Posted by: Kevin | October 5, 2006

On Torture: Nazi Germany’s Greatest Interrogator

hansandpows.jpg lynndie_england.jpg
2 famous interrogators posing with their POWs
Guess which one actually got useful information.

Hanns-Joachim Schraff was the greatest German interrogator in world war 2.  He worked primarily on captured US airmen and he was so respected for ability to extract secrets that he was dubbed “The Master” by his peers.  What vicious tactics did he use to get this information?  What horrific torment did he inflict on US airmen?  Kindness and a respect for human dignity.

Schraff correctly realized that only a bare fraction of captured enemies would have information of immediate tactical use.  And it is highly unlikely that one could extract that information in time to use it.  So torturing an enemy to get the “whole story” would be a waste of time.  Additionally it would run the risk of getting false information from the prisoner.

Instead, he did everything in his power to help the captives feel relaxed and safe.  He would have long talks with the captives and discuss philosophy or some other seemingly safe topic for a prisoner to discuss.  All the while, he was collecting bits and pieces of information that he would assemble and use to support the German war effort.  Their best interrogator, and he never had to raise his voice.

As a result, after the war Schraff wasn’t tried for war crimes.  Instead he was invited to the US to speak to the military about his interrogation techniques.  These techniques have come to be used by trained interrogators worldwide.


The photo above is of Scharff at a banquet held in his honor in 1980.  Also in the photo were US combat aces James L. Brooks and Robert M. DeHaven, General James H. Doolittle and General Curtis LeMay.  Scharff is the tall guy, second from the right. 

The obvious and cheep question to ask is “So who will be hosting Lynndie England’s banquet in 2040?”.  The more important question is this:  How could we allow ourselves to forget these fundamental guidelines for gathering intelligence through interrogation?  How could we opt to rely on less effective measures, which have the side effect of ruining our international reputation and hardening our enemies against us?

The key word three paragraphs up is TRAINED.  I highlight this because everything we’ve been doing to prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan reeks of amateur hour and shows how poor (non-existent) our post invasion planning was.  Many of our interrogators were not trained and thus opted for the scream and harm approach popularized on TV and movies.  The result of this has been a black eye on the United States.

The recent debate on torture highlights the fact that we still don’t get it when it comes to torture.  By the end of September Congress passed the Terrorism bill backed by President Bush.  This bill will give the president broad powers to interpret the Geneva Conventions, while preventing individuals from protesting violations of Geneva standards in court.  In short, the CIA can go right on water boarding and humiliating detainees. 

None of this is necessary.  It won’t make our troops safer and it wont make us safer.  The most effective interrogation techniques require no reinterpretation of the Geneva Conventions.  They require no secret prisons or secret courts.  All they require is some patience and a willingness to accept that the detainee is also a human being.  How can we have allowed ourselves to forget this?

Update 7/28/08:  I know this post is nearly 2 years old but it still gets a steady stream of hits and a recent comment below made me think that I should add the following disclaimer. 

This post is about one Nazi interrogator only.  Many interrogators for Nazi Germany were torturing, evil bastards who were rightfully tried and convicted after the second world war.  It is not my intent here to gloss over or diminish their crimes in any way.  My intent is to highlight how amidst all the torture and deprivation used on other prisoners, the most effective Nazi Interrogator was the one who DIDN’T use torture.

Information from the following websites was used in this article: – The story of Torin Nelson, one of the wistleblowers at Abu Ghraib. – Website for veterans held at Stalag Luft 1, the primary interrogation facility for the Nazi’s in Europe. – Center for Defense Information article on the use of torture in interrogation.

Edit: spelling



  1. This is great! Thanks for the pimping!

  2. […] P.S. Kevin writes about torture in the context of history. 1 Comment so far Leave a comment […]

  3. No problem Natalia, thanks for the link love.

  4. I seem to be getting a bunch of hits on this post from some online education course hosted by Kaplan. Can one of you tell me what the course is and why you’re being directed here? I have no problem with it, I’m just curious.

  5. Lynndie England wasn’t an interrogator. She was just a guard (372nd Military Police), along with her boyfriend the other goones that were involved. They tried taking the heat off them by saying they were told to do these indecent acts, but as you can see it didn’t work. They were stupid morons!

    Sure there’s a lot of torture that goes on, but that’s what happens when you go to war with anyone. We are at war with terrorists and their aids! You wont see pictures coming from REAL interrogators, and their technics.

    Here’s another thing… You must have a weak stomach, so just sit back in your comfortable home, and let your men and women serving America in uniform handle all the dirty work, of keeping you safe =)

    • You’re a disgrace to the United States and uniformed personnel. Don’t lecture others about “dirty work”. You clearly know absolutely nothing about interrogation or what is appropriate. As Robinson correctly notes, the approach of these US military personnel is ineffective. It is also an embarrassment to decent Americans. Take your trump routine elsewhere.

  6. It’s not a weak stomack that prompts my objections to torture. It’s a clear head. Torture is not the most effective means of gathering information. Period. As a side effect it hurts our international standing, gives our enemies less incentive to surrender and increases that odds that our own soldiers will be tortured if captured.

    Black, if you are actually over there and not a troll, then I wish you a safe return, but you can take your condescending attitude and shove it up your ass.

  7. I would agree that you can “win with kindness”…I am in sales and we do an interrogation-kind of scenario in our qualifying stage. I agree that you have to be level with the prospect and treat them in a non threatening way (such as making them feel like they actually DONT have to buy)
    that’s of course where we get our hook in to the prospect because now they give us real reasons they do or don’t want the product. I think you hit that point accross great.

    war is different though. Especially the war today. Prisoners in Nazi Camps were regular people who in many cases were just drafted young men. to torture those people (which very well did happen) would do nothing.
    A terrorist however is a different breed of fighter…death is the goal in Radical Islam! so, to recognize these animals as people won’t give you any more of an “angle” to negotiate with them. You hear in the court case now on the 9/11 attackers, they “want to die to become marters”
    “GIVE ME THE DEATH SENTENCE” …All just to make a statement and reverses it all, and is the true reason for the “Blackeye” the United States gets you mention.
    this is simply a good article with a nasty spin on president Bush, and that totally hurts your credibliity. They ABSOLUTELY NEED TO TORTURE these terrorists. they need to feel the pain and learn what it is to suffer and be looked at as nothing more than a caged animal. You can get real information from humans. Radical Islamists are not humans, they are the next generation of Adolf Hitler

  8. and just to add…this breed of Hitler is not looking to stop at the Jewish community, they are going after everyone liek you and me. just in case you actually believe they will suddenly stop and gain rational at somepoint. i do appreciate your writing however, this Interrogator Shraff is a great story relic of WWII.

  9. Matty, the tactics used by Scharff were also used, with great success, by US interrogators on captured Japanese soldiers in WW2. You know the same people that gave us the Baatan Death March, the rape of Nanking and were every bit as indoctrinated as the worst of our enemies today.

    Presented them with a situation (not harmed, basic needs cared for, etc.) that was the complete oposite of the treatment they expected, was all it took to shake loose a lot of useful information.

    As for this statement:
    “They ABSOLUTELY NEED TO TORTURE these terrorists. they need to feel the pain and learn what it is to suffer and be looked at as nothing more than a caged animal”
    It says a lot more about your humanity than it does about theirs. I pity you.

  10. I disagree with the notion that these deplorable individual acts were untrained, work of bad seeds, or sloppy. They were as sloppy as they were trained to be. it was perfectly executed. If you look the training procedures in our covert interogation methods like the Sele program and cia, you’ll find that a preponderance of the language used in both th memos and taught to the interrogators was similar to what we teach in certain covert programs. My point, this is a systems issue, not some rogue agent. Besides the notion that the govt frequently deflects criticism of its agents by designating them sole actors, lone assassins, bad seeds…etc, there is actual proof of training in what we saw in abu gharab and others. The famous christmas tree positino one detainee is shown standing on a crate with his hands extended and a hood on his head and tied to some electrical cords–symbolism not lost on many a christians–is taught in programs as a punishment for non cooperation. Similar correlations can be made for most of the degradations that were brought to light. It simple takes an systems approach and very malleable soldiers to implement this policy and we have both.

  11. Delal, Given all that has come to light in the nearly 2 years since I first wrote this, I have to admit that you’re probably right.

  12. […] – not because of their respect for human rights, but because they saw what was most effective. The greatest Nazi interrogator was a Hanns-Joachim Schraff who never even raised his voice, let alone tortured his subjects. He was one of the few top Nazis […]

  13. if youre not gonna stand behind the US soldiers,
    stand in front of them.

  14. Someone clearly needed to stand in front of the elected officials who created our torture policy, the officers who implemented it and the soldiers who carried it out. We failed ourselves, and everything we stand for, when we allowed this to happen.

    BTW, I can condemn these actions without comdemning the overwhelming majority of American Servicemen and women who are a credit to the uniform and our country.

  15. There was very little torture used by our side in the Iraq thing.

    On the other hand the stupidity of allowing sexual perverts into the military sure was obvious in the Abu Ghraib thing.

    We must be much more aggressive in keeping those people OUT.

  16. I get pleasure from, lead to I discovered just what I was looking for. You have ended my four day lengthy hunt! God Bless you man. Have a nice day. Bye

  17. If you look at how viciously Americans treat each other, the lack of a real national community, the lack of moral standards, the lack of any high culture, it’s no wonder the soldiers act the way they do.

  18. I wish you would correct the typos in this Blog. Scharff is spelled only once correctly and about three times incorrectly as Schraff.

    Hanns was not the only German interrogator to treat his prisoners with respect, most, if not all of his colleagues used similar tactics. Scharff was in a military intelligence center which dealt with opposing military personnel.

    The infamous Gestapo, on the other hand, had to deal with enemy spies, saboteurs, insurgents and planned subversion and were renowned for harsh treatment of prisoners. A number of these people were prosecuted and punished after the war.

  19. […] […]

  20. Kevin, you are ignoring the fact that using torture in interrogation is highly successful in primetime television. This cannot be disputed.
    Jack B. in “24” got gems of vital intelligence information by shooting people in the knees. What works on TV and in movies with fictional characters absolutely does work in real life. If you do not believe me, ask that guy from the transporter movies or any one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Do not even attempt to convince me that Superman and the Transformers are fake, you liars!
    Our only hope for the future is to ignore all history lessons because they are relics of the past and not relevant to today’s super generation of rednecks and hipsters (You have to pledge allegiance to one or the other). Human behavior and psychology have changed over the centuries. 500 years of TV and movies tell us this.
    To everyone: Put down your history books and get with the program– pick up your iPhones to watch the endless wasteland of YouTube. Learn from the popular media- not dumb, boring books! You can kill so much time without having to use any of your precious brain power.

  21. Um, his name was mis-spelled several times…please correct it to Scharff throughout.

    Christopher SCHRAFF

  22. […] 14. The most skilled interrogator in Nazi Germany, Hanns-Joachim Schraff, was a sensible, humane man who was never tried for war crimes afterward, but instead was invited to speak to the US military about his techniques. – Source […]

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