When the name Adolf Hitler falls, words fail me.

--Karl Kraus, 1933

THIS BOOK CONFIRMS what Dr. Johnson once called wholesome prejudices. Most journeymen reporters who attended the 1945-46 great trial in the Nuremberg Palace of Justice perused the documents, watched the parade of witnesses, saw the holocaust films, heard the final pleas, and then tried to weigh all the evidence in the imperfect way laymen must when victor tries vanquished. We came to pretty much the same conclusion as that voiced by the most articulate of the defendants, Albert Speer:

"However imperfect, these Nuremberg Trials are a necessary step in the process of re-civilization."

Heine once wrote that each age is like a sphinx--when her secret is discovered, the sphinx dashes herself over the cliff. One of the many astonishing phenomena of the year 1945 was the sudden, sphinxlike death of National Socialism. I wandered for many lonely hours through the ocean of rubble that was then Nuremberg--or Cologne, or Munich, or Dresden--searching for still true believers. I found none. Nazism as a living creed died with Adolf Hitler.

For a new generation of readers, many of them not even born when these trials took place, this fine book repeats and reflects the grim Nuremberg story as it unfolded week after week, from one misty German autumn to another. All the other prominent Nazi leaders, the seeming lofty paladins--Goering, Goebbels, Bormann, Himmler, Hess-- were but pallid reflections of the mighty if malignant Hitler personality. We get excellent pen portraits of each. One notes that while all had incessantly conspired against each other, none even dreamed of ever replacing the Fuehrer. Adolph Hitler was National Socialism and National Socialism was Hitler. This book shows why, by a most judicious selection and analysis from some three score bulky volumes of documents, interrogations and testimony distilled in their turn from tons of captured documents.

Nazism was not simply the German variant of Fascism, as so many thought at the time. Fascism always had an Italian flavor, like pimento or garlic. Nazism was what the outsider Austrian who became the charismatic leader of the Germans said it was; his adolescent whims became policy; his lurid prejudices party dogma; his often canny beerhall strategies moved vast armies to Paris and to Astrakhan.

One of the many apercus of author Robert E. Conot is that most of Hitler's racism, anti-Slav, anti-French, was vulgarly conventional to his times, his Vienna times, except for the deep pathology of his Judeophobia. This is a better word than anti-Semitism, since Hitler was fairly fond of Arabs. Again there are all sorts of hints, in the documents, in the testimony, that this most vicious of his obsessions, genocide, lurked in his soul for decades. As the novelist Ernst Junger put it in his thinly disguised 1939 satire on Hitler (On the Marble Cliffs), "he belonged to that most dangerous breed of men who dream concretely."

What almost all testimony at the trial showed was that Hitler was not running a government, not in any conventional sense. What the tyrant was running was a court, a brown Byzantium, "so full of dismal terror was the time." Now, this was most definitely not what the prosecution had set out to prove. Nor did the revived Wilsonian dream of creating a new body of international law to abolish aggressive war come to much. While it was easy enough to indict the vanquished, no formula has yet been found to try victorious aggressors. Author Conot, while he approves heartily of the trials, does not burke or write around these issues, nor is he mealy- mouthed about Soviet guilt in the Katyn forest. He gives a masterful rendering of that bleak courtroom scene when Reichsmarshal Goering so deftly bested the hapless U.S. prosecutor Robert H. Jackson in the cut and thrust of debate. (When a pouting Jackson turned to the bench to complain that the defendant was being unfair, Lord Chief Justice Lawrence came back tartly with: "I must remind the American prosecutor that the defendant is on trial for his life.")

These German generals, admirals and ministers on trial were courtiers, and often mere lackeys (Keitel, Ribbentrop, Rosenberg, Frank). This courtier approach is the only one that helps to explain the inexplicable. Architect Speer, disenthralled, tells of how in 1938 he had built a magnificent cabinet room, "but it was never used." Finance Minister Schacht and Economics Minister Funk confessed that they had once drawn up an annual national budget "leaving the bottom line blank." Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop swore he was swanning about in Italy, consulting with his opposite number Count Ciano, when he heard that the Fuehrer was about to launch the 1941 attack on Russia. (Ciano on Ribbentrop: "He was that kind of German bore who could corner you in a rotunda.") Most flabbergasting perhaps was the admission of General Jodl, chief of Wehrmacht operations:

"I often felt that I had had more real authority when I was a first lieutenant in the old Bavarian Army."

It takes some intellectual courage, these days, to write a book entitled Justice at Nuremberg, without the obligatory question mark. A kind of justice was done at Nuremberg, albeit political justice, imperfect but necessary. The only alternative, in the charged atmosphere of those days, was summary justice, a euphemism for taking thousands of Germans out and hanging or shooting them (or allowing the mob to do so).

The older American generation, while quite aware that we did not always fight the good fight by Marquess of Queensbury rules, will thank this author (younger, I suspect) for keeping the recorddstraight, for re-reading the minutes of the previous meeting. After reading this sober and just account, no honorable young Americans can ever after make the glib graffiti link-up between "Hiroshima and Auschwitz" which today desecrates so many of our university walls or wax skeptical about the "body count" of innocent humans murdered on racial grounds, above all Jews and gypsies. There were tons of documents, and weeks of testimony (from Frank, von Schirach, Ohlendorf, Hoess), showing that if the genocide round number was not 6 million, it was almost surely well above 5 million.

No, Nuremberg was most definitely not "Justice Jackson's highgrade lynching party" (a wicked quote Conot attributes to the then chief justice of the Supreme Court, Harlan Stone). How much more heartening to recall, once again the aristocratic rhetoric of French prosecutor Francois De Menthon (a descendant of the brother of St. Bernard of Clairveaux):

"How can one explain how Germany, fertilized through the centuries by classic antiquity and by Christianity, by the ideals of liberty, equality and social justice, by the common heritage of Western humanism to which she has brought such noble and precious contributions, could have come to this astonishing return to primitive barbarism?"

This author has done his homework. From the hundreds of lively vignettes he has culled from long forgotten (and too often unread) memoirs of Nuremberg days, I was most happy to note that he had not missed the curious day of the electronic freakout, when the simultaneous four-language translation system malfunctioned. One sultry afternoon several of us reporters had gone for a stroll through the massive gingerbread rubble that had once been the Nazi cult city--the scene of Parteitag, Leni Riefenstahl with her Leica lens, Albert Speer's nighttime "cathedral of ice" formed by massing searchlights. When we returned to the court pressbox, Field Marshal Keitel was facing the Soviet prosecutor Roman Rudenko.

Suddenly, there was a look of utter bafflement on the faces of both the German and the Russian. Both were wearing earphones. By induction perhaps (or reporters clambering over cables?) their voices had switched frequencies and hence channels. Russian was now pouring out of the French channel, German out of the English channel. There were wild gestures for perhaps 10 minutes, a Babel or a dialogue between deaf mutes.

It was symbolic. For the prosecution was operating from the premise that the men in the dock were the senior powerhandlers of a powerful, criminal government. But they were only courtiers, although most of them had committed quite specific crimes under both German law and the relevant Geneva conventions. Would recognition of this fact have altered many sentences? The author doubts it, and so does this reviewer. Guilt, to have meaning, must be individual; crime is always concrete. (One of the quainter results of Nuremberg, the so-called subsequent proceedings, was that the German general staff was tried for waging aggressive war--and found innocent.)

"Throughout the trial, the specter of Hitler had inhabited the courtroom." Yes indeed, but offstage. That haunting ghost is offstage or behind the arras in this book, too--until page 508, when, alas, the author flaws his hitherto sovereign approach by introducing the startling (and undocumented) thesis that young Adolf Hitler contracted syphilis in 1913, and that the insidious disease remained latent until 1937. This is a new serving up of a very moldy old chestnut. I interviewed four doctors in Berlin, all of whom had examined the German chancellor at one time or another; all deny that Hitler ever had syphilis. Two did note, in the very last years, symptoms which they diagnosed as Parkinson's disease.

Luckily, all this comes too late to flaw Conot's main narrative. But the mythology must be countered because it is the same kind of dubious stuff from which the recent Stern diaries hoax was concocted. Worse still, it feeds that persistent legend that Hitler was, somehow, a great populist leader, a New Dealer in a brown shirt, until he made his madcap plunge into global war. While a case can be made that Nazi types like Hess and (possibly) Himmler were fair candidates for a lunatic asylum, all evidence shows that Adolf Hitler was not insane, not at least in any legal, forensic or clinical definition of that word. Brother Hitler, as Thomas Mann once called him, was lucid to his very last hour. The man was not criminally insane. He was criminally sane. That was his link with our common humanity--a shuddering thought.