In November 1945, in the German city of Nuremberg, the victors of the World War Two began the first international war crimes trial. The choice of the city was significant for it was here that the National Socialist Party held its annual rallies.
Adolf Hitler intended it to be rebuilt as the 'party city'. Now many of the leaders of the party were on trial for their lives, only a short distance from the grand arena where they had been fêted by the German people.
The 21 defendants came from very different backgrounds. Some, like Hitler's chosen successor Hermann Goering, were senior politicians - their responsibility clear.
Others were there because senior party leaders Heinrich Himmler, head of the feared SS, and Joseph Goebbels, head of propaganda - had killed themselves rather than face capture and trial.Their deputies or juniors stood on trial instead of them. But most of them were regarded by the western public, rightly or wrongly, as key playmakers in a system that had brought war to Europe and cost the lives of 50 million people.
This catalogue of sin was difficult for many of the defendants to come to terms with.
The charges laid at their door were extraordinary. They were collectively accused of conspiring to wage war, and committing crimes against peace, crimes against humanity (including the newly defined crime of genocide) and war crimes in the ordinary sense (abuse and murder of prisoners, killing of civilians and so on). This catalogue of sin was difficult for many of the defendants to come to terms with.
One of them, Robert Ley, best known for his role as head of the 'Strength through Joy' movement, which masterminded the Volkswagen car, hanged himself in his cell a few weeks before the trial started, so shamed was he by the accusations of crime. Ley's suicide was the most extreme example of the many ways the defendants responded to the trial.
The reaction of the others covered a very wide spectrum, from confident defiance to full admission of responsibility. In the case of Rudolf Hess, Hitler's former deputy, the reality was almost complete memory loss.
Two prisoners in particular came to represent opposite poles in their reaction to the trials and the accusation of massive crimes. Hermann Goering, the man Hitler chose as his successor in the 1930s and the most flamboyant and ambitious of the party hierarchy, prepared to defend Hitler and the Reich's war policy rather than admit that what had been done was criminal.
On the other hand Albert Speer, the youthful architect who rose to run Germany's armaments effort during the war, accepted from the start the collective responsibility of the defendants for the crimes of which they were accused and tried to distance himself from Hitler's ghostly presence at the tribunal.
Hermann Goering: 'Prisoner Number One'
Hermann Goering at Nuremberg ©
Goering was captured shortly after the end of the war with large quantities of his looted artworks. He thought he could negotiate with the Allies as Germany's most senior politician, but he found himself under arrest, stripped of everything, and held in an improvised prison camp before his transfer to Nuremberg to stand trial.
He was a big personality in every sense. The guards nicknamed him 'Fat Stuff' and bantered with him. He was charming, aloof and confident, and from the start was determined to dominate the other prisoners and make them follow his line of defence.
Goering insisted that everything that they had done was the result of their German patriotism. To defy the court was to protect Germany's reputation and to maintain their loyalty to their dead leader.
From the start Goering was determined to dominate the other prisoners and make them follow his line of defence.
With the start of the trial, Goering assumed at once the informal role as leader and spokesman for the whole cohort of prisoners. He was given the most prominent position in the dock.
When it came to his