Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Witness House, by Christiane Kohl

My latest read, The Witness House, by Christiane Kohl, was an accidental read.  While browsing through Chapters this weekend, I stumbled across it in the fiction bargain books section, and with the subtitle of “Nazis and Holocaust survivors sharing a villa during the Nuremberg Trials,” my interest was immediately peaked.  When I got home, however, I realized that this wasn’t at all a fictional account – rather it’s a ‘popular’ history written by Kohl that is depended on a variety of sources, ranging from private paper, to public accounts of events, to oral histories.  The result is a shockingly frank and interesting account of a post-war dynamic that I was unaware of.

First, some history on the Nuremberg Trials for those who might have heard the term, but don’t know much about them.  Following the Allied victory over the Nazi government in German (in 1945), it became quickly apparent that the German power-structure, led by Adolf Hitler, had be perpetrating a whole host of crimes against the peoples they governed that ranged from unlawful imprisonment and simple theft, to genocide against Jews.  As Allied troops rolled through Europe, liberating countries from German rule, they also had the task of liberating German prisoners from concentration camps.  (I visited Dachau a couple of summers ago – for my impressions of the experience, please visit my travel blog.)  As the Allied forces moved across Europe, they also took into custody as many of the members of the Nazi regime as they could find.  The questions quickly became who to hold accountable for the war and the resulting crimes against humanity, and what was to be done with the Nazis and collaborators that were being taken into custody.

This is a period in human history were international laws was still in an early stage, but the Allied nations felt the need to hold the German power-structure accountable for the events of the war.  As such, it was decided that the Nazi prisoners were to be put on trial for their role in the war and genocide.  While many of the public indictments of these individuals were made in Berlin, it was decided that the trials would be held in Nuremberg.  I’ve read elsewhere that this choice was perhaps poetic justice in response to the ‘Nuremberg Laws,’ which were passed by the Nazis limiting the right of Jews early in their rule.  At the Nuremberg Trails, which began in 1946, Germans such as Hermann Göring and Rudolph Hess (and many, many others) were put on public trial to answer for their role in Hitler’s master plan for Europe.  The results, in a shockingly short year after the start of the trial (when you consider the scope), were death penalties for the worst offenders, and various interments for many of the others; some were acquitted.  

The logistical nightmare that was the organization of these trials is the basis of The Witness House.  On trail (during that first year) were about a dozen Nazis, and in the subsequent years, dozens of lesser functionaries had their day in court.  The question was what to do with those who were asked to testify during the proceedings?  Nuremberg suffered severe damage during the closing months of the war – in fact, much of the town was nothing but ruins.  Finding accommodations for the many people involved in the trail was going to take some doing, and once a location was selected, there was going to have to be some sort of authority-figure on the premises.

The actual abode chosen to host many of the witnesses, known as the Novalisstrasse Villa, and was put under the control of a displaced Hungarian aristocrat, the Countess Ingeborg Kalnoky.  Kalnoky’s greatest challenge was managing the odd compendium of witnesses that passed through her door; very often, she was required to host Hitler’s close friends and concentration-camp survivors over dinner and tea.  This was the most potentially incendiary combination, but almost everyone who came under her care was connect in some way to each other – either as Nazi administrators, Nazi victims, or collaborators in one was or another.  In a more immediate sense, it wasn’t uncommon for her to host prosecution and defense witness and attorneys at the same time.  As hostess, one can only imagine how tense the situation would have been at all times.

Kohl’s account of the history of the witness house begins with her anecdote about a dinner at which she was shown the guest-book for the house that was kept by Kalnoky’s predecessor.  This primary document pushed her to further explore the history of those who had stayed at the Villa.  She visited Kalnoky in her home in the States for a first-hand account of the house and its guests, and well as exploring the memories and personal files of those who had a connection to the house, and who were still living in the early 2000s.  Her account is presented in a narrative fashion and, along with the history of the Witness House, also provides the reader with more details about the Trails themselves, and the testimony provided.  Some of the facts that were entered into evidence are shocking, even for someone who has stood in a gas chamber and seen the ovens up-close.

And here’s where I start giving you my personal opinion on the Nuremberg Trials.  Please, don’t savage me in your minds until you’ve read all I have to say.  Part of me feels that the expense and energy put in the Trials were unnecessary and misdirected.  All anyone had to see was pictures of survivors of the camp to know that all high-ranking Nazi officials were guilty of some piece of those terrible crimes.  The Trails were unnecessary to prove this; men like Goering and Hess should never have been given their day in court – they didn’t deserve that basic human right.   Moreover, the fact that the Trails were put together and concluded so quickly (in was about 12 months from indictments to death penalties) proves (to me at least), that all those involved knew what the outcome would be – the Trials were set up with teams of prosecutors from the US, Britain, France and Russia and, in many situations, there had to be agreement between the teams before certain pieces of the proceedings could advance – remember that the Nazis controlled various aspects of the French government throughout the war, and the Russians started off as German allies in the war.  Finally, the Witness House itself is telling of the expectations of the Trails – in its walls, witnesses for both sides of the case, and some of the attorneys, mingled freely in a social environment.  Ask any lawyer you know – this isn’t something that’s done; it taints testimony and affects credibility.  Combine all this with the plethora of witness and volumes of evidence that had to be collected, and I wonder how in the world we’re expected to believe the Trails weren’t rigged before they started.

Regardless, I do acknowledge that the Trails brought into the public consciousness the full extent of Nazi brutality.  Without them, many of their crimes would likely have been reduced to the status of whispered rumours – the trail, and the subsequent guilty verdicts brought much of those crimes into the public domain and cannot now be ignored.  And yet, I think the Trails were held out of one pure motivator: vengeance.  Vengeance for what the Nazis did, but more importantly because Hitler was not available to answer for his crimes.  In a move of pure cowardice, Hitler famously killed himself when it was clear that the Nazi cause was lost.  Without the architect of the war and war crimes available, someone needed to be held responsible, and the Trails provided the public spectacle required to satisfy humanity’s need for closure.  

What Kohl’s account in The Witness House brings the modern reader is a reminder of the human aspects of all the different types of people involved in the drama that was the Holocaust.  Guests at the villa were sometimes complaisant about the evidence the trail brought out, others were horrified, and still other were in denial.  The Witness House reminds readers that everyone’s perceptions of themselves and those around them creates a unique worldview – while the Trails also highlighted that, in Kohl’s account, the modern reader is provided with a venue to fully appreciate both that fact and the history that illustrates it.

In the end, I highly recommend this book.  It’s been translated into English by Anthea Bell with only minor problems (some awkward phrasing, and the Germanfication of some of the vocabulary used – i.e. ‘coreligionist’ isn’t an English word, but it has the stamp of the German penchant for combining nouns all over it).  Both the content and manner in which it is presented are incredibly readable, especially the pictures of the Villa’s guests.  I think this book would appeal to anyone who is interested in the history of the Nazi state, as it can serve as a ‘P.S.’ to the regime.

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