78 Years Later
Early in the morning of May 7, 1945, in a little red schoolhouse in Reims where General Eisenhower had his headquarters General Afred Jodl signed the unconditional surrender document thus ending the war in Europe. After placing his signature on the document, the General asked and was granted permission to make a statement:
With this signature the German people and the German Armed Forces are, for better or worse, delivered into the hands of the victors… In this hour I can only express the hope that the victor will treat them with generosity.
This from the man who assisted in planning and carrying out aggressive warfare against neutral nations and who signed both the Commissar and Commando Orders. The French and other conquered nations made similar pleas to the Germans in 1940 that fell on deaf ears.
Seventy-eight years ago this month, the Allied nations launched the first in a series of trials intended to serve justice for the victims of the Nazi regime. Given the extent and gravity of the heinous crimes against international law and order and against humanity that were orchestrated by men such as Jodl, it is a testament to the benevolence of the Allied powers that those responsible were allowed due process in the liberal Western sense. A right to due process that these men withheld from their victims – the millions of Holocaust victims who were murdered together with their families in the cruelest manner imaginable, the millions of Soviet POWs that were deliberately starved to death, the millions of “undesirable” innocent people that were deprived of food and shelter and left to die of exposure and hunger, the millions of slave laborers worked to death and treated worse than animals, the millions of lives that were destroyed and countless communities that were wiped out.
The fact that those on trial were presumed innocent until proven guilty given the heinous crimes for which they were accused was an event theretofore unheard of in human history. Not to mention the fact that the Allies, namely the United States, led the effort to feed, clothe, and shelter the German people and through the Marshall Plan eventually rebuild their vanquished enemy’s country.
Considering the gravity of their crimes, the trials were too generous to such despicable characters, however they did serve as an opportunity to prove to the world unequivocally the evil of National Socialism and its leaders, both civilian and military.
First Nuremberg Trial Defendants
Martin Bormann – Head of the Nazi Chancellery, Head of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, Hitler’s personal secretary, member of the SS. Bormann was tried and sentenced to death in absentia. It was later discovered that Bormann committed suicide by biting a cyanide capsule whilst trying to escape through Red Army lines (after fleeing from the Fuhrer bunker) during the final moments of the Battle of Berlin. Decades later his body was discovered, identified, and analyzed. Fragments of the glass cyanide capsule were found in his teeth.
Karl Dönitz – A dedicated Nazi and passionate supporter of Adolf Hitler, Head of the German Naval High Command during the war, Nazi Minister of War, President of Germany (appointed by Hitler to be his successor). He was tried and sentenced to ten years. Released in 1956. Dönitz lived out the rest of his life quietly and wrote his memoirs. He passed away at age eighty-nine in 1980. Until the end of his life, he maintained his innocence and was unrepentant regarding his role and support for antisemitic measures during the war. Despite this, he was popular in military circles; hundreds of German and foreign military dignitaries attended his funeral, including 100 recipients of the Knight’s Cross.
Hans Frank – Known as the “Butcher of Poland” he was one of the most notorious Nazis. Frank was the Governor of the Nazi General Government which encompassed occupied Poland and was directly involved in the mass murder of Poland’s Jewish population; Frank insisted that the Jews of Poland have priority for liquidation. Four of the largest Nazi extermination camps were located in his area of jurisdiction. He was tried, sentenced to death, and hanged on October 16, 1946, in Nuremberg Prison. Frank and Albert Speer were the only two defendants to show remorse for their crimes. Whilst awaiting execution Frank converted to Roman Catholicism, received confession and last rites from a prison chaplain before execution, and reportedly went to his death happy that he could in some measure atone for his evil deeds.
Wilhelm Frick – Prominent Nazi party leader, Nazi Minister of the Interior (1933-1943). Frick played a key role in the passage and implementation of anti-Jewish laws and the operation of concentration camps in Germany. He was tried, sentenced to death, and hanged on October 16, 1946, in Nuremberg Prison.
Hans Fritzsche – High ranking director in the Nazi Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda (under the direction of Goebbels). Fritzsche was the preeminent Nazi broadcaster of the time; his voice was recognized by most Germans. Fritzsche was tried and acquitted. After the trial evidence came to light that he knew about the extermination of the Jews and played an important part in bringing about Nazi crimes. Nuremberg prosecutor Alexander Hardy believed that had the information been available during the trial that Fritzsche would have been convicted and executed. Accordingly, Fritzsche was classified as a “Major Offender” and sentenced to nine years hard labor by a Denazification court. He was released early in 1950 under an amnesty program and died in 1953 of cancer.
Walther Funk – A high ranking Nazi, Funk served as Minister of Economics and Reichsbank President under in the Nazi regime. Labelled as the “Banker of Gold Teeth” in the trial, Funk played a key role in the confiscation of Jewish-owned property in the Third Reich. Among other things, the Reichsbank melted down into ingots the gold fillings, wedding rings, and jewelry that was confiscated from Jewish victims in SS operated death camps. The bank also handled much of the artwork, stocks, bonds, real estate, and other properties that were stolen from Jews. Funk was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Funk was incarcerated at the Spandau Prison along with other senior Nazis. He was released in 1957 on humanitarian grounds due to ill health and died three years later of diabetes.
Hermann Göring – One Hitler’s closest associates and part of the inner-circle of Nazi power from the beginning, Göring held numerous important offices in the Third Reich including: President of the Reichstag, Chief of the Luftwaffe High Command (the German Air Force), and Plenipotentiary of the Four-Year Plan (the mobilization of all sectors of the economy for war). As one of Hitler’s top lieutenants Göring played a key role in launching the war and all the terrible atrocities perpetrated by the regime. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. On the night before his execution Göring committed suicide by breaking a glass ampule of cyanide between his teeth. Somehow, he managed to have it smuggled to him behind bars.
Rudolf Hess – Deputy Fuhrer of the Nazi Party, Nazi minister without portfolio, personal secretary to Adolf Hitler (1925-1935). Hess was one of Hitler’s earliest disciples and an ardent National Socialist. He was instrumental in assisting Hitler to write his memoir Mein Kampf while incarcerated for his failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. Hess was less adept at the manipulation, backstabbing, and posturing necessary to remain relevant in Hitler’s inner circle of power. By 1941 Hess found himself out of Hitler’s good graces and decided to impress his idol by clandestinely negotiating peace with Britain. He stole a Luftwaffe plane and flew to Scotland where he was taken prisoner. The British incarcerated Hess for the remainder of the war and sent him to Nuremberg for trial when it was over. In his position as Deputy Fuhrer Hess signed into law the Nuremberg codes of 1935 that stripped German Jews of citizenship rights. He also played a role in the incorporation of Poland into the Nazi empire and was a part and party to the launching the war. It was also believed that Hess had advance knowledge of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union and could have alerted the British to this fact but chose not to. Hess was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was incarcerated in Spandau prison until his death by suicide in 1987 at age ninety-three. His body was found in the reading room of the prison; he used an electrical cord which he strung over a window latch. A note was found in his pocket thanking his family.
Alfred Jodl - Chief of the Operations Staff of the Wehrmacht High Command, Chief of the Wehrmacht High Command. Jodl played an important role in the planning of all major Nazi offensives against other nations. He also signed off on the infamous Commando and Commissar Orders. After Hitler’s death Admiral Dönitz sent Jodl to sign the unconditional surrender of Germany in Reims. Jodl was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. During the trial he pleaded not guilty and maintained his innocence under the defense that he was a soldier acting under higher orders. Part of the evidence against him were documents ordering the deportation of Danish Jews to concentration camps. He was hanged on October 16, 1946, along with other high-ranking Nazis who were sentenced to death in the trial.
Ernst Kaltenbrunner – Member of the SS, Director of the Reich Security Main Office, Director of the Sicherheitsdienst (the Nazi Party intelligence service), Higher SS and Police Leader of Austria, and Commander of the Einsatzgruppen death squads. An Austrian and rabid antisemite, Kaltenbrunner was the highest-ranking member of the SS to be tried after the war (Himmler committed suicide shortly after his capture and never stood trial). He played a key role in the perpetration of the Holocaust. He replaced Reinhardt Heydrich after his assassination and presided over the implementation of the Final Solution through the end of the war. Kaltenbrunner was tried, convicted, and hanged on October 16, 1946.
Wilhelm Keitel - Chief of the Wehrmacht High Command (succeeded by Alfred Jodl). Known as Hitler’s “yes-man” lackey, Keitel was universally despised by high-ranking German army officers. Keitel had full knowledge of Nazi plans for Poland and Eastern Europe including the mass incarceration and murder of Jews by the Einsatzgruppen. Once the criminal nature of the invasion became obvious many lower ranking Wehrmacht field officers expressed shock and protest over the events they were witnessing. Keitel ignored and silenced the protests of the officer corps which eventually became numbed to the atrocities committed in the bloody East. Starting in the spring of 1941, just prior to launching Operation Barbarossa, Keitel issued a series of orders authorizing the killing of Jews and civilian non-combatants for any reason. Under the orders German soldiers who carried out murders of civilians in the East were exempt from court martial. Keitel was tried and convicted. During the trial Keitel and Jodl both used the same defense – that as soldiers they were just following orders. When he received his death sentence, Keitel requested execution by firing squad which was denied. He was hanged along with other Nazis on October 16, 1946. Prior to execution he became piously religious, made confession, and received communion. The trap door on the gallows was too small and caused head injuries to some of the condemned as they fell. Also, many of the executed Nazis fell with insufficient force to snap their necks which resulted in convulsions. Keitel hung for twenty-four minutes before he was declared dead.
Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach – Chairman of the Board of Krupp Industries. Krupp owned firms produced most of the weaponry, vehicles, and equipment used by the Wehrmacht – everything from U-boats and warships to howitzers, tanks, trucks, and machine guns. The family made a fortune off the war and knowingly used slave labor in their factories. Krupp suffered a nervous breakdown in 1943 (from which he never fully recovered) after touring a factory that had been destroyed the night before by 627 Royal Air Force heavy bombers. Krupp was indicted by the first Nuremberg court, but never stood trial as he was found to be mentally unfit. The indictment remained and he was subject to trial in the future if found mentally sound. Bedridden and senile, Krupp died in 1950.
Robert Ley – Among other Nazi offices Ley was the Head of the German Labor Front and Governor of Rhineland. A fanatical supporter of Hitler and the National Socialist cause, Ley played a key role in coordinating the use of slave labor in German industry. He was also fully aware of the Final Solution and encouraged it in rabid antisemitic speeches and publications. Ley was loyal to Hitler to the end of his life which ended by suicide on October 24, 1945 – three days after his indictment. Ley hung himself in his cell using a noose fashioned from torn strips of a towel and suspended from pipes on the ceiling of his cell.
Konstantin von Neurath – Nazi Minister of Foreign Affairs (1932-1939), Nazi governor of Bohemia and Moravia. The aristocratic Neurath played an important role in Hitler’s undermining of the Treaty of Versailles and early territorial expansion (annexation of Austria and Czechoslovakia). Neurath, however, disagreed with Hitler’s aims (he believed Germany would be drawn into a war with France and Britain that it could not win) for which he was sacked and replaced with Joachim von Ribbentrop. During his trial Neurath argued that most of Hitler’s most egregious violations of the national sovereignty of other nations occurred after he left office. However, as the Nazi ruler of Bohemia and Moravia he played a role in putting down the Czech resistance which included summary executions. Since he did not hold higher office during the zenith of the Nazi atrocities, he was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, of which he served nine. Neurath was released on humanitarian grounds in 1954 after suffering a heart attack at age eighty-one. He died two years after his release.
Franz von Papen – Chancellor of Germany (for a brief period in 1932 under the Weimar Republic), Vice Chancellor under Hitler (1933-1934), Ambassador to Austria and later to Turkey. Von Papen was an influential German politician during the Weimar period and briefly in the Nazi regime. He convinced Weimar president Paul von Hindenburg to appoint Hitler Chancellor in 1933 and himself as Vice Chancellor along with a cabinet that was not Nazi dominated. Von Papen believed he could control Hitler and keep the National Socialist government in check – he believed Hitler would play by the rules of the system. This, obviously, was a gross miscalculation. Hitler quickly marginalized von Papen and extended his Nazi tentacles throughout the government. After the Night of the Long Knives von Papen resigned. However, being the politician that he was, von Papen realized who was buttering the bread and joined the Nazi party in 1938. He went on to serve as in the foreign ministry until 1944, first in Austria and later in Turkey. Von Papen was indicted, tried, and acquitted. The court ruled that while in office he committed “political immoralities,” he had not been party to the worst of Nazi atrocities and did not play a role in the Nazi annexation of Austria.
Erich Raeder – Chief of the German Navy High Command (1935-1943). Raeder oversaw the rebuilding of the German navy leading up to World War II. He ran the Kriegsmarine through the first half of the war and oversaw the implementation and expansion of U-boat warfare in the Atlantic. He opposed going to war in 1939-40 and advised Hitler that the navy would need at least five years to match the Royal Navy. Unlike other high ranking German officers, Raeder was not an ardent Nazi and did not involve himself in politics. Hitler eventually sacked Raeder over differences of opinion and replaced him with Karl Dönitz, a more reliable Nazi. In addition to other charges, Raeder was tried and convicted for planning, initiating, and waging wars of aggression. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, of which he served ten years; he was released in 1955 on humanitarian grounds and ill health. He died of natural causes five years later in 1960.
Joachim von Ribbentrop – Nazi Minister of Foreign Affairs (1938-1945). One of Hitler’s faithful followers, von Ribbentrop was a wealthy businessman with ample world travel experience. He impressed Hitler who appointed him to succeed von Neurath as his Minister of Foreign Affairs. Unlike Neurath, the bully Ribbentrop had no qualms about lying, manipulating, or intimidating other nations to further Hitler’s radical goals. He negotiated the most notorious Nazi treaties, including the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that split Poland between the two totalitarian nations. As the fortunes of war turned against the Nazis, Ribbentrop sought Hitler’s permission to attempt a negotiated peace which caused a falling out between the two. Ribbentrop also played a key role in the Holocaust and was fully aware of the Final Solution; he ordered German diplomats in Axis countries to expedite the deportation of Jews to death camps in the East. He also supported the summary execution of Allied airmen shot down over Germany. Von Ribbentrop was tried and convicted for his roles in perpetrating the Holocaust and waging wars of aggression. He was sentenced to death and hanged on October 16, 1946, along with other high-ranking Nazis.
Alfred Rosenberg – Rosenberg was a leading Nazi ideologue and served in several high profile positions within the party and Nazi government including: Leader of the Foreign Policy Office of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party NSDAP, Fuhrer's Representative for the Supervision of Intellectual and Ideological Education of the NSDAP, Reichsleiter (second highest position within the Nazi party, second only to Hitler), and Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories. Rosenberg was a leading Nazi theorist and authored several works such as The Myth of the Twentieth Century which expounded on the Nazi racist views and promoted persecution of Jews among other things. Rosenberg was one of the most outspoken critics of modern art, which the regime considered degenerate. He also hated Christianity and played an important role in the creation of nationalistic German Positive Christianity. As Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories Rosenberg participated in crafting plans for the extermination of the Jews and the enslavement of the Slavs; his office was represented at the infamous Wannsee Conference. In 1941, months after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Rosenberg openly called for the “biological extermination” of all Jews in Europe. Rosenberg was tried, convicted, and executed on October 16, 1946. Of all the Nazis executed on that day, Rosenberg was the only one who refused to make a final statement before he went to the gallows.
Fritz Sauckel – Sauckel was a politician and the Nazi governor of Thuringia. In 1942 Hitler appointed him General Plenipotentiary for Labor Deployment, in which capacity he was responsible for the procurement of workers for German industry. Sauckel organized the mass enslavement of millions of Poles, Slavs, and Jews in Eastern Europe. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. Despite his claims of innocence (which he maintained up to his last breath), it was proven during the trial that Sauckel personally instituted a policy of maximum exploitation of slaves. Under the orders, workers were to be housed, fed, and clothed in such a way that they would be exploited “to the highest possible extent” for the “lowest conceivable degree of expenditure.” These types of policies resulted in the suffering and death of hundreds of thousands of slave laborers in German industry. Sauckel was hanged on October 16, 1946.
Hjalmar Schacht – A German politician and co-founder of the German Democratic Party, Schacht played a role in convincing Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as Chancellor in 1933. Schacht served in the Hitlers government as Minister of Economics until 1937, and as President of the Reichsbank until 1939. However, he opposed Hitler’s policy of military rearmament and clashed with other Nazis in Hitler’s inner circle of power. When he saw war clouds gathering in early 1939, he resigned his position at the Reichsbank. Hitler, however kept him on as a minister without portfolio with the same pay until 1943. After the failed July 1944 assassination attempt against Hitler, Schacht was arrested for having allegedly had contact with the plotters of the coup attempt. He was incarcerated in various concentrations camps until the end of the war. Schacht was tried and acquitted against the objections of the Soviets (who seemingly had already decided that everyone indicted was already guilty and the trial merely a formality). Later he was convicted by a denazification court to eight years hard labor, however that sentence was overturned on appeal.
Baldur von Schirach – Schirach met Adolf Hitler for the first time at age seventeen when his father hosted him in their home on one of Hitler’s many speaking tours in the 1920s. The most youthful member of Hitler’s inner-circle, Schirach founded the Hitler Youth in 1931 and played a key role in building Hitler’s cult of personality via the Nazi youth movement. As all “good” Nazis, Schirach was a virulent antisemite and ardent disciple of the Fuhrer. He wrote several Nazi books targeting German youth which sold hundreds of thousands of copies. When the war started in 1939, he left the Hitler Youth and joined the army where he served as an infantry soldier in the elite Grossdeutchland regiment in the 1940 Battle of France. He rose from the rank of corporal to lieutenant during his nearly two years in army service. In 1940 Hitler rewarded the youngest member of his inner circle of cronies by appointing Schirach to be the Nazi governor of Vienna, a position which he kept until the Soviets overran the city in 1945. While serving in this capacity Schirach oversaw the deportation of 65,000 Jewish residents of Vienna to death camps which he considered a “contribution to European culture;” he also plundered the modern equivalent of millions of dollars’ worth of Jewish-owned artwork and property. After the war he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to twenty years in prison. During the trial Schirach denounced Hitler and claimed that he was no longer antisemitic. He further claimed that he became and antisemite after reading Henry Ford’s The International Jew. According to Schirach he was the equivalent of a Boy Scout leader and knew nothing about the mass murder of Jews in death camps despite there being ample evidence to the contrary. He served his complete sentence and was released in 1966. Schirach went on to publish his memoir I Believed in Hitler and did multiple interviews in which he tried to sanitize his image; he expressed regret at not having done enough to have prevented atrocities. Until his death he associated with many lower-ranking ex-Nazis, including many former members of the SS. He became an alcoholic and died in 1974 at age 67.
Arthur Seyss-Inquart – An Austrian Nazi, Seyss-Inquart held various positions in the Third Reich including Deputy Governor-General of the General Government (under Hans Frank), Nazi governor of Austria, and as the Nazi overlord of occupied Netherlands. In each of these positions Seyss-Inquart enthusiastically participated in the deportation of Jews and confiscation of their properties. His reign in the Netherlands was characterized terror, oppression, and summary executions. Seyss-Inquart was tried, convicted, and hanged during the October 16, 1946, executions. Before his execution he returned to the Catholic church and received absolution and the sacrament of confession from a prison chaplain.
Albert Speer – Speer, an architect by trade, held numerous positions in the Nazi government but is most well-known for his role as Reich Minister of Armaments and War Production. Speer joined the Nazi party in 1931 and gained Hitler’s confidence by designing various structures such as the Reich Chancellery and Nuremberg parade grounds where the party held large political rallies. In 1937 Hitler tapped Speer to head the General Building Inspectorate in Berlin. In this role Speer was responsible for eviction of Berlin Jews and the confiscation of their residences. Speer proved to be adept at organization and managed to keep German industry producing war materiel almost up until the last moment of the conflict. Speer condoned the use of slave labor in German industry and went so far as to prescribe specific punishment of workers accused of sabotage, malingering, or laziness. Speer was fully aware of the hellish living conditions in German factories that used slave labor. At the end of the war Speer refused to implement Hitler’s “Nero Decree” that ordered the destruction of all German infrastructure (which was a consideration in his not receiving the death sentence). Speer was tried, convicted, and sentenced to twenty years imprisonment. Another major consideration in his trial was the lack of any evidence that he had direct knowledge of the extermination of the Jews, a position that he maintained for the rest of his life – and one that was later conclusively proven to be a lie. During the trail he denounced Hitler and cast himself as an artist and non-ideologue who ended up in government service. In reality, Speer was one of the most important members if Hitler’s inner-circle of power; his behind-the-scenes management of industry kept the Wehrmacht supplied with the basic implements of war to the very end. Speer served out his sentence in the Spandau prison, during which time he completed his memoirs (over 20,000 pages) which he smuggled out with the help of friends on the outside (it was illegal for Nazi inmates to write memoirs). While incarcerated he also kept a detailed diary. These later became the basis for two best seller works – Inside the Third Reich and Spandau Diaries. In these, Speer did his best to sanitize his image as a Nazi and create sympathy by portraying himself as a heroic German who made great personal sacrifices and moral compromises for the greater good. After his release in 1966, he published the previously mention works as well as other minor titles consisting of hit pieces on former Nazi inner-circle rival Heinrich Himmler and the SS. Speer became a publicity hound and gave many interviews, the first of which he did with Der Spiegel a month after his release. He also made himself available to historians and shared a sanitized version of his memoir with various archivists. After his death, it was proven conclusively in his post-release private correspondence that he in fact knew about (and was party to) the final solution and the systematic mass murder of the Jews and others. The fact that, unlike most other high-ranking Nazis, he rarely wore a uniform or openly participated in politics enabled Speer to distance himself from Hitler’s inner circle and the crimes of which he was guilty.
Julius Streicher – Nazi governor, SA Brownshirt, member of the Reichstag, founder and publisher of Der Sturmer, an antisemitic newspaper which functioned as one of the primary Nazi propaganda outlets. Streicher was one of the “original” Nazis and participated in Hitler’s ill-fated 1923 Beer Hall Putsch in Munich. He was a rabid antisemite and used his newspaper to personally slander high profile Jews in government and other positions. In the paper Streicher portrayed Jews as societal degenerates, sexual deviants, subhuman, and evil. His publishing house printed several antisemitic children’s books and called for the mass deportation of Jews to Madagascar. Streicher played an important role in whipping up antisemitic sentiment in Germany; in 1938 he published an editorial which called for the destruction of the Grand Synagogue of Hamburg which was subsequently destroyed during the November 1938 Kristallnacht pogroms. He was known to wander the streets of Hamburg (while governor) in his Brownshirt uniform and crack a large bullwhip which he carried to intimidate people. Due to his antics and other personal failings, Streicher eventually had a falling out with other inner-circle Nazi cronies – whom he also regularly criticized in his newspaper (he hated Göring who was a frequent target for ridicule). In 1940 he was stripped of his party offices but kept his job as governor and continued publishing. In his role as governor, he enriched himself with assets plundered from Jewish victims. He was tried, convicted, and executed on October 16, 1946.
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William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany.