Interview with Nuremberg Prosecutor Whitney Harris

Roundup: Talking About History

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.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....

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