Nazi War Trials

Nazi War Trials

by Andrew Walker

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At the end of the Second World War the victorious Allies began unprecedented proceedings against those leading Nazis who had survived and been captured. They charged them with 'crimes against humanity' and put them on trial. This Pocket Essential looks at the Nuremberg Trials and at the personalities involved from defendants like Herman Goering and Rudolf Hess to the


At the end of the Second World War the victorious Allies began unprecedented proceedings against those leading Nazis who had survived and been captured. They charged them with 'crimes against humanity' and put them on trial. This Pocket Essential looks at the Nuremberg Trials and at the personalities involved from defendants like Herman Goering and Rudolf Hess to the judges and the prosecuting and defending counsels. It provides a chronology of the proceedings in the court-room and refers frequently to the terrible events Nazi rule had unleashed on Europe for which the defendants found themselves in the dock. The fates of the major players in the drama at Nuremberg are all revealed. And the book asks the questions that were raised at the time and have not been fully answered since. What was the legal validity of the trials and were the ones who were tried always the right people to bear the responsibility for Nazi crimes?

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No trial provides a better basis for understanding the nature and causes of evil than do the Nuremberg Trials. Nazi War Trials offers a concise overview of these historic proceedings.

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The Nazi War Trials

By Andrew Walker

Oldcastle Books

Copyright © 2006 Andrew Walker
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84243-689-9


The Trial: Prosecution Case

The Trial Begins

The opening of the trial on 20 November 1945 was preceded by frantic last-minute manoeuvres. The French and Soviet delegations both wanted the trial delayed. The Soviets claimed that Rudenko, the head of their prosecution team, had been struck down with malaria. According to the British Foreign Office this was malaria 'of the diplomatic variety'. The defence lawyers then jointly filed a motion challenging the validity of the Tribunal, contesting that war had not been outlawed by any recognised international law. The American and British camps were determined that the trial start on time. The defence motion was rejected by invoking Article Three of the Charter, which ruled out any challenges to its authority. The French and Soviets backed down after threats to publicise their delaying tactics and Rudenko enjoyed a startling and welcome recovery from his malaria.

The trial started amid intense security. Rumours of an attempt to free the defendants by a group of Bavarian Nazis had been passed to the Allies by a young woman working in the court library, who happened to be the niece of the late Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Those filing into the courtroom on that bright Tuesday morning had to pass numerous gun emplacements and check points. The extraordinary significance of the trial drew the cream of the world's press from 23 countries. CBS had sent Howard Smith and William Shirer, the novelist John Dos Passos was there, reporting for Life magazine, and the New Yorker magazine was represented by Janet Flanner and Rebecca West.

The sight that greeted these journalists was one of calculated solemnity. The walls of the courtroom were panelled in dark oak, and dark green curtains were hung over the windows. The dock consisted of two wooden benches behind a low partition and was situated directly opposite the dais on which the judges would sit. The commandant of the prison, Burton Andrus, had filled the courtroom with his most impressive guards, their uniforms bearing the coat of arms designed by himself. They wore gleaming white helmets and webbing and were all armed with white truncheons (only the most observant spectator would spot that these were actually sawn-off mop handles).The whole scene was lit by garish fluorescent lighting, bright enough to accommodate the film cameras that were present behind a sound-proof screen.

The trial began at 10 o'clock in the morning with the statement by the President, Sir Geoffrey Lawrence, calling on all participants in the trial, 'to discharge their duties without fear or favour, in accordance with the sacred principles of law and justice.' The reading of the indictment followed. This was very much a formality since the defendants had received copies of the indictment over a month previously. The reading lasted nearly a day and a half and, if nothing else, provided those present with a good chance to analyse the men in the dock. Göring, Keitel and Jodl wore their uniforms, which were much less impressive than they might have been because they had been stripped of all insignia. The rest of the defendants all wore dark suits, with the exception of Frick, who sported an outlandish check jacket. Göring sat through the reading with an expression of studied boredom, Ribbentrop was seen to be sweating profusely and Walther Funk sobbed intermittently. Those expecting to see the supermen who had engineered the rise of the Thousand Year Reich felt severe disappointment. As William Shirer noted in his diary, 'Shorn of the power and the glory and the glittering trappings of Nazidom, how little and mean and mediocre they look'.

The following day the defendants were required to enter their pleas in response to the indictment. Göring attempted to make a statement but was cut short by Lawrence who insisted on a simple plea of 'guilty' or 'not guilty'. This seemed to provide swift reassurance to those critics of the trial who had feared that it would provide too easy a platform for Nazi propaganda but, in truth, it merely highlighted Justice Lawrence's strict legal rectitude. Later, he would freely allow the defendants their say. Göring's statement was issued to the press, however, and prefigures the aggressive line of defence he was to pursue later in the trial: 'I must ... most strongly reject the accusation that my acts, for which I accept full responsibility, should be described as criminal. I must also reject the acceptance by me of responsibility for the acts of other persons which were not known to me'. All defendants denied that they were guilty as charged, and Hess's curt 'Nein' was dryly interpreted by Lawrence as a plea of 'not guilty', which led to a rare outburst of laughter in the courtroom.

The American and British Cases

An air of anticipation was felt as Robert Jackson stepped up to open the prosecution case for the United States. Jackson was to have his critics as a cross-examiner and man-manager but there was no doubt that here he was in his element. His opening address reached oratorical heights few present had heard before in a court of law. In acknowledging immediately that the Tribunal itself was 'novel and experimental', Jackson was able to emphasise what an achievement it was that it existed at all.

'Yet less than eight months ago today the courtroom in which you sit was an enemy fortress in the hands of SS troops. Less than eight months ago nearly all our witness and documents were in enemy hands. The law had not been codified, no procedures had been established, no tribunal was in existence, no usable courthouse stood here, none of the hundreds of tons of official German documents had been examined, no prosecuting staff had been assembled, nearly all of the present defendants were at large, and the four prosecuting powers had not yet joined in common cause to try them.'

He was equally candid in tackling the criticism that the trial would be no more than a case of victors' justice and, in doing so, touched upon the idealism that underpinned so much thinking in the immediate aftermath of the war.

'The former high station of these defendants, the notoriety of their acts, and the adaptability of their conduct to provoke retaliation make it hard to distinguish between a just and measured retribution and the unthinking cry for vengeance which arises from the anguish of war ... We must summon such detachment and intellectual integrity to our task that this Trial will commend itself to posterity as fulfilling Humanity's aspirations to do justice.'

The core of Jackson's speech set out the United States's case that a conspiratorial plan underlay every aspect of Nazi criminality. An outline of the history of the Nazi party demonstrated that the tools of repression were honed against their political opponents within Germany. Communists, trade unionists, figureheads in the Church and the German Jews were the first victims of Nazi concentration camps. For Jackson, this was the necessary prelude to the aggression aimed at the rest of Europe. Hitler's own words, minuted by Friedrich Hossbach at a conference in 1937 attended by four of the defendants, set out the need for lebensraum or 'living space' to be acquired for the German people. 'The German problem can be solved only by way of force', quoted Jackson. Nor was this view restricted to the Führer. Jackson also quoted a naval memorandum of 1939: 'If decisive successes are to be expected from any measure considered as a war necessity, it must be carried through even if it is not in agreement with international law'.

By quoting from captured documents, Jackson gave the first indications of what was to be his aim throughout the trial – to damn the Nazis with their own words. This tactic proved chilling when Jackson moved to the subject of war crimes. He read from the report of SS General Jürgen Stroop on the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto.

'Jews ... frequently remained in the burning buildings and jumped out of the windows only when the heat became unbearable. They then tried to crawl with broken bones across the street.'

In Russia the Einsatzgruppen, or SS special action groups, had followed the advancing army, murdering political commissars and Jewish civilians without compunction. Jackson revealed that the preferred technique was to load victims into gas vans, which were then driven to secluded sites. A concern of an SS officer was that this required dry conditions, 'since those to be executed become frantic ... such vans become immobilised in wet weather'.

The triumph of Jackson's speech was to make palpable the crimes for which the twenty-one rather shabby defendants were on trial. He received immediate praise in the press and from his colleagues. Forty-eight years later a leading member of the American prosecution team reflected that, 'Jackson had started this great trial at a level of force, feeling, and dignity which, I believe, no other man could have attained.'

It was inevitable that, after such a grandiloquent opening, the ensuing presentation of the American case would seem something of an anti-climax. Sessions on the evidentiary background of the case and the early stages of Nazi conspiracy were worthy rather than spectacular. Moreover, an enormous drawback of the documentary approach came to light when Major Frank Wallis was presenting evidence on 'the aims of the Nazi party and their doctrinal techniques'. The American team had prepared briefs which summarised the mass of documentary evidence, and these were handed over to the Tribunal clerk. Lawrence interrupted proceedings to ask whether there were copies for the Defense Counsel. Wallis replied that, according to agreed procedure, six copies had been placed in the Defendant's Document Room. Lawrence stated the Tribunal's opinion that this was insufficient and that the Defense Counsel should each be given a copy. Such a view was hardly unreasonable given that all the defendants (including the five organisations) had been indicted on the count of conspiracy. Claims by the chief of documents Storey that the logistical problems of wider access to the documents were insurmountable had some validity, and his staff had indeed been working under tremendous strain. His credibility was strained, however, when it was revealed that, in one instance, the Defense had received five copies of a document and 250 copies had gone to the press.

This method of presenting evidence presented further problems to the trial. The American prosecutors would effectively substantiate their claims about Nazi conspiratorial aims by quoting the reference number to a mass of papers and then passing them over. Not only did this make for dull courtroom drama, it also meant that the sequence of events outlined by the Prosecution was almost impossible for most people in the court to follow. On 26 November, less than a week into the trial, the Tribunal had no choice but to introduce new rules regarding the presentation of documentary evidence. Henceforth, and until translation and copying facilities were improved, all evidence had to be read aloud and thus pass into the record by means of the simultaneous translation system. Whilst this measure undoubtedly made the proceedings fairer and clearer to follow, it slowed the progress of the Prosecution case to a crawl. Jackson was left in no doubt by the press coverage that his cherished trial was getting bogged down.

In the afternoon session on Thursday 29 November, all this was to change. James Donovan offered into evidence document number 2430 PS, a motion picture called 'Nazi Concentration Camps'. The noted Hollywood director George Stevens had produced the film, for the most part a compilation of footage taken by military photographers as the Allied armies liberated the camps in their advance across Europe. In the courtroom the curtains were drawn and the lights lowered, with the exception of a single spotlight picking out the defendants.

Today, it has to be recognised that the stark horror of such black-and-white images has been blunted by both the familiarity and the distance afforded by the passage of nearly fifty years. This was not the case in November 1945. In the words of the historian Robert E. Conot, 'the screen filled with images of skeletal men and women, crematoria and gas chambers, the scarred and disfigured bodies of women who had survived medical experiments, mound upon mound of cadavers whose sticklike arms and legs gave the appearance of jumbled piles of driftwood ... and tractors pushing the dead into mass graves like contaminated jetsam'. Few in the courtroom had ever had cause even to imagine such atrocities. Jackson himself had not been alone, amongst Americans in particular, in regarding the gruesome rumours emanating from mainland Europe during the war with scepticism. Now, over the whir of the projector, came sobs of revulsion as many of the onlookers realised that the worst they had feared was the least that had happened. As soon as the film had ended, Justice Lawrence hurriedly left the courtroom without adjourning the session.

Understandably, many present during the film preferred to watch the faces of the defendants rather than look at the film. The prison psychiatrists, Major Kelley and Lieutenant Gilbert, noted the reactions of the men in the dock. Ribbentrop, Schacht, and von Papen turned their backs on the screen. Of the military men, Keitel mopped his face continually and Dönitz covered his eyes. Hess was seen to be staring intently at the images, whilst Streicher, the most virulently anti-semitic of the defendants, leant forward, nodding his head. Later that day, the defendants were visited in their cells to elicit further responses. Keitel blamed 'those dirty SS swine'. Jodl, Dönitz, Sauckel, and Neurath all denied knowing that such things had happened, but a distraught Hans Frank, 'Butcher of Poland', would have none of it. 'Don't let anyone tell you they had no idea! Everybody sensed that there was something horribly wrong with this system, even if we didn't know all the details. They didn't want to know! It was too comfortable to live on the system, to support our families in royal style, and to believe that it was all right.' Göring, too, was able to place the contents of the film in perspective. Having been the star of the morning session as the trial covered the invasion of Austria, he concluded irritably, 'And then they showed that awful film, and it just spoiled everything'.

Jackson then capitalised on the dramatic impact of the film by calling the first witness for the prosecution. To the witness stand came the tall, cadaverous figure of Major General Erwin Lahousen. Lahousen had been an Intelligence Officer in the Austrian army. After the peaceful reoccupation of Austria, he was transferred to the Abwehr, the intelligence arm of the German army. As Executive Officer to the Abwehr chief, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Lahousen had been at the very centre of affairs. He had witnessed the decision-making process very often and was thus able to reveal the extent of knowledge and responsibility amongst the defendants.

All the accused were horrified by the appearance of a serving officer as a witness for the prosecution, not least because, unlike many of the witnesses to follow, Lahousen had no case to answer himself. His appearance could not be attributed to self-interest. His main motive appeared to be retribution for the execution of Canaris after the unsuccessful attempt on Hitler's life in 1944. Göring certainly saw it that way, referring contemptuously to Lahousen as, 'that traitor: that's one we forgot on 20 July'.

Keitel had good reason to be anxious, as Lahousen recounted an attack on the radio station at Gleiwitz in 1939. In a plot hatched by the SS, German troops faked an attack on their own station, leaving behind dead concentration camp internees dressed in Polish army uniforms. Hitler then used the apparent assault as a pretext for launching the invasion of Poland. Lahousen had been given the task by Canaris of obtaining the Polish uniforms for the deception, and he could prove that Canaris in turn had received his orders from Keitel.

Just as discomfiting was the evidence that, during the invasion of France, Keitel had issued an order for the capture and assassination of two fugitive French generals. Issuing orders that led to unspeakable brutality and suffering were interpreted by the defendants as following one's duty. An attack on the person of a general, even an enemy one, was seen as a grave transgression of the code of the Prussian officer corps. During the lunchtime recess that day, Keitel duly received the cold shoulder from Dönitz, Raeder and Jodl.

Cross-examination of Lahousen by the counsel for the defence showed how totally unfamiliar the German lawyers were with this particular legal technique. The long, circuitous questions gave Lahousen ample opportunity to prepare his replies and, in one astonishing instance, even Göring was visibly exasperated. If Lahousen had believed Keitel's orders to be 'murderous', and therefore criminal, asked Dr von der Lippe, why had he not reported them to the police? The line of argument adopted was indicative of the overall defence strategy throughout the trial. The facts presented during the prosecution case could rarely be challenged or repudiated, because one of the strengths of the documentary approach was that most of the evidence came from the written reports of the Nazis themselves. The preferred tack was to argue that it was not a particular defendant, but rather Hitler or some other official, who was responsible for the matter in question and that the defendant had either no hand in it or had made an effort to ameliorate its consequences.


Excerpted from The Nazi War Trials by Andrew Walker. Copyright © 2006 Andrew Walker. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Andrew Walker has long had an interest in the trials that followed World War II, and is a regular reviewer for Waterstone's Books Quarterly—but these two points are in no way related.

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