Seventy-five years ago, the bridge in Courtroom 600 in Nuremberg’s Palace of Justice was packed with some of the most nasty figures of the 20th century: Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, Joachim von Ribbentrop and 18 other high-ranking Nazis.
They were not yet known as war criminals – it was an accusation that did not exist until the Nuremberg trials began on November 20, 1945 in what is now seen as the birthplace of a new era of international law.
The procedure broke new ground in holding government leaders individually responsible for their aggression and the slaughter of millions of innocent people. In addition to establishing the crime of war crimes, it also provoked accusations of crimes against peace, waging a war of aggression and crimes against humanity, whose legacy lives on in today’s international criminal court.
Nuremberg was the city where Adolf Hitler examined the trade unionism of the Nazi party and issued the racial laws of 1935 that paved the way for the Holocaust.
Filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s famous propaganda film “Triumph of the Will”, with its sweeping aerial photography and other groundbreaking techniques, brought the Nuremberg Nazi Party Congress to the world in 1934, with images of top officials speaking to massive crowds of supporters at the Bavarian city of Luitpold. Arena and the sweeping Zeppelin field. The congress hall, which was started by the Nazis near the parade area, was never completed and today there is a documentation center on Nuremberg’s history during the Nazi era.
The choice to use the city’s Palace of Justice for the trials was less symbolic than pragmatic, as it was one of the few large buildings left undamaged by Allied bombing during the war.
Testimonies from hundreds of witnesses were heard during 218 trial days. One of them was Rudolf Hoess, the Auschwitz death camp commander, who “reacted to the order to slaughter people he would need on an order to cut down trees,” wrote US Attorney Whitney R. Harris.
U.S. Attorney General Robert Jackson and his colleagues also had the Nazis’ own meticulous information to work with, citing document after document in “revealing the work of the German conspiracy,” Associated Press correspondent Daniel De Luce reported from the courtroom at the time.
On October 1, 1946, Goering, Hitler’s Air Force Commander and right-hand man, was sentenced to death along with eleven others, including Martin Bormann, Hitler’s deputy, who was tried in absentia. Bormann is now known to have died in Berlin in 1945 when he tried to escape from the Soviets. Seven were sentenced to long prison terms and three were acquitted.
Fifteen days later, the condemned men were hanged in the adjacent prison building. Goering committed suicide by swallowing a poison pill in his cell the night before.
One of the last surviving witnesses to the trial, Emilio DiPalma, died earlier this year after contracting the coronavirus in a nursing home where he lived in Massachusetts.
After fighting the Germans on the front lines during the war, at the age of 19 DiPalma was assigned to serve as a guard in the courtroom, where he stood at the witness box with his arms clasped behind his back while Hitler’s deputies grilled about atrocities.
“So far, I can hardly believe that one person can do such cruel things to another,” DiPalma wrote in his memoirs.
The city of Nuremberg celebrates the anniversary in courtroom 600 with a ceremony on Friday that includes German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier as guest of honor. Due to coronavirus restrictions, it will be closed to the public, but will be broadcast live on the internet including an English translation.