Simply ‘A Tragic Fate’: A Psychiatrist Revisits the Third Reich


Both Edwald von Kleist, commander of the German forces in Italy, and Walther Funk, Reich minister of economics, tell Dr. Leon Goldensohn—more probing journalist than shrink—that some of their best friends were Jewish. The banality of evil has become something of a cliché, and an anachronistic one, considering this century’s increasingly vivid and proud acts of excessive violence. But Goldensohn’s raw and riveting notes, made during seven months of interviews with defendants and witnesses as they prepared their cases for the Nuremberg trials, demonstrate the monstrous power of platitudes to facilitate ethical breakdown and give shelter to atrocity.

With the exceptions of the deranged Julius Streicher and the flamboyant Hermann Goering, Goldensohn’s subjects are mundane, pathetic men. “I was only a small man and I had no idea of what was going on,” says Funk, who cites his free-market philosophy and vocal opposition to inflation in the occupied countries as mitigating factors in his case, which is not his fault but simply “a tragic fate.” Hanz Fritsche, a propagandist under Goebbels, is similarly pallid in his casuistry: “I became guilty of the death of 5 million people—innocently.”

Goldensohn persistently nudges his subjects to a more authentic confrontation with their culpability, but never puts them on trial. His profile of the mechanical Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, closes with details of Hoess’s favorite sports and hobbies. Goldensohn’s calm, measured portraits rightfully have no conclusions—indulging in a lurid psychology of Nazism would be a way to make it safe.