Their faces stare out in black and white: the defendants of Nuremberg. Today, the rain-spattered images hang outdoors at the Topography of Terror Exhibition and Documentation Center in Berlin.
Sixty years ago, the men behind these pallid masks were tried for crimes against humanity. Many were executed. Some committed suicide in their cells.
The Nuremberg Trials, which opened with the reading of charges against 24 defendants in Berlin on Oct. 18, 1945, and reconvened in Nuremberg on Nov. 20, confronted Germans with the reality of what had been done in their name. It was the beginning of a process of reckoning and repentance that continues to this day.
How do the stories of those men, and the judges who tried them, resonate for Germans now?
The anniversary of the Trials, coming as Germany inaugurates Angela Merkel as its first chancellor born after World War II, has spawned a flood of articles in newspapers and magazines, with interviews, timelines and considerations of the meaning of international courts today.
“At Nuremberg it came out that they planned to kill all the Jews once they took over,” said Ernest Michel, 82, a Holocaust survivor who covered the Trials for a newly reconstituted German press agency and went on to become a pre-eminent Jewish activist with the UJA-Federation of New York. (See sidebar for more on Michel’s experience.)
“It was the most memorable, satisfying day of my life when I was in Nuremberg,” Michel said, “sitting there as a survivor and watching the last German high leaders being brought to justice.”
The public did not always accept the results of the Trials, seeing them as “victors’ justice.” But Nuremberg nevertheless marked “the end of the period of terror and the beginning of a new democracy,” said historian Claudia Steur, curator of the exhibit at the Topography of Terror documentation center.
“The International Court [in the Hague] was born out of the Nuremberg Trials,” she said. “It was the first great trial on German soil against National Socialism, and the first carried out by the four occupying powers. It also was the first time in history” that such a trial was conducted against a state.
Nuremberg also marked “the first time they used the word genocide,” coined in 1944, said Eckard Dietzfelbinger, historian at the Documentation Center of the Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg.
“Since the Nuremberg Trials, governments or leaders know that their deeds could also be considered in a courtroom,” said Rabbi Andreas Nachama, historian and director of the Topography of Terror center.
Today’s politicians understand these messages, said Michael Wolffsohn, a historian at the University of the Bundeswehr in Munich — but the general public barely pays any attention.
Despite the media coverage of the Nuremberg anniversary, “Nobody really cares, frankly speaking,” Wolffsohn said. “[Germans] have practiced democracy successfully. The problem is not overcoming the past of National Socialism,” but facing “the challenges of the present.”
Juliane Wetzel, who is on the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, said many young Germans turn away from the subject of the Holocaust.
Particularly this year, with the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and of the German surrender, “youngsters say they don’t want hear any more about it,” said Wetzel, who helped create a task force subcommittee on “resistance against Holocaust education.”
The Nuremberg Trials were one of the first lessons for many Germans: In daily news dispatches, they read about atrocities committed on a vast scale. It would take many decades and many more trials before the general German public would understand that not only the top Nazis were guilty.
“The Nuremberg Trials really were instrumental in setting precedents,” said Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi hunter for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “But it was clear that the Nuremberg Trials can only relate to the very, very tip of the iceberg of the criminality of Nazi Germany and those who assisted Nazi Germany.”
Zuroff estimates there were 90,000 indictments in West Germany after 1949, and 7,000 people were convicted. East Germany also conducted war crimes trials.
All in all, “a very small percentage of those who participated in the crimes of the Holocaust were indicted,” Zuroff said, because once the allies were no longer in charge of postwar German courts, the will to prosecute was weak.
After the first trial, there was pressure from the U.S. State Department to ease up, said Lawrence Raful, dean of the Touro Law School in New York, which held a conference in Nuremberg’s courtroom last summer.
The U.S. administration’s message was, “We have punished the Germans, and the Cold War has started. We need to win the hearts and minds of the German people, because as bad as the Nazis were, the Communists are worse,” Raful said.
That was a tough message for Holocaust survivors, like his parents, to accept, Raful said.
Meanwhile, the voices of the Trials’ judges and lawyers, and even some of the defendants declaring themselves not guilty, can be heard in Berlin from small loudspeakers at the outdoor photographic exhibit at the Topography of Terror.
“One can hear the original sound,” said curator Steur, who recently accompanied Ernest Michel on a visit to the exhibit. “I have seen parents or grandparents with their children, standing in front of the map of the zones of Allied occupation [of Germany].”
For some, it’s the start of a long-overdue conversation.
“We’re proud that we had the Trials,” Steur said. But “when you know how many of the old Nazis in the German Democratic Republic went back to their old positions — doctors, judges and police — it’s sad.”