In the latest excerpt from his autobiography, A Political Adventure, David Maxwell Fyfe describes the immediate events leading up to the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, which opened in November 75 years ago this year, and looks at the reasons why Nuremberg, rather than Berlin or Munich was the chosen city for the trials.
The indictment was signed in Berlin on October 6th 1945 – that is 2 months after the Charter (setting out the composition, jurisdiction powers, and procedure of the Tribunal). Considering the immense scale and length of period of the crimes charged, and the difficulties of language and nationality, it was a considerable achievement.
The defendants were to be served with a copy of the indictment in their own language, and entitled to conduct their own defence or have the assistance of counsel, to cross-examine witnesses and give or call evidence in their own defence.
The judgement of the Tribunal as to the guilt or innocence of any defendants was to be final. The Tribunal was empowered to impose sentences of death or such punishment as it deemed on persons convicted…
THE PALACE OF JUSTICE, NUREMBERG
The final matter was where the seat of the Tribunal should be and where the trials should be held. I think that the Russians first wanted both seat and trial in Berlin… The rest of us did not want to be shut up in Berlin, where the destruction had been such as to make court accommodation doubtful and prison and billeting arrangements almost impossible. We also wanted one trial of the major defendants.
I had made a tentative suggestion of Munich, but (Robert) Jackson, after a preliminary tour and advice from General Lucius Clay, was strongly of the opinion that Nuremberg was the most suitable place. He very fairly invited us all to come out in his plane on July 21st …
Although I had been through most of the bombing in London, it was only on that flight and when we arrived in Nuremberg that I realized what Germany had received in return… On each side of the main roads there were banks of rubble containing – so General Clay informed me – so many corpses that he feared for his water supply. The old walled town was a heap of ruins. Machine-gun cartridges littered the streets where a couple of SS divisions had made a stand. There were even some in the precincts of the courthouse and the adjacent prison. People peeped at us from bunkers under partly shattered houses, apathetic and wretched. The only sign of civilization was a succession of shabby, noisy, and crowded trams, which were still running.
For our purpose, however, the Palace of Justice, with numerous rooms in addition to the Court itself, and the adjacent prison, was obviously suitable. It meant that the prisoners and such witnesses as were in Allied custody could be brought to the court each day under cover, and it made the guarding and security arrangements much easier… On practical grounds, as well as from the ideological standpoint of being the place where the Nazis had held their Party Rallies, Nuremberg seemed a good choice…
The Palace of Justice had received some bomb damage and required fairly extensive repairs. A more difficult problem was, however, the Court itself. There was a dark, solemn, and old-fashioned court room which had been big enough for local cases but was quite insufficient for this trial… The Americans found a radical solution to the problem. One wall was ripped out of the court room, and galleries (for the Press and public) were placed in the adjoining room…
Interpretation presented an acute problem… at Nuremberg… every question and answer – as every document – had to be rendered in German, English, French, and Russian. To counter this the system of simultaneous translation was inaugurated. IBM provided the equipment, which they installed without charge.
Simultaneous translation is now so familiar and widely used that no description of it is necessary… but in 1945 it was a wonder. Such was the speed of translation during a cross-examination that I have stopped Goering getting away with answering a question I had not asked before he had got out a dozen words. Without this system it is difficult to see how the trial could have been held. It had the disadvantage of inducing a certain slowness of diction in us all, and putting a premium on speeches prepared in advance… At Nuremberg this was not a heavy price to pay for what was called a justice in four voices.
On October 24th, I flew to Nuremberg. I did not think it would be nearly a year before I finally returned.
Extract from A Political Adventure, Chapter 8, Prologue to Nuremberg, by David Maxwell Fyfe
Published 1964 Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Read more excerpts from A Political Adventure here.