nazi Judge, by Herlinde Pauer-Studer and J. David Velleman. Morgen was a classic German civil servant type -- rule-bound, incorruptible, devoted to the state and his family -- who found himself working as an SS judge. His career is well documented in the German records, and he was also extensively interrogated by American investigators after the end of the war. The only account of his motives is the one he gave to the Americans with the threat of the gallows looming in the background, and it is of course hard to know what to make of this tale. But the facts could be checked, and first the American prosecutors and then Pauer-Studer and Velleman did check them, and they show that Morgen was telling the truth about what he did. As to why he did it, and what he ought to have done, those are harder questions:
In his later telling of this episode to his interrogators, Morgen said he was so appalled by these things-- though as the authors point out he must have long been aware of the mass killings on the Eastern front-- that he determined that some action on his part was necessary. He says that he contemplated trying to assassinate Hitler, but concluded that Hitler was so well guarded that he could not even come close. He considered fleeing to Switzerland and denouncing the murder regime, but decided against it. His reasons included the thoughts that he would not be believed, that after all he did not want to contribute to anti-German propaganda which would be used to justify a similar program of slaughter by the allies in the event of a German defeat (a bloody version of the Morgenthau plan?), and that he could not abandon his profession and good standing, which his “dear mother and father” had sacrificed so much to allow him to attain—an almost grotesquely parodic version of the classic “good son” scruple.

In the end he determined to impede and undermine the progress of the Final Solution by “working to rule.” This meant rigorously enforcing the norms of honor and obedience to law that after all Himmler himself had claimed to insist upon. Accordingly, he proceeded to prosecute relentlessly even very senior figures in the camp hierarchy for any irregularity, self-enrichment or racial sexual peccadillo. He sought to enlarge his jurisdiction beyond corruption to include unauthorized acts of killing. The authors stick to an admirably straightforward, just-the-facts-ma’am presentation of Morgen’s own account and the supporting documents. One cannot help wondering to what extent this was an after-the-fact concoction by a man who had been a high official of the SS, intimately in contact with its worst outrages, seeking to avoid the fate of many highly placed Nazis: hanging or long prison terms. Yet there is solid, objective, documentation of his carrying out just the campaign he claims to have set himself. He procured the execution by the SS of such figures as the camp commandants Karl Koch and Hermann Florstedt and of Georg von Sauberzweig, son of a famous World War I general. And he did seek the indictment—for having misappropriated a pouch of precious stones—of Adolf Eichman, in the midst of Eichman’s project to round up and transport to their deaths at Auschwitz 400,000 Hungarian Jews. Most sensationally, he had sought out and harangued the Gestapo Chief, Heinrich Mueller, about the corrupting effect of the SS men’s participation in programs of mass killing on their spirit, morality and future usefulness (after a Nazi victory). In the end, the SS hierarchy got fed up with Morgen and relegated him to less strategic duties, although some had thought that a short sentence to a concentration camp might have put him in his place.
It is of course possible to interpret Morgen's actions as those of a true-believing fanatic, one who was genuinely horrified by SS camp guards taking Jewish girlfriends and enriching themselves with tainted gold. But on the other hand, he might have been telling the truth.

Anyway it is a fascinating review, well worth your time. Reid concludes:
What kind of people are these, these ordinary mid-level bureaucrats? At other times and in other circumstances they would have been much like the rest of us. Of this vast army of ordinary men and women how do we know who will be the killers, who the willing accomplices, who the knowing time-servers, and who the heroes? How do we know by what processes, moved by what confrontation, what realization, some may change from being guilty time-servers to being heroes of resistance—or like Morgen something in between? How do we know what we would have been in such circumstances, what stories we might have told ourselves to justify acquiescence or complicity, what insight would have moved us to resist? How do we know who we are, what we would be in such times?


David said...

"the one he gave to the Americans as the firing squads did their work in the prison courtyard"

Whose firing squads? Please explain.

John said...

American. Didn't they shoot convicted war criminals? Or did they hang them?

David said...

No firing squads. Some were hanged after the Nuremberg trials. So the interrogation wouldn't have been going on while executions were going on in the courtyard. And I'm not sure the Americans hanged any on their own account (Nuremberg, of course, was conducted in concert with the British and the Soviets).

John said...

But that ruins the image! Damn reality.

David said...

I prefer the image that, in those days, Americans weren't the sort to conduct wholesale executions. Otherwise, what was the point?

G. Verloren said...

Executions are too personal. America in the 20th century always championed wholesale slaughter from a distance.

It's easy to distance yourself from a bomb - just let gravity do the work.

David said...

The NKVD killed tens of thousands with a shot to the neck. We should admire them for their guts, doing it up close and personal? That makes it okay, or less bad?

G. Verloren said...

I'd say yes, it's less bad.

It takes conviction to murder someone in person. You can't deny what you've done, or your responsibility for it. You have to watch them die in front of you, and you know you are to blame. There's no escaping the reality of the situation.

But any coward can drop a bomb from the air and convince themselves they're blameless. It's easy to distance yourself from killing people when you can't even see your victims from the air. There's only the bombs, falling away into the distance, growing smaller and smaller, and then a muffled report and a miniature cloud of smoke. The gravity of what you've done doesn't strike you. The suffering and death you inflict is hidden away, minimized, abstracted. You can tell yourself that you just killed someone, but you don't really believe or understand it. It doesn't feel real.

It takes a monster to place a gun against a child's forehead and pull the trigger. But all it takes is an ordinary person to drop a bomb which will "quietly" and "invisibly" kill that same child.

It's hard to find enough monsters to create an entire army. But there's plenty of ordinary people to go around.

David said...

I'd be impressed if Verloren ever looks back to see this, but it's worth pointing out that there's plenty of evidence that "ordinary men" with few to no beliefs and little courage find it quite easy to kill unarmed civilians up close. The key work is Christopher Browning's _Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland_. Browning follows the actions of a group of middle-aged men, many of whom joined this rear-area unit in order to avoid front-line combat, as they participate in the direct shooting of about 38,000 Jews and help escort about 45,000 more to the death camps. As one reserve policemen reminisced later: "Truthfully I must say at the time we didn't reflect about it at all."

The reason I'm posting, though, is because I've just seen a few newsreels from the period showing Americans summarily executing Germans who had infiltrated American lines during the Battle of the Bulge, and of other Americans hanging Germans postwar for executing downed Allied fliers, after a trial of uncertain seriousness. And there was an illegal execution of guards by the US 45th Infantry Division after the liberation of Dachau.

So perhaps Verloren should give credit to at least some Americans for being properly vicious "monsters" of the type Verloren seems almost to admire.