Nuremberg - Justice Palace

At the end of the war or shortly after the war, several high Nazi officials was caught and put in prison while awaiting trial. The discussion to let top Nazi leaders stand trial after the war can be traced back to the end of 1942 when the British war cabinet discussed the issue. The question of bringing high Nazis to justice was further discussed at the meeting in Casablanca in 1943 between British prime minister Winston Churchill and American president Franklin D. Roosevelt. Later that year, Churchill, Roosevelt and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin met in Tehran where the question was raised again about what should be done with the top Nazi leaders.

Churchill himself had previously suggested that summary trials against war criminals should be conducted. Stalin suggested that between 50,000 and 100,000 German officers should be executed for all the suffering the soviet people had had to endure during the war. Later on, it was agreed to bring Nazi war criminals to a legal court where they would be held accountable for their crimes. In addition to the United States, Britain, Soviet Union, France were given a seat in the international tribunal. Together they discussed which charges the accused should be held accountable for.

In the end, the following charges were agreed upon. (1) Violation of peace. (2) Planning and preparing for war of aggression. (3) War crimes and (4) Crimes against humanity. It was also decided to hold the trial in Nuremberg for three reasons. First, (1) it was within the American zone of defeated Germany. All four had each been given a piece of Germany to administrate. Soviet Union proposed that the trial would take place in Berlin, which was in their zone. The other three did not agree. A little cocky, they suggested that the Soviet Union could hold its own trial in Berlin against the high Nazis they had in captivity. Since the Soviet Union had no high Nazi in captivity, they had to accept Nuremberg.

The top layer of the Nazis who did not commit suicide or fled was careful to ensure that they did not end up in Soviet captivity. Instead, they preferred to end up in western-allied captivity. Secondly (2) the Nuremberg Palace of Justice was undamaged and it was connected with a prison. This allowed the accused to be brought directly into the courtroom by a lift from the prison below. This made it more difficult to conduct any kind of attempt to free the prisoners from the outside as the prisoners never left the building. Thirdly (3) and lastly, there was a symbolic and political value with Nuremberg as it had been the site of the Nazi Party Days.

24 Nazi high officials were prosecuted and were to face the military tribunal and the following six Nazi organizations were declared criminal. (1) the leadership of the nazi party (NSDAP, National Socialistische Deutsche Arbeiter Partei). (2) Schutz Staffel (SS). (3) SicherheitsDienst (SD). (4) Gestapo. (5) Sturm Abteilung (SA) and (6) Command of the armed German forces (OKW, Oberkommando der Wehrmacht). Both SD and Gestapo were part of the SS and just because the organizations were criminalized did not mean that all of the SS, SD and Gestapo were brought to justice. This would have been impossible given that the members numbered several hundred thousand. They had to be dealt with individually if any member was suspected of any kind of crime in the name of the Nazis. Membership meant, however, that there was a risk of being scrutinised more thoroughly. The absolute top condition of the Nazi leadership was already dead. Hitler committed suicide in April 1945, so did Joseph Goebbels. Heinrich Himmler was captured by British forces at the end of May 1945 in Bremen and taken to Lüneberg where he admitted to being Heinrich Himmler. Shortly before he was questioned, he committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide capsule he had hidden in his mouth and is buried in an unknown location in Lüneberg.

Himmler’d deputy, Reinhardt Heydrich, had been killed in an attack in 1942. Out of the Nazis who were brought to justice, it was without doubt Hermann Goering who was the biggest name. Goering had surrendered himself to American forces in Bavaria. Although Goering was deprived of all political powers and even expelled from the party by Hitler (a fate that also befell Himmler), Goering made clear for everybody during the trial that he was no. two after Hitler himself. Officially, it was the former admiral and the head of the German submarine fleet, Karl Doenitz, who was the highest-ranking nazi of the accused. Donitz had been appointed president by Hitler in his political will. But Donitz could not measure up to the authority that Goering had acquired for about 25 years. An authority that had given him a reputation as one of the highest ranked Nazis both in and outside Germany.

The Tribunal sought to accuse at least one high representative from each organisation who could be prosecuted under any of the charges. Of the 24 defendants, only Hitler’s secretary Martin Bormann was not in captivity. Bormann was nevertheless charged in absentia under paragraphs 1, 3 and 4 and found guilty on charges 3 and 4 and sentenced to death in absentia. The leader of the German labor front, Robert Ley, could not be brought to justice either because he committed suicide in his cell a few days before the start of the trial. The owner of the Krupp Group, Gustav Krupp, was considered unable for health reasons to be brought to justice and the tribunal discussed whether it was possible to bring his son Alfred Krupp to justice in his father’s absence. It had nevertheless been the son who had run the group for most of the war and contributed strongly to the German armament. However, the Tribunal considered that it was too close to the trial and therefore refrained from letting Alfred be prosecuted instead of his father. He was later charged in a separate trial for the exploitation of slaves but escaped the death penalty. Left there were 21 high-ranking Nazis who were brought to justice.

The trial began on November 21, 1945, and was concluded when the sentences against the accused were announced on October 1, 1946. A total of 12 death sentences, 7 prison sentences and 3 acquittals were issued. The death sentences were carried out on October 16 in a small gymnasium in the prison yard. First up was Hermann Goering, but he eluded the hangman by committing suicide two hours before his execution. In Goering’s absence, foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop became the first to be hanged. After the hangings, the bodies were photographed and secretly taken to the Ostfriedhof in Munich, where they were cremated and the ashes were scattered in the river Isar. The seven defendants sentenced to prison remained in Nuremberg until 1947 when they were transferred to Spandau Prison in Berlin.

Current status: Preserved with museum (1998).

Address: Fürther Strasse 100, 90429 Nürnberg.

Get there: Bus from central Nuremberg.

My comment:

Room 600 in which the Nuremberg Trial took place underwent some changes to cope with the extensive media coverage surrounding the trial. After the trial, it was restored to its original state and looks a little different from what it does in the film sequences from the trial. The gymnasium in which the Nazis sentenced to death were hanged was later demolished in order not to become a place of pilgrimage for neo-Nazis. The other defendants who were either sentenced to prison or acquitted were, with the exception of Hess, not subject to any cult of personality in the neo-Nazi movements. Their graves have also become no place of worship. Exception was Hess’ family grave in Wunsiedel, Bavaria. When Hess died in 1987 he was buried in the family grave, and for many years a this grave became a pilgrimage for neo-Nazis/sympathizers. Every year on Hess death day (17/8), memorial marches were conducted in honor of Hess in Wunsiedel. Subsequently this made the local authorities to remove the family grave in 2011. Hess’s remains were dug up, cremated and scattered in the sea.

That Albert Speer escaped the gallows was because he had a different approach in his defense than many others. He simply distanced himself from Hitler and thus managed to portray himself as sympathetic in comparison to other prosecuted and therefore escaped the death sentence. This meant that he could write down his memoirs and thereby give us an insight into the absolute innermost circle of Hitler and his entourage. He wrote the memoirs while serving his twenty-year sentence. They should definitely be read with reservation and one must be critical of his presentation. But in any case, they give an insight into the outermost circle of the Nazis. There are lots of literature where writers from different angles and perspectives have written about the Nazi leaders. But it is thus their interpretation of a person and not a self-experience from a person in place and therein there is an important difference. This is a testimony (insight) that is as important as a testimony of survivors of the Nazi concentration camps.

Follow up in books: Tusa, Ann & John: Nuremberg Trial (1996).