Torture in Germany after World War II

by Henry on December 7, 2007

When leafing through a copy of the New York Review of Books from a few weeks back, I came across Patricia Meehan’s review (behind paywall, unfortunately) of Giles MacDonogh’s After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation. It’s an eye-opener.

At Schwaebisch Hall, a particularly infamous prison near Stuttgart for officials suspected of major war crimes, MacDonogh writes:

The Americans had used methods similar to those employed by the SS in Dachau. … Worse still were the mock executions, where the men were led off in hoods, while their guards told them they were approaching the gallows. Prisoners were actually lifted bodily off the ground to convince them they were about to swing. More conventional methods of torture included kicks to the groin, deprivation of sleep and food and savage beatings. When the Americans set up a commission of inquiry into the methods used by their investigators, they found that, of the 139 cases examined, 137 had “had their testicles permanently destroyed by kicks received from the American War Crimes Investigation team.”

Also:

within a year of the end of the war, the priorities had changed to concentrated intelligence-gathering about the Russians. Anyone of any nationality who had had any contact with the Soviet Zone as a deserter, refugee or ex-POW of the Russians and who fell into British or American hands could find himself in one of these interrogation centers, and exposed to appalling brutality. Among these were actual Soviet agents … Their methods included, among other things, savage beatings, starvation, deprivation of sleep, and removal of clothing. Men were kept standing for hours. Some only made it to interrogation on all fours. Many never came out alive … In the British-run prisons, when nothing more could be got out of a prisoner he was brought before a secret military court where he would be tried on a trumped-up charge; his silence was ensured by a severe prison sentence. The Political Branch of the British Control Commission soon stopped that particular practice. According to one Political Branch document, a sentence of any kind could not be imposed on someone “whose only crime is to have had the misfortune to acquire a too detailed knowledge of our methods of interrogation.”

I haven’t seen any discussion of this in the several weeks since the article was published (or the longer period since the book itself came out). I suspect that this is because it’s awkward for both opponents and supporters of torture. Many US anti-torture people have pointed, quite rightly, to the similarities between what the US government has done or has allowed to be done on its behalf, and what Nazi interrogators used to do. Nonetheless, the rhetorical force of this analogy is weakened if it extends to the kinds of things that US soldiers did to the Nazis when they caught them. But torture-porn enthusiasts like Alan Dershowitz also are unlikely to take this up either, because they don’t like to get too specific about what torture actually involves for the victims. The “we pulped the testicles of Nazis too, you know” argument isn’t a winning rhetorical strategy, because even people who might want revenge on the Nazis, are likely to cringe at the all-too-visceral imagined sensation of being at the receiving end of testicle-pulping.

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12.10.07 at 10:48 pm

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1

SamChevre 12.07.07 at 7:13 pm

I’m always surprised by what people are surprised by.

I grew up with stories of the US Army brutalizing prisoners–from the veterans in my family, and from the lore-stories of the community. I don’t remember not knowing about the Hofer brothers. Are you familiar with that horror?

2

Donald Johnson 12.07.07 at 8:03 pm

There’s a tendency among some liberals to talk as though the Bush Administration is the first one to use torture. I think it’s part of the whole American exceptionalism thing–we used to be God’s gift to humanity, until that evil Bush came along and now I’m so ashamed, blah, blah, blah. In criticizing some current American evil, the civil religion requires you to pay tribute to how he has sullied our spotless record. Even just typing this I feel a strange urge to begin singing “America the Beautiful”.

Not that one shouldn’t regard Bush as a walking pestilence, of course.

3

geo 12.07.07 at 8:22 pm

Alfred McCoy’s A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror is relevant here.

4

croatoan 12.07.07 at 8:40 pm

I think the problem is the ambiguous name of the American War Crimes Investigation team. You could interpret it to mean “investigate war crimes,” but maybe it was supposed to mean “commit war crimes during your investigations.”

5

Nordic Mousse 12.07.07 at 8:46 pm

“It’s an eye-opener”

It shouldn’t be, Henry, at least not for you. After all, you’ve lived in Germany, and without making value judgments one way or the other, it’s not as if their grievances can have passed you by unnoticed

6

Anderson 12.07.07 at 9:07 pm

it’s not as if their grievances can have passed you by unnoticed

That makes some remarkable assumptions about how vocal the Germans have been about what happened to them post-surrender. Even the carpet bombings have been treated with silence until recently; W.G. Sebald got a long essay out of that subject.

7

Seth Edenbaum 12.08.07 at 12:32 am

School of the Americas

Vietnam

I haven’t mentioned that article because I didn’t consider it news.

When I first went to report the American war against Vietnam, in the 1960s, I visited the Saigon offices of the great American newspapers and TV companies, and the international news agencies.

I was struck by the similarity of displays on many of their office pinboards. “That’s where we hang our conscience,” said an agency photographer.

There were photographs of dismembered bodies, of soldiers holding up severed ears and testicles and of the actual moments of torture. There were men and women being beaten to death, and drowned, and humiliated in stomach-turning ways. On one photograph was a stick-on balloon above the torturer’s head, which said: “That’ll teach you to talk to the press.”

The question came up whenever visitors caught sight of these pictures: why had they not been published? A standard response was that newspapers would not publish them, because their readers would not accept them. And to publish them, without an explanation of the wider circumstances of the war, was to “sensationalise”.

8

Seth Edenbaum 12.08.07 at 12:33 am

The last 4[!] paragraphs should be blockquoted of course..

9

Seth Finkelstein 12.08.07 at 2:16 am

Though it all does undermine Dershowitz’s argument that torture must, must, be institutionalized because we now face unique terrorist circumstances where Western governments will do so. As in, if Western governments have been torturing as an interrogation technique for decades, his hand-wringing over the need to legalize it has a very different aspect.

10

Otto Pohl 12.08.07 at 10:14 am

I am not sure why any of this should be a surprise. The US and UK demonization of the Germans during WWII led to a lot of crimes against humanity after Germany was defeated. Among the worst of these crimes in my mind was the forced repatriation of over 200,000 Russian-Germans to the USSR by the Allies in 1945 and 1946. Nearly 70,000 of these repatriates were children under 16. It was quite obvious that the Soviet government was going to enact a brutal and racially motivated revenge against these people. Yet, US and British soldiers forcibly turned over these men, women and children to the Soviet authorities anyways.

11

Martin Wisse 12.08.07 at 1:03 pm


There’s a tendency among some liberals to talk as though the Bush Administration is the first one to use torture. I think it’s part of the whole American exceptionalism thing

Slightly more charitable, many of the more prominent liberal bloggers like Matt Y or Ezra Klein are just too young to have consciously lived through things like the Vietnam war, or even the Reagan years, so for them it is genuinely the first time they’ve been confronted with the evil side of America.

12

Barry 12.08.07 at 1:38 pm

Posted by Seth Finkelstein: “Though it all does undermine Dershowitz’s argument that torture must, must, be institutionalized because we now face unique terrorist circumstances where Western governments will do so. As in, if Western governments have been torturing as an interrogation technique for decades, his hand-wringing over the need to legalize it has a very different aspect.”

IIRC, Dershowitz switched his position on torture when the government of Israel admitted that it does, indeed torture. Before that it was ‘they don’t do it, and it’d be wrong'; afterwards he had no problems with it.

So it wasn’t a case of ‘9/11 changed everything’.

13

Jonathan Edelstein 12.08.07 at 4:33 pm

In criticizing some current American evil, the civil religion requires you to pay tribute to how he has sullied our spotless record.

The danger of this, of course, is that those who believe we were previously virgins will look for the source of the problem, not by examining ourselves, but by asking which stranger raped us. Quite a few progressives who really ought to know better seem intent on fastening blame on one particular stranger, but I digress.

14

Rich Puchalsky 12.08.07 at 4:54 pm

Bush does not get off the hook at all because Americans previously routinely tortured people. America does not get off the hook at all because Bush turned torture from unofficial into official policy. The Americans who preferentially voted for Bush have a long-standing cultural approval of torture. They got what they wanted, and Bush was happy to give them more of it.

15

s.e. 12.08.07 at 5:01 pm

“Slightly more charitable, many of the more prominent liberal bloggers like Matt Y or Ezra Klein are just too young.”

Who needs history when you have rationalism and good intentions?

16

Russ 12.09.07 at 4:14 am

More surprises, the British seem to have dirty hands as well.

“Photographs of victims of a secret torture programme operated by British authorities during the early days of the cold war are published for the first time today after being concealed for almost 60 years.”

AMAZing isn’t it?

17

ajay 12.10.07 at 10:40 am

That makes some remarkable assumptions about how vocal the Germans have been about what happened to them post-surrender. Even the carpet bombings have been treated with silence until recently

Not really.

18

Martin James 12.10.07 at 4:30 pm

This question may sound like asking for an explanation of “What is Jazz?” that is you either “get it” or you don’t but I’ll ask anyway.

Pacifism makes sense to me as a coherent moral position.

“All’s fair in love and war” makes sense to me as a coherent moral position.

“Its OK to kill you in a just war but its not OK to torture you in a just war” strikes me as valuing a lack of suffering or a lack of evil above life itself which seems odd to me.

What am I missing that some of the anti-torture arguments seems like “Its OK to burn down your house but not to steal its contents”?

I can see why killing and torture are morally dangerous and corrupting to those who carry them out. Its just drawing a line between the two that I don’t understand.

19

SamChevre 12.10.07 at 5:41 pm

I can see why killing and torture are morally dangerous and corrupting to those who carry them out. Its just drawing a line between the two that I don’t understand.

I would say you have too little experience with killing. A lot of people (including me) are horrified by people who brutalize animals, but entirely OK with killing them humanely.

20

Martin James 12.10.07 at 7:33 pm

Samcherve,

Thanks for the explanation. What you say makes some sense to me, in that the “puppy drowning” characters I’ve run into were pretty scary people.
But are you really ENTIRELY OK with the humane killing of animals? The same feelings that make me think animal abuse is wrong give me guilt about all the meat and poultry I eat, but somebody’s got to be at the top of the food chain, right?

Its an old saw that the daintier hand has the more sensitive morals, but you seem to be saying the opposite that people who work in a meat or chicken packing plant and hence have a lot of experience with killing would be more likely to be horrified by brutalizing animals. You may be correct but I doubt it.

How exactly would me having more experience with killing make me better understand the moral difference between killing and torturing?

Even conceding your point that there is a difference, in what war has “humane” killing ever been the norm? In fact, some forms of “humane” killing such as vaporization with nuclear weapons seems more repugnant than more painful methods.

I probably don’t have a principled objection, I just think that since I think asceticism is a moral good, it troubles me to see torture as something worse than war.

21

Martin James 12.10.07 at 7:52 pm

The most principled way to put my objection would probably be that if Clausewitz is right that war is the use of force to compel the enemy to do our will, then to people with a strong desire to no submit to another’s will(and if the enemy is fighting that must be the case), the point of war IS torture.

22

seth edenbaum 12.10.07 at 8:09 pm

The point of war is to win. The point of torture after a while at least seems more to be the pleasure of revenge or of torture for its own sake. Most often it’s counterproductive and irrational. For some liberal grandstanders however the attacks on torture as barbaric are backed by an implicit argument that war is civilized.

He tells us a revealing anecdote about standing in Aden’s Crater District in 1967 with the notoriously bloody British “:counter-insurgency” specialist Col. Colin (“Mad Mitch”) Mitchell, watching as some of the soldiers under Mitchell’s command were…

stacking, as in a butcher’s shop, the bodies of four Arab militants they had just shot and Mad Mitch said: “It was like shooting grouse, a brace here and a brace there.”

I associate such arguments with a rationalist’s dislike of history as a subject.

23

SamChevre 12.10.07 at 8:41 pm

But are you really ENTIRELY OK with the humane killing of animals?

Yes, intellectually–but emphasis on HUMANE. I don’t think most slaughterhouses are even close to humane, and think that chicken-concentration-camp chicken slaughterhouses are evil and brutalizing places.

But a bullet to the back of the head, to an animal that’s unafraid and content? I’m intellectually OK with it, although it’s uncomfortable. (I grew up on a farm, and have a small farm; I’ve killed and butchered for as long as I can remember.)

24

vincent 12.11.07 at 12:35 am

““It’s OK to kill you in a just war but it’s not OK to torture you in a just war” strikes me as valuing a lack of suffering or a lack of evil above life itself which seems odd to me.” – Martin James

It seems odd to you that ‘a lack of suffering or a lack of evil [might be valued] above life itself’. But one has to ask if there could be anything valuable enough to die for. If there could be, then life should not be held as an ultimate value.

In any case, though it may be perverse that one can visit horrible death on ones enemies, but not pull out their fingernails, the conduct of war is a highly codified practice – there are rules of engagement and laws or war. Torture is proscribed, and those who do so in war are, precisely, war criminals.

25

Martin James 12.11.07 at 1:52 am

Well said Vincent.

I’m not against treating torturers as war criminals.

Its just that if someone said to me, “now let me get this straight, I can blow people up and they can shoot at me, but I can’t pull their fingernails off just because they ALMOST blew me up but I caught them first. That’s absurd.”

I’d say they are probably right.

26

Jim S. 12.11.07 at 4:26 pm

America is just as evil and wicked as any nation is on this planet.

Having said this, one finds it disconcerting, repeated constantly in this blog, that Americans have always had a unique innocence complex. As if other nations do not consider themselves the Best Of All Humanity! As if the American Left and Intelligentsia have not had, from very early in America’s history, a peculiar hatred for their people, unique among the world’s peoples (think of H.L.Mencken).

Further, one is not very credible denouncing torture unless one extends it as a universal principle. Alfred McCoy does not do this very well; neither does John Pilger.

Finally, were not a number of these people SS and Gestapo people? Could it not be that Allied soldiers, seeing the concentration camps just recently, lost their heads? It does not justify torture, but it does offer an explanation.

27

mike d. 12.11.07 at 5:33 pm

@martin: I believe the principle difference between torture and killing on the battlefield is that the former is imposed on a helpless victim, while the latter is at least an ostensibly “fair fight.” That is, we may no more torture prisoners than we may summarily execute prisoners of war.

28

phil 12.12.07 at 2:52 pm

I think the Nazi’s deserved any torture they got

“had their testicles permanently destroyed by kicks received from the American War Crimes Investigation team.”

good is no less than they deserved

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