Towards the end the GI’s at Nuremberg played basketball almost around the clock, it seemed. We couldn’t see them from our cells, but the percussive bap, bap, bap of the ball on the floor carried to us from the old mess hall where they played. I was interested in the game, as was Goerring. What were the rules, we wondered. We wanted like schoolboys to be invited to play (although Goerring got short of breath climbing to the dock), or at the very least to watch a game, but when we asked the Colonel refused. Goerring persisted. He wanted an exhibition match. He called it a cultural exchange, but the answer was no. “My men aren’t here to entertain you, gentlemen,” the Colonel said, although as I told Goerring when I was in British hands they had let me watch billiard matches between their officers, and even invited me to play on several occasions. Instead, I had Stuckey, the guard, describe basketball to me. I told him it sounded like football – soccer to him – except played with the hands and not the feet, and with a tiny “goal”, but he shrugged and said he didn’t know soccer. Instead, he showed me how a man “shoots a basket”, the ball balanced on the fingers of one hand, the upward pushing motion. He used a ball of socks and my wastebasket, which he set on a shelf.
At first the GI’s played early in the evening and then later and later into the night, even after lights out. They were mad for the game, obsessed, it seemed to me. It was as if they had so much energy – guarding us was tedious, I supposed – that they had to expend it in marathon matches. I found myself dreaming of the game, as I imagined it, the men impossibly small, beneath the high basket that hung suspended over them, the rope net swaying, the ball sailing up, missing, falling from a great height.
I asked Stuckey if he played and he looked confused and shook his head.
Goerring eventually complained about the noise. It was keeping him awake, he said. It was like a headache, pounding in his temples. Bap, bap, bap! By now the verdicts had come down. I had life; Goerring and a dozen others death. I thought he’d have quite enough time to sleep in the future. But, when I told him to let them play, he looked at me steadily and told me to be quiet. “Hess, you fool. That’s no game. That’s hammering! They’re building our gallows in there.”
He was right, I suppose. And right to be angry at me, for my stupidity, for having avoided death, that dark rushing beast. But still, at night, I dreamt of fantastic, nail-biting games, ball after ball dropping through swinging baskets.
I never saw a game, and Goerring, of course, never saw the scaffold. He took cyanide the night of the executions. What a showman! In the midst of this orchestrated performance, he wrote his own lines. “This’ll cost me my star,” the Colonel cried, referring to his hoped for promotion, although at first I took him to mean Goerring, his leading man. Who knows where Goerring had the cyanide capsule hidden? In the folds of his stomach some say; up his rectum, others. He may have swallowed it and shat it day after day for months. I have tried to kill myself several times. With a butter knife I ground on an iron bedstead in my cell in Britain; hurdling the banister of a staircase and flinging myself down three flights. Still, I’m not sure I’d swallow anything extracted from Herman Goerring’s anus! But then I wasn’t condemned to die that night. The end, perhaps, justifies the means.
I heard the others taken out in pairs, until they arrived at Von Ribbentrop, the odd man out. He would have hung with Goerring and now he was going to die alone. He sounded, as they lead him out, more cheated than the Colonel.
I listened, of course, but there was nothing, just the barked (and poorly pronounced) name of each man as he entered the hall, as if he were being announced at a ball. I imagined it strangely like a marriage. These men walking up the aisle together, climbing the scaffold. The hangman waiting to join them. The Frank-Frick execution. The Jodl-Kaltenbrunner function. Seyss-Inquart–Streicher. Rosenberg-Sauckel. Von Ribbentrop. There would be an offer of a blindfold and I wondered who would accept (Steicher, no doubt) and who would stiffly decline (Keitel certainly). I wondered what their last words would be. Mostly, though, I listened for the sound of them dying. I expected a noise, a crash, but the gallows were well built, well oiled. Over and over, I strained to hear, half-imagined I did hear, the crack, very like the sound of a basketball on the floor, of each man’s neck breaking.
But I could not have. The Americans were in charge of the executions, and I have heard that Americans hang men differently than the British. The British, our fellow Europeans, have a scientific approach to execution, a mathematical formula – the weight of the man, the length of the rope etcetera – which is intended to ensure that the neck breaks at the end of the drop, and that death comes quickly. The Americans, by contrast, use a standard length of rope, so some have their necks snapped swiftly and some strangle slowly. The ends are the same; the means different. I suppose the standard American length is a measure of equality, of democracy. “Like a lynching,” Goerring had said. “Like the Wild West. We are going to die like outlaws.” He would have preferred the guillotine, he said. Efficient and instantaneous (“One moment here,” he said touching his chin, “the next in a basket”) but with a little French flair, and a touch of the aristocrat.
When they took Streicher and Seyss-Inquart the guards didn’t return for ten minutes. When they took Jodl and Kaltenbrunner they were gone for almost 35. I remember Speer calling the time out. Trust Speer to be counting. And poor Jodl, so indifferent to dying, had been so fierce in his desire for a firing squad, a soldier’s death.
We had all lost weight during our captivity (in part because of our rations, mostly because our appetites failed us) and a lighter man is less likely to have his neck broken by the drop, more likely to die by strangulation. The only one who didn’t seem much reduced was Goerring. He was twice the size of any of us. His girth seemed to have even swelled during captivity, although this might have been relative to our diminishment. He had never lost his appetite and by this time, when all around him were thin shadows, it looked as if he had swallowed the country. Maybe it was easier to eat knowing he could end it whenever he wanted. He was collected throughout the trial, almost amused. Then again maybe he ate like that to stay regular, to keep the death pill moving through his gut, through and out, around and around. His last meal, at any rate, biting down on that capsule, was his smallest.
The last loose end of Nuremberg, I’ve come to envy their deaths, all of them, but his most of all. In truth, though, I’ve never subscribed to the theory that Goerring had the pill with him all that time. He was a big man, but he was never a slob. Rather he was that dandyish breed of fat man, vain and a little prim. This is not a man who could swallow his own shit. No, I believe someone gave it to him, the pill. A sympathizer perhaps. There were Germans who came in to clean our cells, although they were always supervised. His lawyer possibly. Maybe even a guard, my own Stuckey perhaps, bribed with riches. Even Goerring’s poorest possessions would have been a trophy to some, a relic to others. A comb with a few strands of hair, his eyeglasses, his boots, his wrist-watch. Any of these might have supplied him the death pill, but I don’t think so.
A big man like that, as heavy as Goerring, you must understand, will definitely have his neck broken by the American method – by dint of having his head torn off by the rope. Decapitated. Think of that. Herman Goerring’s huge round head, balanced on the rim of the noose, toppling off, falling. Will it bounce? Bap! Will it roll?
So I think it was the British – Major Neave, perhaps, who escaped from Colditz and handed us our indictments; Neave who understood the need for a way out – the British, then, who saw to it that Goerring got the pill, knew when to use it. The British with their sense of fair play and their delight in American embarrassment; their bashful sympathy for our ends, in respect to the Jews (look at Palestine!); and their fiery contempt for our means. The British with that god-like disdain of theirs for a scene. The British!