Look at the universe, the planets and stars millions of light years away, moving in
exact orbits. What is man compared to that? Nothing but a louse . . . You can
- Adolf Hitler, at a wartime military conference
Fifty years after Hitler lost his bid to rule the world, we struggle to understand his
contempt for all human life, even for his own people. That he could run two wars
at once –for the conquest of territory and the genocide of the Jews—without
noticing that the efforts mutually limited each other—is difficult to fathom. But he
gave plenty of warning about his intent. In his early writing and on an almost
daily basis at his wartime conferences, he revealed deep-seated nihilism in
speeches like the one above, again and again. No wonder the military losses
(his own and others’), the concentration camp deaths, and the extermination of
millions of Jews, Gypsies, Communists, intellectuals, homosexuals, labor
leaders, and others didn’t bother him.
While we would prefer to forget about the suffering inflicted by this man and his deputies, we cannot. For even in the face of international memory— made vivid through the opening of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., the debut of Steven Spielberg’s film Shindler’s List and the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II –Neo-Nazis and others claim the Holocaust never occurred.
Now we are beginning to hear, on a grand scale, the stories of the thousands, representing silenced millions more, who suffered in the face of Hitler’s insanity. Finally, many who had been silent have decided they must give testimony before it is too late. Finally, in Willmar, Minnesota, for example, eyewitnesses gather at the request of history teacher William F. Borth for “A Night of Remembrance” before an audience packed into a local auditorium. Here Dachau slave laborer Monsignor Stanislaus Grabrowski says, “What is hunger? It’s not appetite. Hunger you feel with every fiber of your mind and body. There is such an emptiness. It is difficult to think. We prayed that our skin and bones would be saved and that somehow we would be filled in.
“There is no way to really describe it. If you every try to talk to a blind person about colors describing the beauty of nature, the blind person would not understand because he never saw it. It was a daily struggle to survive and a daily danger of being killed. There were over 2,000 priests taken to Dachau. When the Americans liberated us, we were 860.”
And concentration-camp prisoner Fred Baron describes his journey by train to Auschwitz. “The guards drive us with clubs, dogs, and weapons until each car was filled to capacity—then they closed the sliding doors. I found myself in pitch black darkness . . . There was no food, no water, and worst, no sanitary facilities . . . It took us several hours before we devised a method whereby half of us in the car would keep standing while the other half would squat in each other’s lap, to be able to rest our bones. The trip took us three days and three nights. There were men, women, old and young, and children. In our car, people died and went insane.”
There are others here as elsewhere: William Landgren, formerly a U.S. Infantry company commander, describes bodies piled by the crematory at Dachau when the American troops liberated the camp in April 1945. I am here, too, to recount discoveries made during the prosecution of Nazi war criminals at the Dachau trials and during my interviews with five of the stenographers who recorded Hitler’s military conferences.
But I realize that saying what I know is not enough. This evening’s program is a response to hate mail and newsletters denying the Holocaust, demanding the resignation of Bill Borth, and threatening his family because he teaches high-school seniors a course (in its 12th years as I write this) on Hitler’s quest for territory and extermination of the Jews. Without our stories—told again and again—and without an easily accessible record of the things we have seen and heard, our young people will find it too easy to believe the disbelievers and rest content that such evil could never happen anywhere, much less here. (See appendix.)
Too often we have been content to let others do our thinking, to be
uninvolved in controversy. Such complacency—evidenced by poor voting records, for example—could leave us ripe for a government and Holocaust like Hitler’s. Leading a flock of sheep is, after all, easier that controlling a lot of strays. Without knowledge of the past, ourselves, and human nature, and with economic depression, street riots, and a strong president, we could permit a dictatorship by default. (See appendix.)
And so I bear witness along with others now gone, who have told their stories to me. A bit of background seem in order: Born Horace Russell Hansen on February 20, 1910, I am the son of Richard and Dagny Elizabeth Hammer Hansen of St. Paul, Minnesota. My father was a tailor, my mother a homemaker, and I the first of their four children. I grew up on Marshall Avenue, attending Richard Gordon School and Central High School.
After preparatory classes at the University of Minnesota, I entered the St. Paul College of Law (William Mitchell College of Law) in the fall that the Great Depression started with a crash –1929. Four years later, just after I was admitted to the bar, a family friend who was head of the Minnesota Industrial Commission, called me:
“How would you like to be an attorney in the Workers’ Compensation Division? It pays $175 a month.”
“Wow,” I thought. “Big bucks in hard times!”
Representing injured workers before a referee became my primary task, and I soon found the work to require knowledge of more than the law. So I began to take courses in anatomy and physiology at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine—two evening hours twice a week for two years. What I learned took the mystique out of doctors’ testimony and gave me an edge in court. During that time, I also represented the State of Minnesota in U.S. District Court in plans for reorganization of insolvent insurance companies so that workers compensation awards (after trial) would be fully paid. My contention, that the awards should be treated as unpaid wages entitled to priority, prevailed.
In 1936, I joined the staff of the Office of the Ramsey County Attorney, for which I handled arraignments and tried felony jury cases. After six years in that office and shortly after Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, I decided to joint the army.
After personal training to the position of a second lieutenant, I trained others in Alabama and Mississippi, then was sent to England in May 1944. I traveled with the army across northern Europe—France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany—as the Allied forces defeated Germany, sending home monthly records of what I saw.
Assigned to war-crimes investigation in January 1945, I arrived at the Dachau concentration camp on October 1, 1945, and was named chief prosecutor (chief of staff) at the trial facilities there. Mine was the decision as to which of 32,000 camp administrators and workers should stand trial for war crimes. In addition to gather pretrial evidence, I attended and heard most of the testimony at the trials. Again, I took copious note; these have been verified by the official record of the trials, presented in part in the latter portion of this volume.
On my staff of 65 at Dachau were five of the eight recorders who took down verbatim Hitler’s military-situation conferences. Unable to reach their families in Berlin because of Russian advances at the end of the war, they offered to act as translators at war-crimes trials. During off-hours I questioned these highly educated men (three had doctorates), recording their answers in speedwriting. The five non-Nazi recorders gave me insight into and information (some of it never reported elsewhere) about how Hitler rose to power, established dictatorship, and directed his war.
My story comprises an eyewitness report (including personal photos) of my journey across Europe with the liberating forces, the testimony of trial witnesses heard firsthand, and personal interview with intimate observers of Hitler in action. I tell it as here and now.