Nuremberg trials established new concepts

Hermann Goering and 21 others were put on trial 60 years ago today.

nuremberg trial 298 88ap (photo credit: AP [file])
nuremberg trial 298 88ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
Reporter Ernest Michel recalls watching intently as top Nazis walked to the microphone and uttered their "not guilty" pleas - Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, Joachim von Ribbentrop and 18 more. Michel, then 22, covered the trials for a German news agency after spending five years in Nazi concentration camps. He had no lofty thoughts then about the lasting legal precedents being created by the war crimes tribunal. As the world prepares to mark the 60th anniversary of the landmark trials, the German-born Michel, who is Jewish, recalled that for him the proceedings, opened on November 20, 1945, were about simple justice. "It was simply to try the defendants, the living leaders of the Nazi government," said Michel, now 82, in a telephone interview from New York. "I found it difficult as a Holocaust survivor to sit there; sometimes I wanted to jump down and grab them and tell them, 'Why did you do this? What had I done? What had my family done?'" The proceedings in Courtroom 600 of the Nuremberg Palace of Justice - still a working courtroom today - went beyond punishing the Nazis. It also established the concept that government leaders could be held individually responsible for wartime actions that violated international standards of conduct. The trial established new offenses: crimes against peace, waging a war of aggression, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, said Hans Hesselmann, a historian and head of Nuremberg's city human rights office. "Nuremberg is considered to be the birthplace of a new international law," he said. The legacy of Nuremberg can be seen in the International Criminal Court in the Hague, the accusations facing deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and the UN trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. "What for us today goes without saying was for them not so clear," said Judge Ewald Behrschmidt, vice president of the Nuremberg superior state court, which now conducts murder trials in Room 600, an oak-paneled courtroom on the top floor of a building next to the sprawling main justice complex. "Then, it was no crime to begin a war - war was recognized to be politics by other means. Today we have the legacy of this trial." Nuremberg was the city where the Nazis held their annual party rallies - the choreographed torchlight marches and fiery speeches recorded by filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl in 1934's "Triumph of the Will" - and where Hitler's anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws paving the way for the Holocaust were announced in 1935. Trying top Nazis in such a symbolic location could not have been far from the Allies' minds, but Nuremberg was chosen for more practical reasons. It was the largest court building in Bavaria, which fell in the American sector, and escaped destruction by Allied bombers even though 90 percent of the surrounding city was in ruins. It also had an attached prison to hold other Nazis brought in as witnesses, such as Auschwitz death camp commandant Rudolf Hess. A tunnel led directly to an elevator that brought prisoners into Courtroom 600's defendant dock. The court feared someone would try to kill or rescue the accused. "We needed living defendants," Behrschmidt said. Over 218 trial days, testimony from hundreds of witnesses was introduced, with simultaneous translation used for the first time. More than anything, however, the prosecution relied on the meticulous records the Nazis kept themselves - liberally used by chief US prosecutor Robert Jackson as well as the British, Soviet and French prosecution teams. "Jackson, laying bare the workings of the German conspiracy in which he said the accused 'bathed the world in blood and set civilization back a century,' quoted from document after document," Associated Press writer Daniel De Luce reported at the time. On October 1, 1946, the judgment was read. Goering, Hitler's right-hand man and head of the air force, was sentenced to death along with 11 others, including former Nazi party secretary Hess, Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop and Hitler's deputy Martin Bormann, who was tried in absentia. Three received life in prison, four received 10 to 20 years, and three were acquitted. Fifteen days later, the condemned men were hanged in the adjacent prison. Goering committed suicide by taking poison in his cell the night before. On Sunday, the city of Nuremberg will mark the trial's anniversary with a podium discussion to be attended by Whitney R. Harris, one of the American prosecutors. Michel, whose byline on stories he filed for the German DANA news agency included his Auschwitz inmate number, is to speak about his experiences at Berlin's Jewish Museum on Tuesday. "There is nothing in my entire life that can compare to the emotion I felt," he said. "It is almost impossible for me to explain or express it in a way that people will understand what it meant to me."