Column: Hermann Göring, Civil Libertarian

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Mr. Carpenter is a writer and doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Illinois.

On the 84th day of the Nuremberg trials, Hermann Göring took the stand in a defiant face-off with Supreme Court Justice and U.S. Chief Prosecutor Robert Jackson. Since Göring's arrest by enemy forces in May, 1945 he had taken the cure for his lethargy-inducing addiction to dihydro-codeine and now appeared, according to coconspirator Albert Speer, to be"in better form than ... ever." Clean and sober, he displayed a"formidable personality" before the assembled panel of judicial overseers. As would soon be clear, Göring had come to a decision in advance of his testimony: he would use his recovered faculties not to lay bare the ugliness of political debauchery, but"to hoodwink his own people." Again, in Speer's appraisal,"his whole policy was one of deception."

11In response to Justice Jackson's first question regarding the National Socialist Party's early dismissive attitude toward parliamentary due process and oversight, Göring dropped the legally immaterial comment that"I should like to emphasize the fact that we ... had the majority." (In actuality,"they" had a plurality, not a majority.) This recollection was in no way immaterial to the Reichsmarschall's way of thinking, however, for it was that might-makes-right political state of affairs 13 years prior that had justified his party's calculation that in the course of formulating steadfast national policy, parliamentary deliberations could offer only restraining divisiveness and thus were deemed"no longer necessary."

Jackson followed Göring's remedial lecture in Totalitarianism 101 with the observation, so"you established the leadership principle, which you have described as a system under which authority existed only at the top, and is passed downwards." At this point Göring protested the need"to avoid any misunderstanding." Before his party's appropriation of power--those days in which parliamentary procedures had reigned supreme--"responsibility [had] rested" with elected officials"who carry[ied] out the anonymous wishes of the majorities." Yet that political construct,"which we called parliamentary or democratic," was a disorderly scheme unable to fully protect Germany's security. Foreign and domestic threats abounded, and"only an organization made up of a strong, clearly defined leadership ... could restore order" and safeguard the fatherland's loyal citizens.

Göring hastily added,"But, let it be understood, [this was done] not against the will of the people, but only when the people, having in the course of time, and by means of a series of elections ... had expressed their wish to entrust their destiny to the National Socialist leadership." Justice Jackson pursued this creative neo-democratic train of thought."The principles of the authoritarian government which you set up required ... that there be tolerated no opposition by political parties which might defeat or obstruct" your determined policies? Jackson had scored an A+."You have understood this quite correctly," Göring affirmed."By that time we had lived long enough with opposition and we had had enough of it.... It was now time to have done with it and to start building up."

In what would become a popular parlor game years later, he supplemented his defense of dictatorial acts by invoking words of FDR, who, Göring struggled to recall, had once approvingly mused that" certain peoples in Europe ha[d] forsaken democracy, not because they did not wish for democracy as such, but because [it] had brought forth men who were too weak." Hence, suppression of dissident voices promised the best hope against democracy's intrinsic messiness, irresolute will, and bothersome interferences into the efficient execution of sound policies. Nevertheless, Göring portayed himself as a reasonable man, one imbued with the virtue of tolerance."Insofar as opposition seriously hampered our work of building up, this opposition of individual persons was, of course, not tolerated. Insofar as it was simply a matter of harmless talk, it was considered to be of no consequence."

The associate justice thereupon noted that to accomplish the regime's state-security goals,"you found it necessary to have a secret political police to detect opposition." Why of course, said Göring."That [was] necessary on a firmer and larger scale" than any undertaken by previous authorities. Accordingly--and quite sensibly--the next mandate was to arrange for the detention of suspicious individuals, but not merely so"it could be said, 'Here are a number of people who are opposed to us and they must be taken into protective custody.' Rather, they were set up as a lightning measure against the functionaries ... who were attacking us in the thousands."

Steeped as he was in principles of due process as a Supreme Court justice and former U.S. attorney general, Jackson confessed to Göring that"you are explaining ... to men who do not understand it very well." He strained to comprehend."Was it also necessary, in operating this system, that you must not have persons entitled to public trials in independent courts? And you immediately issued an order that your political police would not be subject to court review or to court orders?" Here, Göring insisted on a fine point of"differentiation." Some"were naturally turned over.... The others, however, of whom one might expect such acts [of disloyalty], but who had not yet committed them, were taken into protective custody.... This could not be reviewed or stopped by any court."

Jackson trudged on, still lingering, one imagines, in a state of incredulity sired by his organic respect for fundamental human rights."You did prohibit all court review and considered it necessary to prohibit court review of the causes for taking people into what you called protective custody?" Göring softened the prosecutor's assessment by tendering yet another statement of reasonable tolerance. Detained suspects"were to be informed after 24 hours of the reason for their being turned over, and that after 48 hours, or some short period of time, they should have the right to an attorney." Lest that be overly construed as a sign of faltering resolve, however, he swiftly appended:"This by no means rescinded my order that a review was not permitted by the courts.... These people were simply given an opportunity of making a protest."

Reich Cabinet Member Hermann Wilhelm Göring: prudent civil libertarian--and so misunderstood.

© Copyright 2001 P M Carpenter

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