The phrase “eyewitness to history” tends to be applied indiscriminately to minor observers of great events, but in the case of Dick Sonnenfeldt the description is merited. Probably no one spent more time with what remained of the Nazi hierarchy after its defeat than did he when, at 22, he found himself chief interpreter at the Nuremberg trials.
As with much at the tribunal, his appointment at such a young age was the result of chance rather than of planning. A German Jew who had fled to America, he was stationed in July 1945 in Austria as a private in a US armoured unit when the passing General “Wild Bill” Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services (the CIA’s predecessor), asked for an interpreter. Impressed by Sonnenfeldt’s American accent, which was free of the guttural inflections that made other German native speakers hard to understand, Donovan whisked him off to the OSS office in Paris. There he began to translate captured documents and interview witnesses for the forthcoming war crimes trials.
The venue and list of defendants was decided the next month, and Sonnenfeldt moved to Nuremberg. There he became interpreter initially for John Amen, the principal American interrogator, who had made his name prosecuting New York gangsters. Sonnenfeldt, accordingly, was to spend hundreds of hours in the company of Joachim von Ribbentrop, Rudolf Hess, Albert Speer and other leading Nazis, such as Hans Frank, the governor of occupied Poland, and Ernst Kaltenbrunner, head of Germany’s security apparatus.
What was to appal him was not so much the enormity of their crimes, but the sheer normality of these men. Despite the power they had wielded, they also seemed without intellect or insight, distinguished only by their servility and ambition.
“Dictators have no peers,” he concluded, “only sycophants to do their bidding.” The majority claimed loss of memory, denied their involvement in criminal acts, and feigned ignorance of the Holocaust.
The exception was Hermann Goering, who he thought capable of great charm but slippery. He was also the first to be interrogated, and immediately tried to assert himself over Sonnefeldt by correcting his translation. Amen gave the younger man permission to reprove the former Reichsmarschall, which he did by mispronouncing his name as “gering”, meaning “little nothing”, and warning him not to interrupt again.
Goering was unique among the defendants in relishing the trial as an opportunity to defend his achievements, and so comfortable did he become with Sonnenfeldt that he revealed much of his true thinking to him, including his musings on politicians’ use of power.
“Naturally the common people don’t want war,” he told the interpreter, “neither in Russia nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. But the people can be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism. It works the same way in any country.”
Heinz Wolfgang Richard Sonnenfeldt was born in Berlin in 1923. The child of two doctors, he grew up in Gardelegen, in north-central Germany, but spent time in the capital with his grandparents while his mother suffered depression after the birth of his brother.
After the onset of Jews’ persecution, which affected his parents’ ability to work, the two boys were sent for safety in September 1938 to a school in Kent. Two years later, however, with German forces just across the Channel, Richard, aged 16, was deported to Australia as an enemy alien. Having survived a torpedo attack, he was not best pleased when told, ten days after his arrival, that he was to be freed from internment and sent back to Britain — by sea. A consolation was a night passed in a Melbourne prison in lieu of a hotel, where the local prostitutes put on a strip show for him: “My knowledge of the female anatomy increased immeasurably.”
On the return voyage he was unexpectedly put ashore at Bombay (Mumbai), where he had to make ends meet with work in a radio factory until able to proceed to America in April 1941. There he was reunited with his parents, who had escaped via Sweden after his father was briefly held by the Nazis, and his brother, Helmut, who would later became National Security Council adviser to President Nixon. In 1943, Richard was drafted and fought at the Battle of the Bulge with a reconnaissance troop. He also helped to liberate Dachau.
At Nuremberg Sonnenfeldt rapidly established himself as chief interpreter because his were the only interrogations not plagued by disputes about translation. He was in general disparaging about the abilities of other interpreters provided by the State Department, many of whom — in a context where nuance was all — were Poles or Hungarians who spoke German or English with marked accents or limited vocabularies. He also became aware that some of them, as well as many Allied officers, viewed the defendants as celebrities and were keen to work at the trials for other than professional reasons.
Amen and the other interrogators soon realised that time taken up in translation during sessions with the defendants allowed the latter to collect their thoughts. Impressed by Sonnenfeldt’s maturity, they therefore at times allowed him to ask multiple questions of his own devising, so as to increase the element of surprise and trap the accused into admissions.
He was among the first to meet Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, and thus among the first to learn — almost a year after the war’s end — of the true scale of the Holocaust. Later, with Airey Neave, he served the indictments on the 22 defendants, and translated Robert Jackson’s opening speech for the prosecution when the trial began.
Sonnenfeldt returned to the US before the verdicts were reached, but though largely convinced of the fairness of the proceedings, he did have criticisms to make of the American legal team.
Not the least of these was its failure — ascribable largely to overwork and poor co-ordination — to place on the record admissions by Goering that established his central role in the execution of the Final Solution. In his later years, Sonnenfeldt was often called on by historians and television companies as one of the last survivors of the trials.
After studying electrical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, Sonnenfeldt in the 1950s helped to develop colour television with RCA. He worked on early computers for the Nasa lunar programme, became an executive at NBC television, and dean of a school of management. His last job before retirement in 2003 was as head of the world’s largest producer of newspaper printing plates.
Keen on chess, bridge and gadgets, he was also an avid sailor, and in his seventies thrice crossed the Atlantic in a 45ft yacht. He published a memoir, Mehr als ein Leben (2002), translated as Witness to Nuremberg.
His first wife, Shirley, died in 1979. He is survived by his second wife, Barbara, and by two sons and a daughter of his first marriage and three step-children.
Richard Sonnenfeldt, chief of the interpretation section of the US counsel at the International Military Tribunal, Nuremberg, 1945-46, was born on July 23, 1923. He died on October 9, 2009, aged 86.