The Holocaust Historiography Project


An old/new perspective on the Nuremberg Process

  • The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials, by Telford Taylor. Alfred A. Knopf and Sons, New York, 1992. Hardcover. 703 pages. Photographs. Bibliography. Notes. Index. $35.00. ISBN: 0-394-58355-8.

Reviewed by Andrew Gray

“All in all, the members of the war crimes community lived fairly well, and the Americans, who were paid more than the others, very well.” The war crimes community! An ear for irony is not among the virtues of this author, whose virtually boundless self-esteem and presumption of moral superiority have survived the intervening half-century undiminished. “Franconian Bavaria is a splendid place for rubbernecking, at which I am very good, and I made the most of my opportunities.” Easy to believe, and when these pleasures palled, “Two-day or longer holidays could be spent in the Bavarian and Austrian alps. The Army requisitioned hotels and villages for R and R in such resorts as Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Berchtesgaden and Salzburg, each of which I was able to enjoy during the 1945-46 winter.” And villages.

It was such a romp. “Visits to Faber castle were enjoyable. The army commandant, Major Ernest Dean, had formed a small female chorus of German waitresses with lovely voices who sang German folk songs and, as comic relief, heavily accented version of American pop songs; a general favorite was `Mairzy Doats'.” One of the Russian interpreters from the distaff side was called “the passionate haystack.”

The gossip in this memoir makes it worth perusing. His comments about the defendants — and their counsel — are neither original nor especially penetrating, but the author is excellent in depicting the vanities and vagaries of his superiors within the American “war crimes community.” Ex-Attorney General Francis Biddle and General “Wild Bill” Donovan are both the subjects of relatively subtle send-ups, and the chief prosecutor himself, “Mr. Justice” Jackson, emerges from these pages as remarkably thick-fingered. His drubbing at the hands of Hermann G_ring in the first cross-examination is a dramatic high point of the book, and Telford Taylor does not try to minimize it.

At the heart of the book is a drastic dichotomy that will nonetheless be detectable only by those who have given at least some attention to the quality of the evidence brought against the defendants. While the description of the circumstances and judicial mechanics of the trials themselves represent the fruits of decades of reflection on Telford Taylor’s part, no such reflection is cast upon the evidence itself. In this respect, the text constitutes a time capsule from the 1940s — as if no accretions of historical knowledge, or no modifications or corrective of the evidence had meanwhile taken place. Thus, the author refers frequently to the “Malmedy massacre” without the slightest hint that the subsequent trial (the second one) resulted in virtual acquittal of the accused; and to Oradour without any reference to the Bordeaux trial of 1950 that brought to light the mitigating circumstance in this disaster. Typically, Taylor quotes at length from the affidavits of Hermann Gr_be concerning murders allegedly committed by SS units (in cooperation with Ukrainian militiamen) in the autumn of 1942, as if this text constituted in itself sufficient proof of every last gruesome detail of the accusations.

Amid this concatenation of coached testimony, suborned witnesses, doctored papers and confessions obtained under duress (to put it mildly), Telford Taylor and fellow Americans in the “war crimes community” proceeded under the pretense that they were upholding the highest standards of the legal profession. The Soviet members were more honest — among themselves at least. No doubt they did not wish to spoil the garden parties in Erlenstegen.

The pretense to moral superiority is equivalent in its way to racism at its most extreme. It is a categorical and pervasive claim — and time and the onset of old age have done little to modify it in the author. Is it a case of arrested devolopment? Or is it the effect of the taboo on serious debate on the quality of this evidence and its reasonable interpretation? Here is the author, quoting himself at length in his arraignment of the entire German General Staff, delivered to the Tribunal on August 30, 1946:

The truth is spread on the record before us, and all we have to do is state the truth plainly. The German militarists joined forces with Hitler and with him created the Third Reich; with him they deliberately made a world in which war was all that mattered; with him they plunged the world into war, and spread terror and devastation over the continent of Europe. They dealt a blow at all mankind; a blow so savage and foul that the conscience of the world will reel for years to come. This was not war; it was crime. This was not soldiering; it was savagery. We cannot here make history over again, but we can see that it is written true.

The ghost of Goebbels smiles at this — maybe even a bit enviously.

Andrew Gray, a writer and translator, is a former office director in the US Department of Commerce. He lives in Georgetown, Washington, DC.

From The Journal of Historical Review, July/August 1993 (Vol. 14, No. 3), page 43.