July 26, 2005

Giving Hitler Hell

Again I have to thank Gail for this incredible story. It is rather long so I will just post a couple of selections for your review.

"Here, I brought it with me." Weiss fishes through his briefcase, which is definitely not fake leather. Everyone dresses well at EMP's posh Pennsylvania Avenue headquarters, but only the chairman -- a former prime minister of Pakistan and World Bank senior vice president -- is nattier than Weiss.

"There," says Weiss, handing me an old sheaf of papers.

They are 1946 photostats. What is startling is the simplicity of the documents. With all the pageantry that surrounded the Third Reich, these humble pages don't even contain an official seal. Printed on plain white typing paper of the sort found lying around any office, they have an almost suspect humility about them. But they are real, authenticated by the FBI in early 1946, according to America's Secret Army.

Mein privates Testament, reads the underlined heading of the first page. It is dated April 29, 1945, 4 a.m., and at the back are five signatures. The first is small and tightly wound, like a compressed thunderbolt: Adolf Hitler. The others are more expansive and boldly ambitious: witnesses Martin Bormann and Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister who killed himself and his family in the room next to Hitler in the bunker.

The same signatures grace a second, considerably longer document titled Mein politsches Testament, in which Hitler rails against his generals, expels Himmler and Goering from the Nazi Party, and appoints Grand Adm. Karl Doenitz as his successor and names the entire 17-member Cabinet. A third document had been in the package found by Weiss that Zander was to have delivered to Doenitz -- the death-bed marriage certificate between Hitler and his longtime mistress, Eva Braun. But Weiss did not get a copy of it. (Weiss received a photostat of Hitler's wills along with a congratulatory memo dated January 7, 1946, from an American brigadier general whose signature is illegible. The originals are stored in the National Archives.) "The wills were to be used to re-honor Hitler, when at some future date the Germans would rise again," Weiss wrote in his own sure hand in a 1946 memo that ends in a triumphant, "Case closed." (Weiss had reason to sound exultant: For finding definitive proof that Hitler was dead -- in his will, Hitler explains that he prefers ending his own life to being paraded around like a zoo exhibit -- he was awarded the Army Commendation Medal, a citation from the commanding general of the Intelligence Services and a recommendation for the Bronze Star.)

As to why Zander failed to deliver the documents to Doenitz, Weiss's memo, now yellowed with age, hints that such information was above his pay grade. Trevor-Roper, however, had access to further debriefings with the wayward SS courier. "A half-educated, stupid, but honest man," he wrote in his final report, published in 1947, "Zander only wished by a silent death to end a wasted life and expiate the illusions which it was too late to shed." Apparently, the loyal SS man had begged for permission not to carry out his last mission. An idealist, he wished to die alongside his Fuhrer. But, according to Trevor-Roper, Hitler refused his request and ordered him to carry the succession documents. Once he thought Hitler was gone, Zander no longer believed that Nazi Germany had any future and simply ditched the documents instead. Weiss never found Bormann, whose skeleton was discovered in Berlin in 1972, prompting speculation that he had killed himself not long after leaving Hitler's bunker.

Weiss still marvels at Hitler's mix of naiveté and arrogance for thinking that the Third Reich could survive defeat or that his orders would be carried out after death. "Can you imagine?" he says. "Hitler was still trying to run Germany from the grave. Talk about chutzpah!" But more mundane matters also preoccupied Hitler's last thoughts: He wanted his paintings donated to a picture gallery in his home town of Linz and some personal mementos distributed to his secretaries, particularly Frau Winter. "As executor, I appoint my most faithful Party comrade, Martin Bormann," Hitler wrote. "He is given full legal authority to hand over to my relatives . . . especially to my wife's mother . . . everything which is . . . necessary to maintain a petty-bourgeois standard of living."

Hitler's final written words, however, commanded Germany's future leaders to "mercilessly resist the universal poisoner of all nations, international Jewry." It is, thus, one of history's ironies that the first person to read those words was a young German American Jew who had survived the Holocaust as a victim of Nazi persecution and was now acting as an instrument of justice."

And in light of current circumstances I give you this:

"How did you do it?" I ask Weiss. "The kapos," he explains, "that's where we got the idea. We had seen what the DPs did to the kapos, and we realized they could do us a favor."

DPs, or displaced persons, were the survivors of death and POW camps -- Jews, Poles, Russians, Hungarians, refugees of virtually every nationality who either could not return home or no longer had any homes to return to. They numbered in the hundreds of thousands in Europe, and they were housed in huge temporary DP camps. Several such refugee camps, converted German Army barracks, were near Munich.

"We studied up a little on military law, and there was nothing on the books preventing us from delivering suspects for additional debriefing to the DPs," Weiss recalls. He says he's not sure where the idea originated, who first put it into motion, or how widespread it was. "Whoever first came up with this, I honestly don't know. I don't think they'd own up to it anyway."

While it was perfectly legal under military law to hand over suspects for further questioning to DPs, says Benjamin Ferencz, who was a lead U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunals in 1945 and 1947, knowingly delivering suspects for execution was not. And of course the DPs were not interested in extracting information.

Ferencz, who today is 85 and lives in New York, cautions against making sweeping armchair moral judgments. "Someone who was not there could never really grasp how unreal the situation was," he says. "I once saw DPs beat an SS man and then strap him to the steel gurney of a crematorium. They slid him in the oven, turned on the heat and took him back out. Beat him again, and put him back in until he was burnt alive. I did nothing to stop it. I suppose I could have brandished my weapon or shot in the air, but I was not inclined to do so. Does that make me an accomplice to murder?"

Ferencz -- who went on to a distinguished legal career, became a founder of the International Criminal Court and is today probably the leading authority on military jurisprudence of the era -- cannot specifically address Weiss's actions. But he says it's important to recall that military legal norms at the time permitted a host of flexibilities that wouldn't fly today. "You know how I got witness statements?" he says. "I'd go into a village where, say, an American pilot had parachuted and been beaten to death and line everyone one up against the wall. Then I'd say, 'Anyone who lies will be shot on the spot.' It never occurred to me that statements taken under duress would be invalid."

Weiss says that his unit had its own system of ethics when it came to handing former death camp guards over to the DPs. "You couldn't do that by yourself," he says. "You consulted with the other CIC agents, and usually there was a duty officer. We would have never done this," he adds, "without at least some nod from a superior."

The key was to make certain that there were no cases of mistaken identity. The SS men would have to own up to their participation in mass murders of their own volition, never as a result of torture, since people tend to admit to anything under such circumstances, says Weiss. As a backup, "I'd make them write out a detailed history of their war record, including who they served with, when and under who." This was double-checked against captured Nazi records to make sure that the person was indeed who they claimed to be. Only then was the decision taken, Weiss says.

Weiss remembers the panic in the SS men's eyes when they finally realized where they were being taken. "We never told them where they were going," he says. At the sight of the old German Army barracks, they grasped their fate. Some would try to cling to the jeep, but the reception committee would forcibly remove them. Weiss says he never looked back in the rearview mirror to see what happened next. Nor did he need to.

In all, Weiss recalls being involved in about a dozen such cases. There were similar instances in other CIC units, Weiss says, but he does not know the circumstances of those cases or how many there were. Weiss says he no longer remembers most of the names of those handed over to the DPs, and that even if he did, he would not divulge them because their descendants might seek recourse.

He says he has never, however, had any moral qualms about his actions. "I never gave it much thought after the war," he says. "The point is: What do you do with these guys? The war crimes courts were already backlogged with more senior Nazis. The jails were full. They were going to slip through the cracks."

The overwhelming majority of the lower-level SS guards did in fact escape justice.

Ferencz prosecuted members of the Einsatzgruppen. "There were 3,000 members of these killing squads who did nothing but kill women and children for three straight years," he says. "These 3,000 men alone were responsible for almost 1 million murders. Do you know how many I brought indictments against? Twenty-two. The rest were never tried.

"I remember talking to Soviet officers," he adds. "And they were baffled. 'You know they're guilty,' they'd say. 'Why don't you just shoot them?' There was a lot of that kind of feeling in postwar Germany."

4 comments:

bornfool said...

That was great. Well written and informative.

Stacey said...

Wow. I'll be thinking about this article for a good, long time.

Gail said...

You are very welcome. Weiss is quite an amazing guy to have accomplished so much.

Jack's Shack said...

I thought that it was exceptional.