Many times during my 15 months of military duty in West Germany, my Army buddy, John, and I made a trip into downtown Nuremberg. Some of those trips were during duty hours, while many others were to spend some “off-duty” hours in a beautiful city.
Before John bought an old beat-up Volkswagen, we’d exit our Army base on the outskirts of town and walk two miles to downtown Furth. There, amid buildings constructed so tightly together a stray cat would have a hard time finding a place to hide, a huge square, paved in cobblestone, appeared. It was an opening perhaps 50 yards square, and was one end of the trolley line. Trolley cars would arrive regularly, made a wide turn around the perimeter of the opening, then face back toward Nuremberg. John and I usually stood during the 30-minute ride, preferring to give seats to the many elderly German women who were almost always among passengers.
Midway through the journey (the tracks ran parallel to “Nurnberger Strasse,” the main east-west thoroughfare connecting Furth with its larger neighbor) we passed a quite common-looking building, not unlike many we saw in the country. It was three, perhaps four, stories high, but stretched at least as long as a city block. Its walls were a nondescript brown and the monotony of those walls was punctuated only by regularly spaced windows and doors.
To a casual onlooker, the building could have been used for just about any purpose.
But those monotonous brown walls held a story that might send chills up one’s spine upon learning about the building’s history.
This was the famed “Palace of Justice.”
Barely 20 years prior to our service in Germany, the building had been the site of the famous Nuremberg War Crimes trial. A court tribunal, consisting of military justices from the Allied forces in World War II, prosecuted the worst of the worst Nazi war criminals in civilized history, men who had orchestrated, or played an integral part, in the slaughter of thousands of Jews during the Hitler regime.
Both John and I grew quiet each time we passed the building. I can only imagine what went through his head. I know, in my own mind, I conjured of thoughts of the absolute evil that had once been inside those walls. The original trials were held in 1945 and 1946. Twenty-three Nazis associated with Adolph Hitler were tried for their roles in orchestrating the atrocities we’ve come to realize occurred during the reign of the Third Reich.
One of those – Martin Borman – was tied in absentia. Another – Robert Ley – committed suicide within a week of the trial’s commencement. Twenty-one others were tried and convicted. Many of them were executed. The original trials did not include Hitler, who had taken the coward’s way out by committing suicide soon after realizing his dream of ruling the world had been crushed by the Allies. Heinrich Himmler and Joseph Goebbels, two other notorious Nazis were also not tried in those early Nuremberg trials.
Nuremberg had been chosen as site for the trials for two main reasons. First, the Palace of Justice had been largely undamaged during the War; second, Nuremberg was considered by many to be the birthplace of the Nazi party.
For someone who had not nurtured much desire to study history while in school, passing this large building on a trolley ride instilled an instant desire to learn more. This was history, and it was important history just 100 feet from where I stood.
Passing the building, my mind conjured up black and white photos of judges and war criminals, or news reel footage of this important part of world history.
It was a sobering thought.
I passed the Palace of Justice many times during my 15 months stationed there.
Each time I passed I shuddered. A chill ran up my spine.