Henry Adams at Nuremberg-A Fantasy
He had missed the Civil War, had heard of the pyrotechnics and ruin from his comfortable vantage of a few thousand miles remove like a Xerxes of privilege and been puzzled by it. The letters from his brother Charles had intensified his isolation, albeit exalted, and by the time he returned to his native land the soil itself had forgotten the desolation. Of the many questions that had plagued him only one had found answer. The photographer, Brady, had preserved for him images of Atlanta, images that sprang out of the recess of memory as he drove through the ravaged streets of Nuremberg in 1945. For years his imagination had sought to animate those hauntingly lifeless daguerreotypes, to find in the refuse of history the source and course of man’s energies. Yet he could find no hand, only the imprint of machines; and only machines could record the ruin: a ruin so swiftly visited and so quickly absorbed that but for a few seconds needed to transform glass plates into negative imagery, no record would exist. Adams’s own eyelids now acted as such a shutter, powerless before the flood of new sights that forced his memory back to its origins.
Hurled from his comfortable train compartment into the very heart of a present past, Adams rode behind two gleaming white helmets in the bitter November cold. His open jeep crossed the devastated city on the way to the Palace of Justice rising like St. Michael above the rubble. Rat-like clusters of women and children huddled against charred stone walls trying to escape notice. Dressed in black, they burned the wooden remains of church and state in small fires trying to keep warm, fires that cast odd shadows on lifeless walls all along Adams’s path.
Stepping from his jeep in the middle of the city, Adams walked into the remains of a cathedral. The only bit of color, some splinters of stained glass, lay in corners, wedged deeply between piles of stone like the rays they had once cast upon the floor. He had said of Chartres years ago that it reminded him of a smile. Where he now stood reminded him of the toothless grin of a madman. Wind howling through chinks in the remaining wall sounded like a chorus of the dead whistling through shattered skulls. What was it they were trying to tell him? He raised his collar against their icy blasts, full of bitter thoughts. His only children, the progeny of progress, lay scattered at his feet like so many charred bricks. For this, man had labored billions of years to raise himself from Darwin’s Pteraspis! Not even the infinitely resilient Jew had escaped the collapse. Caught up with the rest of Europe in its own madness, its Civil War, what protection had there been in being a chameleon?
Forty years before, Adams had written of his education and invoked the persona of Israel Cohen, the Wandering Jew, because even in his endless meanderings the Jew could never forget his past. Circumcision alone served as a constant reminder of personal and cultural heritage. Adams had begun the work in a panic trying to recover the conditions that had constituted his heritage, conditions that had nearly disappeared by 1905. Only three fragile generations separated him from oblivion while the Jew had five, millennia and a covenant with God. Yet now, forty years later, it seemed as if that covenant had been broken; some new dynamo oblivious to any prior claims of privilege controlled events. Polish Jews, Hitler Jugend, and the Virgin’s precious light lay buried beneath the same rubble.
Back on the once great avenue Adams came upon a huge blackened stone blocking his path. Someone had chalked a white swastika on it in defiance of the occupation and the ubiquitous blackness. Had Sherman appeared from behind one of the crumbled walls, it would have confirmed Adams’s belief that the comet of history followed the path of least resistance, the one already forged by Napoleon, Caesar, and Alexander. The high walls of rubble surrounding Adams threatened his equilibrium and neither the Virgin nor nieces could sweeten his imagination. How often in the past had the brilliance of their parti-colored souls delivered him from darkness; here the monochromatic starkness defied even them and the principle of life they embodied. Returning to his jeep he winced under the painfully bright reflection of his escorts’ helmets. When they left him their passing was like the blessed extinguishing of an interrogator’s lamp. In the dimmer light of his hotel room he dived one last time into a sea of documents, searching for causes but finding only names: thousands of pages of suspected Nazi criminals and their victims. History could not deal with such detail. Before settling in for the night he wrote a note to his friend, Robert Jackson, America’s chief prosecutor, and a long letter to his nieces in Cambridge.
Just as he had nearly fifty years before, Adams sat in the rear of the courtroom watching the proceedings, bemused by the appurtenances of the Electric Age. This time it was not a single Jew, not a Dreyfus, who captured the world’s attention, but his murderers, the murderers of half of Europe. Jackson had offered Adams a seat beside him and the American prosecutorial staff but he had refused: the glare of powerful floodlights trained on the defendants for photographic purposes obscured his vision. He had always preferred observing events from a comfortable distance. Dos Passos, perhaps, could stand the harsh lights, sitting with the reporters at the edge of the arena, his pen moving furiously while his left hand pressed his headphones to his ear. Adams did not need the machine. He listened without mediation, awed by the spectacle of several hundred men at the foot of the ruined Tower of Babel wired together in an effort to understand what had caused the collapse.
With automaton-like passivity men listened to the recitation of horrors contained in the indictment. Twenty-five thousand words told the story of degradation and collapse. Behind the translator’s glass sat a dark-haired woman who reminded Adams of one of his nieces. While the details of torture ran from the prosecutor’s lips like water along the Rhine, she served as intermediary between him and the accused. The twenty-one defendants listened to her, not to Jackson; she was their prosecutor; she reached into their past and brought to light the horrifying personifications of their depraved imaginations. Ribbentrop fainted under her relentless barrage of detail, the backward rush of facts overcoming his equilibrium. The bespectacled Jackson stood before them, to all the world their Nemesis, and yet by a curious act of judicial exigency the passionless voice of a nameless German woman intoned the charges and demanded punishment. Not one of the defendants looked at her during the course of the indictment. However brashly they faced the world, none could face his niece. Her face showed the strain of such a labor. More than once she stared senselessly at the glass, her features contorted by the details of horror she was forced to recite, yet when Adams lifted the headphones to hear her voice she conveyed none of her feelings. Machine-like, controlled, efficient, she spoke words the defendants themselves had spoken and written in another world, another age, a world Jackson was trying to reconstruct on paper, film, through the memories of victims, and by the reminder of the rubble outside.
The diary of “the Jew-Butcher of Cracow,” Hans Frank, central to the understanding of the Nazi mind, seemed to Adams a great practical joke at his and his family’s expense. While the prosecution recited lengthy passages, Adams could not help but recall the prolific diarists of his past. Who but an Adams could fill thirty-eight volumes with the minutiae of daily life and then turn them over to the world for judgment? In every generation one of his forebears devoted years to the papers of his sire, papers that painstakingly analyzed motives and behavior, that apologized for shortcomings and pleaded for guidance, that chronicled the efforts of intensely religious men seeking perfection. No thought went unrecorded, no pettiness unexamined. Like Moses, they sought to free themselves of every meanness so as to be worthy of entry into the Promised Land. If the negative of this impulse existed, an anti-Adams force that had the capacity to neutralize his ancestors, it existed in Frank. Only prejudice and hatred found expression. Page after page revealed the refuse of the Nazi mind in terms of the millions murdered and the plans to exterminate millions more. Adams had lived among Adamses for too long not to understand the motivation behind the keeping of such private records. His ancestors, in praising themselves with faint damns, wished to justify their works before men and God. If such was the motivation of the “Hangman of Poland,” then history had indeed entered a new age, a perfect reversal of the past. And this mirror-opposite had collided with America in a global Civil War.
He had written years before that a German, Von Hoist, understood America better than any living American. It had appeared then as if Germany was capable of learning the lessons of the United States, that its consolidation would prevent a repetition of that painful lesson of civil war and the aftermath of unscrupulous profiteering. Gould, Fiske, and the goldbugs, not the Jews of Cracow, deserved the fate of those murdered millions. Adams had written once that instead of investing capital in railroads, the enterpreneur of the 13th century had entrusted his savings to the Virgin; she repaid with interest in the life to come. But Gould, for Adams the symbol of the complex Jew, had realized he could invest himself. History at certain moments of stasis sucked up whatever crawled in the dark recesses of stagnant pools, using it as a source of energy. In that way Gould and his goldbugs had come to infect every aspect of American life. Dreyfus had done the same, swept up from obscurity, poisoning half of France with the vitriol of division. And now Germany had repeated the mistake, destroying itself in the effort to be purged of infection. To be successful, like Spain, they should have started centuries earlier, before the Jew had so tainted the blood that debridement was tantamount to suicide. Adams had no sympathy for either the parasite or its victim, they were indistinguishable. America was proof that the Jew was responsible for his fate, for he was in full control of it. What fascinated Adams was how he had manipulated a nation to destroy itself. If Darwin could have witnessed this wholesale suicide, would he have concluded that man was devolving? It had taken billions of years to develop and drop the first atomic bomb and just three days to repeat the effort. God had done as much, not more. All of time past had gone into the formation of the words, “In the beginning,” from which earth and man followed as effortlessly as Nagasaki upon Hiroshima. Only now the process was reversed; whole cities disappeared in an instant as some vestigial instinct of self-destruction reasserted itself. Scientists had joined forces with bankers in a mutual suicide pact. Perhaps Albert Speer could better reveal than Adams the extent of that link and its consequences. A conversation with von Braun might have answered all Adams’s questions, but the army jealously guarded that prize. Overnight he had become an American citizen: one more proof of the fraternal nature of the war.
The first four days of the trial passed rapidly, propelled by the blinding velocity of events being reviewed. By comparison the weekend recess plodded along like a Displaced Person. Adams tried during those long hours to chart the points and calculate the curve of history based on the week’s revelations but the information was too overwhelming. His friend Jackson gave much of his time to discussions of the problems preoccupying Adams. Together they waded into the fresh waters of international justice and examined the delicate apparatus upon which the proceedings rested. That crimes as monstrous as those disclosed during the trial seemed beyond the jurisdiction of existing courts and laws was an irony not lost on any of the participants. To have simply shot the defendants as Stalin had suggested would have dispensed with the elegant and expensive process by which the defendants were proven guilty several hundred thousand times over, but it would have done no more than confirm Goering’s sneer that the victor was always and would forever be the judge and the vanquished the accused. Jackson, however, insisted on the existence of a body of international law that superseded the traditional spoils of victory. In his letter to Truman he had outlined the sober, pragmatic moral code he intended to make the backbone of the prosecution. But already voices were associating America’s devastation of Hiroshima and Dresden with Nazi initiative and bitterly denouncing the idea of such sullied hands casting the first stone. Jackson would have no part of such arguments. He was, Adams realized, a greater Calvinist than Adams’s own ancestors. The order of events was crucial to the jurist, making possible the distinction between cause and effect, crime and punishment. It was not a question of who was so without sin as to be morally justified in casting that first stone; the law must first be served, even if by besmirched hands. The compounding of crimes on all sides did not erase the commission of the initial one, and it was that original sin that mattered most.
Yet what possibility existed for the empirical serving of justice? While twenty-one voices repeated, “Nicht schuldig,” untold millions of victims demanded an eye for an eye. Almost daily, Adams heard puzzling discussions between lawyers and staff concerning this disproportion. “Suppose,” he heard one young lawyer say over lunch, “your defendant has been responsible for the gassing of ten thousand Jews and Gypsies while mine has only killed fifty prisoners of war. . . .” In that word “only” lay the seeds of insanity. Jackson had been forced to ask the court if the law was utterly helpless in the face of crimes of such magnitude. For which of the millions of victims was a single defendant to be hanged? If every account was settled the German people would cease to exist. Some new sliding scale had to be invoked.
As a child Adams had been amused by the fluid medieval measure of the king’s foot. To the boy there was something wonderful in such flexibility, like the rigidities of Boston giving way to the liberties of Quincy. Now, in an age of retreat, such a measure was again being invoked. The life of a single victim was important only to the extent that it constituted part of a greater whole. The testimony of individual witnesses fused in a terrifying miasma that hung over the court as if over the gates of Hell. They seemed to be riding through a vast graveyard, passing like a plow through fields of eternity’s dead. Often during Adams’s historical musings he had wondered about the unrecorded infinite that left no trace of themselves and yet constituted the past as much as his ancestors did. In mockery of the simplistic reductions history was forced to make, claiming to find in the lives of a select few the thoughts of the many, an endless number of victims were being studied individually. Yet they remained faceless despite the prosecutor’s efforts. They had no significance beyond the mode of their death.
In the midst of the darkness, Hess’s “Nein” emerged as the only possible response. The other defendants recognized the authority of the court by pleading “Not Guilty”; Hess admitted no such authority. He denied the court’s rights, its existence, and the past. It was the refuge of a madman but the only possible one. While the other defendants took an active part in their defense, Hess read novels and scribbled notes to himself. He refused to travel backward; the past in his amnesiac state was impossible; the trial was pure fantasy. To Adams, who had been impelled to examine not only his own past but that of his nation, Hess was yet another anti-Adams force. He, like Adams’s ancestors, was history itself but without the Adams self-consciousness. He was pure historical energy, unencumbered by thought, the perfect symbol of a nation that had divorced mind and body in the belief that the Fuehrer would do everyone’s thinking for them, freeing all from responsibility for their actions. No other explanation was possible for crimes, the simple contemplation of which convulsed the mind.
Was Hess correct? Was the trial a ludicrous flexing of muscle in the shadow of the omnipotent dynamo? In its great elliptical course history was insensitive to reason. The lessons of Atlanta had not prevented Nuremberg. Would Nuremberg’s discoveries fall into the same void? Hess, Frank, and Speer had the potential to answer these questions: Hess and Frank spoke to him from his ancestral past; Speer from his scientifically conditioned present. Goering and most of the others receded into the background, as ridiculous in their posture of innocence as Goering in his ill-fitting and pompous white uniform.
But Julius Streicher, the editor of Der Stuermer, remained in the foreground, a discomforting presence for Adams. Jackson had shown him copies of the newspaper in a moment that caused Adams some embarrassment. Was his friend aware of Adams’s sympathies a half-century ago? At the time of those “hysterical ravings” of Drumont and the French ultra-Catholic press, he had believed in cause and effect. The deterioration of culture had to have an explanation in terms of human failings, and his brother Brooks had unearthed it. The seeds of America’s destiny lay within every Puritan’s identification with the Jews of the Bible. The catalyst in the degradation of American life was the sudden wedding of this Puritan preoccupation and the hordes of immigrant Jews that had overwhelmed the nation sixty years ago, bringing with them their nascent capitalism. Adams had not only marvelled at the eclipse of the English language by hundreds of peasant tongues but at the loss of native dignity to the lust for gold. The French had found in Dreyfus the same symbol of corruption. Whenever Dos Passos entered the courtroom, Adams wondered if Zola’s ghost were returning to cloud the events in inflammatory pamphleteering. Zola had never understood that the innocence of a single Jew was less important than the rooting out of the sins of his fathers. Dreyfus had been on trial for the seeds of sedition disseminated by his ancestors. No Jew was innocent of that crime. To those who understood the forces of history, the need for the trial was self-evident, whatever the evidence. Adams, the conservative Christian anarchist, had held firmly to a teleological conception of history until the hubristic notion that men controlled events dissolved in the chaos of the new century. The destruction of the Jews proved that some greater force now held sway. Adams had come to Nuremberg to discover it. To the world this was to be a trial for the benefit of the several million Jews who perished, but Jackson understood that the trial was not for Jews alone. The fourth count of the indictment did not isolate any one race, it spoke of crimes against humanity. If the rumors Adams had heard from the State Department were correct, the four or five million Jewish victims were only a fraction of the perhaps one hundred million dead, many of whom would lie forever concealed behind Russia’s dark curtain. Whatever the court decided, Adams no longer believed in the influence of such men as Drumont and Streicher. When they vituperated they were doing no more than telling a spinning dynamo to turn. They had not mobilized hate, they had merely exposed it to attack. Men like Streicher were opportunists who repeated in print what was said on the street and felt in the soul. If it were otherwise, such papers would have died like the thousands of radical journals that perished weekly for want of an identifying readership. Der Stuermer had become the voice of the father. Pasted on walls, it assuaged war wounds in sympathetic salts of vitriol, lying to its readers until the very last.
During weekend recesses Adams walked the ruined city. Without the white helmets of the American Military Police, he was able to penetrate into the misery of the survivors. He walked softly for the timid populace scattered at the sounds of occupation, scampering over the rubble like rodents. In the corner of a building exposed to the street two small girls dressed in skirts that bared their legs to the biting wind stood close beside an old woman and a small fire. What awed him was the silence. The woman emptied her pockets of two withered potatoes and began to roast them on a short length of wire. Neither of the girls complained of the wind that snapped their skirts against their reddened legs with the violence of a trapped bird’s wings. How right he had been to refuse the company of nieces. Privacy and dignity were impossible here. Feeling an intruder, he walked on, passing for the second time the great black stone with its white swastika still brilliantly defiant—transfixing. Something in the black and white emblem spoke to him. From the distance of a few feet the separation between brilliance and darkness seemed clear and distinct, but the closer he examined the stone the more indefinite the separation became. Like the helmets of the Military Police the white swastika hurt his eyes. Even in the pale winter light it was difficult to look at. The black stone, enameled by the intense heat of a burning city, was a relief. When he moved, Adams could make out the indistinct, distorted outline of his face in the rock, but at rest his face blended into it. What was it that rose like the memory of long forgotten guilt? Jews! Like the refrain of a nursery rhyme the word danced and taunted him. He felt like one tossing with fever in the darkness of an endless night, unable to escape the relentless repetition of meaningless sounds. His mind’s eye ran around the defendants’ dock like a child at play, looking for a place to rest. The whiteness of Goering’s uniform was repellent; by Hess the darkness was frightening; by Frank—by Frank there was room to rest. Feeling suddenly faint, Adams sank to his knees, leaning heavily against the stone, his face buried in the angle of his elbow. He was sweating despite the sharp cold. He struggled against faintness and nausea, breathing rapidly. Through closed eyes he could see that the line between the insignia of the Nazis and the rock had disappeared. Like newsprint under a microscope, no pure color existed, only the amalgam of opposite tones. What lay at the bottom of this, man’s greatest disgrace, was the treacherous passivity that had permitted such slaughter. The violence of madness had never before surfaced and survived the bright light of exposure for so long. It had always done its work in darkness. But in the peculiar province of the Nazi mind such a hatred flourished, though denied every instant by thought. Adams now understood why he had spent a lifetime lamenting the loss of unity, for with its collapse had come the multiplicities of thought-free action that had overwhelmed Germany. Mind and body no longer functioned in concert, each acted independently with no interference from the other. Nazi culture had made a virtue of such schizophrenia. The unwitting Jew had been the perfect target, himself the personification of division, of otherness, of multiplicity—at least in the Nazi mind.
Adams remained kneeling while his vision and balance slowly returned. He resolved to take the trial in smaller doses. Since its opening he had attended every session. He would remain until the Christmas recess and then absent himself for a time. He got to his feet slowly, hesitantly separating himself from his support, and returned to the hotel, hoping to retire to his room unnoticed. He avoided the usual gathering place of lawyers, judges, and officers but met Sir Geoffrey upon the stairs. The Chief Justice remarked that Adams looked pale and asked how he came to have chalk all over his right arm. With a guilty motion Adams twisted his sleeve around, surprised by the mark on his upper arm. He described briefly the details of his faintness, drawing a grave caution from Sir Geoffrey. The city, he said, was unsafe. Buildings, or what remained of them, collapsed almost daily. Undetonated bombs exploded without warning. Madmen prowled the streets painting swastikas on walls and communing with the Fuehrer. Adams nodded his understanding, concealing his intention to return to the streets. Only in the absolute desolation of the city did he feel a glimmering sense of the underlying energies propelling events. History, his life’s work, too often went astray in its attempts to cope with human feelings. However elusive the events, the feelings were too various to record and too complex to understand. On the street, however, freed from the gargantuan legal construct that nested upon the hill, he could at least sense them. Adams made no claim to understand the German psyche but he was not willing, as so many others were, to dehumanize the Nazis. If they were monsters they were human ones and insight could only be achieved in terms of their humanness.
Germany had reached its nadir, America some unprecedented zenith, and yet the two seemed inextricably bound together, a kind of global seesaw that belied progress and decline. With the needed room for expansion exhausted, America had reversed its direction and begun to build a new Church of Santa Maria di Ara Coeli on the unstable ruins of the Old World. But the construction was too hasty to promise permanence. Adams at times feared that the very ground he trod would give way. The nausea and fluid womblike feeling of suspension he had experienced by the rock seemed to portend some resurrection from his past as dislocating and threatening as it was nurturing.
Brady had tramped across the battlefields of America recording the dead and the living in images that spoke eloquently of brutal effect but not of cause. The living soldier was usually pictured at rest or at considerable remove from the enemy; the dead were depicted in isolation; rarely were the two combined. But in the films presented by Jackson to the court the entire ghastly process of the living becoming the dead opened before Adams. He was forced to watch the rape and murder of a score of naked Jews in a burning town. What purpose could there have been in such a record? Where was the transformational artistry that suffused Brady’s photos? Adams had never before witnessed a murder. With excruciating slowness Jackson projected and described each frame of the film. Adams felt trapped and sick. He tried closing his eyes but the images had already violated his consciousness, growing as quickly in darkness as they did in light. How antiseptic the ravaged city was by comparison; none of the human horror remained except on film. The salutary effects of time were now impossible. Memory could no longer distort the past and dull the pain. The burning questions he had sought to answer upon his return to America so many years ago were finally resolved. All that seemed to exist was the torture and murder of naked and innocent people. Brady had mercifully spared him this revelation but in so doing had perverted his art. His photos were fraudulent, bearing little resemblance to the truth, while the film before Adams spoke everything of the reality of war.
Jackson had more films, many more films and documents than Adams could separate and analyze. As quickly as the modern historian gathered the facts together in some meaningful form, someone emptied a new sack of details on his desk, confuting his every conclusion. It seemed impossible to arrive at any truth in the midst of such a Niagara of facts. Seventy years ago he had visited sealed archives and discovered the truth about his own history, a truth that was not fluid but bounded by the finite set of historical data gathering dust in airless vaults. Jackson and his staff had collected for presentation no fewer than two million pieces of data and held as many more in reserve. The trial itself could become a sort of twilight history, an endless recitation of the events of the past superimposed on the present, strangling a creative future in the dead weight of accumulated fact. From Adams’s vantage point in December it appeared as if the trial would run on forever—the new dynamo.
Goering, in his fashion, recognized the futility of the trial. Certain from the outset that he faced the gallows, he lectured the court on the inadmissibility of evidence, insisting that, stripped of its total context, a dead body, a witness’s testimony, or a strip of film proved nothing. His innocence transcended such facts. Let the court reconstruct the entire context and then, perhaps, an honest verdict could be reached. Adams felt a certain admiration. Goering, for all his pomposity, understood what Jackson and his staff were unwilling to admit: that no matter how many documents were presented to the court, the whole picture would forever escape them. The more evidence they presented, the clearer it became that vast fields of facts eluded them, facts central to their understanding fully the Nazi era. With Hitler dead, no amount of labor could reassemble the past. Hans Frank had opened his testimony with the remark that since Hitler had left no final statement to the German people and the world, the reason for the war would forever elude them. In a culture that had traded individual thought for complete freedom from moral law, where the energy of the body substituted for the intellectual processes of the mind, making all acts permissible, the disappearance of the Fuehrer meant the loss of the only mind in Germany capable of reconstructing events. The dynamo provided current; wires transmitted its energy. The conductors knew nothing of generation, only transmittance. Once the dynamo ceased to turn, the wires reverted back to zero potential, resembling only in form their previous state. From a great and awful power the German people had reverted to a lifeless mass that forgot its energetic past as soon as the current ceased to flow.
Hess, for all his madness, was a seer. While history collapsed about their ears he found his reality in novels. More than once he stunned the court by bursting into hysterical laughter while reading. The only truth left for him was fiction. It at least was fixed and immutable. History knew no such constancy, and Adams began to weaken under the strain of its constant oscillations. All his energies were devoted to trying to keep afloat in a sea of uncertainty. His incidence of near fainting had increased to the extent that he decided to absent himself from the trial, returning, perhaps, for the verdict and sentencing—if he lived that long.
On December 20th Adams boarded the Calais train and headed for England. Already much of the work begun since the armistice had been completed. The temporary bridge he had used to cross the Rhine had already been removed and the old one restored. America worked with an energy that put the Reich to shame.
Several days before he had left Nuremberg, the prosecution had presented as evidence the shrunken head of a concentration-camp victim, blackened and withered, mounted on a slab of oak like a trophy. Its mouth was open in a perpetual scream. To Adams that head was symbolic of a perished world howling silently, mournfully, for a culture beyond recall. What had happened to the Third Reich and the Europe of his past? Moving like anti-history a people had steamrollered over a continent and then suddenly contracted into extinction. Of the six million Nazis wanted for trial only a handful had been discovered. What had happened to the rest? A race of supermen had dissolved with only a faint trace of white chalk to mark their passing. They had created the death camps and destroyed the Old World but it was America and its tribunal that were burning the deed into consciousness. Between these two monoliths the shrunken head shrieked.
In the late August heat he rode south, no more certain of his reasons for return than of his initial desire to journey to Nuremberg. Reading the newspapers and dispatches in the serenity of his friend Charles Gaskell’s ancestral home, as he had during the Civil War, the trial had seemed unreal, like the fantastic threads of his own bitter musings. Photographic images had fused with nightmarish fantasy and then had melted away in the wake of his host’s warm hospitality. A world war, seemingly the most palpable of events, leaving no corner of life unchanged, was ultimately the most elusive. Or so it seemed from the vantage of deep green Yorkshire shrubbery. Every time he tried to force his attention to a review of his experience, the near past fused with analogues from his distant past, transforming all history into an elaborate symbol of personal failure. As if to reinforce this confusion, the journey south mocked his memory. Restored towns and country houses belied the vast stretches of ruin that had lined the tracks less than a year before. The newspapers had ceased reporting the daily events of the trial, as if in conspiracy with the workers of progress. Except for an occasional sputtering on an inside page, more fitting for a dying theatrical than an international tribunal, the papers and their audience had lost interest in history. He had given much thought before deciding to return for the final verdict and sentencing, but his actions defied reason. At best he could claim a certain comfort in seeing the infinite complexities of history reduced to the simplest Puritan equation of sin and punishment. The illusion of moral progress would solace his weary mind. Secretly, however, he held out hope for that simple, illuminating, all-encompassing explanation of the last twenty years of madness. He could pat himself on the back for a certain insight into the sine waves of historical energy, but he could not establish the link between that energy, and the mind of man. Perhaps the innocence of insanity would provide such insight—that is, if Hess could be brought to recognize that his molting time was over.
No one, as yet, had confronted the why. The great German beast had devoured not only Europe but its own people; Adams wondered, to what purpose? America had been drawn into the rapidly expanding vacuum until its overpowering presence exploded the dynamo from within. The effect had been to change the course of American expansion and perhaps entangle it forever with a world it had grown up in reaction to.
As the earth hurtled off into the greater darkness, Adams took his former seat in the rear of the courtroom, hoping to find, in the final statements of the defendants, some clue as to the why. One by one the twenty-one defendants made their short closing speeches. Each reasserted his innocence before God, secure in the belief that the Supreme Being would judge him justly and proclaim him innocent regardless of the decision of the ill-conceived tribunal. With each passing defendant Adams’s disappointment grew; then Albert Speer entered the dock. The short, balding minister of armaments began speaking in a language from Adams’s own past. “It was the first dictatorship,” the Nazi said, “in this period of modern engineering capable of subduing its own people by the fullest use of technical means. Every country in the world now stands in danger of being terrorized by technical means.” Adams did not have to try to assimilate Speer’s words, they slipped as easily into his consciousness as if they had originated there. “The more technical the world becomes, the more necessary is the demand for individual freedom and independent thought of the individual as a counterweight. The next war. . . .” The next war, Adams repeated. This man was a consummate realist, warning America of its inevitable fate and using Adams’s own terms. “An atomic rocket, operated perhaps by only ten men, may be able to destroy a million people in the center of New York within seconds. Science will be able to spread disease among men.” Adams’s own personification of that most potent and deadly force in history, perhaps history itself, rose up like the specter of death. “Nothing,” Speer concluded, “prevents unfettered science and engineering from completing the work of destruction upon mankind.” Such had been Adams’s conclusion almost thirty years ago. Man was indeed “run away with” and the awesome new power of America filled him with a darker foreboding than any aspect of recent history.
With Hess’s statement the trial assumed its final amorphous shape. With a kind of poetic lunacy, the madman insisted that he had done no wrong and that he would, if given the chance, repeat his life to the letter. This, from a man who claimed to remember nothing of his past, was the perfect signature for the trial. It made no difference if his madness was feigned, he spoke the truth for all of them. Even with the knowledge of failure and certain death they would all relive their past. If Hess was indeed unable to recall the events leading up to his flight to England, then the wish to live his life over was either a plea for the chance to understand the backward abyss into which he and his nation had fallen or, more likely, an eloquently obtuse statement of the essential unknowableness of the past. They were all amnesiacs. Already the recent events of the trial had slipped into a shadowy realm of memory which understanding could not penetrate. Adams had spent his life trying to capture and organize his fast-disappearing history but he had to own failure. He had scribbled nervously for decades, hoping to emerge at the end with an eloquent statement of process. The mad Hess was more successful. He had spent the long months of the trial reading and scribbling, absorbed in his own creation. Magically he emerged from his cocoon into the last day of the trial and reversed roles, playing the accuser and berating the tribunal for not asking the right questions. The silent world of his madness burst upon the court with a fury. He talked about his prediction that a mysterious force would cause witnesses and defendants to perjure themselves, a powerful animus capable of forcing men to commit crimes against their will. It had not only affected those on trial but an entire nation, including the Fuehrer. Neither the twenty-one defendants nor Hitler was guilty; they could not be said to have wanted to commit such crimes.
The court permitted Hess to rave for twenty minutes and then Sir Geoffrey silenced him. The spell was broken. Hess glared at the court, said, “I do not regret anything. If I were to begin all over again I would act just as I have acted, even if I knew that in the end I should meet a fiery death at the stake,” and walked from the courtroom. Sir Geoffrey announced that the court would recess for three weeks to decide the fate of the defendants. While the room cleared, Adams tried to understand the fact that the trial had ended. Somewhere he had expected that it would continue forever. He had traveled several hundred miles for a single day of speeches that expressed the same sense of impotence he had felt all his life. Perhaps Stalin had had the right idea after all.
When the verdict was reached, Adams was in Manchester. The textile mills he had visited during the Civil War lay in ruins, destroyed by German bombs. On that day, the first of October, he walked for hours through the city musing over the eleven death sentences. Newspapers on the street carried the story but no one in that badly burned city seemed to care.
Venturing into a quarter of the city he had known in his youth, he heard what sounded like a bomb explosion. Several intensely silent moments followed, then sirens and shouting pierced the silence. Nearby a great cloud of gray dust billowed over rooftops. Adams hurried to a narrow street that had been almost completely leveled by bombs more than two years before. A five-story brick boarding house, the only remaining structure, had suddenly collapsed. By the time Adams reached the scene, six bodies lay together on the street. Rescue workers scrambled over the rubble trying to free other victims trapped beneath beams and tons of brick. The house, he learned, had simply given up and crumbled. It was not the first in that city or in the many other English and continental cities that had been bombed. Without any warning the delayed effects of weakened foundations brought the remaining stalwarts to their knees. Potential energy on that small blind Manchester street had finally reached zero and no industrious Americans were waiting to put it all back together again. An old, poorly dressed man asked in a thick cockney not far from Adams: “Who’s to blame for this? Who’s to pay?” Adams had no answer.