Chicago - Jul. 12, 2022
Music TV Politics Sports Books People Places & Things
Beachwood Politics
Our monthly archive.
Who We Are
Chicago by the numbers.
Sausage Links
Wiki Daley
Wiki Rahm
Illinois Channel
Ralph Martire
Government Attic
Division Street
Indie Political Report
The Obameter
The Intercept
American Dream Betrayed

Heed The Lessons Of The Wilmette Man Who Translated The Nazis To Death

Peter Less died a year ago this week in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was 99 and left a large swath of history for us to consider.

Not that it matters much, but you would have liked him. He had witnessed too much evil and pain in his life to be gregarious. He had seen goodness, some of which he shared with all of us.

He was measured and serene. He coveted his private thoughts. He seemed to have found a path.

Less was at peace, which was a state he had earned.

And for us, he left lessons to be absorbed if we are mindful of that history, too.

When I interviewed him five years ago at the little Wilmette home he had shared for more than 50 years with his late wife, he had decided to close shop on his legal practice. But his decision did not follow from some infirmity at 94. Indeed, he could do regular push-ups, drove to work in Chicago's Loop every day, and mowed his yard with an old-fashioned push cutter.

Until the very day he stepped away, he practiced sharp-edged family law. He had a devotion to justice.

"But I don't want to give clients the idea that I'm old, and that my age makes a difference," he said as he sat in his living room.

Less had been internationally famous for 70 years when we met, though he did not trade on that fame. He was quiet and erudite. When people asked about his life, he told them, but he was not much for self-promotion. It was another reason to like him.

Not merely as clarifying exaggeration for effect, but Less was the man who metaphorically shut the casket lid on Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, the inventor of the Gestapo and Adolf Hitler's right hand.

Less did it with his mind, skill and morality.

With his parents' approval, he had fled Germany as a teen. He was a refugee and studied simultaneous translation at a Swiss university. He never forgot the pathway to a new life that Switzerland and its generous people gave him.

But he was decidedly famous. He might well have been the only person in the world who could have made the Goering trial work. The transcripts of that trial are Less speaking in two languages flowing together.

Less was the official simultaneous translator for the Goering trial at Nuremberg at which the strutting Nazi architect was convicted and sentenced to hang. He escaped that fate by taking a cyanide pill on the night before his Oct. 16 date with the noose.

When Less and I talked that day in Wilmette, no other person living had seen and heard what Less had.

What Goering heard in that trial was Less's translation into German; what the prosecutors and judges heard from Goering were the English words Less produced.

That trial belonged to Peter Less. He gave that trial to the world.

He's been revered ever since by the practitioners of the translation art form as one of its first geniuses.

Less was the ultimate witness in the room where it happened.

But his lessons predate that month on the world-historical stage.

He wanted me to know especially about the years of his youth in his beloved Konigsberg, a city then of 370,000 that had served as the capital of Prussia since 1255. It was a thoroughly ancient, elegant German metropolis. It was Old Europe.

It was the home of philosopher Emmanuel Kant.

Past the age of 90, Less still missed the city's old homes, one of which he shared with parents, grandparents, siblings. He missed the concert halls, parks and sumptuous department stores, one of which his family owned and ran.

People are murdered by war, but old lovely cities are killed, too. Oddly enough, Goering was the designated president of Prussia in Less's youth in 1933.

Less got to see Goering up close. But Prussia was mostly a convenient platform for Goering's thievery and pillaging. Nazism was not invented to suit him. He had always been a Nazi.

in 1940, Hitler promoted Goering to the rank of Reichsmarschall des Grossdeutschen Reiches (Reich Marshal of the Greater German Reich), a custom-made pedestal that made him senior to all field marshals in the military, including the Luftwaffe.

Goering was handy for Hitler. He invented the Gestapo secret police.

And, of course, Less wanted me to know the truth of Hitler, whose name gets tossed cheaply into the debate about Donald Trump's functional politics. Less was unaware of Trump then. He was a TV performer with aspirations.

Is Trump a fascist, and what would that mean in 21st century terms if he were?

Labels lose all their vitality when the motives that animate them are forgotten. But humanity's temptation to self-loathing endures, and while there is nobility in our species, there also is deep depravity.

Less saw all of that. The light and dark of souls. He brought his nobility to argue for justice and prevailed when nothing but his conscience demanded it. We should listen to such people.

What does it mean to a nation when many of its citizens are segregated into "irrelevant" status? That is the essence of fascism - the legal labeling and division of some as valuable people and others as valueless. The evil flows less from political differences than from the loss of shared self-hood.

Humanity's self-hate is our oldest and most violent sin.

The underlying lesson of Germany in 1932 was that it would not, or could not, purge itself of inherent, ancient racism against all non-Germans. Racism is a wallowing, self-pitying view of strangers, and anti-Semitism ran deep there, as it did in all of Western civilization.

A nation that sired great artists and thinkers could not give up its hate. Sound familiar?

Less wanted it understood, in his earned standing as a German man, a lifelong scholar of letters and law, that Germany was not tricked into giving power to Hitler. It was not duped into the Holocaust. Germany gets no pass as it if were inept.

There was no dialectic sleight of hand, though Hitler was gifted at polemics. Hitler merely told Germany what it wanted to hear. He knew where the darkness was and knew how to rouse it for his own uses.

Less said he and most other observant citizens had understood very clearly as a young teen where Germany was going.

The 65 million who perished in World War II did not do so as a result of a clever ruse. This was merely hate writ on the largest human canvass. By 1933, the Germany that had breathed for centuries no longer survived and would never return.

In Less's clear recollection, there was no confusion about who Hitler was, nor was there misunderstanding in the votes that eventually made his power permanent and absolute. Fascism is always absolute because it can tolerate no alternatives to itself.

When Less sat across the central interpreter's table for months and peered into the chilled blue eyes of Hermann Goering, he knew exactly who he was seeing. He was seeing evil. He was seeing humanity's twisted instinct to kill itself and profit from the murder. But Less was not there for vengeance. Less was the designated face of reason and justice.

He spoke for civilization.

The citizens of Germany, or at least too many to allow stopping it, knew the name of Hitler's evil, and what he would do. He told them face to face. They believed him.

He was the first world leader whose existence was the direct result of announcing what he would do, and then doing it. After 1933, there would be no more national elections in Germany until 1949.

Paul von Hindenburg won the 1932 presidential election with 19 million votes, and Hitler was second with 13 million. But von Hindenburg died a year later, and the Nazis won two successive federal elections and took control of the parliament.

It was essentially the electoral power of Germany's Congress that elevated Hitler, along with the authority of armed thugs in the street pretending to offer order at the end of rifle butts.

In essence, Hitler gained control of Germany by winning fewer national votes, but finding enabling toadies in the legislature over which he exercised total control. Hitler had armed men (Brownshirts) in the street to make sure protests were contained.

But the conspiracy of political dunces gave Germany to Hitler because they wanted him to punish Europe and the Jewish people for World War I.

The voters of Germany had spoken.

Does the pattern of punishing "others" for their "otherness" not seem familiar?

Less believed the precise sin for which Germany had been punished for 75 years was not only a thoughtless choice. Germany was punished for its own evil, and also because it did not cauterize that evil when it could at the ballot box.

It was punished for moral laziness and for allowing six million Jews to be labeled "life unworthy of life."

The entire world would pay for Germany's racism, though there is less evidence the world has learned that reverence for others is a survival trait for all of us.

But Less helped put an end to it, at least for a while. He stood in the gymnasium adjacent to the Nuremberg courthouse just after dawn and watched the 10 most vile architects of Nazism hang. It was Oct. 16, 1946 - 74 years ago next month.

World War II was the ultimate expression of "white grievance" and its permanent handmaiden, "white supremacy." You will forget their evil if you forget what the evil inspires.

Malevolence has a price.

The grand old European cultural center of Konigsberg paid its price. It no longer exists. Allied bombing and Soviet artillery reduced it to rubble. When the Russians occupied the city in 1945, they rounded up all the survivors and killed most of them.

The 430,000 new citizens no longer populate a city named Konigsberg. Only Russians live there. Now it's called Kaliningrad, a part of Russia, and shows few signs of ever having a Germanic history.

The end of Konigsberg haunted Less as a lost love taken from him. It was his golden childhood, and a lost, loving family. A shadow crept over Less's face when he spoke of the old, lost city.

The Gestapo that Goering invented rounded up all of Less's family and took them away one day after Less had fled to Zurich. They were not Jewish. They were intellectual free-thinkers.

The Germans also called this law and order.

Less never learned the details of what happened to them.

They were never seen again.


David Rutter is the former publisher/editor of the Lake County News-Sun, and more importantly, the former author of the Beachwood's late, great "The Week In WTF" column. His most recent piece for us was WGN Now Trump TV. You can also check him out at his Theeditor50's blog. He welcomes your comments.


Posted on September 30, 2020

MUSIC - Chief Keef Changed The Industry.
TV - Vizio's Best Product Is You.
POLITICS - UIC: Soda Taxes Work.
SPORTS - More McCaskey Malpractice.

BOOKS - All About Poop.


Search The Beachwood Reporter

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Follow BeachwoodReport on Twitter

Beachwood Radio!