Germans and their wartime allies were due Sunday to mark the 60th anniversary of the start of the Nuremberg trials that brought leading Nazis to justice and forced the nation to confront its past.
US Chief Prosecutor Jackson addresses the bench at the trials
Surviving members of the team of jurists and officials assembled by the Allies to try Hitler's henchmen gathered in Nuremberg, in southern Germany, to reflect on what was arguably the first international military tribunal.
Among them was Whitney Harris, one of the American prosecutors, who said that at the start of the process they had no inkling of the extent of the atrocities committed by the Nazis.
"I did not have the slightest idea of the scale of the genocide that had taken place in Germany. We did not have much solid evidence when we started," he told the online version of Der Spiegel weekly.
Auschwitz, 60 years ago
But a picture of some of the worst crimes ever committed emerged as Nazi officers revealed under questioning how SS commander Heinrich Himmler had ordered Auschwitz to be turned into a mass extermination camp for Jews, Gypsies and prisoners of war.
Of the 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz, 1.1 million died.
Pleas of innocence
All 21 of the defendants who went on trial on November 20, 1945 pleaded "not guilty" in the oak-paneled Courtroom 600 of the Nuremberg Palace of Justice, but the evidence was overwhelming.
By October 1, 1946, 11 had been sentenced to death and seven had been handed prison terms.
Among them was Hitler's deputy Rudolf Hess who was condemned to life imprisonment. Three defendents were acquitted, proving, Harris said, that justice was done.
High drama erupted when Hermann Goering, one of the chief architects of the "Final Solution" to eradicate the Jews, committed suicide by taking cyanide in his cell on October 15, 1946, on the day of his execution.
The 10 others were hanged.
The accused in the courtroom
What shocked many at the trial was the refusal of the defendants to accept personal responsibility for their role in the crimes carried out by the Nazi regime, maintaining that they were merely obeying orders.
"I did not expect them to be such pitiful cowards," Arno Hamburger, a leader of the Jewish community in Nuremberg who acted as a translator at the trials, told Sunday's edition of the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.
The trial began with a speech in which US chief prosecutor Robert H. Jackson prophetically remarked that the deeds of the defendants would mark humanity long after they had turned to dust.
Ironically the anniversary has stirred a heated debate between the United States and the vanquished Germans because of Washington's refusal decades later to fully recognise the UN's new International Criminal Court, tasked with trying war crimes suspects.
The anniversary events are to culminate in a speech by Philippe Kirsch, the president of the ICC -- a deliberate effort to nudge the United States into action.
"We should not lose sight of the role of the United States in the Nuremberg Trials," Nuremberg Mayor Ulrich Maly told AFP.
"But we want to emphasize the significance of the Nuremberg Trials for a global form of justice and draw the link to today."
Former prosecutor Harris said he strongly condemned Washington's attitude to the ICC but he believed that the main message of Nuremberg was one against war. "We cannot tolerate wars in this world anymore," he said. "Adolf Hitler was only a name that symbolised the absolute and worldwide breakdown of morality in the 20th century. All these gruesome crimes are not exclusively a German phenomenon."