The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

The Nuremberg Trials: Perceptions and Prejudice?


The end of World War II saw the establishment of the first International War Crimes Trial in the German city of Nuremberg, with the formation of an International Military Tribunal to oversee the trial and conviction of surviving members of the Nazi power structure. The Nuremberg Trials have had a lasting legacy; leading to the creation of the ‘Nuremberg Principles’ of 1950, heavily influencing the development of international criminal law (particularly in relation to Human Rights), and acting as a model for contemporary war crimes trials. The Nuremberg Trials have been the subject of extensive historical research in the intervening years and War Crimes Trials of former Nazi criminals remain a topical issue today, as demonstrated by the recent trial of 91 year old former concentration camp guard, John Demjanjuk. In May 2011 a German court convicted Demjanjuk of acting as an accessory to murder in relation to the 28,069 who died at Sobibor while he worked as a guard at the camp between March-September 1943. In this article guest author Carla Giudice reflects on the performances of three of the best known defendants at Nuremberg; Albert Speer, Hermann Goering and Rudolf Hess, suggesting that the radically different personas presented by these individuals during the trials may have influenced popular perception of their culpability and the sentences they received.


The Nuremberg Trials: Perceptions and Prejudice?

By Carla Giudice.



The aftermath of World War II saw the establishment of the first International War Crimes Trial at thePalace of Justice in the German city of Nuremberg. The decision of the victorious Allied powers to establish an International Military Tribunal (IMT) to conduct a trial for the surviving leaders of the Nazi hierarchy was a contentious issue. The idea of the Germans being entitled to a fair trial seemed outrageous to many, but the intention of the Allied leaders was that the Nuremberg Trials would reveal the scope and barbarity of Nazi atrocities to the public for the first time, documenting these crimes for future generations, and preventing Nazi leaders from becoming martyrs by allowing them an opportunity to defend themselves.


Between November 1945 and October 1946 the first trial – the Trial of the Major War Criminals – took place, involving the highest-ranking surviving Nazi officials. Of the twenty-one defendants who stood trial at Nuremberg three were acquitted, seven received prison sentences and eleven were sentenced to death. All of the defendants at Nuremberg were supposedly influential Nazis (although a few individuals, such as Hans Fritzsche, were tried in place of their deceased superiors). Three of the highest ranking defendants on trial at Nuremberg were Albert Speer, Hermann Goering and Rudolf Hess. All three had held significant positions of authority in the Nazi regime and were essentially household names. Interestingly, the three most prominent defendants had opposing personalities (something that became increasingly evident as the trial progressed) and all three received vastly different sentences: Goering was sentenced to death and Hess to life imprisonment while Speer received a relatively lenient twenty year prison term. All three had responded very differently to the trial at Nuremberg. Albert Speer impressed the court with his smart appearance, intelligent and articulate testimony. Throughout the trial he cultivated an image as a ‘good Nazi’ and is remembered for his contrition, as the ‘Nazi who said sorry’. Hermann Goering on the other hand, adopted the persona of the ‘bad Nazi’, stressing his prominence in the Nazi hierarchy and close links to Hitler at every opportunity and demonstrating no remorse. Finally, Rudolf Hess’s erratic behaviour led to his being dubbed the ‘mad Nazi’ with many medical experts questioning the state of his mental health and his ability to stand trial. Question marks have also been raised about the relative leniency shown to Speer in comparison with other defendants, and whether the judges may have been influenced by class and educational bias. Might the differing social backgrounds, appearance, behaviour and presentation of the leading defendants at Nuremberg have influenced the judges’ own perceptions and opinions? Might this even have been a factor behind the different sentences these individuals received? By comparing Speer the ‘good’ Nazi to Goering the ‘bad’ Nazi and Hess the ‘mad’ Nazi, it is possible to analyse whether the myth of Speer being saved at Nuremberg by his reputation has any substance.


 The announcement of the verdicts delivered at the Trial of the Major War Criminals at Nuremberg, 8 October 1946:




Albert Speer: The ‘Good Nazi’


In Albert Speer’s memoirs Inside The Third Reich (Collins: 1976), written during his incarceration at Spandau Prison, Speer portrays himself as Hitler’s closest confidante. From the mid-1930s Speer enjoyed exclusive access to Hitler as his ‘favourite architect’ and was eventually rewarded for his companionship with the office of Minister of Armaments and War Production in 1942. In his memoirs Speer expresses contrition while at the same time distancing himself from having any personal responsibility for the more sinister crimes of the Nazi regime. This is the same tactic that Speer used at Nuremberg, seemingly to good effect.


Albert Speer, the 'Good Nazi', at the Nuremberg Trials, 1946.


Albert Speer stood out from the other defendants at Nuremberg; his privileged background, smart appearance and professional occupation did not fit the stereotype of a typical Nazi thug. The judges seemed to warm to Speer and could relate to the articulate and obviously well-educated defendant.  Prior to the trial, Allied intelligence teams wanted to exploit Speer’s extensive knowledge of technical information about the German economy and armaments industry and Speer had been happy to cooperate. This meant that Speer was also a useful commodity to the Western Allies in the post-War era of emerging Cold War hostility. This was a fact that Speer used to his advantage, writing a letter to prosecutor Robert Jackson to remind him that if he were to bring up Speer’s voluntary statements to the Allies during interrogation, the information divulged would have been of strategic interest to the Russian delegation. Speer also made several other calculated and shrewd moves at Nuremberg, which undoubtedly bolstered his defence. The defence strategy conjured up by his lawyer, Dr Flächsner, presented Speer as an apolitical minister who was predominately concerned with architectural pursuits. Emphasis was placed on the fact that Speer had increasingly challenged Hitler towards the end of the war, issuing a counter decree against Hitler’s ‘scorched earth’ policy and perhaps the most surprising revelation in court, that Speer had even attempted to assassinate Hitler.


Another redeeming factor was his contrition. Speer was the only defendant at Nuremberg to show any real remorse for his role in the Third Reich. He appeared visibly disturbed by the atrocity videos shown in court, although he continued to deny any knowledge of the holocaust. Rather than using his final statement to declare his innocence or lack of remorse, instead he admitted some level of ‘collective responsibility’ for the role he had played.


Speer’s responsibility for crimes committed during the Nazi reign was clearly showcased in the court proceedings however; Speer has been described as the ‘architect of mass enslavement’ for his role in employing Prisoners of War and using slave labour in industrial work. (Airey Neave, Nuremberg, Hodden & Stroughton: 1978). But an interesting comparison can be made between Speer and his subordinate, Fritz Sauckel, who was also in the dock at Nuremberg, charged with having procured slave labour to bolster the industrial workforce (on Speer’s orders). Despite Sauckel’s subordination to Speer, he received the death sentence. In comparison to the educated, presentable and articulate Speer, Sauckel was from a working class background, of average intelligence and shabby appearance, sporting a moustache that was reminiscent of Hitler’s favoured style. Could the judges’ bias towards Speer’s professionalism and intelligence have influenced their perceptions? Did this contribute to the discrepancy in sentences delivered to the two men, both guilty of involvement in crimes against humanity by use of slave labour? The judges were clearly impressed by Speer’s  performance and despite compelling evidence, chose not to punish his use of slave labour with the death sentence, instead sentencing him to twenty years imprisonment, while Sauckel was sent to the gallows. Speer went on to construct a literary career out of his time as a minister of the Third Reich. Following his release from Spandau prison in 1966, the subsequent publication of his memoirs ensured his status as a media figure until his death in 1981.


Hermann Goering: The ‘Bad Nazi’


Hermann Goering also distinguished himself from the other defendants, albeit for different reasons to Speer. By 1941 Goering held the position of Reichsmarschall and had been named as Hitler’s designated successor, but Goering’s influence had declined towards the end of the War. Heavily dependent on narcotics, he spent most of his time in a drug-addled haze, hosting parties at his Karinhall lodge where he often dressed in elaborate costumes, including a roman toga with diamond rings. However, Goering was revitalised as a result of the enforced rehabilitation regime undertaken whilst he was in captivity. Sober, he proved a formidable defendant for the prosecution to challenge.


Hermann Goering, the 'Bad Nazi', testifying at the Nuremberg Trials, 1946.



Goering’s image as a top-ranking Nazi was emphasised by the Tribunal but also by Goering himself; the Tribunal wanted to show the public that they were going to punish one of Hitler’s loyal paladins and Goering was keen to stress his close relationship to Hitler. Goering thus exaggerated his importance and prominence in the Nazi hierarchy at every available opportunity; Robert Conot described Goering’s performance at Nuremberg as akin to a ‘preening peacock [who] unfurled the feathers of his office’. (Robert Conot, Justice at Nuremberg, Harper & Row: 1993). Goering’s desire for recognition as a key player the Nazi power structures can be seen through humorous instances in the proceedings, such as his furious retort of ‘ich war de Zweite’ (‘I was second!’) when Hess was mistaken as Hitler’s successor designate.


Goering did not behave as a war criminal during his time at Nuremberg; he made requests for the return of his marshal’s baton and insisted on wearing his army uniform throughout the proceedings. Goering rather enjoyed the spotlight he found himself under at Nuremberg and his firm belief that he would one day be recognised as a martyr (he even envisaged the next generation of Germans having a statue of him in every household!) motivated him to defend himself vigorously, seemingly viewing the trial as an opportunity to spread the National Socialist message on an international platform. Goering’s persona meant that despite the overwhelming catalogue of evidence against him, he did not allow the Tribunal to render him guilty without putting up a fight. His formidable character was perhaps best illustrated during his cross-examination by American prosecutor Robert Jackson. Goering took great pleasure in pointing out a mistake in Jackson’s translation of a document regarding clearing of the Rhine and aggravated the prosecutor to the extent that he complained to the Tribunal about Goering’s behaviour. The exchange was widely viewed as a triumph for Goering.


Goering also surprised many of those present at Nuremberg with his congenial persona and many witnesses confessed to ‘almost liking’ the Reichsmarschall. He had a wicked sense of humour; when a reference was made to his theft of eighty-seven million bottles of champagne from France, Goering looked around the room for laughter at this achievement. Despite Goering’s obvious charisma, he showed no remorse for his actions and continued to glorify Hitler and the Nazi Party. Rebecca West, a journalist who was present at Nuremberg, noted that Goering gave the impression that if he was given the chance he would have ‘walked out of the Palace of Justice and taken over Germany again.’ (Rebecca West, A Train of Powder, Ivan R. Dee: 2000).


The judges at Nuremberg could show no remorse for a man who had clearly been involved in most of the criminal acts detailed in the indictment and who showed no signs of regret, sentencing Goering to death. In the few instances where the prosecution did not have solid evidence, Goering’s willingness to exaggerate his own importance meant that he even incriminated himself for crimes that the Tribunal may not otherwise have been able to convict him for. Goering’s wily humour and determination to mount a robust challenge to the prosecution may not have saved him from the death sentence at Nuremberg, but he still managed to defy the Allies by committing suicide the evening before he was due to face the gallows.


Rudolf Hess: The ‘Mad Nazi’


Former Deputy Fuhrer Rudolf Hess did not share Speer’s ability to take the strategic initiative or Goering’s capacity to mount a spirited challenge at Nuremberg; Hess was incapable of even taking the stand for cross-examination. Hess had been in Allied captivity longer than any of the other defendants; he was captured after he made an ill-fated flight to Scotland in an attempt to reach an armistice with the British government in 1941, so had been absent from Germany for the bulk of the war. Hess behaved in an increasingly unstable and erratic manner during his time in captivity in Britain: he attempted suicide on several occasions; claimed that his food was being poisoned (samples of these foods were brought to Nuremberg for analysis by Hess) and appeared to be suffering from severe memory loss. There has been some disagreement about whether Hess’s apparent insanity and amnesia was feigned to win the sympathy of the judges, while Hugh Thomas has even sensationally questioned whether the man in the dock at Nuremberg was actually Hess himself (Hugh Thomas, Murder of Rudolf Hess, Hodder and Stoughton: 1980).


Rudolf Hess was the 'Mad Nazi' at Nuremberg.


However, the prison psychologist, Gustav Gilbert, believed there was little doubt that Hess was in a state of complete amnesia, although he conceded that he may have been deliberately suppressing some memories. During a pre-trial hearing regarding his ability to stand trial, Hess stood up and declared that he had simulated his loss of memory. This intervention was interpreted as evidence that Hess was fit to stand trial, rather than considering that a man who had ruined his chances to be acquitted on medical grounds was surely somewhat delusional.


Unlike Speer and Goering, Hess’s presentation at the Trial was exclusively detrimental to his sentencing. Hess was the madman at Nuremberg; his grimaces and random laughter revealed his fragmented state of mind. He often read novels during the open sessions and seemed indifferent to the proceedings and to the events happening around him. On the rare occasions that Hess did speak during the trial, his speeches went off on disturbing tangents. Hess was further damaged by his apparent lack of remorse; despite the fact that he had been absent from Germany since 1941 (before the worst atrocities had taken place), he dispelled any mitigation the judges may have considered in his closing statement, when he declared that he had no regrets and would have taken the same course of action again. Hess was also the subject of particular hostility from the Soviet delegation; he was a pioneer of Nazism and a committed anti-Bolshevik, while Stalin was suspicious of his dealings with the British in 1941. The fact that Hess’s defence revealed the existence of the secret clauses contained in the 1939 Soviet-German Non Aggression Pact was also bound to have caused resentment amongst the Soviet delegation. Hess was sentenced to life imprisonment in Spandau and remained there, despite repeated calls for his release on humanitarian grounds, until his death in 1987.


Some of the leading defendants at Nuremberg, including Goering and Hess (front row, far left).


The evidence against many of the defendants at Nuremberg was clearly compelling and in many cases this was exacerbated by their lack of visible remorse. However, a number of other factors need to be taken into account in terms of assessing their influence on the outcome of the Nuremberg trials: the need to punish those who were clearly guilty of involvement in the most appalling crimes; a desire to convey the scale of Nazi atrocities to a post-War Germany and to the wider world; the differing political and ideological agendas of the Allied powers; and allegations of the retrospective application of ‘victor’s justice’ at Nuremberg.  Ultimately however, a comparative study of  the ‘good’, ‘bad’ and ‘mad’ Nazis at Nuremberg provides us with some interesting insights and their various personas can also be seen as an important factor in influencing the sentences that the leading defendants received.


About the Author:


Carla Giudice has just completed her BA (Hons) in History and English at Swansea University, graduating with first class honours in July 2011. In her final year of study Carla researched and wrote her History Dissertation assessing the impact of the defendants’ personalities on the sentences delivered at Nuremberg. Carla is joining the Civil Service Fast Stream graduate scheme in September.




July 25, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: