Nuremberg’s Palace of Justice: a fascinating but sobering reminder of the past

I deliberately chose to visit Nuremberg because I wanted to see the Palace of Justice.  Over the years, I’d visited enough museums to have learnt a little about the Second World War trials of the Nazi war criminals – known as the “Trial of the Main War Criminals” – that took place in the city between late 1945 and late 1946, and my interest was piqued.

I had decided to visit the Palace on a Friday; I had read that this would increase my chances of seeing the actual courtroom that was used for the trials – Courtroom 600 (it’s still a working court and can only be accessed when not in session).  So I was thrilled when I arrived to be told that it was indeed open and I could go in.

I don’t know what I expected when I entered – maybe something a bit grander given the significance of the place and the fact that the leading Nazi perpetrators of the atrocities that we are now all too aware of stood trial here?  But the courtroom is quite small and fairly non-descript, save for the imposing and ornate marble surround around the door frame at the side and the chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.  But once you’ve perused the archive photos displayed in the court and listened to the audio that comes with your ticket (which I have to say, is one of the best audios in a museum I’ve experienced), the significance of the court and the scale of the operation to hold the trials is starkly apparent.  It goes well beyond anything we’re used to reading about today.

Some of this could only be achieved because of the location of the trials in Nuremberg.  I, like many others apparently, had mistakenly assumed that the location was entirely symbolic – Nuremberg had been a focus for Nazi rallies in the 1930s and a centre for the rise in National Socialism.  But the real reason was more practical and prosaic – Nuremberg had a court that was large enough to host the trials and was connected by an underground tunnel to a prison from where the defendants could be securely transferred for the court sessions.  It’s obvious that security would have been a big factor in hosting these trials.

The court needed work, however, before the trial could proceed – some rebuilding was needed to patch up the damage caused by Allied bombing.   The main courtroom also required an extension, including the insertion of a balcony, to accommodate the sheer amount of public and worldwide press attending the hearings.

Photo of the courtroom, as displayed in the museum

The windows had to be blacked out as it was under here that the judges sat, and a dock had to be built to fit in all 21 defendants on trial.  In total eight judges were appointed to oversee events – two from each of the leading Allied nations – Great Britain, France, the USA and the USSR – and interpreters for English, French, Russian and German attendees.  This, together with the fact that the trial lasted much longer than anyone had anticipated, meant it became the most expensive criminal trial ever.

Photo of the 21 defendants in the dock, as displayed in the museum
Photo of the 8 judges, as displayed in the museum

You can read more about the trials (or listen with your audio guide), when you visit the small museum on the floor above the courtroom.  There’s a fascinating collection of photographs and video footage available and it’s worth spending some time browsing the displays.  There are also pictures of the huge Nazi rallies that took place in Nuremberg and elsewhere in Germany, which quickly fuelled support for the Nazis (when you look at these photos, the sheer number of people attending these rallies was, to me, quite staggering). You can see also the courtroom in session and some of the leading war criminals such as Hermann Goering giving evidence, but the point is made that justice was not entirely served by the trials – some escaped prosecution by taking matters into their own hands and committing suicide to evade capture – Joseph Goebbels, Henrich Himmler, and of course, Adolph Hitler.

This museum is one of the best I’ve visited in a long while and shows the significance of Nuremberg in the history of the Second World War.  However, it also has a wider significance beyond the initial trials – not only did it lead to further prosecutions against more peripheral players and Nazi supporters, but it was the first large-scale criminal trial and was a pre-cursor to the later International Criminal Court in The Hague.  In its own words, it is a “synonym for the end of impunity for war crimes and crimes against humanity”.  It’s somewhere we should all arguably visit.

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