Last words from Nuremburg


On 16 October 1946 some of the most notorious German war leaders were hanged in Nuremburg. Their execution followed a lengthy trial at which 23 of the most important leaders of the Third Reich were accused of crimes against humanity. The last words of the condemned were relayed as part of the massive media coverage of the proceedings.

In the devastating aftermath of the Second World War, the Allies were faced with the question of what to do with those Germans suspected of responsibility for the worst excesses of the Nazi rampage across Europe. Various options were considered including immediate execution by firing squad (suggested by Stalin) or hanging them under an act of attainder (Churchill’s decidedly archaic preference).

The defendants at the Nuremberg Trials (in front row, from left to right): Hermann Göring, Rudolf Heß, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Wilhelm Keitel, (in second row, from left to right): Karl Dönitz, Erich Raeder, Baldur von Schirach, Fritz Sauckel

In the end, the American wish for a trial won out and the Allies agreed on the formation of the International Military Tribunal. The Trial of the Major War Criminals held at Nuremburg was to be the first and best known example of the Tribunal’s work.

The crimes were so horrific, unprecedented and indescribable that a new word only coined in 1944 was used in the British section of the indictment: genocide. The Sunday Times wrote on 21 October 1945 that: “The United Nations’ indictment of the 24 Nazi leaders has brought a new word into the language—genocide. It occurs in Count 3, where it is stated that all the defendants ‘conducted deliberate and systematic genocide—namely, the extermination of racial and national groups’”.

The trial offered a broken, grieving and shocked Europe the chance for answers, understanding and a degree of catharsis. The world would see that criminals, no matter how important they had been or what they had done, would be brought to justice.

Defendants in the dock at nuremberg trials

The defendants were offered two chances to leave their thoughts to posterity. The first was when the prison psychologist came round with a copy of the transcript of their indictment and asked them to provide their thoughts on the accusations:

Rudolph Hess maintained the vague show of amnesia in simply scrawling: “I can’t remember.”

Hermann Göring was unrepentant : “The victor will always be the judge and the vanquished the accused.”

Arthur Seyss-Inquart suggested that the trial would be: “The last act of the tragedy of the Second World War.”

Albert Speer had already started to rehabilitate himself as ‘the good Nazi’ in writing: “The trial is necessary. There is a common responsibility for such horrible crimes even in an authoritarian system.”

Fritz Sauckel shared a very human and telling reaction: “The abyss between the ideal of a social community which I imagined as a former seaman and worker, and the terrible happenings in the concentration camps has shaken me deeply.”

Hans Fritzsche was more concerned for the impact on the German people: “The most terrible indictment of all time. The indictment of the German people will make for the abuse of their idealism.”

Alfred Jodl gave a mixed verdict: “A mixture of justified accusations and political propaganda”, whilst Wilhelm Keitel stuck to the solider’s defence: “For a soldier, orders are orders.”

Karl Dönitz, who had been Hitler’s successor as head of state of Germany, was a little disingenuous in writing: “None of these indictments concerns me in the least. Typical American humour.”

Given his ultimate acquittal, Hjalmar Schacht could be forgiven for writing: “I do not understand at all why I have been accused.”

Walther Funk wrote: “If I have been made guilty of the acts by error or ignorance my guilt is a human tragedy not a crime.”

Ernst Kaltenbrunner evoked the make do nature of the war by employing the word ‘ersatz’: “I do not feel guilty of any war crimes. I have only done my duty as an intelligence organ and I refuse to act as an ersatz for Himmler.”

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Joachim von Ribbentrop tried to evade resposibility: “The indictment is directed against the wrong people.”

Hans Frank gave perhaps the most apologetic response: “I regard this trial as a God-willed court, destined to examine and put an end to the terrible era of suffering under Adolf Hitler.”

Von Papen provided the most detailed analysis: “The accusation amazed me, for these reasons: (1) The irresponsibility with which Germany was cast into this war and a world-wide catastrophe, (2) the vast number of crimes which some of my countrymen have committed. The last point is psychologically inexplicable. I believe that paganism and the years of totalitarian regime are chiefly to blame. Both turned Hitler into a pathological liar in the course of time.”

Baldur von Schirach remained a racist to the end: “The whole misfortune comes from racial politics” whilst Baron Konstantin von Neurath pondered the inevitable outcome of the trail: “I was always against punishment without the possibility of a defence”

Three defendants refused to take any blame and maintained their blood libel against the Jews. Wilhelm Frick noted that: “The whole indictment rests on the fiction of a conspiracy” whilst for Alfred Rosenberg: “The anti-semitic movement was only protective”. The most unequivacol verdict came from Julius Streicher, who noted that: “This trial is a triumph of world Jewry.”

Out of the indicted war criminals only two did not provide a commentary to their indictments: Erich Raeder refused to; Lay was dead.

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Of the 24 indicted major war criminals, 12 were sentenced to death by hanging. Göring had cheated the noose, committing suicide the night before the execution. Martin Bormann had never been found and had been sentenced in absentia. His body would later be identified in Berlin. The remaining ten prisoners were executed on 16 October 1946 and all gave short statements as last words before they were killed:

  • Hans Frank: “I am thankful for the kind treatment during my captivity and I ask God to accept me with mercy.”
  • Wilhelm Frick: “Long live eternal Germany.”
  • Wilhelm Keitel: “I call on God Almighty to have mercy on the German people. More than two million German soldiers went to their death for the fatherland before me. I follow now my sons — all for Germany.”
  • Ernst Kaltenbrunner: “I have loved my German people and my fatherland with a warm heart. I have done my duty by the laws of my people and I am sorry this time my people were led by men who were not soldiers and that crimes were committed of which I had no knowledge. Germany, good luck.”
  • Alfred Jodl: “I salute thee, my eternal Germany.”
  • Fritz Sauckel: “I die an innocent man, my sentence is unjust. God protect Germany!”
  • Alfred Rosenberg: “No.”
  • Joachim von Ribbentrop: “God protect Germany. God have mercy on my soul. My final wish is that Germany should recover her unity and that, for the sake of peace, there should be understanding between East and West. I wish peace to the world.”
  • Arthur Seyss-Inquart: “I hope that this execution is the last act of the tragedy of the Second World War and that the lesson taken from this world war will be that peace and understanding should exist between peoples. I believe in Germany.”
  • Julius Streicher: “Heil Hitler” followed by “Purim-Fest 1946” and “The Bolsheviks will hang you one day!”

Of the remaining 12 who were indicted, three were acquitted (Hans Fritzsche, Franz von Papen and Dr Hjalmar Schacht), one committed suicide before sentencing (Robert Ley), one was declared medically unfit for trial (Gustav Krupp) and seven were given prison terms of between 10 years and life imprisonment (Karl Dönitz, Walther Funk, Rudolf Hess, Baron Konstantin von Neurath, Erich Raeder, Baldur von Schirach and Albert Speer)

The Tribunal’s work was not finished with the conviction of the major war criminals. The USA would continue the work through the Trials of War Criminals before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals (NMT). Over the course of three years, the NMT would conduct twelve trials covering doctors, judges, members of the Einsatzgruppen, senior civil servants, members of the German high command and members of the SS.

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