I suppose it was inevitable that the Nazi regime would put up a fearsome defence of Nuremberg as the US 7th Army advanced into Southern Germany in 1945. This ancient imperial city was central to Nazi myth-making, and its capture by the Allies would be a serious blow to German morale. A Nazi fanatic, Karl Holz, was placed in charge of carrying out Hitler’s ‘Nero Decree’: the battle for Nuremberg was to be a fight to the death, and the town would be destroyed rather than surrendered.
Karl Holz joined the Nazi Party in 1922, his membership card was number 77. If there was ever a man to carry out the futile order to fight to the death against overwhelming odds, he was the man. Civilian resistance was ruthlessly crushed as the city was rigged with explosives so that its demolition could be triggered before it was captured. Luckily, the man responsible for broadcasting the demolition order on local radio, Arthur Schöddert, chose not to do so.
It didn’t really spare the city though. Nazi resistance was fierce and, as the American’s captured the outskirts, German forces retreated into the ancient medieval centre. The American’s ordered artillery strikes and aerial bombing that left the historic heart of Nuremberg little more than rubble. The extremism of the defenders left little choice, street after street, building after building, were systematically cleared of fanatical resistance.
In a twist of fate, Nuremberg was captured on 22 April, Hitler’s birthday. Normally this was a day of celebration accompanied by rallies on the Zeppelin Field at the Nuremberg Rally Grounds. In 1945 though, American soldiers were addressed by their commanding officer in what Albert Speer had once called the “Cathedral of Light”. The massive swastika that hung from the podium where Hitler once addressed the adoring masses, was demolished.
Visiting today is a surreal experience. Much of the structure has been destroyed, or is falling into ruin, but is still recognisable. The vast space where Nazis gave speeches and soldiers and civilians marched in ecstatic displays of zealotry, is now parkland, sports grounds and a race track. On the shores of a lake that is now home to flamingo-shaped pedalos, is the hulking mass of Germany’s largest remaining Nazi building, the Congress Hall.
Seeing it with my own eyes, the sheer scale of the Nazi vision, and megalomania, became clear. This was an arena built for the fevered imaginings of the Thousand Year Reich. Oddly, it reminded me of the vast imperial vision the British established in New Delhi, itself seemingly constructed with a certainty in British hegemony that never came to pass. This was the spiritual home of National Socialism, and Nuremberg’s near total destruction was ensured by the importance the Nazi regime placed on it.
No surprise then that the victorious Allies would return to the city in 1945–46 to hold trials for a small number of former Nazi leaders who were indicted as war criminals and for crimes against humanity. The story of the Nuremberg Trials is told in the Palace of Justice where the Nazis had held show trials of their opponents in the 1930s. The courtroom where the 1945-46 trials took place is instantly recognisable (although the layout of the room has changed).
Here is where Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, Erich Raeder, Albert Speer, Karl Dönitz, Alfred Jodl and Wilhelm Keitel amongst others were tried. Upstairs is a small museum recounting this history, with some remarkable archive footage of the trials. It’s a sobering experience, in particular just how few Nazis were tried, how limited their sentences and how often they were released after only a few years.
Sure, some were sentenced to death, others like Göring committed suicide, but as with lower ranking Nazi party members and those who participated in genocide and other crimes against humanity from different parts of the Nazi regime, most never faced justice. Those that did mostly got off lightly. Göring dismissed the Nuremberg Trials as “a victor’s justice”, but it seems to me that hardly any justice was done.