Why They Confess
He could not tell whether it was morning, noon or evening when this happened. It may have been later that day or perhaps the next day when the chef in white reappeared with another slice of bread and another cup of hot water, this time called soup (it was indeed less clear than the “tea”). Fritzsche was unable to tell how often he was fed his bread-and-water diet, but he was sure that he did not get it in regular intervals.
Nor had he any idea at what time of the day he was taken to the combined toilet and washroom. This was an establishment of Spartan simplicity, and he was allowed exactly four minutes. A prisoner with digestive troubles might apply; through a sergeant who was there for such purposes, for a few additional minutes. At least 12 hours would pass before the request was granted. A doctor; often a woman, followed the prisoner into the toilet to make sure that he was not simulating trouble.
The genial commissar had told him that he would be examined by quite a lot of specialists. When he was called out again there was the same trip through the ghostly corridors but a different room and a different commissar. At first all Fritzsche could see was the wooden chair on which he was seated and a blinding light that shone in his face. Out of the dark came the voice of the commissar, then that of an interpreter. Where was the gold of the Reihsbank, where had Göring hidden his stolen art treasures, who were the members of the fifth column in Russia? The questions were fired one after the other with the rapidity of a machine gun. Then there was silence behind the light. Fritzsche was quite flattered that he was supposed to know so many secrets.
The Japanese Surrender: Russian Version: The examination was definitely not in the same class with the first interrogation. Nor were the many that followed. Fritzsche was not plunged into a weird world based on Soviet dialectics. His inquisitors would try to catch him in a lie by asking him trick questions, often childish. On which leg did Dr. Gobbets limp? Then, no mater whether the answer was left or right, there would follow a flood of abuse. To Fritzsche the Russians’ invariable victory in abutment was stunning. Their cocksureness was unshakable. The superiority of everything Russian was the rock on which their mental world was built. In three years America and England had not been able to defeat Japan; Russia stepped in, and the enemy collapse in three weeks. See?
The unmitigated contempt of the Soviet dialecticians for any different opinion would have been naive in other surroundings; here it was crushing. Abuse and invectives, belittling the mental capacities of the prisoner, flowed freely. The word durak (idiot) was used with a generosity unknown in Western countries.
One feature of the interrogations never changed. Every interrogator promised Fritzsche that he would get a better cell very soon. Slowly he began to understand that a chance was being offered to him. Surprising as it sounds, a prisoner of the NKVD has rights, and his supreme right is to give the right answer. It is hammered into him that in the last instance his fate is in his own hands.
One would not think that a Lubianka prisoner would dare to go on strike, much less succeed, but that is what Fritzsche did. After the promise of a better cell had been broken countless times, he simply refused to answer further questions. He was not beaten to a pulp but transferred to a cell that measured 3 by 6 feet. There was no window or bed, and he went on staving as before. But he could stretch. This progress made a deep impression on Fritzsche. It showed that give and take existed even in this inferno and that his torturers wanted to make this clear to him.
It became obvious that his condition was carefully watched and that the intention was to push him as close as possible to the breaking point but not beyond. Weakened by hunger, exhausted by lack of sleep, hypnotically confused by the always glaring light and numbed by loneliness, Fritzsche was nearing a nervous breakdown, perhaps insanity. The NKVD must have feared this, which would have meant the loss of a valuable source of information. At any rate he was transferred to a larger cell which he shared with five other prisoners.
This first concession; and others which he saw later, appeared to Fritzsche as signs of profound wisdom on the part of the NKVD authorities. He began to believe that if they made a bargain with him it might be kept. He attributed the shrewdness of the NKVD to the fact that the Bolshevik leaders know form their own experiences what life in prison is like. Certainly many of the commissar and guards are nervous nonenties loaded with self-importance and always afraid of committing that frightful thing which the deceptively soft Soviet parlance calls a “mistake.” This is probably the reason why the guards are rarely spontaneously brutal. Fritzsche says he could count on the fingers of one hand the Soviet guards who ever overstepped their limits; and on the fingers of one hand the Western guards in the Nürnberg jail who did not.
A current of fear streams down through the whole system, coming from those on top, and the prisoner is in it over his head before he knows. Even his so-called rights do not necessarily make life easier for him. In the cell Fritzsche shared with five others, a sergeant appeared every day with a note pad and asked if the prisoners had any wishes or complaints. A request for a toothbrush or a cake of soap was always refused. When Fritzsche asked for something to read, he received books in no less than three languages, including Shakespeare, Robinson Crusoe and the writings of Lenin. A short time afterward a guard came in and took away his glasses, making reading impossible.
The inmates of the cell were mostly Russian: a general who was under a cloud, a recalcitrant engineer, and so on. Most of them swore that they were faithful Communists. As a rule the other prisoners were friendly; despite his scanty Russian, Fritzsche was treated to much high-level Marxist propaganda in the best Russian-intelligentsia style. The favorite topic was: does God exist? The Russians professed to deny it, but apparently they never tired of discussing the question.
Fritzsche learned to understand a fundamental difference between East and West: Western prisons are filled with people who feel guilty. (One might add, jailers included). Fritzsche’s Russian coprisoners had learned their lesson. They spoke in whispers and did not cough. They took it for granted that a Lubianka prisoner sees no lawyer and received no mail, and that his family does not know where he is. In the beginning he wanted desperately to find out what his fate will be; later he is grateful to learn simply when the decision will come. The more favored among the prisoners; those in a large cell with a half-shuttered window, learn that half-darkness means day outside, a sudden flood of light means night. Then they have to be in bed, hands folded over blankets, face turned toward the door.
In the middle of the night a key might grate in the lock, the door open, a guard enter. Everybody is still on his back, wide-awake but with eyes closed, trying to simulate sleep by calm breathing, although the heart goes wild; the speed of a dynamo. The guard approaches the first bed, lends down, whispers: Your name? The prisoner whispers back. The guard shakes his head and goes to the next bed; the scene is repeated. At the fourth or fifth bed the guard nods, the prisoner jumps up silently, rushes into his clothes, and is taken away. The others know they will never see their comrade again. They know (as they told Fritzsche that a mysterious tribunal of three men sits once or twice a month in the Lubianka. These judges never see the accused, nor do they hear witnesses. They study documents, mostly so-called confessions. The prisoner called out in the night may be on his way to a labor camp in Siberia by now, or in an even more dreadful place. Or he may be free.
So Fritzsche learned that a confession could set the tribunal in motion. Unfortunately, it was clear to him what he was expected to confess. The questions gave him no lead: Did German soldiers steal children’s dolls in Russia? Had Fritzsche planned, in case of victory, to speak over the Moscow radio? But he began to listen more sharply for the overtones in his debates with the commissars. He became a victim of Lubianka psychology, furiously trying to guess what kind of answer would satisfy the commissar.
Not that he had already made up his mind to “confess.” But he had come to the point of acing the problem. And still he had suffered no beatings. He asserts that he never even heard of any. This is certainly a high tribute to the suggestive powers of a scientific horror treatment. There is enough testimony for hideous torture in NKVD dungeons, especially in the Lefortoyo prison in Moscow and in the Lubianka itself. But the majority of cases may run more of less like Fritzsche’s.
After a short stay in the cell for six, Fritzsche’s condition was somewhat better and he was sent back o a single cell, back to absolute isolation. His hunger became terrible. He began to lose the ability to concentrate, and he stumbled when walking to the interrogatories. He was now too weak to climb stairs. Here NKVD humaneness showed itself at its best. His escort gave him a helping hand like a good Samaritan, and permitted him to use an elevator. But the starvation diet continued. It was not until the middle of August, as he learned later, that he began to get more food. Unfortunately the law was satisfied with a few spoonfuls of kacha, a kind of porridge which he now got every day in addition to his bread and water. It was a pitifully slight improvement.
They Can Always Shout Louder: The final showdown, along toward the middle of September, came as a shock. The whole procedure took four sessions. The first caught him completely off guard. It was a wild, screaming lecture of one and a half hours, crammed with horrible facts about German atrocities. Fritzsche swears that the gruesome details of the death camps, the gas chambers, the execution vans, the horrible number of victims were new to him and seemed to him unbelievable then. The Nürnberg tribunal later accepted his defense that he was not aware of the exterminations in the East; at least there was no evidence to show that he was. But the commissar in Moscow accepted nothing. He treated Fritzsche; for the first time, like a criminal. Fritzsche got hysterical and shouted, “it isn’t true, it isn’t true!” But the commissar shouted louder.
At the next interrogation the tone changed again, completely. No more accusations and no discussion either; only small talk. Casually the commissar asked what the conditions were under which Fritzsche lived in the Lubianka. Still solitary confinement, and still a bread and hot water diet, plus that little kacha? The commissar, one Colonel Letschev, was surprised and shocked. Why, this was impossible, there must be an error. Fritzsche did not belong in that category; he was not a criminal!
The commissar went on: all this would change immediately. In two days Fritzsche would leave the Lubianka and be transferred to a nice country place, a so-called datcha outside of Moscow. There he would live with three other German prisoners of honor, almost a free man. There was only the little mater of signing a final protocol.
The protocol that was now laid before Fritzsche was his own confession: he had been Dr. Gobbets’ chief collaborator and one of the masterminds of German propaganda: he had fomented hatred of foreign nations; he had helped prepare for an aggressive war; he had instigated the German people to kill the Jews and other minorities, and so forth. It was quite a record for somebody who allegedly was “not a criminal.”
The statement was not entirely concocted out of hot air. It was actually an acid condemnation of dozens of mild and cautious factual statements which Fritzsche had made during two and a half months. Of course he hd not denied that he had been head of the radio department in the German propaganda ministry. The protocol made him say, “I was the chief collaborator of Gobbets in his criminal propaganda for wars of aggression.” The obvious fact that he had made many speeches against Communism had been turned into a confession that he had fomented hatred against the Russian people, for Communism and the Russian people were the same, said the commissar. Fritzsche had admitted an error in figures in one of his broadcasts; the protocol made him say: I used false data.
In fabricating this “confession” Colonel Letschev had acted as a true and , in his way, honest Bolshevik. As is so often done in Soviet proceedings, he had deduced his facts form some sacred theory; in this case that gobbets was the real guiding genius of Nazism and Fritzsche his top lieutenant. On that premise he made Fritzsche say things he must have meant and should have said. Fritzsche’s importance in the Nazi set-up was highly overrated by Letschev, but the mistake was part of the basic Soviet views about all things Nazi, and it was no business of Letschev’s to question them. He had dutifully acted like a fend to get his result, and now, like an honest fool, he believed it.
Fritzsche said boldly that for him to sign the document was out of the question. “I prefer not to have heard this anew,” said the commissar. “What’s wrong with the protocol?”“It is no protocol at all,” said Fritzsche, “but the product of somebody else’s labor and imagination.”“Well, you must learn that this is the way of setting up a protocol according to Soviet law. You cannot deny that these are your own statements?”“No,” answered Fritzsche, “I said it quite differently.”“Well, let’s see, how did you say it?”
Still thinking he was protesting, Fritzsche plunged into the work of helping the commissar improve the protocol. He pointed out that no sensible person would believe the confession because it was not in his style. He was told that they would be glad to have his suggestions about a better style, and everything else, because they wanted the whole piece to be genuine.
Good Boys Get Their Tooth Back: Then followed three nights of arguing, protesting and revising. Fritzsche says that he got about 15 items changed, but the whole document remained a grave self-accusation. Colonel Letschev cracked the whip, cajoled, promised and lied considerably. We abhor Gestapo methods, said he virtuously, but did Fritzsche not see that the protocol really exonerated him, since he had done everything only on order from Gobbets? (As Fritzsche suspected at the time, Russian authorities were not going to consider this an adequate excuse at all) The day after tomorrow he would move to the datcha. He would get all the food in the world. He would even get his gold teeth back. Yes, if the three-man tribunal agreed, thought Fritzsche. This mysterious authority, sitting unapproachable somewhere in the hidden recesses of the Lubianka, had become his obsession. The fact that a major war crimes trial would soon begin in Nürnberg was carefully concealed from him. If he had known about it he would not have believed that he would be involved, for he was not that sort of big shot. All he knew was that he had to make his fateful decision for the benefit of the mysterious three men here and now. They might indeed think it fitting to stand by Colonel Letschev’s promises, or at least by part of them. Or they might not, but this chance had to be taken, for the whole thing was a gamble anyhow. It was the only way to get out of solitary confinement and perhaps avoid death by starvation. On the third night he signed.
No “Gestapo methods” had been applied, no hypnotism, no drugs. This is one of the several explanations Fritzsche later gave for his collapse: “Western psychologists don’t see the simple fact that hope is stronger than fear. Therefore hope is more willing to make concessions.” He thinks that victims of the NKVD are sometimes right to hope. He claims to know that Dora Kaplan, who in 1918 shot at Lenin and probably caused his deadly illness, is still alive and works as a librarian in a Moscow prison.
He still objected to the style, to the breast-beating, self-accusing adjectives and adverbs. It was still not his protocol, and he said so, he claims, in rather strong words. But he said also that he wanted Colonel Letschev to have his document for the secret tribunal. He would never deny his signature, Colonel Letschev was satisfied.
Soon afterward Fritzsche’s cell door opened and an officer and a guard entered, carrying a huge tray with a loaf of white bread, a big piece of butter, two eggs, sardines, sausage, cold meat, ham, caviar, cheese, cakes, coffee and cigarets. The two men rushed at the prisoner, shook hands, patted his back, laughed, congratulated him, and ordered him to eat. This would be his fare from now on, Five times per day. Fritzsche obeyed against his better conscience, ate, and be came sick immediately. But he recovered, and from then on he lived better than he had done for years in Germany. He received soap, a towel, a clean shirt and a toothbrush. He got properly shaved. His solitary confinement came to an end. He was treated as “one of us.”
Things moved fast after that, so fast indeed that the datcha had to be skipped and the three gold teeth were never found. One morning a plane took him back to Berlin. Life was even more pleasant there. He lived in a luxurious villa in one of the most swanky suburbs, slept in his own private room, had a hot bath every morning and a bottle of Moselle wine with his meals. He took walks in the street and went on automobile excursions. His guards bowed before they spoke to him.
Then he learned that he would soon go on trial in Nürnberg as a war criminal. No reason to be worried, said Colonel Letschev, who had come along. Nothing would happen to him if he stuck to the protocol which he had signed in Moscow. For there it was stated, clearly and beyond doubt, that he had only acted under orders; remember? In no case would he go back to jail; during the trial he would “live with us,” in Russian custody, comfortably. Would he stick to the Moscow protocol?
Fritzsche decided that this was not the moment to be frank. He looked at the Colonel and answered: he would never deny his signature, and he would always speak as he had spoken in Moscow. Colonel Letschev probably did not recall the talks in Moscow in the same way that Fritzsche did, and the answer seemed to satisfy him.
The General Insulted: But Fritzsche was transferred to what was practically an American military prison. From the dock he watched for months a judicial procedure that was essentially Anglo-American (Jewish).The Nürrnberg trial, according to Soviet standards, got out of hand. It developed along lines which had not been foreseen when Colonel Letschev made Fritzsche sign that protocol in Moscow. When General Rudenko, Soviet chief prosecutor, started reading Fritzsche’s signed confession, Fritzsche interrupted him and said, “Mr. Prosecutor, that is not correct, I know that I signed this report in Moscow, but I stated: if you publish it no intelligent person will believe it because this language is not mine. Not a single one of the questions contained in this report was put to me in that same form, and not a single one of the answers was given by me in that form.”
General Rudenko was not used to being spoken to in that way. Did Fritzsche, asked he, now deny his statements? Fritzsche said, “Yes.” Only his signature was true. All right, then, General Rudenko would go through the whole document phrase by phrase. Would Fritzsche deny that Gobbets valued him highly as a National Socialist, as a trustworthy link in the German propaganda machine; would he deny that? When Fritzsche started to speak, General Rudenko said, “Just a minute, please. I am going to remind you...”
Fritzsche wavered, “Yes, General,” he said, “I admit that, I admit these facts.”“Well, then the quotation was correct, was it not?”“Yes.” There followed another exchange of questions dn answers, and General Rudenko asked again, “You are not going to deny it? Your admit it? “I will not confirm your quotation,” said Fritzsche, “but I will confirm the contents which you have just summarized again.”
Lord Justice Lawrence, the British president of the tribunal, had been listening with obvious amazement. General Rudenko had just started another of his questions, when he was interrupted by Lord Justice Lawrence. “One moment. What is it you are saying, defendant? Are you saying that you did not sign this document, or that you did?”
Fritzsche got new courage and repeated that he had signed the document although it did not contain his real statements. “Why did you do that?” the Lord Justice wanted to know.
The defendant declared, “I signed it after very severe solitary confinement which lasted for several months. One of my fellow prisoners with whom I once came in contact had told me that every month a court pronounced sentences based merely on outside records and without interrogation. I hoped that in this manner I would at least achieve being sentenced and thus terminate my confinement.” Fritzsche added hastily, “So as not to be misunderstood I should like to emphasize that no type of force was used and that I was treated very humanely, even if my detention was very severe.”
But from now on the Soviet spell was broken. After more questioning General Rudenko left him alone, and in the end Fritzsche was acquitted. Before a court in Moscow he would no doubt have stuck to his “confession” and would have been convicted.
Had he been beaten or drugged into making his “confession” it would be only another horror story of our time. The peculiar thing about the NKVD is that it aims not only at confession but also at conversion. This is the spirit of the whole system. The monster wants to be loved by its victims, and in Fritzsche’s case, as in many others, it had its way. Fritzsche wants us to believe that the Lubianka is not a torture chamber but rather something like a “severe region institution for the breeding of fanatics.” He says this after having nearly died from starvation. An individual’s surrender before power could not be more complete.
Fritzsche says that he knows the names of many “foreign” (i.e. Germans) who went through the dreadful purgatory of the Lubianka and then entered the service of the Soviet Union “with out bitterness.” He might easily have done the same, and very likely the Soviets would have taken him.