My judgment at Nuremberg

December 16, 2014
2014-12-13 07.06.12

Graffiti in the ladies’ room of the Documentation Center in Nuremberg. The German government counts 40,000 neo-Nazis in Germany today.

M didn’t want to go to the Nazi Rally Grounds or Courtroom 600, where the Nuremberg trials were held. He said he didn’t want another reminder of the Nazi atrocities, but my position was different. The idea of spending an afternoon with a historian, talking about the trials  and actually visiting Courtroom 600? I had to do it. I would’ve gone alone, but at the last minute he decided to join me. But he was uneasy and closed off about the whole thing.

One thing I appreciate about the two of us is that we are very aligned about important things and our emotional response to the Holocaust has been pretty close to identical. But my view is that people can either sit in the emotion the rest of their lives OR try to understand what happened so we recognize the signs before it happens again.  Which is why I got more than a little nervous when Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld and others of their ilk started their U.S. propaganda campaign after Sept. 11, 2001. When we started hearing our country referred to as “our homeland.”  It smacked of Nazi propaganda to me. Same with all the nationalistic fervor.  Nationalism and patriotism are two different things. It’s a fine line, and that bunch crossed it.  Which is how we ended up committing some atrocities of our own. But then, that’s another story for another day.

2014-12-13 06.30.41I first learned about the Nazis and World War II when I was maybe nine years old. Digging through my parents’ bookcases as a child, I found a book about Adolf Eichmann with some of the most horrific photographs imaginable. I was an avid reader and a precocious one, too, but that collection of photos were a shocking sight. I never did ask my parents about it, we didn’t have that kind of relationship, but that book–which I read then, at age nine–was my first exposure to what happened in Europe during the war. I never forgot those photographs.

Since then, it’s been hard for me to understand how the German people allowed such inhumanity. I was stuck on that question for a very long time, reviving it after my visit a decade ago to Dachau. This trip helped answer that question for me, but not for M.

It’s only human to want to assign blame. But it isn’t all that productive to stop there. Going further is more useful.

I’d like to tell you about what we saw and where I went with it.

Ruins of never completed Congress Hall

Ruins of never completed Congress Hall

Nuremberg is the site of the eight-square-mile Nazi Rally Grounds, where Hitler was constructing a complex of monstrous, megalomaniacal buildings, including a Congress Hall, a stadium for the Hitler Youth, deployment areas for the army and what was to be the largest sports stadium in the world.

Why Nuremberg?  The city was one of his favorite German cities, our historian told us. Now, it’s the site of a historical Documentation Center,  built on to the ruins of Congress Hall and the place where a very fine permanent exhibition called “Fascination and Terror”  looks at the causes, the context and the consequences of the National Socialist reign of terror.   And that’s what I wanted to know about.

I knew about the atrocities. I wanted to know how and why they happened. Because six million is a lot of dead people. Murdered by a crazy criminal mastermind and his henchmen.

What it was supposed to look like. The Roman Colosseum was the model.

What it was supposed to look like. The Roman Colosseum was the model.

The proportions of everything Hitler planned for the huge Rally Grounds and the grounds themselves are immense and meant to leave a big impression of power and might. Congress Hall was meant to seat 60,000 people.

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Ruins of the grandstands and podium to the Zeppelin Field.

The Zeppelin Field is an open air arena for Nazi rallies, and they were held there in 1933 and 1934. If you’ve ever seen the old Nazi propaganda film (if you were a film student, you most surely did), Triumph of the Will, you’ve seen where those rallies were held.   I stood in front of the grandstands, closed my eyes and could almost hear the thud of jackboots marching and in my mind’s eye, saw masses of soldiers in that familiar uniform, perfectly aligned.  I thought about what it must have been like for German people to see and hear this kind of major spectacle mean to stir nationalistic fervor.

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What it looked like in Hitler’s Day. Gigantic and meant to feel intimidating and overpowering. In 1945 American forces held a victory parade here and covered the swastika with an American flag. Later, they blew the swastika off the building.

Germany had been in an economic slump before Hitler came to power, and he presented his platform as a way out of the slump. The construction of all these massive displays of power created badly needed employment.His speeches and events were meant to stir nationalistic pride. Looking at these overpoweringly large edifices and pillars topped with threateningly powerful eagles, it’s easy to see how Hitler cleverly planned to sweep people up in the glory and drama of the moment.


Nazi logo

Nazi logo

Here’s where M and I get stuck:  the atrocities of the Holocaust.

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Heartbreaking. These poor people–families, elderly, children–forced to leave their homes, everything they knew and transported to camps. 2014-12-13 06.51.39

They’re carrying a few meager possessions that they wouldn’t be allowed to keep anyway.  I look at those photos and realize that they have only a slight idea of the horrors that they were to face. If that. The men and women in their hats and coats. Mothers holding babies.

They’re wearing yellow stars. Or pink ones.  On the chart below they’re called “badges”


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The vast majority died in those camps. Most, if not all of those faces in these photographs belong to people the Nazis murdered. It’s hard to fathom, it really is. But it happened.

I remember walking around Dachau and feeling the spirits of those who had died. There’s a little crooked thing–a moue— my lips do when I’m puzzled or disturbed. At Dachau, my mouth stayed in that crooked position during my entire visit. And at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.  The same thing happened as I walked through the exhibit at the Documentation Center in Nuremberg.
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Unlike my husband, I never miss an opportunity to view photographs of Nazis rounding up Jews, political opponents, homosexuals, gypsies and other “undesirables.” It’s important to look at these images of people–people just like us–look at their faces, know that they were walking toward almost certain death. It’s important to look into their eyes and remember them.

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“Don’t buy from Jews!”

It’s also important to remember the kind of propaganda the German people were subjected to day in and day out. Anti-Semitic propaganda.  Because someone had to be blamed for Germany’s defeat in World War I. For the economic decline after that war. And for all Germany’s misfortunes.

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Even children were taught to blame Jews. This was one of the most heartbreaking things I saw in Nuremberg.

Oh, it’s so much easier when you have someone to blame. We know that only too well, here in the U.S. The only difference is that we haven’t take it a step further and executed masses of those people we blame. Not yet, anyway.

But you know what? It could happen.  It always starts out small, just like it did in Germany. But that’s just for openers. Pretty soon you have your own rally grounds and massive buildings.

Little by little, the Nazis started to shift public opinion. Hitler was elected chancellor in 1933 and after that, there was no stopping him. Not for a long time. Think about the length of time Germans  were exposed to aggressive propaganda.

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The Nazi War Eagle was an imposing –and terrifying–sight.

Here’s what I’ve come to understand at an almost visceral level:  That a concerted propaganda campaign like the one the Nazis mounted can and will influence people. That’s not really a surprise to me, since I began but didn’t finish a doctorate in social psychology, which is the study of group behavior and I spent an entire career focused on influencing groups of people via public relations. So, no, not a surprise.  It’s just that I found it so hard to believe that human beings will accept the slaughter of other human beings so readily.

And then I stood in those rally grounds and could picture the way the Nazis overwhelmed the populace with their continual displays of power and might.  Because you can’t be exposed to this stuff day in and day out over a period of years without it affecting you in some way. Either you believe it or you are afraid of it.2014-12-13 08.04.19Eventually, many of those in power were brought to justice in this building in Nuremberg.

2014-12-13 08.05.35In a courtroom behind these four windows.

2014-12-13 08.07.55In this famous courtroom.

Actual photo of the courtroom back then.

Actual photo of the courtroom back then.

2014-12-13 08.17.29Criminals like Goering, Hess, Speer and others were brought into the courtroom from the jail next door through this elevator door. You can see it on the far left in the old black and white photo above.

2014-12-13 08.08.32They appeared before a military tribunal made up of eight judges: two from each of the Allies.

The result: about a dozen death sentences in the first trial. Seven imprisonments.

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In the end, we did the right thing. But did America speak up loudly enough and more importantly, soon enough? That question haunts me. Because it’s a certainty that men in power knew of the camps and that people were dying.

Blame is one thing; understanding is entirely different. Understanding how and why bad things happen doesn’t mean we accept them or that we don’t want to hold Germans accountable. It means that we want to understand the mechanism underlying the end result. So we can prevent such a thing from happening again.


Graffiti in Regensberg, Germany.

Graffiti in Regensburg, Germany.

As I walked through the exhibit at the Documentation Center I imagined myself looking out my window as Jews and other “undesirables” were forced to leave their homes,  herded out into the streets, crammed into railway cars and transported to death camps.  I imagined myself seeing my neighbors disappear.

Would I speak up?

Or would I be too afraid that I, too, would be sent away?

What would I do?

What would you do?



33 comments on “My judgment at Nuremberg
  1. My dad and his family escaped 6 weeks before Kristellnacht, after being forced to give up their home and move to a nearby area with only Jewish families. He and my uncle were chased by Hitler youth on their way to school. My uncle snuck out one day to see the opening of the Autobahn only to see Hiter’s car drive by with him sticking his ugly arm out for his usual zig-heil. Chilling.

    As they were drumming up charges to deport my grandfather, my dad and family got on board a boat and escaped to America.

    His town invited him and my uncle back years later to the small town where they grew up, They, along with the hand full of others who were forced to leave, were the guests at the high school, where the students asked, “How could our grandparents not know what was going on? How come they didn’t help?”

    Now every year the mayor of the town sends my dad a birthday card (Dec 25). They erected a plaque in the town to all of those forced to leave.

    Thank you for sharing your trip, Carol. I am impressed that you went.

    I just wonderful why your parents owned such a book.

  2. I think that is the big question and it plagued me for years, until I realized just how cleverly the Nazis had manipulated people through intimidation and fear. I didn’t realize how much until I exposed myself to exactly what went on, including visits like these. At Dachau in 2004 I asked the guide the same questions the students did and even when he said “they were afraid” I still blamed them. And then, the more I learned about propaganda and when I saw the display of power and might, the intimidation, I began to see the mechanism behind Hitler’s power. It was so diabolically clever and terrible. Thank God your parents escaped. Our family, too, had friends who got out. We lived in a city that was half Italian and half Jewish. My parents were readers of a wide range of books, as I am. I like to think in another world their journey would have been like mine, one of deep digging both within and without, but as first generation Americans, their lives were very different. I think that my parents were horrified by what happened in WW2–and I’m pretty sure that the discrimination against Italians during the Depression made them relate and that they realized it could happen to them. Easily. My father did 4 years of med school in 3 so he could serve in the Navy. He began his service just as the war ended. Blessings to you and your family. I can’t even fathom how it felt. Hugs, Cathy.

  3. ryder ziebarth says:

    I grew up in a very German household and hold dear my heritage. I have only memories of lots of buttery food, wonderful christmases filled with delicious baking and verses of Silent Night sung in German by my great grandmother,grandmother, and father. My white haired grandmother was formal and trained in Pratt in Domestic Arts. She was a warm and perfect grandmother. My father wore his German jackets at all formal occasions, and we all had lederhosen and dirdles growing up. Happy memories of a true German heritage. It makes me incredibly sad that I can’t feel publicly proud. They had nothing to do with the war; they were Bavarian, and they fled to the US ( Hoboken) in the early 40’s. One the boat coming over across the ocean, my father said they had to wear Nazi pins in their lapels to avoid being questioned–he was only ten, and he said even then, he felt ashamed. One group demolished not only thousands of innocent Jews, Poles, Russian, but an entire country and heritage forever.

    • Ryder, thank you so much for this point of view, which most of us don’t consider. I feel lucky that I finally reached some understanding of how it must have been for the German people, but for a long time I was stuck like M is. This is probably going to be a controversial statement for some but the German people were also victims, although in a very different way.

  4. I cannot even imagine how tough it must have been to actually be there.
    The question of why all of those people let it happen haunts me too. It must have been their fear or they believed the propaganda. I do believe it is happening again right before the worlds eyes and we really aren’t doing anything about it. Makes me feel helpless and frustrated and really scared.

  5. Carolann says:

    Heartbreaking for sure. I would like to think I would speak up but who knows what one does when faced with a life or death decision. As far as I’m concerned, the blame goes directly to the mastermind behind it all – wouldn’t even type his name. As for the people that followed him, well history shows it’s easy to follow someone when they spew misleading words filled with words of lies and deception.

  6. Thank you, Carol. We must never forget. Many years ago, I was a chaperone on my daughter’s high school trip to Europe. After we toured Dauchau, I spent hours trying to console the distraught teenagers. I had few answers. The most compelling question, “Why did the citizens of nearby Munich not question the ash falling on their homes?”

  7. Amy Bovaird says:

    I used to dream that I was hunted like the Jews. I’d always be hiding under the bed (but imperfectly) or in some obvious place. I would wake up from these dreams frightened out of my mind. I would have never survived. I’m not Jewish but I’ve always read stories of the holocaust and relate on a visceral level. I’ve been to Ann Frank’s house in Amsterdam but I’ve never been to any of the camps although I have visited Poland, too. Warsaw, back in the early 90s when I visited it, had a sad feel to it. Wherever I went, I saw plaques to victims and read the statistics. Thanks for posting your experiences. I learned a lot more about Nuremburg.

  8. As a pre-teen, I was fascinated and heartbroken by the stories of all the horrors. I devoured books on the topic. I’m not sure why as I just cried and cried and cried while reading them. I think it was trying to come to terms with such evil in the world, trying to figure out the question we ALL wondered and still do, the one you grapple with here: “…it’s been hard for me to understand how the German people allowed such inhumanity.”

    I like to think I’d have done the right thing but if it put my family in danger, I just don’t know that I could/would.

  9. Diane says:

    Thank you for this, Carol! My Husby always says that people who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it. My father sponsored several German families to come to Canada – one of which swam from East to West Germany under cover of night with a heavily-drugged two-year-old on a raft behind them. They were such excellent people. Hard-working and industrious and so scrupulously honest. I have a good friend who’s family emigrated from Germany after the war. She told me a story once that shocked me to my toes and made me see things from a totally different light. She described the advance of the allies toward her home town as a time of great terror. Then she explained that the allies were the enemy and she and her family had been told terrible things about them and what they would do to the populace when they arrived. The story from the other side.

  10. It’s too bad Goering cheated the hangman’s noose at Nuremberg. But at least he lived to see the entire Nazi regime destroyed and judged accordingly by the world court. I take some comfort in that.

    • We heard an an interesting story about Goering’s suicide. The big question was how he got the cyanide in prison, as he was so heavily guarded. But years later a man who was a young guard at the time showed a Rolex he said was Goering’s and there is some thought he was the one who got him the poison, maybe inadvertently.

  11. Ruth Curran says:

    You summed up my feelings perfectly here: “Blame is one thing; understanding is entirely different. Understanding how and why bad things happen doesn’t mean we accept them or that we don’t want to hold Germans accountable. It means that we want to understand the mechanism underlying the end result. So we can prevent such a thing from happening again.”

    And yes, pieces of my family were marched into camps and gas chambers but I, like you, want to under the mechanisms – what was that perfect storm that allowed this whole thing happen – so that we can see the signs. I like you, was petrified by the rhetoric after 9-11 – saying things like “the axis of evil” was a huge trigger for me – we can’t ever let this happen again….
    Thank you for this piece and its thought provoking message/cautionary tale.

  12. Although I agree that the first step to not repeating historical atrocities is to remember and discuss them, I have to admit that I was traumatized by having to view documentaries over and over and over in Sunday School and Hebrew School growing up.

    I couldn’t go there. But then I’m not the one in danger of not remembering.

    I’m glad you went, Carol, you seem to have gotten a lot out of it. And I appreciate your desire to make sense of the madness. Personally, I think sometimes evil is just plain evil. Inexplicable.

  13. PatU says:

    Carol, I just received a copy of a memoir written by my sister’s mother in law, telling of her experience during WW2 in Germany. At an advanced age and quite ill, she is thrilled to have this accomplishment.

    I have yet to hear her full story and look forward to reading her book…a first hand experience. I’ll forward it on to you, should you like. Actually, it’s on Amazon right now.

  14. What a powerful post, Carol. I agree we can never look away. We have to understand how something like this could be allowed to happen – in order to make sure it never happens again.

  15. When I was young I was sure that I had been Jewish in a former life. I was fixated on the Jewish Culture and did tons of library research on the Holocaust in Jr. High School. Now, I don’t know… but I know that the horror of inhumanity can never be explained nor understood. I have an Art Spiegelman litho in my living room of mice huddled together waiting for the cat. (Maus is about his father’s experience in the concentration camps.) I am always concerned that the KKK and the Tea Party would love to take control and “purify” the country. Faux News is the propaganda tool of fascists today. It all is so similar. Frightening.

  16. Estelle says:

    Carol, I read this and felt nauseous, because it hits too close to home. My mother and grandparents escaped the Nazis, but we lost so many other relatives to the war. It’s a miracle that they survived all they went through to get to America (they were sponsored by my great uncle, who had been sent to America because he was a fighter and fought anti-semitism in Poland). My grandparents became atheists and Zionists after the war, because they no longer believed in G-d, if that’s what G-d would allow. My mother married my dad who was American and raised Orthodox. I was raised Conservative. But this I know. We must never forget.

  17. WendysHat says:

    How fascinating! My husband has traveled all around there and has seen all of this and still remembers and tells me about it. What a history!

  18. Trust you, Carol to come up with such a well-written and balanced post on Nazi Germany. It is so important to revisit history and learn from it. As each day seems to bring new and shocking stories of atrocities in the name of religion, belief and nationalism, we need to pledge ourselves to our common humanity.

  19. Debbie says:

    Thank you for this fascinating, informative article, Carol. It is disturbing and frightening that there are those who continue to practice the Nazi credo and just as disturbing that some even deny The Holocaust ever happened. No, we must never forget these atrocities! I was born in Germany 10 years after the war ended and also hold my heritage dear, but am horrified by what occurred during WWII. My family was against Hitler and the Nazi regime, so it does bother me that people generalize and blame all Germans for these heinous acts. My mother even spent her 21st birthday in jail, because she was summoned to work in a government laboratory and refused to go. From what she tells me, the general public was unaware of the murders committed in the concentration camps until after the war was over.

  20. CAC2 says:

    A few things:

    First, Adolf Hitler was not elected chancellor of Germany in 1933. This is a common misconception and historical fallacy. He ran for president, but lost to Paul von Hindenburg. For complicated political reasons, Hindenburg appointed Hitler to the position of chancellor in 1933, equivalent to the head of government. He would eventually become the head of state as well.

    Second, your discussion of how the Nazi Party exploited the social psychology of group behavior in their propaganda campaign is spot on. In fact, Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, possessed a PhD in sociology. He would go on to succeed Hitler as chancellor of Germany following Hitler’s suicide on April 30, 1945 (just 10 days after the Fuhrer’s 56th birthday on the 20th). Goebbels held this position for one day, before he took his own life after feeding his children cyanide pills.

    Lastly, I would refer anyone to read Hannah Arendt’s famous 1963 book “Eichmann in Jerusalem” where she discusses the controversial idea of “the banality of evil.”

  21. sue says:

    Hi Carol. We took an apartment in Berlin for a week which overlooked the Holocaust museum. I didn’t realise how emotional I would be visiting areas of Berlin. We didn’t get to Nuremburg but it is something we can’t ignore. I just don’t understand how humans can treat each other with such cruelty. We don’t seem to have learned much from that time when I look at the world of today.

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