With the release of the Senate torture report, I took a look back to see if I’d ever done a post on torture, either in our present context or as a Summer of Long Knives behind-the-scenes-research post. Turns out I’ve done neither.
So tonight I’m correcting that oversight.
In the early 1930s, Nazi interrogation techniques were largely ad hoc and out of the hands of the regular police. The SA would pull people off the street, take them to the nearest convenient building (Often an abandoned one. The depression left plenty.), and unsystematically beat the ever-loving shit out of the victim.
As the years went by, the spectacle of horrendously injured defendants being hauled before the courts was becoming an embarrassment. This was partly resolved by declaring prisoners arrested under “protective custody” order beyond the jurisdiction of the German legal system. But for ordinary criminals in Nazi hands, another, more discrete system was required.
Enter Verschärfte Vernehmung, which translates into the now very familiar, “enhanced interrogation”.
A story in The Atlantic details the methods that the Gestapo allowed its interrogators to use. (The document they show is from 1942, but it amends protocols dating back to the mid-1930s.) Surprisingly, not everything was permitted. In some respects, the Bush administration’s torturers were allowed to go farther than the Gestapo was. Waterboarding and hypothermia were not permitted in Gestapo interrogations. (Though the Nazis would, of course, do far nastier things in the Aktion Reinhard camps in Poland, as part of the Final Solution.)
Andrew Sullivan, who first made the comparison between the Bush administration’s practices and those of the Gestapo, has been live-blogging the Senate report. Head there to read his take on the latest revelations.
Sullivan’s work on this inspired one of the early scenes in my book, Summer of Long Knives. In it, SS Captain Weissengel demonstrates to KriminalKommissar Rolf Wundt the Gestapo’s new interrogation procedures. If you like, contrast and compare my scene below with what we now know the Bush administration did.
From Chapter 7 of Summer of Long Knives:
“What do I do? Oh, God, Lazlo. He never killed anyone. He couldn’t.” Lazlo’s mother was ashen and wild eyed with terror. “HE NEVER KILLED ANYONE!”
Rolf said, “I know.”
She heard that. She moved toward him. “You know? You know? Then how can you let this happen? How can you take him away? How can you let them take my Lazlo?”
“I have to go now.”
“Please. You’re a good man. I can see. You’re a good man. Give me back my son.”
Rolf started walking toward the door.
“Please, help me.”
Rolf left the apartment and stepped with gathering pace toward the stairs. Lazlo’s mother pleaded, “Please! Help!”
Rolf opened the stairwell door, passed through the doorway, and slammed the door shut behind him. He hurried down the stairs and out of the building. As Rolf approached Weissengel and the car, he looked up at Mrs. Birnbaum’s window. Still she screamed, leaning out of the window, while her neighbors struggled to keep her from falling. Weissengel glanced at her before turning to Rolf.
“Thanks for grabbing her. Sorry you had to come in contact with that filth.” Weissengel opened his car door and slid in. Rolf followed suit. Their driver started the car and they were soon off, though not, Rolf noticed, in the direction of headquarters.
“Where are we going?”
“We have our own interrogation facilities. We’d prefer to handle the matter there,” Weissengel said.
“That’s our criminal gang leader? How did he drive the body out to the Epp Farm? I doubt he’s ever had a chance to learn to drive.”
“I’m sure his accomplices could help him. We’ll find out who they are soon enough.”
“Oh, I’m sure he’ll tell you all kinds of fascinating things. By the time you’re done with him, he’ll have implicated Pope Gregory IX, Princess Elizabeth, and the Coptic Goddess of Fertility.”
“Have you ever seen one of our enhanced interrogation sessions, Kommissar?”
“Then how can you judge its effectiveness? Contrary to what you might think, we in the Gestapo aren’t thugs or barbarians. We leave that sort of thing to the SA. We’re professionals, just like you; and we follow very strict protocols. A doctor will be present at all times. I assure you that no one will be able to accuse us of abusing this little murderer, but we will learn everything about his crimes.”
“Fine, just drop me off at home then. I wouldn’t want to spoil your fun.”
“Oh, no, Kommissar. I insist that you accompany me. I think you’ll learn a lot.”
Rolf and Weissengel actually waited for several hours in a nondescript building in Sendling, a few blocks from the Old South Cemetery, before finally descending three flights of stairs to the interrogation rooms in the basement. Rolf did get a chance to call Klara during this time. He explained only that he’d be late getting in, and to not expect him before the early morning hours. One of the uniformed cops went out and retrieved sandwiches and Cokes for Rolf and Weissengel. Rolf didn’t choose to say much to Weissengel, but he nevertheless learned that Weissengel had grown up in Bayreuth, where his father directed operas for the festival. His mother taught him the piano and the violin, though he was far more interested in football. (No doubt Weissengel used his musical background as a means of getting into Heydrich’s inner circle, to the degree that Heydrich had one.) He studied law at Munich University, and joined the NSDAP and the SA in order to move his career forward. From there it was a series of short hops to the SS, the SD, and the Gestapo. In exchange for this information, Rolf told Weissengel almost nothing, fixating instead on his liverwurst sandwich, then on the wall maps, then on the view of the paint factory outside. At 1:00 AM, Weissengel finally decided it was time for him to take Rolf on his field trip to learn about the theory and practice of enhanced interrogation.
Down the metal steps they went. The walls vibrated with moans and screams; the building was a tuning fork of suffering. Rolf had heard of places like these that the Gestapo had commandeered. The first people tortured here were probably the building’s previous owners.
When they reached the subbasement, Weissengel led Rolf down a long, sterile, white corridor to a metal door numbered B27. Weissengel knocked twice, someone pulled a latch, and the metal door opened.
Inside the light seemed brighter than it was because of its reflection off the white tile walls. The floor was bare cement, concave, with a grate-covered drain in the middle. Lazlo sat on the floor, naked, with his wrists and ankles shackled with the same, doubled-over chain. He was sweaty and pale and reeked of urine. Standing over Lazlo was a tall, severe-faced uniformed guard. In his calloused right hand was a long black truncheon. Standing in the opposite corner, with a white lab coat covering his black SS uniform, stood the man Rolf assumed would function as the doctor that Weissengel had promised. The SS doctor stared into a kind of middle distance, while his metallic, octagonal glasses flashed painful pinpricks of light into Rolf’s eyes.
The air in this room was oppressively steamy, yet neither the truncheon-bearer nor the doctor seemed to sweat. Rolf wondered if he was perceiving heat that wasn’t here. It didn’t seem to be affecting Weissengel either. He appeared to be comfortable, even proud. “As you can see, Kommissar, not a mark on him, even after several hours in custody. He’s fine, isn’t he, doctor?”
The doctor said. “Of course. I’ve allowed nothing extraordinary to happen to him.”
“Has he talked?” Weissengel asked.
The truncheon-bearer said. “No, sir. He’s still resisting us. He still insists we have the wrong guy.”
“Raise his head, please.” Weissengel said.
The truncheon-bearer slid his instrument under Lazlo’s chin, forcing his head up. Weissengel smiled at him. “You must surely realize that there’s no hope for you. None. No one knows you’re here. No Jew lawyer can plead for your rescue. Indeed, there are no more Jew lawyers. We got rid of them. There’s just you, naked and covered in your own stink.”
“What happened to my mother?”
“Didn’t you know? She collapsed and died. Her poor heart just couldn’t take it. Her only son, a murderer. It’s tragic, truly.”
Lazlo trembled in his chains. Tears welled up and spilled out of his eyes in a great flood over his cheeks. “I don’t… I don’t…”
“Believe me? That’s of minor importance to me. I’m not the one in chains. I’m not the one who’s going to suffer here for failing to tell everything I know. Do you have any idea how long we’ve kept some of our prisoners in conditions like these? What’s the record, Sergeant?”
The truncheon-bearer said, “Two years.”
“Two years. And he was in much better shape than you. He was a superman, and even he broke. We didn’t even bother executing him afterwards, Lazlo. All he could do was mumble to himself and whimper when his morning porridge was cold. That’s what’s left of him. That could be you. That could be your sister, Trudi. Yes, I know about her. She’s in Berlin, but I could bring her here. Maybe you’d like to watch.”
Flitting across Rolf’s mind was the thought that Christianity, for all its centuries of murder, torture, and pillage, had one appropriately redeeming feature: its savior ended his time on Earth as the innocent victim of a deep injustice. The people spat on him, and the God who’d ostensibly sent him turned away just as cruelly as his apostles had. See your salvation in my loneliness, my desperation, my torture. It’s one thing to say “blessed are the meek”. It’s another to end up as the meek oneself. It seemed an admirable message, but in looking at Lazlo, for whom life would surely never be as good again as it was right now, Rolf saw no salvation. Rather, it was a sinking into shared wretchedness, victim and tormentor, monitor and unwilling witness. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down. If considered this way, the crucifixion of Jesus reduced all: God, the apostles, the Romans, the Jews, the criminals, and Jesus himself. The only creatures spared: the women who tended the dying. They were the only worthwhile participants in the sordid doings of Golgotha. And they were absent here.
Rolf knew that he was not going to redeem himself in this room. He was not going to stop Weissengel or the truncheon-bearer from jabbing the boy, mocking his nakedness, threatening his loved ones, charting his course to the executioner’s block. Ten years ago, the law would have demanded he arrest the lot of them. Now, he was there to observe a legal process at work, to marvel at it, to come away impressed. He had no power here.
The truncheon-bearer stuck the truncheon into Lazlo’s ribs so hard that he fell over and struggled to breathe. Lazlo, lacking the means to right himself, flopped on the floor like a dying fish.
Weissengel knelt down. “It ends as soon as you want it to, Lazlo. I don’t want to see you like this.” He grabbed Lazlo’s face and turned it toward Rolf. “See that man? He feels compassion for you, as I do. He just wants you to name the names, and we’ll let you out of those chains.”
“I can’t tell you what I don’t know.”
“Don’t worry. I have the names. All I ask is that you confirm them. Okay? Do you understand?”
Lazlo nodded, slowly at first, then with greater enthusiasm. Weissengel took from his pocket a small black notebook. He flipped it open to a page and read a name. “Shlomo Grunwelder.”
“I know him,” Lazlo said.
“Good. Did you conspire with him to kill Gretl Hofstengl?”
“No!” Lazlo cried out. “I never!”
Weissengel nodded. The truncheon came down and struck just under Lazlo’s left ear. Lazlo screamed so that even Weissengel showed some flashing signs of concern. He reached down and righted the moaning, bleeding, shuddering Lazlo, bringing him back onto his scraped red knees. “It’ll be all right if you tell me he did it. It’ll greatly shorten your time in our custody. Come, Lazlo. It’ll be all right. I know what all of you did. There’s a mountain of evidence. They’ve already confessed, and they’re blaming you. Wouldn’t you feel better if you told the truth? That’s what’s hurting you. I can’t imagine that what the Sergeant does can even compare to the horrors locked inside you.”
“What?” Weissengel said.
“I can’t… remember. I can’t remember what I did. I guess I could have killed… I can’t…”
“Ah, that’s it. That’s good. You’re a good boy. Just picture it in your mind, Lazlo. Picture it, and tell me what you see.”
Lazlo’s fists clenched and he rocked back and forth. “I remember,” he said. “There was this rally, and Shlomo said that we should get a girl. And so he went to the square, the place…”
“The Köningsplatz,” Weissengel said.
“Yes, that’s right. The Köningsplatz. And Shlomo, he goes up to this girl and says that there’s this guy who likes her, and she comes with him to me.”
“And what do you do?”
“We take her somewhere.”
“A park, and we get her behind the bushes and Shlomo rapes her. I just held her, he… did everything. He can’t blame me. He rammed himself in her. Then he told me to get rid of her.”
“That’s very good. You’re so close, Lazlo. Were there others?”
“Yes,” Lazlo said.
“Was Jorg Walker there?”
“Did he rape her?’
“He raped her.”
“Was Guido Koepp there?”
“He raped her too. I saw it.”
“Yes. And Bruno Wyss?”
“Yes. He… fucked her hard. He fucked her hard!”
“What about Henri Kreutz?”
“When we caught him, he was carrying a razor. Is that what he used to cut Gretl?”
“Yeah. He said, ‘I fucked her, and now I’m going to fuck her up!’ And that’s why he wrote what he wrote. They wanted to defile a Gentile girl. That’s what it was all about.”
Weissengel’s contempt dripped from his mouth. “I know. That’s what it’s always all about. Take a look at the rest of these names, Lazlo. You’re doing well, but I need to know. Were the rest of these men also there?”
Lazlo nodded so hard he cracked his chin on his knee. “Yes,” Lazlo cried. “All of them! They all did it!”
Nodding to the truncheon-bearer, who reached for the ring of keys attached to his belt, Weissengel said. “That’s a good boy. Such a good boy. Your mother would be proud of you, if she were still with us. At any rate, Sergeant, see that this young man gets a good meal and a decent bed. His stay with us will be short, but I insist that it be comfortable. Understood?”
“Yes, Hauptstürmführer,” said the Sergeant. He knelt beside Lazlo and opened the boy’s shackles. Upon release, Lazlo’s arms dropped to their sides and his feet splayed out. The Sergeant pulled Lazlo to his feet and dragged him from the cell.
Weissengel smiled at the doctor. “Doctor Himmelwald, you’ve been most helpful.”
Himmelwald answered with a grin that had the taint of something foul in it. “You performed your functions expertly, Hauptstürmführer. I was delighted to observe you at work. Kommissar…”
Smirking, Dr. Himmelwald quit the cell. Rolf didn’t like him. Rolf had taken an oath to serve, just as Himmelwald presumably had; but at least Rolf didn’t enjoy what he’d seen. If he’d tried to tell Weissengel that it had been a pleasure, he’d have ended up swallowing his own tongue. That Himmelwald, a professional healer, could say that as if he were complimenting a wedding singer contributed to Rolf’s now strong interest in vomiting all over this floor.
Weissengel grinned like a cat who’s just presented his owner with a dead shrew. “I’d be interested to hear your critique.”
“You didn’t have anything on him, did you?”
“What of it?”
“The names you gave him? Who were they?”
“They’re his classmates, and they are in a gang. I needed that little shit to take me to the rest. You’ve never used these techniques?”
“I’ve used some. But I prefer to seat my subjects in chairs.”
“Our experience differs,” Weissengel said. “Besides, he’s not really hurt. I’ve been more injured slipping on sidewalk ice.”
“But you had nothing solid against those other people, did you?”
“Nope. But now I can arrest them all. You can take the night off though, Kommissar. I’ll have the uniformed boys handle it.”
Weissengel patted Rolf on the shoulder and abandoned the cell to him. Moans and the occasional scream penetrated the walls. He knew there was a wife at home to whom he could, in theory, tell his troubles. But how would he tell her about this? How would he explain how he’d watched and done nothing? No, it was best to let this night go down the drain, like Lazlo’s blood, sweat, spit, urine, and tears.