“Don’t mention the war,” my grandfather told me a few minutes before our guest, an old friend from the Business Administration faculty at the nearby university, joined us for lunch.  This was in Tacoma, Washington, in the summer of 1975, and I was visiting from England, on vacation from college.  In that particular summer, it would be fair to say that most of my classmates back at Cambridge were more concerned with the delights of the disco scene than they were with thoughts of the world I was about to encounter, one that is difficult nowadays to imagine.  There, some of the greatest horrors of the 20th century were on display.

Our guest that day was Col. Burton C. Andrus (U.S. Army, Ret.), and, true to his military calling, he arrived precisely on time.  Or, to be more literally true, he didn’t.  About 15 minutes before the appointed hour, my grandfather called me over to the front window and, with an amused smile, pointed to a large-finned Cadillac parked directly across the street.  I could see a man sitting bolt upright in the driver’s seat, reading a newspaper.  My grandfather and I then stood waiting for the hands of the living-room clock to reach exactly 12:30 p.m.  During these minutes, the figure in the car continued reading the paper, as though he was in fact sitting unobserved in a chair in his own home, and not parked immediately opposite our front door, ten yards away.  Then, precisely at 12:30 p.m., the man got out of the car, walked briskly to the door, and rang the bell.  “Ah, Colonel,” my grandfather greeted him.  “Punctual, as ever.”

Colonel Andrus was then 83, and it was immediately apparent that he retained his decisive, soldierly approach to life.  An October 1946 issue of Time, which I had read in my grandfather’s scrapbook the previous evening, gave a rather unflattering account of our guest.  It described him as

a pompous, unimaginative, and thoroughly likable officer who wasn’t up to his job. . . . Every morning his plump little figure, looking like an inflated pouter pigeon, moved majestically around, impeccably garbed in his uniform and highly shellacked helmet.

Now, 30 years later, Andrus retained the same crispness of dress (I seem to remember a funereally dark suit and tie), but there was little about him that was plump or inflated.  He was if anything a trim, wiry figure who could have passed for 20 years younger than his real age, and I could immediately see how formidable—in fact, frightening—a character he must once have been.  When introduced, the Colonel eschewed the traditional handshake and instead seized my arm near the elbow for a second in a grip of steel, as if making a sudden arrest.  He then gazed fiercely around the room, which he remarked, rightly, if a shade caustically, had “a lot of possessions” in it.  His relentlessly critical eye had been trained over five decades to spot weakness, and he could still be abrupt in noting any blemishes or other details that failed to meet his exacting standards.  I was glad that I’d had a haircut the day before.

Born in Spokane in 1892, Andrus had a successful early career working for Standard Oil.  He volunteered for the Army on America’s entry into World War I, and an officer’s report on him even in this youthful period praised both his “iron self-will” and “ability to inspire the fighting man which endear[ed] him to their hearts.”  Although not posted overseas, Andrus was to foreshadow his later career when, in July 1919, he was promoted and sent to the Presidio of Monterey, California, where he served as prison and intelligence officer.  Various staff and administrative positions followed in the interwar years.  In September 1941, then Lieutenant Colonel Andrus was sent to Great Britain to study her air-ground operations, and did a “thoroughly conscientious” job there, as even Time acknowledged.  His was a world of briefing notes, technical manuals, dockets, manifests, and infinitesimally complicated guidelines on procedure—a gift for detail that did not diminish with age.  Andrus returned to Britain in January 1944 to serve as commanding officer of the 10th Traffic Regulation Group in the run-up to D-Day.  In December of that year, he transferred to Allied field headquarters in liberated France as a combat observer.  Then, in May 1945, Colonel Andrus was appointed governor of the Mondorf-les-Bains facility in Luxemburg, an interrogation center for Nazi war criminals popularly known by its code name ashcan.  When the inmates were moved to a new prison built at the back of the Nuremberg Palace of Justice, Colonel Andrus joined them there as their commandant.

Notwithstanding my grandfather’s warning, Colonel Andrus, once settled in a chair and fortified by a martini, positively enjoyed talking about the war.  And talk he did.  Thrillingly.  At length.  In a dry, crisp voice he told us how military discipline and morale among the staff on his arrival at Nuremberg had been “a joke,” and that one night early on in his tenure a fellow officer had announced that he was leaving the post with the 200 men of his battalion, as he felt they could be of more service to the Allied cause elsewhere.  At that, Colonel Andrus quick-marched down to the motor pool.  “I posted guards overlooking it, and I said, ‘The first man to drive out of that pool tonight—shoot him.’  No one moved.  That particular officer soon found himself transferred out of Nuremberg, and sent to a less desirable posting than he might have wanted,” the Colonel smiled.  The 200 men of his unit remained behind to become the nucleus of the prison staff.

Not long after that, the Colonel and a young British lieutenant named Airey Neave (later to be murdered brutally while serving as Margaret Thatcher’s spokesman on Northern Ireland) went to deliver the formal indictments to the men in their cells.  None of the accused showed the slightest emotion when hearing charges that they had been involved in

genocide and ill-treatment, . . . carried out by divers means such as shooting, hanging, gassing, starvation, gross overcrowding, systematic undernutrition . . . kickings, beatings, brutality and torture of all kinds.

“They were a motley crew,” Andrus remembered.  “You looked at them and wondered how they could possibly have terrorized so many millions of people.”  The Colonel came to the conclusion that “It was largely a matter of image.  These gangsters had always strutted about with retinues of boot-licking aides.  No one questioned them.  They created an impression which, through newspapers, radio, and movie films, became a cult.  This cult had to be lived up to.  To increase their luster, the men had to keep going forward—in the end they so lost track of right and wrong that in prison they felt not guilt but a kind of indignation at their confinement.”  The only one of the indicted men who had mildly impressed him was Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, until lately the head of the German Armed Forces and de facto war minister.  “He snapped to attention when receiving the indictment handed to him by Lieutenant Neave,” the Colonel said.  “There was an irony to the scene, because during the war Neave had escaped from POW camps so often that the Nazis had put a price on his head, and Keitel himself had signed the order.  The atmosphere in that cell was quite interesting,” the Colonel chuckled.

Like other prisoners before and after them, some of the inmates at Nuremberg turned to religion.  Hans Frank, the former governor-general of Poland, and as such thought to be responsible for the deaths of up to two million Polish Jews, “used to pray at all hours of the day, and I have no doubt genuinely felt that the Church had relieved him of guilt,” Andrus said.  Several others among the accused preferred the more secular consolation of the law.  Keitel and his colleagues Field Marshal Kesselring and Grand Admiral Dönitz all addressed letters to the Supreme Allied Commander that Andrus felt would almost have been comic but for the circumstances.  Many quoted the Geneva Convention, and some asked that their former aides and orderlies be sent to them in prison.  Kesselring wanted a more comfortable bed and bigger windows in his cell to alleviate his rheumatism.  Many of the inmates, including Hitler’s one-time heir apparent Hermann Göring, complained sharply about their food.  Andrus dutifully forwarded the correspondence to General Eisenhower, whose prompt reply read:

The Press of the United States has reacted bitterly and justifiably against what is alleged to be the friendly and hospitable treatment that certain high Nazis and other enemy officers have received upon their capture . . . Senior Germans will be given only minimum essential accommodation which will not be elaborately furnished, [and] all prisoners will be fed strictly upon the ration that has been authorized.

Colonel Andrus laughed gently to himself at that last part, as though still savoring the brusqueness of Eisenhower’s remarks.  “Kesselring never did get his bed,” he told us.

The prisoners were not the only ones to suffer under the peculiar stress of life at Nuremberg.  To my surprise, Andrus told us that when Göring and the rest arrived, “most of the rest of the jail was already occupied by German civilian criminals.  It would have been easy for any of them to infiltrate our wing, and the prospect kept me awake at night until I finally got permission to erect a barrier.  For that matter, the security outside the compound wasn’t any better, and if some fanatical pro-Nazis had taken it on themselves to load a truck with TNT and send it speeding through the outer wall to the cell block itself, we would all have been blown sky-high.”


Andrus had also been worried about the morale of the Nuremberg jailers, or “sentinels” as he called them.  “These men were often 19 or 20 years old, and they were to stand in shifts in dark concrete walkways watching the prisoners day and night.  It wasn’t a job for sissies.  Over my whole term of duty, I experienced a 600-percent turnover in staff,” Andrus remarked, not bothering to hide a faint snort of derision.  Adding to the somber atmosphere, two of the Nuremberg inmates, the so-called Reich Health Leader Leonard Conti and Head of the Labor Front Robert Ley, committed suicide in captivity, while Hermann Göring later cheated the hangman by biting down on a cleverly concealed cyanide capsule only hours before his scheduled execution in October 1946.

But by far the most enigmatic—and troublesome—of Colonel Andrus’s charges at Nuremberg was the former deputy führer, Rudolf Hess.  Hess was then 51, and had been in Allied captivity since flying to Scotland in an apparent solo attempt to negotiate peace with the United Kingdom four years earlier.  Was he mentally unhinged, as his bizarre flight and subsequent real or feigned amnesia seemed to suggest?

The Colonel’s first encounter with “this beetle-browed little man who arrived in a gray suit and a crumpled felt hat” was far from promising.  Hess was being marched down a corridor in the jail when he saw Göring and his guard coming toward him.  “Conveniently forgetting to forget, he immediately snapped to attention and threw up his arm in the Nazi salute to greet his old comrade.”  The black comedy of the scene struck me, and I asked the Colonel what he had done.  “I instructed Hess, ‘Do not raise your arm like that again.  I consider it a vulgar gesture.’

“‘The Nazi salute is not a vulgar gesture,’ he said.

“‘It is now,’ I told him.”

“I knew right away that he was faking it,” the Colonel continued.  When later questioned about his family, “Hess was able to answer in very great detail about events that had happened 40 years earlier.  The fact that he was reading two highbrow books a day while in custody also told me that he must have retained some of the background of his education in order to understand them.”  A U.S. Army psychiatrist examined all the Nuremberg prisoners.  His report found that Hess was “passive, suggestible and naive . . . Like the typical hysterical personality, he was incapable of facing reality and escaped by developing a functional disorder”—in this case, selective amnesia.  “I looked him in the eye and told him I knew he was a sham.  Hess just glared at me.  He was ‘mad’ all right—mad at me for disbelieving him,” the Colonel said.

For the most part, Andrus’s charges seemed to confirm the point made by the political theorist Hannah Arendt when she wrote about “the banality of evil.”  Gen. Alfred Jodl was a “rigid, stiff-backed German officer—a Prussian military man straight out of Central Casting.  Very correct, and completely without remorse about the war.”  Hitler’s foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop “soon lost his swagger . . . He was full of self-pity whenever I spoke to him, never looked me in the eye, and cut a very sad figure as the time went on.  His cell was the messiest one in the place.”  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Colonel Andrus had not much cared for Julius Streicher, the notorious Jew-baiter and briefly an inmate of Nuremberg following his conviction on libel charges some 15 years earlier.  “He was a fat little thug,” the Colonel said.  “Completely obsessed with antisemitism.  I remember him telling me that Eisenhower was a Jew, and it was only because of this fact that the U.S. had declared war on Germany.”

Thirty years later, Andrus still shuddered lightly at the thought of them all.  “When we got hold of them, not one of those SOBs, with the possible exception of Speer, showed any sense of guilt or internal discomfort about what they had done to the world.”  To jog the men’s memories, Andrus had assembled them in the prison mess one night and shown them a film of the worst atrocities of Buchenwald.  “Most of them watched in silence,” the Colonel said, “and afterwards Walter Funk, the Nazis’ banker, asked for an interview with me.  He was in a pathetic state.  Funk told me that he had personally given orders for Jews to be murdered so that the gold fillings could be ripped out of their teeth and collected in the Reichsbank for Germany’s war effort.  If this was his attempt at making a fresh breast of things it didn’t last long, because 12 months later he stood in the dock and swore under oath that he knew nothing about any such crimes.”

As for Göring, “he came to me as a 270-pound hophead,” Colonel Andrus said.  “He had 16 suitcases, wore a Cartier watch, and his fingernails were painted bright red.”  After several months of the Colonel’s regimen, Göring was cured of his morphine addiction, and his weight was down to something approaching normal.  Even so, the table in his cell was deliberately built so that it would have collapsed had he tried to use it to reach the small barred window with a sheet or towel as a means of suicide.  Andrus admitted that he had found Göring “a cunning and not always disagreeable internee, whom you could never turn your back on.”  One morning in March 1946, the Nuremberg prisoners were being taken out of their cells to be marched to the nearby courtroom.  “Göring took the opportunity to reach out and strike the sentinel several times on his arm and shoulder.  The sentinel hit him back with his billy club.  Göring then went loco and started screaming in German, and using his hands with incredible speed to lash out at the man.  It took four GIs to subdue him.”  Years later, I was uncomfortably reminded of this incident when I sat watching the scene of Hannibal Lecter maniacally attacking his guards in The Silence of the Lambs.

After being condemned to death, Göring had made a request to face a firing squad rather than the gallows.  The Allied Control Commission rejected his petition.  “In my mind, that was the moment he took the decision to kill himself,” Andrus said.  The Colonel would not be drawn on the rumor that a sympathetic GI had palmed the cyanide capsule to his prisoner, and rather stiffly repeated the formal conclusion of the inquiry that “Göring had the poison in his possession when apprehended,” that “he may have hidden it in an obscure recess in the inside of the toilet under the overhanging rim,” and that “no blame for dereliction of duty is ascribed to any prison guard.”  The Colonel repeated the words verbatim, and I could tell that the matter still rankled all these years later.  To have lost three men at Nuremberg by their own hand was the one obvious regret of this proud and supremely capable soldier.  Twenty years after the event, the Colonel received a letter out of the blue from the National Archives and Records Service in Washington.  Attached was a photocopy of the suicide note Göring had addressed to him, which concluded

None of those charged with searching [for the cyanide] is to be blamed, for it was practically impossible to find it.  It would have been pure accident.  [The Army psychiatrist] informed me that the control board has refused the petition to change the method of execution to shooting.

Given our continued fascination with both the Nazis and with prison dramas, it’s hard to imagine anything that could make the events of the early hours of October 16, 1946, more morbidly compelling.  The execution by hanging of ten condemned men at Nuremberg (Göring was to have been the 11th) had it all: A long walk through a rainswept prison yard into a starkly lit gymnasium, where one by one the condemned men were escorted up the steps (there were 13) to the gallows.  Colonel Andrus read the formal sentence to each one moments before the end, and even he admitted that “It was a terrible task.”

Ribbentrop was the first to be dispatched and, like most of the others, he met his fate with a certain dignity.  “My last wish is that Germany’s unity shall be preserved and that an understanding be reached between East and West,” he said.  As the rope was then tightened around Ribbentrop’s neck, he turned to the Army chaplain at his side and whispered, “I’ll see you again.”

“The military men marched to their deaths impeccably,” Colonel Andrus said.  When his turn came, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, formerly chancellor of Austria and later Nazi commissar of the occupied Netherlands, remarked in a level voice,

I hope that this execution is the last act of the tragedy of the Second World War, and I hope that out of this disaster wisdom will inspire the people, which will result in understanding between the nations and that peace on earth will be finally established.
I believe in Germany.

Then he, too, was hanged.

The only difficulty had come in the case of Julius Streicher—a “very shapeless man in a baggy suit with a large bald head and short legs.”  Once at the scaffold, Streicher had screamed “Heil Hitler!” and then made some further unappreciative remarks about the Jews.  As the executioner stepped forward to the lever, the condemned man had hissed at him through his black hood, “The Bolsheviks will hang you one day!”

After these blood-chilling events, Andrus insisted that the bodies, including Göring’s, had been taken to Dachau and cremated in the same concentration-camp ovens where tens of thousands of Jews and others had met their end, although some historians doubt this detail.  The ashes were secretly thrown into a river.  The Colonel had nothing to say on the long-standing rumor that the executions had been botched, meaning that some of the men had fallen with insufficient force to snap their necks and had instead slowly suffocated to death.

As he described these events, Colonel Andrus did a very creditable job of containing his emotion.  Occasionally, his eyes flashed at a particular mention of Hess or Streicher, but for the most part he spoke in a voice that was as compelling as it was dispassionate.  When I brashly asked him if he had “liked” any of his inmates, he replied that he had neither liked nor particularly disliked them, and that it was merely his job to guard them.  Sometimes, the Colonel broke off from speaking of the horrors of Nuremberg to exchange views with my grandfather on the prospects of their college football team, or some other such matter.  I was then a remarkably vain and self-absorbed 19-year-old, but, even so, I think I realized how lucky I was to be included at the lunch table that day.  The two hours seemed to fly by.  Precisely at 2:30, Colonel Andrus stood up, thanked us for our hospitality, and announced that he would now go home for his scheduled nap and a walk.  We saw again the rigid self-discipline, and remembered that this was a man who had lived his whole adult life in a world ruled by punctuality, professionalism, and devotion to duty.  As he left, the Colonel seized my arm once more and looked me hard in the eye.  “I hope I haven’t bored you too much,” he said.  I assured him he hadn’t.

Col. Burton Andrus died on February 1, 1977, at the age of 84.  It is said by his son that his last recorded thoughts were of Nuremberg.  “I think that it haunted him—‘Göring has committed suicide.  I must report it to the Commission,’ he said.  I told him it was the middle of the night, and it could wait until morning.  Four hours later, my father died.”