On November 20, 1945, the largest trial in history opened in Nuremberg, during which 21 of the highest leaders of the Nazi regime, including Hitler’s designated successor Hermann Goering, had to answer for the first time. crimes before international justice.
Since 1943, the Allied Powers had been reflecting on the fate of German war criminals. Even before the capitulation, the principle of an unprecedented trial, before an international tribunal and in public, was adopted.
Just six months after the end of hostilities, the prosecutors, who are like the judges from the four Allied Powers, gathered 300,000 testimonies and some 6,600 exhibits, supported by 42 volumes of archives.
The trial is being held in a city in ruins, but whose courthouse connected to a prison is still standing. Nuremberg, a former imperial city, is above all the symbolic city of Nazism where Hitler held his large gatherings and where anti-Jewish laws were promulgated in 1935.
Crimes against humanity
On November 20, 1945 at 10 a.m., the trial opened in courtroom 600 of the tribunal, in the presence of hundreds of journalists. “The real plaintiff at the bar is civilization,” said US Attorney Robert Jackson.
On the dock stand the highest Nazi dignitaries still alive after the suicides of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler.
Hermann Goering, former number 2 of the regime, rubs shoulders with Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, Alfred Rosenberg, the party ideologue, Fritz Sauckel, the head of forced labor, Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Minister of Foreign Affairs …
The accused must answer for conspiracy, war crimes, crimes against peace and, for the first time in history, crimes against humanity.
These are defined as “assassination, extermination, enslavement, deportation and any other inhumane act committed against any civilian population, before or during the war, or persecution for political, racial or religious ”. The notion of genocide will not be recognized in international law until 1948.
The shock of images
All the accused plead “nicht schuldig” (“not guilty”). But the screening of a film shot by the Western Allies on the camps quickly gave another dimension to the trial.
“Sauckel shuddered at the sight of the Buchenwald crematorium. When showing a lampshade made of human skin, Streicher says: + I don’t believe that +. (…) Frick shakes his head, looking incredulous, when a doctor describes the treatment and the experiences inflicted on prisoners of Belsen ”, will describe the psychologist of the prison for the duration of the trial, Gustave M. Gilbert, in “The Nuremberg Diary” (1947).
Among the 33 witnesses for the prosecution, the French resistance fighter Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier, survivor of the Auschwitz-Birkenau and then Ravensbruck camps, delivers a relentless story lasting more than two hours: the women who gave birth and whose newcomers newborns were drowned before their eyes, the detainees forced to drink the water from the puddles before washing in them, called her at three in the morning …
“Before speaking in court, I walked past the accused, very slowly. I wanted to watch them closely. I wondered what people capable of such monstrous crimes could look like, ”she told the French daily L’Humanité.
The verdict fell on October 1, 1946: twelve death sentences (including one in absentia for Martin Bormann, Hitler’s secretary whose death was unknown at the time), three sentences to life imprisonment, two sentences of twenty years in prison, one of fifteen years and one of ten years.
Three of the defendants escape prison. Acquittals which surprise observers at the time, but the instigators of the trial answer the detractors that they wanted it “fair”.
Goering se suicide
Unprecedented in its form, Nuremberg does not escape criticism of a justice done by the victors and is not free from gray areas (the Katyn massacre that the Soviet prosecution tries in vain to attribute to the Nazis, the German-Soviet pact hidden from the debates …).
On October 16, 1946 at 1 a.m., ten of those condemned to death were hanged. Hermann Goering had committed suicide a few hours earlier in his cell by swallowing a cyanide capsule to escape a hanging he considered unworthy of a soldier.
All the bodies, including that of Goering, are cremated and their ashes spread in a tributary of the Isar, to prevent their graves from becoming places of gatherings.
Nuremberg will be the site of twelve other trials of Nazi officials (doctors, ministers, soldiers …).