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Forced Together, Nazis And Victims Bear 'Witness'

The Witness House

In the autumn of 1945, Hans Bernd Gisevius arrived in Nuremberg to testify against his former boss, the notorious Hermann Goering. Gisevius barely survived World War II -- he worked as a double agent within German intelligence, feeding information to the Allies, and had to flee to Switzerland after participating in the failed July 20 assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler. But now he was back in Germany and arrived at the appointed housing for trial participants, his elegant suit disguising the hardships he had endured, only to discover he was under the same roof as his archenemy, former head of the Gestapo Rudolf Diels. He poured himself a cognac, offered another to his hostess the Hungarian countess, and confided in her: "I'll murder him."

It sounds like the setup to a really bad movie, except the story is entirely true. During the Nuremberg trials, witnesses were all housed together and dined at the same table. On any given evening, concentration camp survivors sat next to personal friends of Hitler, resistance fighters next to SS officers, and counterintelligence officers next to former heads of the Gestapo.

As German journalist Christiane Kohl tells it in The Witness House, it was the job of the charming Countess Ingeborg Kalnoky to keep things civil, and the fact that no one died mysteriously or bloody can possibly be credited to her. She herself was a victim of the war -- as they fled Hungary, she and her children had been separated from her husband and had no idea whether he was alive or dead. In the same way she held the house together through suicide attempts and murderous intentions, she is the glue of Kohl's story as witnesses come and go, the first shocking revelations from the Nuremberg trials are broadcast, and her guests come clean with what they did to survive the war.

With so much of its action unfolding over dinner and smoking-parlor conversation, The Witness House reads almost like a much more absurd (and nastier) version of an Edith Wharton novel; one that involves macabre accounts of medical experimentation on prisoners. Kohl's journalist touch keeps the whole thing from sinking into melodrama, and she brings a human element to the rather inhuman stories that came out of the trials. Many Germans resisted Nuremberg, wishing to forget the whole unsavory mess and move on, but the airing out of the darkest moments of the war is what helped the nation recover. Figuratively speaking, The Witness House is an important reminder of how, at the end of war, we still have to eat at the same table. Finding a civil way to do so is perhaps the key to healing.

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Jessa Crispin