- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 19, 2005

NUREMBERG, Germany — In Courtroom 600 of the Nuremberg Palace of Justice, a 62-year-old homeopathic healer is on trial for the death of a patient — an ordinary case on an ordinary day in a Germany rebuilt from the wreckage of World War II as a free society built on humane law.

But the setting is anything but ordinary.

This is the same courtroom where a trial opened 60 years ago today of a kind never seen before, and which echoes to this day in places as varied as Bosnia, Rwanda or Iraq.

On Nov. 20, 1945, with the war just over, Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, Joachim von Ribbentrop and 18 other high-ranking Nazis sat in the dock facing a panel of judges that represented the victorious Allies — the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain and France.

Ernest Michel, 22, watched intently. The Jew from Mannheim had just spent five years in Nazi concentration camps. Now he was in oak-paneled Courtroom 600 as a reporter for DANA, a German news agency, his byline appearing with his Auschwitz inmate number.

He watched defendant after defendant enter pleas of not guilty or, like Goering, try to say more but were cut off.

“I found it difficult as a Holocaust survivor to sit there; sometimes I wanted to jump down and grab them and tell them: ‘Why did you do this? What had I done? What had my family done?’” Mr. Michel, now 82, recalled in a telephone interview from New York.

The Nuremberg proceedings broke new ground in holding government leaders individually responsible for their aggression and slaughter of millions of innocents.

They also established new offenses: crimes against peace, waging a war of aggression, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“Nuremberg is considered to be the birthplace of a new international law,” said Hans Hesselmann, a Nuremberg historian and head of the city’s human rights agency.

The legacy can be seen in the cases under way or being prepared against former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and the leaders of the genocide in Rwanda.

The language of war crimes that has entered the world’s legal lexicon was still being written in 1945.

“What for us today goes without saying was for them not so clear,” said Judge Ewald Behrschmidt, vice president of the Nuremberg superior state court.

“Then it was no crime to begin a war: war was recognized to be politics by other means,” Judge Behrschmidt said. “Today, we have the legacy of this trial.”

Some could argue that it was victors’ justice — for example, said Judge Behrschmidt, the prosecutors held the Nazis responsible for the invasion of Poland, but not the Soviets with whom they shared their conquest.

But it provided a solid foundation to build upon, he said.

“It’s like cars — they didn’t always look like they do today, and the old vehicles wouldn’t be allowed on today’s streets,” he said. “You can say ‘what terrible cars, uncomfortable, unsafe, slow’ … or you can say ‘that was the beginning, that was what led to the cars of today.’ Here it is the same — here it was not the ideal, but it was the first.”

Nuremberg, in Bavaria, was the city where Adolf Hitler reviewed torchlight party rallies and promulgated the race laws of 1935 that paved the way for the Holocaust.

But the choice of the Palace of Justice for the trials was more prosaic: It was one of the few large buildings undamaged by Allied bombing.

It also had a prison annex to hold the defendants and tunnel through which to bring them to Room 600, safe from would-be assassins and rescuers alike.

Over 218 trial days, the testimony of hundreds of witnesses was heard. One of them was Rudolf Hoess, the Auschwitz death camp commandant, who “reacted to the order to slaughter human beings as he would have to an order to fell trees,” wrote U.S. prosecutor Whitney R. Harris.

But more than witnesses, chief U.S. prosecutor Robert Jackson and his colleagues had the Nazis’ own meticulous records to work from, quoting document after document in “laying bare the workings of the German conspiracy,” Associated Press correspondent Daniel De Luce reported from the courtroom.

On Oct. 1, 1946, Goering, Hitler’s air force chief and right-hand man, was sentenced to death along with 11 others, including Martin Bormann, Hitler’s vanished deputy, who was tried in absentia. Seven drew long prison sentences, and three were acquitted.

Fifteen days later, the condemned men were hanged in the prison adjacent to the courthouse. Goering committed suicide by swallowing a poison pill in his cell the night before.

Over the next three years, U.S.-only military courts in Nuremberg would try more than 100 men and women, while others would face justice in the countries where they committed their crimes. Hoess, for instance, was tried in Poland and hanged at Auschwitz.

Mr. Jackson, the chief U.S. prosecutor at Auschwitz, later was on the U.S. Supreme Court panel that delivered the unanimous and momentous 1954 desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

Sixty years ago, most Germans saw Nuremberg as a victors’ show trial and found it hard to believe the terrible evidence they were hearing, said Mr. Hesselmann, the Nuremberg historian and human rights official. Today, however, the court records are the staples of German history textbooks.

“Now I think the majority of the people see it in a positive light,” he said.

Today, Mr. Harris, now 93, is due back in Courtroom 600 for a conference marking the 60th anniversary of the trial. Then it’s back to routine as robed judges resume hearing the charge of grievous bodily harm against the homeopathic healer.

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