Everyone knows, to some extent, something about the Nuremberg Trials. True, it’s not something that people going about their day tend to have in depth conversations about anymore, but it is still a very important point in the history of the modern world.
Why is this? Well, it’s the first time that such powerful nations came together to legislate, and litigate with regards to international crimes. It was the birthplace of the term ‘genocide’, as well as the phrase ‘crimes against humanity’ (which inspired also a hilarious card game in Cards Against Humanity). But there are some darker reasons why these trials are so important to our history.
It saw the execution, imprisonment, and in few cases even acquittal, of Nazi members. It was met with several suicides (even in the holding cells, while waiting for execution). It was even met with allied crimes as well (though these were thrown out as valid defenses). No doubt, the Nuremberg Trials were a dark part of our history, and here are only fifteen reasons as to why.
15. Location, Location, Location
Nuremberg used to be the location of what were called “Reichsparteitag”, or National Party Convention (what we call the Nuremberg Rallies). The National Party held these rallies as early as 1923, and of course they took on epic proportions when Hitler took command of the party, and the country. The great majesty of these rallies, coupled with the fervor of the Fuhrer’s speeches, charmed many a German citizen (or at least terrified them into submission). And to think, only seven years after the last rally, Hitler would be dead and an international court would be presiding over the many crimes of the Nazi regime. Now surely not many feel for the members of the Nazi party, but it must have been indeed a good hard kick when the decision was made to hold the trials, and carry out the sentences in the very same place all of these party members met to celebrate the grandeur and totality of the Nazi regime. It must have haunted them from incarceration, all the way to the gallows.
14. Hermann Goering – The Man Who Ended It All Before Being Tried
Goering was a very big player to have been captured and brought to trial for the Allies. He was the commander of the Luftwaffe, and head of the Gestapo. For a good stretch of time he was essentially Hitler’s second in command. Towards the end of the war, he wasn’t looked upon as favourably, but that doesn’t change his being a very good person to make an example of for the Allies. However, Goering would not give the Allies such satisfaction. The official story, until 2005, was that Goering had managed to secrete a vial of cyanide in such a time of need. But an American who was given guard duty over the prisoners during the trial has since come out saying that he had given the Nazi leader the pill, thinking it was medication. Who’d have thought that one of the Allies would be responsible for stripping the courts of their hottest hanger for justice? Goering left a note stating that if it had been a firing squad, he’d have taken execution, but he would not be so shamed as to be hanged. The note was written out to “[his] heart’s only love”. A chilling reminder that even monsters have hearts.
13. Damning The Doctors
By way of U.S. courts, still held in the same place as the IMT trials in Nuremberg, 23 Nazi doctors and medical staff were put on trial for experimentation on the Jewish people as well as Slavic prisoners. The above photo shows two Nazi doctors examining a man they have been exposing to freezing cold water. While not dead in this photo, one can assume that he did not make it out of that experiment. The crimes for which these doctors were tried? Low pressure and super cooling, phlegmon experiments, experiments on bone transplantation, sulphonamide tests, epidemic hepatitis virus research, typhus vaccine experiments, tests of the possibility of drinking sea-water, mustard gas and phosgene experiments, euthanasia program (direct elimination and mass sterilization), and collection of the skeletons of Jews. One hell of a laundry list to sort through for these sinister people. In the end, seven were sentenced to death, seven were acquitted, and the remainder were given prison terms of varying degrees.
12. Botched Hangings
So, if my math is correct, of the twelve men sentenced to death by hanging, only ten actually made the gallows following the Nuremberg Trials (both Bormann and Goering having committed suicide). Now one can say what they will about the deserving “justice” of each of these members of the Nazi regime, but perhaps what was dished out at the gallows was more of a crime itself than actual justice. Aside from the odd fact that a rather hasty gallows was put together in the prison gym (where Allied guards were taking rec time only days before), it seems these executions were purposely botched, in order to torture the men condemned to die. At least a few of them, at any rate. The photos taken of the line up of extinguished Nazi members shows several bloody faces. The blood comes from wounds to their heads, sustained during the drop through the trap door of the gallows; the rope clearly offset in order to accomplish this. These men were then left to strangle slowly, until the hangman came down from the platform, grabbed hold of them, and jolted them suddenly downward.
11. Crimes Against Humanity
The Nuremberg Trials tried defendants on four separate counts. These being: conspiracy, crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The conspiracy charge was pretty ridiculous, given the gravity of the other three charges, and the inability to really prove conspiracy beyond any reasonable doubt. Especially given the state of Germany, and how so many Germans were brought into the fold of the Nazi regime. But that’s not the chilling part of this. Of course it is chilling to know that some of the men put on trial at Nuremberg were in part responsible for the mass slaughter of the Jews, and many other peoples. But perhaps the most chilling thing is that it took until 1945 to even think to come up with the notion of crimes against humanity. It’s not as though humankind was devoid of heinous crimes in the past. World War I saw the deaths of 37 million people. Now yes, over sixty million died in WWII, but specifically to the treachery of the Holocaust, those numbers were not even a third of the WWI casualties.
10. Suicide Watch
The 1st Infantry Division’s 26th Regiment: Company D, was responsible for the honor guard which kept watch over the Nazi criminals. There was round-the-clock surveillance. Though it did not seem to make much of a difference for those with friends. Herbert Lee Stivers was a member of this so-called honour guard, but he engaged in something a tad dishonourable…though for honourable reasons. Having met a pretty German girl, who happened to love that he was a guard in the trial, he was invited to her friend’s home. This friend explained how Goering was ailing, and that he was not receiving his medication. So, by way of a fountain pen, there was correspondence shared between this friend and Goering, by way of nineteen-year-old Private Stivers. After a third correspondence that contained the “medication” for Goering, Stivers never saw the pretty German girl or her friend ever again. “Goering was a very pleasant guy. He spoke pretty good English. We’d talk about sports, ballgames…” The Nazi charm worked even on the Allies, it seems.
9. John C. Woods – The Hangman
There was mention earlier of the botched hangings of several of the convicted Nazi criminals. Well, this is the man who botched them. One John C. Woods. This is a man who took an unusual amount of pride in his work. “He boasted…that he had already executed 347 people during his 15-year career.” This man was 35 at the time of the Nuremberg Trials, which means he had been hanging people since he was twenty! “I wanted this job so terribly that I stayed here a bit longer…” That’s how badly Woods wanted the chance to kill some big shot Nazis. “I saw a small smile cross his lips as he pulled the hangman’s handle.” This was something noticed by one of the press in the room during the executions. Now if this is by no means chilling, or disturbing to readers, then I’ve no idea what else could be in this article. Here is a man who cared little about his appearance for his job (though he was meant to look cleaned up to give some degree of dignity to the condemned), and who relished torturing men when he pulled that handle.
8. Were The Allies Guiltless?
Basically, there is a simple answer to that question. That answer is: no. The Allies engaged in several devious acts that would be considered war crimes, as defined by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. So one would expect that, even in spite of the heinous acts of the Nazi regime, that they might escape some responsibility, or also at least dish out justice themselves for the crimes of the Allies, right? Not right. The Allies specifically made provisions, right at the outset, that disallowed any defense to be used that made reference to crimes they had carried out as well. For example, the Battle of the Bulge saw German soldiers using American uniforms by way of deception. But this same tactic was done on the other side of the war as well. Essentially the Nuremberg Trials became nothing more than a so-called “show trial” for the Allies to exact some degree of revenge, under the guise of justice. The Soviets were very quick to point this out themselves, as they simply wanted to hang all of the Nazis anyway and scrap the pointless trial.
7. Paper Over People
There was a very interesting way of bringing evidence to bear during the Nuremberg Trials, that may make it easier to believe that the proceedings were nothing more than a show. Now you might reasonably expect to see French or Polish prisoners coming forward to speak on the heinous crimes committed within their borders, or the land stripped from their possession. You might even more reasonably expect several Jewish men and women, who were used as slaves, or whose families were fed to the gas chambers and ovens of the concentration camps, to give witness to the atrocities of the Nazis. But this did not happen. There were indeed 33 witnesses for the prosecution and some 260 for the defense, but none of these really seemed to matter. The biggest clincher in the case was the vast amount of documented evidence, that may or may not have actually incriminated the direct defendants, but certainly gave cause to make examples of them. Most of the deepest responsibilities died with, or not long after, Hitler. So I’m not saying this was a conspiracy of a trial. I’m saying it was ultimately nothing more than a show.
6. The Dirty Dozen
The Nuremberg Trials presided over the cases of 22 Nazi war criminals. By the end of the proceedings, twelve of these men were sentenced to death by hanging. There may well have been a lucky thirteenth to hang, but the head of the German Labour Front, Robert Ley, committed suicide before the trial even began. Two of the twelve men who made it to trial, and were sentenced to death, managed to take their own lives before their enemies were able to. Though one of these men did not even stand trial. He was tried and convicted in absentia. Martin Bormann was the man. He was the successor to the position of secretary for the Nazi Party. Managing to escape the clutches of the Allies for a time, it turns out that he had committed suicide by ingesting a cyanide pill sometime in 1945. But his remains were not discovered until 1972, and the testing did not prove the remains to be Bormann, nor the cause of his death, until further testing in 1998. But there is a far more chilling end that met the men who did make trial and were executed…
5. Walking Away
Given that it was fairly well accepted by many that the trials were nothing more than a spectacle to put the Nazis to shame, it is indeed very interesting to note that of the 22 men who were tried at the hands of this court…three were acquitted! If there was one thing more that the rest of the Allies could have done to piss off the Soviets after bothering to put on a show trial, it’s letting some of the Nazis get away. Hans Fritzsche, a well known radio host, was tried in place of Joseph Goebbels! Goebbels would surely have been sentenced to death, but in pretending to seek out justice through the person of Fritzche, there was ultimately no case and he was let go (this head of Nazi propaganda). Franz von Papen, former Chancellor of Germany, was acquitted, then re-branded a war criminal, then sentenced to hard labour, before again being acquitted. Dr. Hjalmar Schacht, the Economics Minister of the Third Reich, plead guilty to breaking the Treaty of Versailles…so they let him go. Should they have let Nazis who didn’t show remorse walk among the people again?
4. Questionable Defendants…
Perhaps another bit of reasoning towards the notion of the Nuremberg Trials being nothing more than a masquerade, to hide murder in the guise of justice. There were indeed some men, of the 22 defendants, who did indeed commit heinous acts and deserved some form of punishment (though I could not condone the death penalty). But many, if not most of the men, were chosen not as directly responsible criminals, but as representations of overall criminal organizations and industries involved in the war. Heads of the bank and of the radio, ambassadors to Allied countries, businessmen, and even emissaries negotiating peace were all tried in the relatively farcical court proceedings. Rather than actually bringing to justice perpetrators of many of the crimes (because so many higher-ups were already dead), the Allies used the next best people to make an example of them. That, and the Soviets really just wanted to see the two highest ranking men they had captured (who were not very high up to begin with) dangle from ropes.
3. Otto Skorzeny – A Man Acquitted For His Crimes
The above photo is of Otto Skorzeny, while he waited to appear as a witness at the Nuremberg Trials. There is very little to go on with regards to how he conducted himself there, but he was himself held for two years, before being acquitted by the tribunal. Of course, just because he was acquitted, does not mean he was free. For three years after his acquittal, Skorzeny was held in American custody. But this was a man who was famed for using American uniforms, and 150 English-speaking Germans, to attack from behind Allied forces at Normandy (the infamous Battle of the Bulge). In like fashion, it is speculated that his escape from American hands was due to former SS men, in American uniform, “transferring” him for questioning. He lived a long, prosperous life after his escape…and then he became a spy, and hitman for the Israelis. Which is one strange turn of events. But it’s seemingly true, all the same. Skorzeny happens to have a riveting autobiography, that really seems to skip on a lot of the bloody details, but he sure was a chilling and seemingly self-interested man.
2. Robert Jackson – The Judge
Robert Jackson, shortly after the death of FDR, at the behest of Truman, went to preside over the Nuremberg Trials. But right form the outset, he shared the same sentiments that the Soviets did. “If we want to shoot Germans as a matter of policy, let it be done as such, but don’t hide the deed behind a court.” This is the judge of the whole affair, talking about how the proceedings were nothing but a veil for killing Germans. Chief Justice Stone, a colleague of Jackson’s, had even more blatantly scathing remarks for the trials: “Jackson is away conducting his high-grade lynching party in Nuremberg.” These were the top brass when it came to issuing justice in the United States, and all they can seemingly do is berate the international court proceedings for being nothing more than a seemingly justified means for killing Nazis. It is rather frightening to think that, given how grand and famous these trials were, they were nothing more than a clever ruse.
The above photo is of Raphael Lemkin. He may have come up in some high school history classes, and if he didn’t…he should have. Why? Because he is the man who coined the term “Genocide”. The term itself is a mix of two words: genos (the Greek word for tribe or race), and cide (Latin for killings). The chilling fact is that Lemkin employed this term not long before the Nuremberg trials, but after having lost almost fifty family members during the Holocaust. His wife and children were taken into a Soviet “forced labour camp”, but they did survive. Lemkin managed to escape the clutches of the Nazi regime and the Soviets who didn’t particularly like the Jews either. And eventually, after fleeing from persecution, finding sanctuary, and studying the patterns of Nazi power, he was to become the adviser to Nuremberg justice, Robert Jackson. Certainly by no means the first genocide, much like “crimes against humanity”, it’s disturbing, and mind-boggling that no one had before been put on trial for such a thing.