A TURNING POINT
During the WW2 War Crimes Trials of Nazi Germany’s leaders, the court at first struggled to make progress until a certain witness took the stand. His evidence enabled the trial to fulfil its purpose. The following describes how this took place.
The scene was the main courtroom in the Palace of Justice, Nuremberg, Germany; the occasion – the (first) International Military Tribunal; the date – 13 February, 1946. The witness who took the stand was former Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus whose last official position was Commander-in-Chief of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad.
Little more than nine months previously Germany had surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. Almost exactly three years earlier, the massive Sixth Army together with other German divisions, totalling some 300,000 troops, had been decisively defeated in freezing blizzards by Soviet reserve military forces at Stalingrad. German troops from the Western Front had been sent to reinforce the Russian Front but too late. Casualties for both sides had totalled over 1,000,000 and thousands of German prisoners of war had been paraded humiliatingly through Russia’s capital, Moscow.
So damaged was Germany’s military position that she never recovered; this, along with other defeats in 1942/3, ensured a terminal decline in the fortunes of German expansionism. Now the time of reckoning had come.
The court was packed; judges, lawyers, journalists, translators, recorders and stenographers crowded the desks. The public gallery was overflowing. Uniformed US military personnel stationed strategically around the walls and at doorways stood guard. The defendants, 22 of the top Nazi leaders, comprising government ministers, military commanders, industrialists and financiers, were seated in two rows on one side of the courtroom. Across the room were seated the British President of the Court, Lord Chief Justice Geoffrey Lawrence, and an international team of judges and senior lawyers.
Among the defendants were Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering (Commander-in-Chief Luftwaffe, former Gestapo Chief and deputy to Hitler – the most senior defendant), Wilhelm Keitel (Commander-in-Chief, Army), Alfred Jodl (Chief of Military Operations) and Albert Speer (War Minister).
All 22 had pleaded “not guilty” to the four charges. These were: conspiracy to wage aggressive war, waging aggressive war, war crimes such as mistreatment of prisoners and crimes against humanity (genocide).
Chief Prosecutor Robert Jackson, 53, a US Supreme Court Justice, had shrunk inwardly from the task before him. In his opening speech on 20 November, 1945, he had indicated this was the first trial in history set up to establish justice for war crimes and crimes against the peace of the world, something that imposed a great responsibility on the court. “The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant and so devastating that civilisation cannot tolerate their being ignored; indeed, it cannot survive their being repeated,” he had intoned to a hushed courtroom. “That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury, should stay their hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgement of the law, is one of the most significant tributes that power has ever paid to reason. We will show these men to be the living symbols of racial hatred, terrorism and violence, and of the arrogance and cruelty of war.”
For several weeks thereafter Jackson had struggled to stamp his authority on the court. The obfuscations of the defendants hindered the court’s progress; Goering particularly proved to be a forceful, focused and frustrating witness. The amount of written evidence to submit was huge, threatening to bog down proceedings.
Better progress was made when Jackson was persuaded to show film evidence taken by American, British and Russian military photographers during the liberation of German concentration camps, particularly Dachau and Bergen-Belsen. Further footage containing clips from Nazi propaganda films, was also played to the court. This showed how the German High Command’s motives had been to systematically violate treaties, rearm illegally and attack neighbouring countries with the criminal intent of subjugating and pillaging,
Careful questioning by Jackson and signed decrees concerning the Jewish final solution eventually convicted Goering. However, the difficulty of pinning evidence on other defendants was becoming all too apparent. The stock answer to questions to those in the dock had been either that of just following orders or of not knowing that the atrocities had taken place. With three of the four highest positions in the former German High Command dead, including Hitler, this was leading nowhere; again, the court’s progress towards its goal was being impeded. A decisive breakthrough in the prosecution’s case was urgently needed.
It began when Albert Speer, faced with mounting evidence of atrocities, surprised the court by apologising, saying he was unaware of all that was going on, but that had he asked the appropriate questions he might have understood. The prosecution’s case was approaching its turning point.
“I swear … by the Almighty and Omniscient God … that I will speak the pure truth … and will withhold or add nothing,” repeated Paulus.
After preliminary questioning, the Prosecution lawyer asked: “Did you address the Soviet Government on 8 January, 1946?”
Paulus: “Yes – I did.”
“Do you confirm this statement?” The questioner held up a sheet of paper. It contained permission from the government of the USSR for Paulus to attend the Tribunal provided he was returned afterwards as a prisoner of war.
Paulus: “Yes, that is my signature on the document.”
The entrance of Paulus had taken the court completely by surprise. The story circulated by Nazi propaganda and universally believed was that he had died by suicide. What had actually happened at Stalingrad was that, due to lack of food and ammunition, Germany’s invading armies had been split in two by Russian forces; Paulus and his troops had been taken prisoner. While interned with other Nazi generals and discussing with them recent events, Paulus realised he had been given an impossible task based largely on lies and concluded that the intentions of the German High Command had been criminal from the outset.
Firstly, the German High Command had assigned an army far larger than was thought necessary to defeat the Soviet Army. Paulus showed that the Wehrmacht’s real aims in invading the USSR, far from being defensive (to oppose presumed intended Russian aggression, as claimed), was economic; the real objectives were to capture the natural resources, especially the Russian oilfields in the Caucasus, and commandeer the network of rail communications in the European part of Russia.
Secondly, Paulus provided dozens of concrete facts which lawyers were able to verify from written records. He cited irrefutable evidence exposing preparations by the Nazi Supreme Command and General Staff of the Wehrmacht for a treacherous attack on the USSR. Moreover, subsequent ill-treatment of Russian prisoners of war, tacitly sanctioned at high level, added to these crimes. His evidence was clearly making other defendants uncomfortable.
Paulus’ questioning was well into its third day and approaching its climax. Far from trying to avoid justice himself, he admitted his own guilt, stating he’d agreed to the Russian campaign but without any political knowledge. His purpose in confessing, he stated, was a desire to restore dignity and justice to the Russian people.
The Prosecution continued: “… And who of the defendants do you consider was an active participant in initiating this war of aggression against the Soviet Union?”
Seconds of silence elapsed. Paulus shifted uncomfortably in his chair. Regaining his composure and glancing towards the named defendants, Paulus answered slowly and deliberately.
“Of the defendants, as far as I observed, the top military advisers to Hitler. These were: Chief of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces [Field Marshal] Keitel, the Chief of the Operations Department, General Jodl, and Goering in his capacity as Reichsmarshall, Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe and Plenipotentiary of Armaments Production.”
The Prosecution: “In conclusion, have I rightly understood from your testimony that long before [the launch date for the invasion of Russia,] 22 June, [1941,] the German Government and the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces were planning an aggressive war against the Soviet Union for colonisation purposes?”
Paulus: “That is beyond doubt according to all the developments I have described, and also from all the directives issued.”
Suddenly the case for the defence was in confusion and the prosecution’s case was all but complete. On the following day, questioning of the witness by defence lawyers to clarify the answers of the previous day was allowed, but the evidence held. On 1 October, 1946, of the 24 defendants charged (two in absentia), nineteen were convicted on one or more of the charges. Three were acquitted, seven were given prison sentences and twelve were sentenced to hanging. For two others no decision was taken, although charges were allowed to stand; Paulus was returned to Russia.
This trial itself marked a turning point in the transition from traditional to modern international law, and the Nuremberg Principles, created after the trial, today provide guidelines for what constitutes a war crime.
(Quoted passages are taken from film footage of court proceedings available to the public)