It was the morning of 15 April 1945 near Bergen in northwestern Germany. When Clara Greenbaum woke it quickly became apparent something was wrong. Nobody came to bang with sticks on the bed frames in the barracks where she had spent the night, and many nights in the previous months, along with her two children. And there was something wrong. The guards who had tormented, brutalized and murdered 100,000 others were now gone. In the middle of the night, while their victims lay sleeping under threat of death, guards at the notorious Bergen-Belsen prison camp fled into the darkness. Soldiers of another army were approaching.
It was hours before anybody in the barracks summoned the courage to open the door and peer out. Then, in ones and twos, prisoners filed into the light of an overcast day. The guards were gone. But where? Then there was a sound. More soldiers were coming.
Hours passed and then the mass of people stirred. They could hear the unmistakable sound of heavy vehicles approaching from behind the low hills to the north. A moment later a column of tanks and trucks appeared. The vehicles were rumbling across the ploughed fields towards the barbed wire. Panic went through the crowd like a bolt of electricity . This was it. The Germans were going to machine-gun them and then roll over their bodies to eradicate the evidence of their crimes. Then someone saw the Union Jack flying from the turret of one of the tanks. They were British! To the prisoners’ amazement the column circled the camp twice before drawing up in formation at the front gates, where the vehicles’ engines were turned off. Presumably they had been checking to see if any SS troops were prepared to make a final stand. And there they waited. Not a word was spoken. No orders were given. Clara estimated that as many as 500 troops were standing in complete silence, staring through the barbed wire. What were they waiting for? And then one of the soldiers doubled up and retched. Another vomited and then another. So that was it. They had been staring at the inmates in disgust. Hardened soldiers were sick to their stomachs at the sight of them . At that, many prisoners turned away. They were ashamed of what they were, of what they had become.
Roland, Paul (2012-06-26). The Nuremberg Trials: The Nazis and Their Crimes Against Humanity (Kindle Locations 117-126). Arcturus Publishing. Kindle Edition.
But there was no reason for these people to be ashamed. They had not caused this. An organized gang of criminals had instigated the deaths of millions of people and had brought a modern, industrial, cultured nation to absolute ruin. This was a criminal act, and somebody would have to pay.
Fifteen days after Clara Greenbaum woke to a new era, the man who had orchestrated this travesty was dead, having shot himself in the head rather than face the justice he deserved. In the following days a number of the other principals in crime would also be dead. Some at their own hand, others before the muzzles of the guns of vengeful armies.
In other camps Allied officers found it difficult to maintain discipline among their men – in some cases captured SS guards were summarily executed. This was soldiers’ justice, meted out by men who had seen their share of death, but who could no longer restrain themselves when confronted with the cold-blooded slaughter, or brutalization, of innocent civilians.
Roland, Paul (2012-06-26). The Nuremberg Trials: The Nazis and Their Crimes Against Humanity (Kindle Locations 140-142). Arcturus Publishing. Kindle Edition.
By the ninth of May formal hostilities were terminated, and German forces were surrendering all over Europe. Troops were going into P.O.W. camps, Nazi government leaders were being identified and arrested. Joseph Goebbels and his wife had murdered their children and killed themselves in the government’s bunker in Berlin. Heinrich Himmler was identified and apprehended, but as he was being searched for means of suicide he chomped down on a poison capsule and died. It was later determined that Hitler’s secretary, Martin Bormann, was killed in a Berlin street while attempting to escape the bunker. A few, including Adolph Eichmann and Joseph Mengele, escaped to other countries beyond the reach of the Allies. For those firmly in the grasp of Allied forces, the future was for a moment uncertain. Some in the Allied camp wanted swift retribution.
The Allied leaders realized that something had to be done with the captured Nazi elite – and soon – because the will to pursue those guilty of perpetrating atrocities was swiftly evaporating. Furthermore, the Allied troops were exhausted after five long years of war and they just wanted to go home and put the horrors behind them. It was well known that the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, favoured the immediate execution of the captured Nazi leaders, in order to avoid the ‘tangles of legal procedure’, and certain elements within the American administration felt the same. They had managed to persuade President Franklin D. Roosevelt that a cursory hearing followed by a firing squad was the most economical method of dealing with the problem. The British Cabinet had discussed what to do with captured war criminals as far back as June 1942. Anthony Eden, the foreign secretary, had reminded them of the embarrassment caused by their failure to deal decisively with Kaiser Wilhelm II after the First World War.
Roland, Paul (2012-06-26). The Nuremberg Trials: The Nazis and Their Crimes Against Humanity (Kindle Locations 194-201). Arcturus Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Interestingly, the Soviets, who early had been complicit in Hitler’s war of aggression and ultimately suffered terribly from a German invasion, now favored a public trial.
Ironically it was the American secretary of war, the elderly Republican Henry Stimson, who vehemently opposed Morgenthau’s plan. He found an unexpected ally in the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who had told Winston Churchill that if the leading Nazis were summarily executed the world would say that their enemies had been afraid to put them on trial and had put them to death to silence them. Stimson added that to deny the defendants due process would be to risk making them martyrs in the eyes of their people, which is exactly what had happened after the British had executed the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland. Stimson recalled that the citizens of Dublin had initially jeered at the plotters for the destruction they had brought upon their capital city, but that their mood had altered after the British authorities had ordered the rebel leaders to be shot without trial.
Roland, Paul (2012-06-26). The Nuremberg Trials: The Nazis and Their Crimes Against Humanity (Kindle Locations 213-219). Arcturus Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Where to hold the trial was a problem of some proportion. We, the Allies, had bombed Nazi government institutions to rubble, with one notable exception. Here irony piled on top of irony. Spared from destruction was the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg.
The Palace of Justice
The shell -scarred Palace of Justice resembled a besieged fortress in bandit country. It had been the site of the final battle for the city. The courtyard was still strewn with pieces of shrapnel and spent cartridges where the remnants of two SS divisions had held out until they had been shelled into submission. Now five Sherman tanks squatted at key points around the main building, their gun barrels loaded with 76 mm shells, while GIs crouched behind sandbags at the entrance to the court.
Roland, Paul (2012-06-26). The Nuremberg Trials: The Nazis and Their Crimes Against Humanity (Kindle Locations 500-505). Arcturus Publishing. Kindle Edition.
This is the place of some of the Nazis’ notorious transgressions against justice. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 stripped German Jews of their citizenship and of all basic human rights. Here was subsequently the site of continued judicial insults, including the trumped up trial of Leo Katzenberger.
Leo Katzenberger was a Jewish businessman who had seen his chain of shoe stores stolen from him by the Nazis under the Aryanization decrees of 1938, which legalized theft from German Jews. The elderly man had no hope of emigrating so he continued to live in an apartment in one of his properties. During 1941 his friendship with a teenage girl, Irene Seiler, was reported to the authorities, who accused Katzenberger of violating the race laws, which forbade relationships between Aryans and Jews. At his trial, 67-year-old Katzenberger repeatedly denied that there was anything of a sexual nature in the relationship, but his protests were shouted down by the presiding judge, Dr Oswald Rothaug, who called Katzenberger a ‘syphilitic Jew’ and ‘an agent of world Jewry’. Katzenberger was sentenced to death.
Roland, Paul (2012-06-26). The Nuremberg Trials: The Nazis and Their Crimes Against Humanity (Kindle Locations 2719-2725). Arcturus Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Writer Paul Rolland tells the story in The Nuremberg trials in The Nuremberg Trials: The Nazis and Their Crimes Against Humanity.
Among the principal Allied governments, Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States, the Americans picked up the heavy lifting for the trials. The vast bulk of the expense, logistics and legal work was provided by the U.S.
Paul Roland is not an academic historian, but he has produced a number of historical writings, including The Crimes of Jack the Ripper: The Whitechapel Murders Re-Examined. Books related to the Nazi phenomenon include Nazi Women: The Attraction of Evil and Nazis and the Occult. His book on the Nuremberg Trials is an excellent brief that draws from authoritative sources and gives a good account of the development of the legal case against the Nazi principals. Courtroom drama abounds.
Robert H. Jackson had been United States Attorney General under President Roosevelt. He led the American prosecution contingent. His duel with former Reichsmarschall Herman Goering presented a most interesting moment.
Goering Signs His Own Death Warrant
‘Did you not also sign a decree in 1940 ordering the seizure of all Jewish property in Poland?’
‘I assume so if the decree is there.’ The defendant was now visibly squirming in his seat.
‘And another saying the Jews would receive no compensation for damage caused by enemy attack or by German forces?’
‘If the law bears my name then it must be so,’ Goering conceded.
‘Is this your signature?’ asked Jackson, pointing an accusing finger at the next document that had been laid before the accused.
‘It appears to be.’
‘Is it or is it not your signature?’ Jackson’s tone betrayed his growing impatience. Goering sensed that a trap was being set. He took a moment to answer.
‘It is your signature on a document dated July 1941,’ Jackson explained for the benefit of the court, ‘asking Himmler and [Reinhard] Heydrich to make plans for the Final Solution of the Jewish Question.’
‘That is not a proper translation! I said total solution, not final solution.’
‘These are your words to Himmler,’ continued Jackson, warming to the task.
‘“ I charge you to send me before long an overall plan for the organizational, factual and material measures necessary for the desired solution of the Jewish question.” Is that an accurate translation of this order?’
‘That had to do with the evacuation and emigration of the Jews,’ Goering protested.
‘You ordered all government agencies to co-operate with the SS in the final solution of the Jewish question. Did you not?’
‘There is nothing in there about the SS!’ The colour was coming back to Reichsmarschall Goering’s flaccid cheeks.
‘This document states that you ordered all government agencies to co-operate with the SS. You sent this letter to SS Gruppenführer Heydrich.’
‘That does not mean that the SS had anything to do with the solution of the Jewish question!’
The words were barely out of his mouth when Goering realized that he had placed the noose around his own neck. There was an audible murmur in the court as Jackson leaned in to face his most formidable adversary.
‘Would you mind repeating that?’ he asked calmly.
‘I must say this clearly. I did not know anything about what took place in the concentration camps or the methods used there. These things were kept secret from me.’
But Jackson was already striding back to the bench where his colleagues sat, jubilant in the knowledge that the murderous nature of the Nazi leadership had finally been exposed for all to see.
‘I might add that even the Führer did not know the extent of what was happening.’ Goering was rambling, desperate . But no one was listening.
Roland, Paul (2012-06-26). The Nuremberg Trials: The Nazis and Their Crimes Against Humanity (Kindle Locations 1723-1753). Arcturus Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Twenty-four people were charged:
Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach
Konstantin von Neurath
Franz von Papen
Joachim von Ribbentrop
Baldur von Schirach
Only 21 stood trial. Bormann was by then already dead, though this was not demonstrated until years later. He was tried and convicted in absentia. Gustav Krupp, head of the German industrial empire that fueled, and collaborated with, Nazi aggressions was deemed too ill to stand trial. Robert Ley, who had ruled over slave labor for the Nazis, killed himself in his cell at the Palace of Justice prior to the trial.
Proceedings began in November 1945 and concluded in September 1946. The judges handed down the verdicts on 1 October 1946. Three defendants, Hans Fritsche, Hjalmar Schact and Franz von Papen, were acquitted and walked free, but only with protection from angry mobs. Of those convicted, seven received death sentences and sentenced to be hanged. Principal of these was Goering.
VERDICT: Guilty on all 4 counts. Sentenced to death by hanging.
The Judgment against Goering concluded: ‘From the moment he joined the Party in 1922 and took command of the street fighting organization, the SA , Goering was the adviser, the active agent of Hitler and one of the prime leaders of the Nazi movement. As Hitler’s political deputy he was largely instrumental in bringing the National Socialists to power in 1933, and was charged with consolidating this power and expanding German armed might. He developed the Gestapo and created the first concentration camps, relinquishing them to Himmler in 1934… The night before the invasion of Czechoslovakia and the absorption of Bohemia and Moravia, at a conference with Hitler and President Hácha he threatened to bomb Prague if Hácha did not submit… He commanded the Luftwaffe in the attack on Poland and throughout the aggressive wars which followed… The record is filled with Goering’s admissions of his complicity in the use of slave labour… He made plans for the exploitation of Soviet territory long before the war on the Soviet Union… Goering persecuted the Jews, particularly after the November, 1938, riots and not only in Germany… Although their extermination was in Himmler’s hands, Goering was far from disinterested or inactive despite his protestations from the witness box… There is nothing to be said in mitigation… His guilt is unique in its enormity. The record discloses no excuses for this man.’
Roland, Paul (2012-06-26). The Nuremberg Trials: The Nazis and Their Crimes Against Humanity (Kindle Locations 2303-2315). Arcturus Publishing. Kindle Edition.
I have posted a separate review of Goering: The Rise and Fall of the Notorious Nazi Leader [Kindle Edition]. That post concluded:
The hangman never got to Hermann Goering. Although the prisoners awaiting execution at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg were not told in advance of the execution date, Goering may have sensed that the final hour had come. He was scheduled to be the first taken by the hangman, but two hours before his time he took poison and died in his cell.
Goering’s death did not interrupt the proceedings. Ten convicted Nazis went to the gallows in a period of less than two hours beginning at 1 a.m. on 16 October 1946. Following the executions Goering’s body was brought from his cell to the gallows room and formally identified for the death certificate. Writer Paul Roland relates the final journey of Hermann Goering.
Just before dawn the bodies were taken away in two trucks under heavy guard and driven to Dachau concentration camp, a short distance northwest of Munich, where the ovens had been relit for their cremation. The ashes were scattered in a nearby river.
There was no sense of triumph among the victors, only relief that this tragic and violent era had finally come to an end.
Roland, Paul (2012-06-26). The Nuremberg Trials: The Nazis and Their Crimes Against Humanity (Kindle Locations 2648-2651). Arcturus Publishing. Kindle Edition.
The First Nuremberg Trial was not the last. The Allies followed up with prosecution of lesser lights of Nazi evil. There was a Doctors’ Trial, December 1946 to August 1947, and there was a trial of Nazi judges, March to December 1947. The Judges’ Trial was the subject of a motion picture Judgment at Nuremberg in 1961, staring Spencer Tracy as an American judge in a fictional case that reflects the injustice inflicted on Leo Katzenberger.