This review should more accurately be called an inside look at the defendants of the Nuremburg trials. Nuremburg Diary is a series of in-depth observations and conversations between author G.M. Gilbert and the Nazi defendants, presented in diary form. Before each diary entry, Gilbert sets the trial context. In brief italicized passages, he provides a synopsis of what the trial focused on that day, and follows the passages with detailed accounts of his conversations with the accused.
This book was fascinating. The defendants reveal themselves in a variety of ways. Certainly there is a large amount of “I was just following orders,” “I had no idea about the killings,” “Hitler and Himmler led us astray.” But to my surprise there were a few who owned their guilt, their anti-Semitism, and their evil. In short, their own culpability. But like most of the defendants, no matter what the confessor said, there is a sense of self-serving, preening egotism—almost a pride in their failings and their “bravery” in revealing them. An overarching characteristic of the defendants is a singular lack of humility. Even as they own their crimes, they boast that they are better than the others who tried to justify their actions. There is little true contrition, although there are histrionics that mimic it.
The amorality is not shocking to anyone that understands World War II and the Holocaust. Goering in particular was an evil blowhard, more concerned about how his compatriots brought shame to Germany and himself with their cowardly reversals. He did not care about the millions who died, the atrocities that were committed. No, he cared only that he is seen as superior and important. He mocks his fellow defendants during the trial and becomes angry if they don’t give them the respect he thinks he is due.
The feeling of victimhood is widespread among the defendants. One of them makes the astonishing claim that “It is the same old story with these Nazi leaders. They started this whole turmoil and we military men who did nothing but our duty are the sufferers.” As if their suffering was most at issue.
There are other issues that arise among the defendants. Many of them throw aspersions at others who didn’t stop Hitler, the invasions or the death camps, switching focus to others’ actions instead of their own. A few seem sincerely remorseful and horrified about the concentration camps, but they still find ways to externalize blame or claim that Hitler was so charismatic that even now that he is dead, they still feel uneasy about criticizing him. All of them have constructed elaborate defenses rooted in sociopathy, cowardice, fear, immorality, hatred, prejudice, or some combination of them all.
One thing I found interesting is how the majority of them knew they were going to their death. While a few were deluded into thinking they would not suffer the ultimate punishment, most defendants were realists about it. They knew they were going to die, but it was important to them that they have their say. They wanted to control the narrative even at the end. Some of them justified Germany’s actions due to the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Some wanted the court to believe that they had been tricked into their crimes, because they had no idea about the planned genocide. Others blamed German culture for their following of orders, no matter how heinous. In the end, though, it didn’t matter how they tried to frame things. The majority of them were hung or given life in prison.
I think this book is a crucial account of the Nuremberg trials. Gilbert manages to convey his discussions with the prisoners in a conversational tone that allows the reader to truly see these men as they are. In the resurgence of fascism and authoritarian rule around the world, a lot of the behavior, arguments, and justifications will be very familiar to the reader. It is through books such as Nuremberg Diary that we learn.