- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 28, 2001

The self-pitying refrain in the publishing world is that only Nostradamus has benefited from the events of Sept. 11th. But at least one book has arrived at the right moment to help us come to terms with the chaos, and to face the ethical challenges that lie ahead. In normal circumstances, Richard Overy's "Interrogations: The Nazi Elite in Allied Hands, 1945" would have been just one more chapter, albeit a valuable one, in our struggle to comprehend the meaning of World War II. Now that we have entered a new, amorphous war-zone, the book takes on even greater significance.
The questions that Mr. Overy, professor of Modern History at King's College, London, poses in his introduction to the collection of prison transcripts with Herman Goering et al. are straightforward enough. How do you deal with the leadership of a vanquished enemy? Is the victor's justice all that matters, or do you seek to impose a disinterested concept of legality that transcends nationalities and cultures? In short, what are the limits of international law in real life, as opposed to the seminar room? The fall of Nazi Germany brought these questions into the sharpest possible focus: For the first time, the leaders of a defeated nation were made to explain their motives, failures and successes face-to-face with their captors.
Mr. Overy reminds us that, as the war ground towards its final months, there was no consensus among the Allies as to what to do with the Nazi rulers. Winston Churchill's own view was that Germany's crimes were so horrendous that the courts had been rendered irrelevant. His solution, outlined in a note written in 1943, was to round up between 50 and 100 of the leadership and put them in front of a firing squad.
It was, ironically, only a combination of American and Russian objections that paved the way for Nuremberg.
It goes without saying that the Russians' interest in the principles of jurisprudence only extended so far as mounting a show trial. It was left to the U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson to push for a full international tribunal. In one moving passage Mr. Overy describes how Assistant Secretary of War John M. McCloy, the man charged with leading the investigation into war crimes, took a stroll around Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park during a visit to London in April 1945. When one soap-box orator called for summary executions of the leading Nazis, people in the crowd shouted out "That's not British justice … Try them for the crimes they committed." The very next day McCloy told the UK government that a trial would have to go ahead. The British slowly, reluctantly gave way.
The interrogations became an integral part of the preparations for Nuremberg.
Yet until Mr. Overy came across the transcripts, while conducting research on the Nazi war economy, they had attracted little scholarly attention. The Nuremberg proceedings have taken precedence, for understandable reasons, yet Mr. Overy argues that the interrogations, conducted a matter of weeks after Germany's collapse, provide equally vivid insights into the Nazi mind-set. Most, naturally, avoided accepting any responsibility for atrocities.
One of the most chilling sequences comes from a secretly recorded conversation between two relatively junior SS officials who were based at Auschwitz. Discussing the brutal scenes at a round-up of Jews in Vienna, one of them observes: "You know the whole thing was so unnecessary and one could well have got along without it … what was all the purpose of all that beating up? I have nothing against the gas chambers. A time can come when it is useful to the race to eliminate certain elements. Extermination is one thing, but there is no need to torture your victims beforehand."
What can we learn from all this today, in the fight against Osama bin Laden? At a time when other critics of the war on terrorism are calling for the United States to rely solely on the cumbersome machinery of law enforcement, "Interrogations" underlines how fragile, and even arbitrary, notions of legality can be. The Nuremberg process is rightly regarded as a step forward on the path of formulating standards of international law, yet the presence of the Soviets among the judges clearly compromised that noble cause. There is also widespread agreement today that one of the main thrusts of the trial that the Nazis conspired to wage war was problematic, to say the very least.
Mr. Overy, I have to point out, is skeptical about the use of conventional military forces against the Taliban, mainly because he fears the possibility of escalation in the wider Muslim world. But even he stops short of relying entirely as some of the more naive anti-war campaigners do on pursuing action purely through legal procedures: "This is essentially an intelligence war," he told me when I visited him at his office at King's College, London. "It's a covert war which is going to be won at that level. That's where we should put very much larger resources, with special forces and so on. You fight like with like. Otherwise you end up with massive military resources on one side, and an enemy that cannot in one sense be defeated by those means … Terrorism fights a covert war, and we have to fight a covert war too."
Mr. Overy does not even accept that we are in a state of war. Analogies with Pearl Harbor are, he argues, mistaken: "This was a terrorist atrocity which fits into a pattern of Islamic terrorism going back over a long period of time," he told me. "The war rhetoric is in danger of escalating the conflict, allowing hard-line radicals to recruit more members to their cause."
His colleague Lawrence Freedman, professor of war studies at King's is rather less ambiguous about the threat we all face. "Was 11 September 2001 the start of the Third World War?" he asked in an essay in The Independent newspaper. Mr. Freedman answered in the affirmative. Except that, as we are all aware, this is not quite the type of war we expected. Mr. Freedman sees grounds for optimism in the fact that the Security Council's big five have found common ground in this initial phase. But he is less sanguine about the larger task we confront. History, he suggests, still has lessons to teach us:
"All the current tension points," he writes, "can be traced to the botched nation-building and rivalries that followed past wars. The chaotic ends to the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires after the First World War can still be felt in the Balkans and the Gulf. Colin Powell is having to grapple with Kashmir and the Arab-Israeli dispute, two messes Britain left behind in its retreat from empire after the Second World War …
"This is not so much a war against terrorism as against a radical political force that seeks to use terroristic methods to coerce Western countries into staying clear of these conflicts as they are brought to a head and to impose on the Islamic world misogynistic theocracies. That is why the stakes are so high.
"The easiest part of the Third World War may be in disrupting the operations of al-Qa'ida and driving it and the Taliban out of their bases. The hardest part will be getting a grip, once and for all, of the vicious legacies of the First and Second World Wars."

Clive Davis writes for the Times and the Sunday Times, London.

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