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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 November 2005, 18:47 GMT
Hitler's henchmen in the dock
Markus Wolf (archive)

Markus Wolf, the former head of the East German foreign intelligence service, attended the Nuremberg Trials 60 years ago as a radio journalist.

Now aged 82, he shared his memories of seeing some of Nazi Germany's most notorious war criminals in court - like "staff in a railway station or in a post office" - with the BBC's Berlin correspondent, Tristana Moore:

The director of news was looking for someone to send to Nuremberg. I sensed that it was going to be a historic event, so I offered to go and I was sent as a special correspondent.

I was in the seventh row in the Palace of Justice Nuremberg court and there before my eyes were the people who had been found responsible for terrible things. They were the greatest leaders of the Nazi regime who were still alive, as Hitler was dead, on trial for war crimes.

At the time, when the war ended, most Germans believed that the Nazis would receive severe punishments.

Perhaps I was na´ve, but I had seen the photographs of all these Nazi leaders, in all their former pomp and glory. Then, in Nuremberg, I saw normal, simple people sitting in the dock. They seemed like staff in a railway station or in a post office.

Not me

I was disappointed. After being cross-examined by the American Prosecutor, Robert H Jackson, Hermann Goering, like the other Nazi leaders, said he didn't know anything about these huge crimes.

Nuremberg trials
Opened 20 November 1945
Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess and Joachim von Ribbentrop were among the 22 Nazis tried
12 were sentenced to death, others received long prison terms or were acquitted

During the trial, the court was shown terrible documentary films about the concentration camps. They were videos shot by the Allied troops after the liberation of the camps.

But all along, the defendants maintained that they never knew anything. Only Hitler, they said, was responsible. No-one tried to defend the Nazi ideology, to defend the acts committed under the Third Reich.

One after another, the Nazi defendants came into the witness box and they answered questions. They had lawyers and it was a kind of Anglo-American court. But the defendants denied any knowledge of these unspeakable crimes.

I learned so much about contemporary German history during the Nuremberg Trials.

They provided an impressive synopsis of the years from 1933 until 1945, shedding light on how the Nazi movement came to power and on Hitler's demagogy. We must not forget that many Germans supported Hitler, he came to power with the help of German capitalists and business leaders.

When you think of that time, so many people looked away from the crimes that were going on before their own eyes.

In just the same way, as the Nuremberg trials were under way in 1945, many Germans didn't want to hear anything about the concentration camps. They were behaving the same way as the Nazi defendants sitting in the dock, like Hermann Goering and Albert Speer, who turned their faces to one side when the films about the camps were shown.

Beyond imagining

Sometimes it was difficult to take in what happened, to comprehend the enormity of the crimes. Some of the films and witnesses who gave evidence in the court - they were former concentration camp prisoners - and the former commander of Auschwitz testified.

He described how thousands of people were killed. He answered the prosecutors' questions like a good German bureaucrat, or an officer, revealing no emotion. These were difficult times as I had to absorb this information and describe these traumatic events to my listeners during my radio reports.

In the final report that I filed I said that I hoped that after the Nuremberg Trials, there would be a time without war, aggression or crimes against humanity. But this hope was an illusion.

Nuremberg set out the rules of international law. The German people couldn't bring these Nazis to justice. I had to explain to people that it was the victors' court as the Allies organised the trials. In the end, three defendants were released. I was against that, but the fact that there were different sentences proves that justice was done.

I shall never forget that year, November 1945 until October 1946, when the Nazis were sentenced.

It influenced my later life because anti-fascism became the raison d'etre of my life. After the Nuremberg Trials, in East Germany, I realised that I bore a huge responsibility to protect our country and the rest of the world from a repeat of the horrors of the Nazi regime.

After German reunification in 1990, Markus Wolf faced two trials for his espionage activities during the Cold War. In the second of these, in May 1997, he was given a two-year suspended jail sentence on kidnapping charges.

Nuremberg revisits Nazi era
04 Nov 01 |  Europe

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