By Melanie Yeager
When a publisher first approached Robert Gellately about editing a psychiatrist's interviews with Nazi war criminals, he wasn't so keen on the idea. Editing can be very time-consuming, and Gellately had his own history books to write. But ultimately he didn't turn down the chance. Now the book the Florida State University professor fine-tuned - "The Nuremberg Interviews" - is being heralded for giving the world new insights into the chilling thoughts of Nazi leaders responsible for the Holocaust, the systematic extermination of more than 6 million Jews during World War II. The book, translated into nine different languages so that it can be sold from Brazil to Sweden, has garnered positive reviews in Newsweek and The New York Times.
"There is this kind of inner logic behind the outer madness," Gellately said of the book's 33 interviews. "That's the horror of the thing." That's because, Gellately said, for the most part, these Nazi rulers were as normal as next-door neighbors. "I think we all have an idea about what makes the Nazis tick. Some of us think they were demonic or crazy ... Really, two people in the book are like that, but they are not the interesting ones," Gellately said. "Most of the other ones are like you and me. They are well-educated, rational, sensible."
They pour out their thoughts to Dr. Leon Goldensohn, a U.S. Army psychiatrist, who kept detailed notes of his interviews with the war criminals and witnesses awaiting trial in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1946. Goldensohn died in 1961 at the age of 50. Apparently, his notes sat mostly untouched in his family's home for about 50 years until they were handed over to Gellately. "One fine day, this huge carton of stuff arrived," Gellately said. "I would say it was a good foot-and-a-half thick." Gellately went to work fact-checking spellings of names - many written more than one way - dates and military ranks. It was an exhausting task that took two years.
In some cases, Gellately had to find the truth and footnote it. "He's being lied to, and he's not aware of it. But I have to be aware of it," Gellately said. Other places in Goldensohn's notes, Gellately had to clear up the confusion. When Goldensohn asks a defendant how it feels to be involved in killing 5 million Jews, Gellately has to explain why 5 million was the best estimate at the time and cite the sources behind historians' 6 million count decades later.
Goldensohn, who was Jewish, sets out to understand what mentally ails these men. He keeps his distance in his notes, calling them "subjects" rather than by name. "It must have been nightmarish for him personally, but he retains his cool - mostly," Gellately said.
"They had a sense of duty, perverted, but they were rational, kind of cold, calculating killers," he said, "not this emotional, go-out-and-shoot-their-friend-in-the-woods kind of thing. You can't prove these were guys that actually hated the Jews or actually ever hit anyone."
Coming up next: Hitler vs. Stalin
Gellately, an expert on German and Russian history, has written several books that deal with the history of anti-Semitism and the Third Reich. FSU wooed Gellately to its history department last year from The Strassler Family Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University in Massachusetts. He teaches classes such as "Comparative Genocide in the 20th Century" and "History of Racial Thought in Modern Europe."
Neil Jumonville, chairman of FSU's history department, said Gellately's work provides important lessons for today's world. "His work on Hitler and his forthcoming work on Stalin have great relevance. That is, in a world that might be more at war after the fall of the Berlin Wall than it was during the Cold War, the study of violence and absolutism is very important," Jumonville said. "America, in this age of terrorism, might have more determined enemies than we have had since the era Gellately studies."
Gellately, a native of Newfoundland, is on research leave. Now that he's finished with Goldensohn's writings, he hopes to finish a book comparing Hitler and Stalin next year. He works seven days a week. "I refuse to call it 'workaholic' because it means I have some type of pathological disease," Gellately said. "But I work on it all the time." His editing work was done just as intensely, he said.
"Gellately has done a masterly job of editing," wrote William Grimes in Friday's New York Times. "In a short introduction, he lays out the legal framework of the trials and Goldensohn's role. Footnotes are kept to a minimum. Like Goldensohn, Mr. Gellately prefers to step aside and let the defendants and witnesses speak for themselves. Their testimony, vivid and chilling, requires no commentary."
Gellately said he felt he had made a commitment to historic truth. "I don't have an intention that everybody will react to the book the same way," Gellately said. "I really think it will leave an impression on everybody."
(Originally published on Nov. 28, 2004 in the Tallahassee Democrat)