Book Review: I Was The Nuremberg Jailer

I Was The Nuremberg Jailer, by Col. Burton C. Andrus (US Army Ret)

In the period after World War II there was a host of quirky memoirs from memorable people in memorable situations that became popular for a period [1].  Some of these memoirs were turned into movies, others remain fondly remembered classics even today.  This particular book is notable because the author of the memoir is himself not the star of the show, but rather the quiet if not entirely faceless bureaucrat around whom a story about the judgment of the men responsible for Hitler’s crimes against humanity can be woven from the papers that the author had meticulously preserved for years while living a quiet postwar life as a Tacoma-based university professor.  The context is a fascinating one, as we learn a lot about the darker side of the American way of war as well as a thoughtful perspective on the difficulties of running a military prison with celebrity inmates on a shoestring budget.  This is a book that deserves to be better known, because even if the author is a somewhat bland and ordinary fellow, he also strikes the reader as a fundamentally decent gentleman caught up in something far beyond any reasonable expectations, and thus is a sympathetic perspective from which the reader can view the deeply unsympathetic and reprehensible people tried at Nuremberg.

The book itself is constructed in an episodic and generally chronological way with flashback.  The uncredited co-author of the book begins with an introduction that sets the stage for the book with the meticulous record keeping of the former Nuremberg jailer, and then there is a bit of context in which the author discusses his previous experience as a jailer of US army convicts during WWI that gave him the expertise needed to be the “good soldier” in charge of Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg.  The author then discusses the temporary detention center at Mondorf and the prison at Nuremberg, his reactions to the celebrity atmosphere of the show trials there, and the behavior of the prisoners.  Most people would likely read this book to get an insider account of an American’s perspective of the attempts of the Nazi leaders to rehabilitate their character and their reputation the face of horror at their deeds and the total collapse of the Nazi regime.  The author is no naif either, commenting somewhat obliquely about the existence of Nazi networks spiriting people and money out of the way of trouble.  The author also spends a great deal of time discussing being understaffed and dealing with feigned insanity as well as the desire of a few of the Nazi criminals to escape justice through various types of suicide.  The book has the feel of a “tell-most” sort of tabloid account, but told from someone who has a stern sense of moral rectitude and a desire to set the record straight.

Despite its brevity and somewhat sensationalistic tone, this book offers some deep and serious questions.  We see a lot here about the American way of war in several aspects.  We see a certain improvisation, the tension between civil control and military effectiveness, a desire to engage in military operations on the cheap in the face of demobilization and simultaneously seeking to treat reprehensible people with decency not because they deserve it but because we are a decent people.  We also see a lot of the German leaders, who themselves had denied justice to millions of Jews, Poles, Gypsies, and others whom they slaughtered by the millions, or even to their own principled political opposition [2], complaining about how unjust it was to be tried in Nuremberg because they were not doing anything wrong.  Both the author and his prisoners could be said as “good soldiers,” but the author is a good soldier in a just regime, doing a difficult task but protecting horrible people from lynching so that there is some sort of trial, some sort of catharsis for Western Civilization after the horrors committed by Nazi Germany, while the people he watched over and walked to the gallows were good soldiers in one of the worst regimes in history.  This is a good book written by a good man who demonstrates an admirable commitment to recordkeeping and also to justice and fairness, even with a trace of bitterness over having done an unpleasant job to the best of his abilities.  If you are looking for good books about World War II and its aftermath, this is a solid volume.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Book Review: I Was The Nuremberg Jailer

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