Revamped Nuremberg courtroom opens

BEARING WITNESS: The courtroom was returned to Germany in 1961 and refurbished, and is now used for capital criminal trials.
BEARING WITNESS: The courtroom was returned to Germany in 1961 and refurbished, and is now used for capital criminal trials. (National Archives, College Park)
By Raymond M. Lane
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 19, 2010

IN NUREMBERG "The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated."

With those words on Nov. 21, 1945, Supreme Court Justice and chief U.S. prosecutor Robert H. Jackson laid out humanity's case against the Third Reich.

Adolf Hitler had committed suicide April 30 in his Berlin bunker, but top Nazis survived, starting with deputies Hermann Goering and Rudolf Hess. They and high-ranking Nazi diplomats, military, industrial and party leaders faced the first international war crimes trial in history.

It lasted seven months and ended with 12 death sentences, three life sentences and four long prison terms. Three of the accused were acquitted. The condemned were hung Oct. 16, 1946, in the gymnasium behind the courtroom where they were tried.

Sixty-five years to the day after Jackson's remarks, the $5.3 million Memorium Nuremberg Trials Museum opened in the attic and crawl space above wood-paneled Courtroom No. 600 at the old Palace of Justice. Foreign ministers Sergei Lavrov of Russia and Guido Westerwelle of Germany spoke at the dedication. "German history reminds us how thin the lacquer of our civilization is," Westerwelle said.

"People started knocking on our door about 10 years ago, after the arrest of Slobodan Milosevic," museum director Hans-Christian Taeubrich said in an interview later on how the museum came into being.

Referring to the former president of Serbia, Taeubrich said press coverage of trials in the Hague, Netherlands, before the U.N.-sponsored International Criminal Court, spawned renewed interest in Nuremberg.

"Until the Nuremberg trials established the principle that individuals had to answer personally for their wartime conduct, the world had no moral institution to adjudicate crime or set punishment for wartime atrocities," said Taeubrich, a historian who also oversees the Nazi Documentation Center, a nearby museum sitting at the edge of a vast park, or rally grounds, used for huge Nazi outdoor parades and rallies.

For decades the old courtroom was largely ignored. What interest there was came largely from film buffs wanting to see where parts of the 1961 movie "Judgment at Nuremberg" were made.

But with the Milosevic trial, and ongoing prosecutions of accused war criminals such as Congolese politician Jean-Pierre Bemba, Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, and former Bosnian strongman Radovan Karadzic, the Nuremberg trials became relevant again and people wanted to see where it unfolded, Taeubrich said.

When the courtroom, which is still used for capital prosecutions, first was opened for weekend walk-throughs in May 2000, he said, "it was just an empty room . . . [there was] no way really to make accessible and relevant what this place is about."

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