The first time I saw Nürnberg I was eleven or twelve years old, and the entire city seemed to be a vast sea of rubble. (Allied bombers in 1945 destroyed 90% of the medieval city center, and most of the rest of the city was either heavily damaged or leveled.) It was 1950. The war had been over for five years, the Nürnberg Trials for three, and most of the world was war-weary and longing to get past the bad memories and haunting symbols of that terrible time. What I remember about 1950 Nürnberg is a pervasive sense of gray – gray stone, gray skies, gray people moving through gray streets. I know that can’t be the whole picture, but that’s how I see it in my mind’s eye.
Revisiting Nürnberg for the first time in more than 60 years, I experienced a severe culture shock. The central city has been entirely rebuilt, including the replication of some of the medieval buildings destroyed during the war. But Nurnberg’s long history as the center of the German Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries has been inevitably overshadowed by the role the city played in the rise of the Third Reich, and in the famous trials of the leaders of the Nazi Party that finally exposed to the entire world the extent of the evil perpetrated by Hitler and his followers.
Our tour took us first to the Palace of Justice, a complex of imposing buildings housing administrative offices and courtrooms, where the Nürnberg Trials were held. Courtroom 600, with its four tall windows looking out over a small courtyard to the street, was the site for all the trials and is still in use today, usually for murder trials.
Because it was a weekday, we were not permitted inside the building, although tours are given on weekends. But everyone who has ever seen the 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg, with Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Maximilian Schell, and more superb actors than I can count, will remember those four windows behind the tribunal’s bench, feebly illuminating the courtroom.
The initial trial, before the International Military Tribunal, brought the 25 most important of the captured leaders of the Third Reich to answer for crimes against humanity. The prosecution was conducted by representatives of the four allied powers: Britain, the United States, France, and the Soviet Union. The chief American prosecutor was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, and the American judge on the panel was Francis Biddle, formerly the Attorney General under President Truman. Twelve of the defendants were sentenced to death (although only ten were executed), seven to prison terms, and three were acquitted. The others died before they could be tried or committed suicide before they could be executed. The defendants were housed during trial in the immediately adjacent prison, to minimize the possibility of escape.
Of particular interest to me, though was the Judges’ Trial, fictionally depicted in the 1961 movie. Before a US military court, sixteen German judges and lawyers were tried for war crimes in connection with their application and execution of laws promulgated by the Third Reich. The trial took place in Courtroom 600, and the presiding judge (who assumed the position after the initial judge became ill) was Oregon Supreme Court Justice James T. Brand, a fact I never knew.
Our local guide said that the Palace of Justice had been purposely spared in the 1945 bombing raids that devastated the city; even then, the Allies knew that there would be war crimes trials and retribution, and there was no more appropriate place to hold those trial than in Nürnberg, where Hitler got the momentum and the unquestioning support he needed to carry out his plan. Whether by chance or by design, the choice was perfect.
But to understand the rationale behind holding the trials in Nürnberg, it was really necessary for us to step back ten years and visit the Reichsparteitagsgelände, or Nazi Party Rally Grounds, where Hitler held massive rallies to invigorate and indoctrinate his followers in the mid-1930’s. The Zeppelinfeld, designed by Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, (and where no zeppelin ever landed, as far as I know) consists of a 400-yard-long grandstand overlooking a huge open square, where regimented masses stood in perfect formation to listen to their adored leader urge them on to recapture Germany’s former greatness. The site is most memorable for the gigantic swastika above the speaker’s platform that was blown up by the Allies in 1945. (You can see a video clip of the explosion on the Wikipedia site for the Nazi Party Rally Grounds.)
Our guide held up photos of one of the rallies held there; the scale of the structure and of the crowds is almost beyond comprehension. The Zeppelinfeld was one of the few structures originally envisioned which were completed; there were to have been a half-dozen structures on the eleven-square-kilometer site where the Nazi Party could indulge its megalomaniacal fantasies.
The Kongresshalle, inspired by the design of the Colosseum in Rome, was intended to be over 200 feet high and to have seats for 50,000. It was left unfinished and at only half its intended height when the war intervened, but it has been put to good use since then. The building was designed in a U-shape, with two large galleries at each end. In the south wing, the Nürnberger Symfoniker performs its concerts; and the north wing, with its modern addition that looks like a stake made from glass and steel, houses the impressive museum bearing the tongue-twisting name Dokumentationzentrum Reichstparteitagsgelände.
Inside, there is a permanent exhibition called “Fascination and Terror” that charts the rise and fall of National Socialism through pictures, text, artifacts, and film. A well-worn copy of Mein Kampf sits alone in a glass case; huge black-and-white pictures of rallies and parades, Hitler accepting flowers from a child, the rapt faces of young women giving the Nazi salute, skeletal survivors of concentration camps, assault the eye wherever you turn.
One particularly interesting film clip showed the making of the 1935 documentary Triumph of the Will, with the brilliant young filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl using her talents and her unfettered access to Hitler to create what may be the most effective propaganda film ever made. Her technical skills, especially given the cinematic tools available in the 1930’s, were remarkable. We could only wonder what she might have achieved if she hadn’t been who she was, when she was, where she was.
We left the Documentation Centre in a somber mood, reflecting on the magnitude of the tragedy caused by one man’s monstrous ambition and the willingness of countless others to follow blindly where he led. But one thing was very clear: the Germans have not sought to sweep this terrible part of their history under a metaphoric rug. Every day, groups of schoolchildren visit the museum on a class assignment, as part of their regular curriculum. The ruins of the Nazi Party Rally Grounds remain much as they were at the end of the war, stark reminders of the consequences of mass hysteria given legitimacy under the guise of patriotism.
That evening, though, it was as if we had entered an entirely different city when we were taken to the Hauptmarkt square in the medieval town center for dinner at a well-known restaurant. A lacy, golden Renaissance church anchored one side of the square, while an equally lacy fountain stood in the center.
A farmers’ market was just shutting down, and vendors were packing up their beautiful produce and homemade preserves and taking down their red-and-white striped tents. One young man gave me the sweetest cherry I’ve ever tasted as I admired the fruits displayed in his stall, wishing me a good evening. The Bratwurst Roslein Restaurant, a vast and cheerful place staffed by friendly and very efficient waiters, gave us the chance to try the famous Nürnberg sausages – actually, eight “chances” per person, served with excellent sauerkraut and warm potato salad. Good wine and beer flowed freely, and we walked out of the restaurant into a wash of golden light, window-shopping on our way to the coaches that would return us to the ship. A corner shop with huge windows displayed the name “Bella Schnick-Schnack,” along with some of the wittiest and most original pieces of furniture and art I’ve ever seen. If the shop hadn’t been closed for the night, a pair of ceramic frogs might have gone home with me.
(The lion on the table wearing the red shoes wouldn’t have fit in my luggage.)
So the past is always with us, as it should be, but so is the present. In Nürnberg, as nowhere else on this trip, those two collided in my experience. One thing I think we can say with confidence, though: what happened here 80 years ago can never happen here again. Germany is not the same country, and the German people are not the same people. There is a phrase that came out of the Holocaust: “Nie wieder!” Never again. This is a country that has taken those words to heart.
Other photos relating to this text can be found here.