No Comment — May 29, 2007, 4:23 pm

The German Experience with Enhanced Interrogation

One of the truly disturbing aspects of the Bush Administration’s program of “enhanced interrogation techniques” is that there’s nothing new about them. Each of the techniques is well known; each has a very long legacy. The practice of waterboarding, for instance, was closely associated with the Spanish Inquisition, and appears diagramed and explained in woodcut prints from the early sixteenth century. Similarly, the practice we know as the “cold cell”–or hypothermia–was carefully developed by the Soviet NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB, as a means of preparing prisoners for interrogation. The Soviets used the motto “no blood, no shame,” and the same motto recently emerged in units of the American armed forces in Iraq.

Many of these techniques were also practiced during World War II and the years leading up to it. They were certainly not practiced by the United States, however. The practitioners were German, particularly the Geheime Staatspolizei or Gestapo and the Sicherheitsdienst or SD, the intelligence arm of the SS. The procedures were known as “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or in German, verschärfte Vernehmung.

Today, Andrew Sullivan reproduces the Gestapo memorandum which set the guidelines for verschärfte Vernehmung. One of the most striking things about it is that, compared with what Dick Cheney and company want, it is mild. The Gestapo memo forbids waterboarding, hypothermia and several other techniques that the Bush Administration permits. And it imposed strict limits on how these “enhanced techniques” could be used – requiring oversight and permits. But what happened in practice? As usual, there was a race to the bottom and the obstacles put in place were quickly overcome.

Sullivan reviews the Norwegian war crimes trials in which the use of verschärfte Vernehmung was established as a war crime, and a capital offense. He includes testimony of a Dachau survivor describing treatment which is within the limits of the “program” prescribed by President Bush. In my mind, this is mandatory reading, and more evidence of the depraved thinking of U.S. leaders who have pushed the “program” forward. Is it reductio ad Hitleram to even raise this? That will be the dismissive charge. And on this point, I’m afraid, we need to insist that the accused stand their ground and defend themselves on the merits:

Critics will no doubt say I am accusing the Bush administration of being Hitler. I’m not. There is no comparison between the political system in Germany in 1937 and the U.S. in 2007. What I am reporting is a simple empirical fact: the interrogation methods approved and defended by this president are not new. Many have been used in the past. The very phrase used by the president to describe torture-that-isn’t-somehow-torture–”enhanced interrogation techniques”–is a term originally coined by the Nazis. The techniques are indistinguishable. The methods were clearly understood in 1948 as war-crimes. The punishment for them was death.

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Discussed in this essay: Age of Anger: A History of the Present, by Pankaj Mishra. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 416 pages. $27. I am writing from Germany, the world’s last major stronghold of liberal democracy. The United Kingdom fell to Brexit in June; the United States fell, with the election of Donald Trump, in November. We can dispute whatever “the West” was for as much time as humanity has left, but that it collapsed on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, seems to me beyond question. Perhaps Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is the heart still beating faintly within its brain-dead body, but …
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Discussed in this essay: Age of Anger: A History of the Present, by Pankaj Mishra. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 416 pages. $27. I am writing from Germany, the world’s last major stronghold of liberal democracy. The United Kingdom fell to Brexit in June; the United States fell, with the election of Donald Trump, in November. We can dispute whatever “the West” was for as much time as humanity has left, but that it collapsed on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, seems to me beyond question. Perhaps Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is the heart still beating faintly within its brain-dead body, but …
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