The question is whether a city can have a soul.
And if it does, can that city sell its soul to the Devil?
Many a correspondent who covered the war crimes trials at Nuremberg must have pondered over the proposition. I know I did.
Let me go through the various sensations which gripped us as we sat in the courtroom scrutinizing the faces of Goering, Streicher, Rosenberg and the other top Nazis. First there was rage at the sight of these well manicured butchers who sat almost unconcerned in the dock. Then there was disbelief and horror at the recitals of the prosecution witnesses. Then at last there was the worst sensation of all. That was the feeling of boredom and restlessness.
I remember what a hard-bitten newspaper colleague of mine had once said. "Let a million Chinese die of slow starvation and that will be worth one stick of type. But let one beautiful girl be raped, tortured and slain and for that I'd tear up page one."
That was what was happening to us at Nuremberg. We were being lulled into insensitivity by the mass of statistics. One cannot develop emotions when barbarity is recited in numerical sums. Twelve million corpses, no matter what their condition, do not have the impact of one. A generation of torturers cannot arouse the sustained loathing of one.
I'll be frank to admit there were times I found my mind wandering away from the mass of damning evidence and the droning words of the teams of prosecutors and witnesses. I watched Goering and his playmates. Sometimes they laughed. Sometimes they yawned. Sometimes they fluttered their hands as if to say, "Why blame us? It was part of the system."
Reality became fantasy and fantasy reality. I wondered just what kind of a culture could have spawned the likes of the Nazi leadership. Was it merely the madness of 25 years? Or was there something even deeper, something more sinister which could rise again in another time?
It was this speculation which led me to delve into the history of Nuremberg. I found myself picking my way through the streets which were still strewn with the rubble of allied air raids. I began asking questions which had the burghers squirming uncomfortably.
Once Nuremberg had been one of the great cities of Germany. What had it been like then?
Once there had been other government officials. What manner of men had they been?
My answers came in the locked vaults of the Nuremberg Germanic National Museum. This worthy institution of culture housed an exhibit which was carefully screened away from most visitors. But I managed to wangle a pass into the section. It was here that I learned the extent of the horror that was Nuremberg.
It came to me in the sight of the gargoyles cut out of heavy stones. I saw it in the distortions which emblazoned the iron masks. I viewed it in the ingenious little devices composed of intricate pulleys and almost thread like cords designed to twist fingers and toes from their sockets.
I learned much in this chamber of maniacal cruelty. I was made to realize that here the term third degree was used for the first time. The first degree of interrogation limited itself to harsh questioning of the prisoner. The second degree represented showing the victim the devices which could be used to break mind and body. And the third degree began with the actual progressive use of torture.
This was no new development. It went back to the Twelfth Century. Here I was made to realize by a cruel yoke hat the childish prattle of Jack and Jill actually concerned the punishment which the worthy citizens of Nuremberg meted out to adulterers. Naked, the male and female culprits were locked together by means of the wooden device which was affixed to their necks. Then they were set out to carry heavy pails of water from the Pegnitz River up the steep hills of the town midst the taunts of the self-righteous populace to the Nuremberg Castle. The punishment continued until one or the other dropped dead in his halter from exertion. Then the survivor was whipped to death as she or he lay on the stiffening corpse of his or her lover.
I walked among the cudgels and racks and hoists, my skin crawling with revulsion. Yet I was fascinated by what I saw. I had to know what manner of man could devise such bizarre instruments. For these devices were not merely utilitarian. They had been decorated to resemble the very demons of hell. The weights which had been attached to the twitching limbs of a young woman as she hung suspended over a roaring fire, had been carefully carved out of stone by 16th Century artisans. It must have given the suffering woman great discomfort to look down the column of her naked body to the offending implements which stretched her pelvis downward and brought the blackened soles of her feet into the shower of sparks and realize the effort which had gone into fashioning them.
And herein lay the true terror of Nuremberg. The craftsmen who supplied the torture devices were not madmen. Nor were the torturers who employed them. They were respected citizens, educated, temperate, literate.
Not the least of them was Franz Schmidt, official torturer of Nuremberg from 1578 until 1617. Herr Schmidt, was specially trained for his assignment. In taking it, he carried out the heritage of his respectable and educated family. His father had served honorably as the torturer of Bamber. His mother's family included a line of executioners of Paris.
Herr Schmidt, like Adolph Eichmann some 400 years later was a dedicated man. He worked long and hard to perfect his techniques. After long hours bending over the rack, watching the writhing of a young "witch" whose body undulated in bizarre ways, Schmidt would sit up half the night, transcribing his findings in his diary. His writings bear witness to the tender mercies which the accused might expect from him on the morrow.
Here Schmidt describes his activities graphically in this passage. "Today I had two accused witches to put to the question. As usual I went through the first degree hurriedly. Even though the young girls were terrified, I knew there would be little to be gained by prolonging the oral interrogation.
"I ordered them both brought to the dungeon and led around the torture chamber. Each instrument was shown to them in turn. I ordered them to touch them, to study the intricacies, of their machinery. The dark haired one tried to cover her eyes. Her breasts heaved with her sobbing. I had to maintain my indifference and reason that I was dealing with a culprit.
"I could not look on these beautiful girls with any other thought. Otherwise I would have succumbed to the spell they were likely to cast over me.
"When I was satisfied that they had been severely shaken by the sights before them, I ordered the dark haired one secured to the wall by heavy iron clasps which encircled her wrists. She stood spreadeagled upon a narrow ledge where she could maintain a good view of everything which was done to her blonde companion.
"The light haired girl who appeared more fearful was led to a set of stocks with holes in them to accommodate her wrists and ankles. She was shorter than the men for which the stocks had been designed. This increased the strain on her arms.
"Quickly I clamped the heavy wooden frame down on her arms and set about stripping away her impeding garments. I can only say that a less resolute man would have been
totally undone by the sight of her shimmering nakedness. She tugged mightily at the restraints which had been placed upon her. The stocks groaned and creaked with her effort.
"Her eyes were wide and blue as she whimpered, 'Good sir, do not do this terrible thing to me. I have never harmed you, nor will I. If you will be merciful to me, I will allow you to use me in any way it so pleases you. I am afraid, so terribly afraid!
"I forced myself to be stern. In a severe voice, I said, 'Confess to your sins, my child. That is what is demanded of you. Confess your sins so that your soul may be saved!
"'But I have sinned not!' she whimpered. I saw the way her belly sucked in and the terrified thrust of her breasts. I heard the other girl straining at her manacles behind me. I knew the time had come to act.
"I placed an oil soaked torch into the fire, holding it there until I saw the black smoke curling upwards. Holding it high in the air so that the light haired girl could see it, I moved upon her. Her back went rigid. Her naked hips twitched uncontrollably. The scream began deep in her throat while I was still several feet away.
"Moments later the heat radiated down the column of her spine. Her shriek was a constant thing and I was almost sure she would strangle on it. The skin of her back turned a rosy pink. This is what I needed for the next stage of the torture. There was much more to come. My whips waited. I had my rack, my spiked chair. All of them would be the more terrible if the girl's flesh were made ultra sensitive at first."
It is interesting to note on this point that Herr Schmidt was a man of excellence at his calling. The burden placed on the torturer by the good citizens who employed him was stern. In reality he had to be a psychologist, a physiologist and a doctor. His job was not to inflict pain alone. He had to make it last for eons. He had to bring agony to a pitch where it almost crushed a mind and yet the mind remained lucid. He had to instill the terror of more agony to come. If in his ardor he broke bones or smashed joints, it was his duty to reset them so that the victim could go on suffering until the date of her execution was set.
This was where Franz Schmidt stood head and shoulders above the other torturers of his times. Where many of them were drunken louts who cared only for the monetary gain of their trade, it is said that Herr Schmidt never drank. He was too busy perfecting himself.
Like his latter day descendants, Herr Schmidt was also a man of science. The medical Nazis such as Mengele, Hirt and Treite merely followed in the footsteps of the 16th Century torturer who exhausted himself working with scalpel probing to uncover still more scientific information from the cadavers of his charges.
In recounting his adventures with the two accused witches, Schmidt pays great tribute to the watchmakers of Nuremberg. His diary continues, "When the blonde girl had been stretched to the limit of her endurance on the rack, she sank into a swoon. I ordered the cords loosened so that she might recover. At this point I began the treatment of her companion.
"The girl who said her name was Hilde, was light as a feather in my arms as I carried her to a low table. For all that, she was remarkably well built. She had firm hard breasts, a flat belly and supple wide hips. The ropes with which I bound her to the bench pressed into her soft flesh. She squirmed and thrashed and I decided to attach more ropes. I passed cords around her belly and flanks and crisscrossed them over her breasts. Now although the pain might grow unendurable, she could not flex a muscle. At this point, I attached a clock-like apparatus to her large toe by means of a thin cord. With each tick of the device, the cord was drawn more taut. The loop disappeared into the flesh of the toe. Then the toe was carried downward towards the foot of the bench. Rigid as she was, the girl could do nothing to mitigate the strain.
"I bent over her and wiped the sweat from her face. I pleaded with her to confess for her own sake."
"'But my good herr, tell me what it is you want me to confess and I will do it!' she cried.
How like the treatments prescribed by the Gestapo. "Spit out the tooth and confess, my lovely one. Tell us everything. Don't hold anything back. Reichfuhrer Himmler has ways of extracting your secrets along with your fingernails and toe nails. Confess while we lash your velvety back to pulp. Confess while we tighten the band around your head until your skull cracks with the pressure. Confess! Confess! Confess!"
Yes, the defendants before the War Crimes Tribunal had a heritage to maintain. They had learned from a good and merciful man.
Wasn't it Herr Schmidt who finally told the townspeople that it was inhumane to sew bound women in air filled sacks and toss them into the Pegnitz? He chided them for their fine sensibilities saying they drowned them out of a sense of dignity. "It appears wrong to you that their legs may be exposed to view if they are hanged. But if we behead them, there will be nothing offensive as their limbs will remain covered even if their shoulders do not."
Yes, Herr Schmidt was a man of great humanity. So great that he could stand on a gibbet and nail a woman's ears to the post, then step back and flay her back with a whip until in her mortal struggles she ripped her ears off.
The time I spent at the Germanic National Museum must forever remain among the most grisly of my experiences. Yet the perusal of the notes of Herr Schmidt and the examination of his instruments had some benefit.
I returned to the War Crimes trials the following week with greater dedication. I was no longer bored by the recounting of 12 million crimes. I was no longer ignorant of the mentality of the defendants.
Nuremberg had nurtured Hitler's butchers. It had bathed them in a history of horror to lend zest to their taste for blood.
They were in the dock because they were men who carried out the will of their government. Like Schmidt they had been efficient. Schmidt said it was better to behead the women entrusted to him than to sew them in sacks and toss them into the river. The Nazis said it was better to gas them by the millions rather than to waste bullets on them.
Schmidt had been industrious in applying his psychological terror before the third degree. Himmler's Gestapo by its mere swaggering through the streets of Nuremberg had installed the same terror.
Schmidt had approached his work as a scientist.
Schmidt had prided himself on carrying out the duties assigned to him as an employee of the system. The defendant Nazis now all pleated that they were only minor cogs in the system and could not have stopped it had they wanted to.
It was altogether fitting that Franz Schmidt had practiced his black arts in Nuremberg where the final chapter of the Nazi command was now being played out.
For me there was enough evidence that Nuremberg was something more than a town. It seemed like the capital of the world's horror. I had spanned the bridge which covered the Pegnitz' gore flooded banks of nearly 400 years. And I knew that even when the traps swung open under the Nazi's feet, its heritage of hate and torture would always lie a danger to civilized man.