Source: Mathematical Gazette 54 (February 1970) pages 59-60.
I was reading Robert E Conot’s Justice at Nuremberg, possibly because I was feeling too good about humanity both as a concept and in the way it was actually implemented. Conot mentions how following a series of suicides and suicide attempts:
At night the Nazi leaders were required to sleep with their hands outside their blankets, and were not permitted to turn their faces toward the wall. Whenever one rolled over in his sleep, the guard took the long pole designed for opening the high windows, pushed it through the porthole in the door, and poked and awakened the sleeper.
And so help me, this got me thinking. Sleeping with hands over the blankets? Not being able to roll over? Getting jabbed awake whenever I do roll over? I can sleep through a lot, but I’m sure the Allies could jab me with a stick enough that I woke up. At least the Americans and Soviets could. The British I suppose would if someone lent them a stick because they couldn’t afford one themselves. The French might if the other Allies would just let them in. Sleeping in those conditions? Never. I would be a lousy war criminal.
Then I remembered: oh yeah, I want to be a lousy war criminal. If there’s one field in which you should ignore the advice “always do your best even at stuff you don’t like to do”, committing the atrocities that defined “atrocity” for the 20th Century is it. So if there were any doubt in my mind about whether to be one of history’s greatest monsters — and there isn’t; I’m on the “don’t be” side and won’t even hear arguments the other way — the sleeping conditions would push me towards “don’t be”.
And this made me realize: I have found literally the worst reason imaginable to want to not be a war criminal. Besides everything else I can’t figure who would be undecided or leaning-toward-yes right up until they hear about the postwar prison conditions regarding sleeping with your arms over the blankets. I guess I’d be kind of glad-ish to hear this turned someone away from unleashing the cruelest demons of human nature on other people. It’s still a weird thing to come to, is all.
“Glad to hear your voice,” said the person on the phone.
“Ah … thanks?” This was starting out weirdly for mysteriously-begun phone conversations.
“Compared to the people who’ve got less suspicious motives than yours.”
“I’ve got suspicious motives?”
“Well,” the voice said, “you might. It’s possible. They happen.”
I said, “There are people with less suspicious motives?”
“Uh … sure. I think. What are you talking about?”
“I’m confused about that too.”
And the voice said, “Why is it important you figure this out now? What are you trying to get to?”
That’s a pretty good question, so I left it at that.