Interview with Nuremberg Prosecutor Whitney Harris "I Hadn't the Slightest Idea of the Scale of Genocide"

Sixty years ago on Sunday, the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial got under way to bring leading Nazis to justice. Whitney Harris was one of the principle figures for the prosecution. SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke with him about Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, the emotional scars left behind by the trial, and the United States of today.

Whitney Harris was the right-hand man of US Chief Prosecutor Robert Jackson during the Nuremberg Trials.
Washington University in St. Louis

Whitney Harris was the right-hand man of US Chief Prosecutor Robert Jackson during the Nuremberg Trials.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In 1945 when you began collecting evidence for the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, you had nothing more than a used typewriter, a German secretary and a lot of good will. Were you not overwhelmed by the huge responsibility of bringing charges against the former Nazi leaders?

Harris: The whole court case was a huge challenge. I was assigned to the case of Ernst Kaltenbrunner, meaning I had to investigate the murder of millions of Jews. Kaltenbrunner took over from Reinhard Heydrich as the head of Reich security and was in charge of tens of thousands of Gestapo agents, police and security forces.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How well informed were you before the start of the trial?

Harris: I did not have the slightest idea of the scale of genocide that had taken place in Germany. We didn't have much solid evidence when we started our investigations.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But then, through the questioning of former Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Höss, you were able to present one of the first testimonies that confirmed the Holocaust.

Harris: That was indeed a dramatic turning point in the trials. The collection of evidence had actually already been completed when I heard that the British had captured Höss. I requested he be handed over to the Nuremberg court and was granted three days to question him. Höss explained to me that the Reichsführer of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, had personally ordered him to convert Auschwitz into a mass extermination camp in 1941. Höss had gas chambers and crematoriums constructed in the new camp section at Birkenau. He provided detailed information about the Nazi atrocities and estimated that 2.5 million Jews, gypsies and prisoners of war had been killed -- plus another 1.5 million people who died of starvation, exhaustion, illness or mistreatment.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What was Höss like?

Harris: He was not in the least bit imposing; there was nothing about him that suggested a monstrous murderer and he seemed like a totally normal guy. He spoke quietly and confidently. Of course he never divulged any information of his own free will. But as far as I know, he answered my questions truthfully. The dramatic thing was that we couldn't see any way to include his testimony in the trial because, as I mentioned earlier, we had already finished the collecting of evidence.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How did you get around this?

Harris: Kaltenbrunner's lawyer, Kurt Kauffmann, helped us out. He based the defense of his client on the claim that Kaltenbrunner became head of Reich security so that he could focus his energies on intelligence services and not the concentration camps. To support his case, Kauffmann claimed that Kaltenbrunner had never set foot in a concentration camp. Höss was exactly the person to confirm this -- at least with regards to Auschwitz. So Kaufmann called Höss as a witness and we were able to cross-examine him.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Höss didn't do much to help Kaltenbrunner -- he was sentenced to death anyway. Do you think that Kaltenbrunner really believed he could avoid the death sentence by lying?

Harris: No. Most of the defendants admitted that war crimes and the Holocaust had occurred but tried to play down their own individual involvement. Kaltenbrunner did not believe that he would be spared. He was also the only one who did not appeal his death sentence.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Which of the defendants made the longest lasting impression on you?

Harris: The Jew hater and publisher of Stürmer Julius Streicher was without a doubt the most unpleasant of them all. Absolutely everyone, including his own staff, despised him. Albert Speer, Hitler's architect and Minister of Armaments and War Production, on the other hand made a very positive impression because he did not try to talk his way out of it. He followed the trial in exact detail and was cooperative and repentant. Presumably his intelligence saved him from the death penalty.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Was the trial fair?

Harris: Without a doubt. I think that we managed to combine the best from each legal system. The crucial question wasn't whether Germany had carried out war crimes -- that was a foregone conclusion. We were only interested in the question: Was the respective defendant involved in the Nazi crimes? To what extent was he responsible for his deeds? To answer these questions as precisely as possible, we examined thousands of documents.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Many observers have described the preparations for the trial as chaotic. Was this really the case?

Harris: I wouldn't say chaotic. Of course we had problems because this was the first time anyone had attempted an international military tribunal. The Allies had a conference in London in the summer of 1945 to decide where and how the court would be established and what the charges would be.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Did the ideological differences and rivalries among the Allies harm the trial?

Harris: Sometimes the negotiations between the Allies were difficult. But I'm convinced that the disagreements did not have a negative impact on the trial. On the contrary: In some cases discussions among the prosecutors helped prevent us from making mistakes during the trial.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your then boss, US Chief Prosecutor Robert Jackson, was esteemed as spiritual father and leader of the Nuremberg Trail. What role did he play?

Harris: Practically everyone was of the opinion that Jackson was the true leader of the prosecution. Already in his opening address, he set the tone and direction of the entire trial. It was Jackson who decided that the trial should be based entirely on hard evidence and witness interviews.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What was the mood like on the day the executions were carried out?

Harris: Extremely tense. The media attention was huge. And when it became known that Hermann Göring committed suicide in his cell by taking cyanide, the reporters went crazy.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Was Göring's suicide a sort of personal triumph over the international tribunal?

Harris: Well, he did manage -- at the last minute -- to avoid death by hanging and thus dodged his executioner. Presumably he wanted to show his contempt for the Allies one last time.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How have you come to terms with the experience of the Nuremberg trial?

Harris: I wrote a book about the trial and then returned to the United States as law professor. At the time I told myself: I will put this part of my life behind me. I won't think, talk or write about it anymore. I just couldn't live with the memories anymore. It took more than 20 years before I was able to cope with it again. Even nowadays this horrific event in the history of humanity still really affects me. All these gruesome crimes are not exclusively a German phenomenon.


Harris: I am totally convinced that Adolf Hitler was only a name that symbolized the absolute and worldwide breakdown of morality in the 20th century. It started in 1914 with World War I when everyone killed everyone and no moral standards remained. Revenge was the order of the day and any excuse was permissible. And afterwards? What did the communists do in Russia? And the Japanese in China?

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And nowadays?

Harris: The same problems. You just have to look at terrorism -- nobody knows where it might end. If we want a future for our children, if we want to survive then we desperately need to examine our political and moral attitudes.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In what respect?

Harris: We cannot tolerate war in this world anymore. Wars are not only disastrous for the societies directly involved but also fatal for all of mankind.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is it not an irony of history that of all people it's the USA which fiercely refuses to ratify the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court in The Hague?

Harris: I am a strong advocate of the International Criminal Court and find it completely unacceptable that the US has still not ratified the statute. The US however also took 40 years to sign the United Nations Convention on Genocide. How can you possibly take that long to take a stance against genocide? I fear that we may have to wait a long time for the ratification of the Rome Statute.

Interview conducted by Annette Langer


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