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Nuremberg Trials: Germany learns to confront its Nazi past

November 16, 2020

Germany is marking the 75th anniversary of the first Nuremberg trial. Initially, the trials, military tribunals by occupying powers, were barely respected in a country that wanted to forget. But that attitude changed.

The courtroom of the Nuremberg trials as it looks today
Image: Nuremberg Municipal Museums, Memorium Nuremberg Trials; Photo: Christine Dierenbach

"Guilt is always something personal," says 81-year-old Niklas Frank. It's a thought that touches Germany's fundamental problem after the war: How can a nation's trauma be worked through in individual's people's heads? How do you take your parents' guilt personally? 

Though many Germans treated it as an abstract problem that could be suppressed in silence, the question cut into Niklas Frank's life like a knife. He was the son of Hans Frank, the governor-general of the occupied Polish territories during World War II, who directly oversaw four Nazi extermination camps.

The 6-year-old Frank can still remember his family's refusal to acknowledge his father's guilt as he was being tried in the first Nuremberg trial, which began 75 years ago on November 20, 1945. Hans Frank was hanged the following October.

Read more: Memoryless pawns — a writer reckons with her grandparents

Germany: Witnesses Remember the Nuremberg Trials

The burden of punishing criminals

In 1945, most Germans were not yet ready to acknowledge their guilt. They were bent on survival at the end of the war. The country's infrastructure and economy were in ruins, and millions of hungry German refugees were pouring in from lost territories in the East, driven out by the Soviet Union. The population was facing four years without a government in the limbo of military occupation.

Amidst this, the first and most important Nuremberg trial — the only one to be organized by all four Allies – was to last 11 months, hear 240 witnesses, and read some 300,000 statements. The verdicts were not foregone conclusions: Of the 24 defendants — powerful figures in the Nazi regime — the court handed out 12 death sentences, seven prison sentences (ranging from 10 years to life), and three outright acquittals.

But despite the care that was taken, most of the German population in those early years after WWII dismissed the trials as "victor's justice." "That was the dominant opinion: Total rejection of these trials. People believed they were one-sided. The newspapers at the time were full of that opinion," said lawyer and legal scholar Ingo Müller, author of the book Terrible Jurists, which explored the Nazi legacy in the German judiciary. "The Nazis still had influence in the heads of German people, and the Nuremberg trials didn't change that at all."

Read more: Berlin plans new memorial for victims of Nazis in WW2

Students holding up banner denouncing Nazi professors
In the 1960s in Germany student protests demonstrated against former Nazis among their professorsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

There was some support for the victor's justice argument in the US: Associate Supreme Court Justice William Douglas argued that the Allies had created laws "ex post facto" to suit the crimes. And it didn't exactly look promising that the main Soviet judge, Iona Nikitchenko, had presided over some of Joseph Stalin's notorious show trials in the 1930s.

'End the sniffing out of Nazis'

That all helped the German public to deny the legitimacy of Nuremberg for decades. Müller remembers international law professors years later teaching that the Allied bombings of German cities were crimes against humanity equal to the Holocaust, and should have been punished too — an opinion that is only acceptable now in far-right groups.

After the new West German nation was born in 1949, the emphasis under Chancellor  Konrad Adenauer was largely: forgive and forget. The Federal Republic's first chancellor, never a Nazi himself, did not object to accepting powerful party members back into the country's leadership. This was most visible in his choice of chief-of-staff from 1953 to 1963: Hans Globke, a senior official from Hitler's Interior Ministry who had helped create the infamous 1935 Nuremberg Laws, which enshrined the Nazi party's anti-Semitism and racism into law.

Read more: Who was Konrad Adenauer?

Konrad Adenauer and Hans Globke
Konrad Adenauer (l) appointed Hans Globke his chief-of-staff from 1953 to 1963, although Globke had been a senior official in Adolf Hitler's Interior MinistryImage: picture-alliance/dpa

That was partly out of necessity, as the new country needed experienced officials. "But I think he also took on Globke as a symbolic figure," said Müller. "He was saying: Look, you old Nazis, if you join our democracy, and stop with the 'Sieg Heils' ['Sieg Heil' was a Nazi greeting, Eds.] and the anti-Semitism, then nothing will happen to you." And not much did: No Nazi-era judge, for instance, was ever punished by a German court for the tens of thousands of unjustified death sentences they handed out during the Third Reich (though a handful were convicted in the third Nuremberg trial, which ended in 1947.)

Adenauer was aware of the sentiment in the country: In 1951, thousands of people demonstrated in Landsberg, Bavaria, against the executions of 28 war criminals at the US POW prison there, who had been convicted in Nuremberg. And in a Bundestag debate about former Nazis being allowed into official positions in October 1952, Adenauer was applauded when he said, "I think we should stop this sniffing out of Nazis. Because you can be sure: If we start that, you won't know where it will end."

Nazis in the communist East

The situation was much the same in East Germany, though under very different circumstances. The Soviet Union initially sent tens of thousands of former Nazis to imprisonment or death, and the GDR's communist government made anti-fascism into one of the central pillars of its state ideology. To that end, the Ministry for State Security, the Stasi, kept a vast archive of Nazi files about German citizens.

But very few East Germans were tried in court — the archive's main purpose was to expose Nazis in official positions in West Germany, and so to embarrass Adenauer's new government, which the GDR never tired of portraying as a direct capitalist-imperialist descendant of the Third Reich.

Read more: World War II and the battle over collective memory in Eastern Europe

The Allies, meanwhile, had turned their attention to new enemies by the 1950s: Each other, which provided an incentive for the US to give up what Müller calls their "illusions" about re-educating the Germans. "I think the Allies just made their peace with Germany at the start of the 50s: They said, ok: the swastika won't be shown anymore and no one will shout out Sieg Heil, the Germans are a normal people again," he told DW. "They were glad they slowly grew out of those Nazi tendencies — but that took decades."

Archive of records in Ludwigsburg
There are thousands of files in the Central Office of the State Justice Administrations for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes in the town of LudwigsburgImage: AP

Slow progress

It's a peculiarity of German law that, while denying the Holocaust is illegal, participating in it has never been formally recognized as a crime in itself. That meant individuals could be charged with murder or accessory to murder — but only if they could actually be proven to have been involved in individual murders.

But the Holocaust was an entirely different order of crime: If an entire system is murderous, how do you prosecute the cogs in the machine who may never have even seen the victims? How do you prosecute the train drivers, the camp guards, or the "desk perpetrators," as Germans have come to call the administrators who organized the mass killing?

After the Nuremberg trials ended in 1949, it took nearly a decade for Germany to begin reckoning with its own crimes in court. The first German trial of Nazi perpetrators began in the southern city of Ulm in 1958 when 10 members of an SS commando unit were charged over a massacre of 5,502 Jews at the Lithuanian border. But since no witness could identify a single perpetrator among the defendants, the convictions were limited to accessory charges.

View of the courtroom during the Auschwitz trial
In 1963 cases were brought against 22 defendants in the famous Auschwitz trial in FrankfurtImage: Imago Images/United Archives

Read more: 'Auschwitz did not begin in Auschwitz'

The Ulm case was nevertheless a milestone. It provided the spur for Germany's state governments to set up the Central Office of the State Justice Administrations for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes in the town of Ludwigsburg, which began to gather records on perpetrators. That helped to bring the cases against 22 defendants in the famous Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt in 1963 when survivors testified against men who had sadistically tortured them.

Still, it took until the 21st century for the German judiciary to get round to prosecuting people for knowingly taking part in the Holocaust. That was only after the landmark conviction in Munich in 2011 of John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian collaboratorwho stood guard at the Sobibor concentration camp. Demjanjuk passed away before the verdict was final. That trial was a precedent in that anyone working at a concentration camp in any capacity could be charged with accessory to murder. It sparked a late flurry of new investigations in Ludwigsburg, which in recent years has brought the convictions of a few nonagenarians, including Oskar Gröning in 2015 and most recently Bruno D.* in July 2020, whose trial in Hamburg had to take place in a young offenders' court, because he was 17 when he began serving as a guard at the Stutthof concentration camp.

Protesters with banner outside Lüneburg courthouse
Protesters called for solidarity with the Nazis' victims outside the court when Oskar Gröning was tried in 2015Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Schulze

For Müller, who considers the Nuremberg trials a historic achievement, the most damning legacy is that after the Federal Republic was founded, the judicial system never recognized the legitimacy of the verdicts passed there. German law, Müller says, mandates that convicted public officials are supposed to be stripped of their jobs and lose their pension. But that did not happen to those convicted in Nuremberg, and some even received thousands of Deutschmarks in back-salaries and pensions on their release from the Allied prisons.

Perpetrators are old and dying

Historian Efraim Zuroff, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, told DW in an interview in 2015 that although Germany had been slow to deal with its guilt, it had come a long way.

Read more: Remembrance is not about guilt, but about responsibility

"In the beginning, there was tremendous opposition to the prosecution of Nazis in Germany. They couldn't completely stop it, but some of the verdicts were just ridiculous," said Zuroff, an American-born Israeli who coordinates the center's research on Nazi war crimes.

"People who served in [German death camps] Sobibor or Treblinka were given only a couple of years [in prison]," he said.

But since then, he said, the country had come a long way. "We are light years away from those days in the 60s and 70s in terms of knowledge about the Holocaust, in terms of sensitivity and in terms of understanding of what a horrendous atrocity it was," according to Zuroff. "Had they applied the same criteria 40 years ago as they do today, the number of cases would have been multiplied by 40 or 60."

"Nazi hunter" Zuroff pointed out that Germany compares well to other countries that were aligned with it in the Nazi era: "There is an enormous change. And this enormous change came very late - but it came. Germany is a country where they do prosecute Nazis. Compare that to Austria - they haven't done anything significant in the last 30 or 40 years. In Germany, there is the political will to prosecute Nazis," he said.

The actual prosecution of Nazis in Germany, which started with the Nuremberg trials 75 years ago, is reaching its final phase. This also means that the future of Germany's judicial "Nazi hunter" agency is up for discussion.

"Like public prosecutors' offices and courts, the Central Office can only work as long as defendants are still alive and able to stand trial," senior prosecutor Jens Rommel, who ran the Ludwigsburg Center for five years until early 2020, told DW in an interview.

"We do not have a comprehensive historical mandate to solve crimes. And I am sure that in the remaining years we will not be able to process everything by legal means," he said.

Outside the legal system, however, Germany will remain committed to remembrance — especially at a time when right-wing extremism and anti-semitism are on the rise again across Europe.

*Editor's note: Deutsche Welle follows the German press code, which stresses the importance of protecting the privacy of suspected criminals or victims and urges us to refrain from revealing full names in such cases.

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight