The participants of the Nuremberg trials remembered many details that would not become part of serious monographs about this epoch-making event. What kind of audience gathered in the courtroom? How did journalists try to outwit the guards? And why did an honest Soviet girl find herself in the arms of the defendant Göring?
People in the Gallery
The audience rows were situated in the gallery. To get into the courtroom, you had to get a special badge in advance. There was almost always a full house; in bombed-out Nuremberg, the spectacle of the trials over war criminals, whom the whole world knew by name, was perhaps the only entertainment for ordinary people. Even for those who seemed to have missed out on all the previous years.
General Arkady Poltorak, chief of the Soviet prosecution secretariat and the Soviet appointee to the General Secretariat of the International Military Tribunal, recalls an overheard dialogue between two German ladies.
“On more than one occasion, very fancy ladies have appeared in the courtroom, having somehow obtained long-term passes”, writes Arkady Poltorak. “Some of them are wives of the defendants; others are spouses of major Western statesmen. One day during a break in the proceedings I found myself next to two such ladies. On that day, the prosecutor was presenting evidence concerning Nazi Germany's aggression against Austria, but he had not finished his argument. The ladies were distressed by this circumstance. One of them asked the other if she would come the next day. The response was adorable:
‘Of course, I will, my dear, for I am so eager to know how this aggression against Austria ended’.
The lady was in her fifties, but alas, she had somehow failed to find out in time how Austria had suddenly ceased to exist”.
Some very prominent people also appeared among the spectators of the tribunal. US Secretary of War Robert Patterson attended the trials, as did former British Secretary of State for War Leslie Hore-Belisha (he was an opponent of the British “policy of appeasement of the aggressor” and an opponent of his government). On one of the first days of the trials, two high-ranking Soviet guests appeared in the courtroom – Andrey Vyshinsky (the then first deputy people's commissar for foreign affairs) and Konstantin Gorshenin, prosecutor general of the Soviet Union. Formally, they had nothing to do with the trials, but the president of the tribunal, Geoffrey Lawrence, publicly welcomed them both at the beginning of the proceedings.
“I was once introduced to a chubby, very lively and expansive man at the judges' dinner”, recalled Arkady Poltorak. That was Fiorello La Guardia, perhaps the most popular mayor of New York City in the city's history. He served three consecutive terms in office, and during the war, he was head of the US Office of the Civil Defence Headquarters.
Representatives of the Soviet prosecution, army officers who had gone through a tough school of ideological training, were shocked by the liberties that their Western counterparts allowed themselves.
Poltorak described the following case. One day, he and Lev Sheinin, assistant prosecutor for the USSR, were on their way to a cafeteria. They were stopped by an American colonel from the operational services. The colonel asked Sheinin if it was true that he was going to fly to Moscow for a few days. Sheinin confirmed.
“Oh, that's wonderful, general!” rejoiced the American. “I have a business offer for you. It will be good business”.
“What kind of business?” Sheinin asked suspiciously.
“A very simple one. Bring a batch of Siberian furs from Moscow. Believe me, I will sell them quite well. You understand what I'm saying?”
Sheinin turned all red with rage and amazement, writes Poltorak.
“I don't understand you, colonel. Maybe you don't know that I am a lawyer, not a furrier”.
“I am a lawyer too”, the American insisted. “But tell me, please, Mr General, are lawyers the dumbest people in the world?”
“You know what, let's stop this pointless conversation”, Lev Romanovich exclaimed angrily. “It surprises me, colonel, that you dare to approach me with such speculative ideas”.
“Why speculative”, the American asked, perplexed. “This is normal business. I do not understand why you are offended”.
He spoke those words so ardently and looked at Sheinin with such sincere amazement that the latter finally burst out laughing.
“Colonel, we will never understand each other”.
Furs were for merchants of at least the rank of colonel. A lesser audience would deal with watches.
Soviet writer Boris Polevoy, who was covering the Nuremberg trials as a correspondent, was once approached in the corridor by a young American offering a fine watch for him to buy. Polevoy refused and showed him his own, which was not worse. Then the salesman dipped the watch in a glass of water, held it there for a few seconds, and put it to Polevoy's ear to hear how it ticked. Polevoy again refused. The frustrated American tossed the watch on the floor, picked it up, put it back in the water and held it to Polevoy's ear. It was impossible to resist such intrusive advertising; in the end, Polevoy bought the watch.
The strictness of the American guards, especially vigilant at the entrance to the courtroom, inspired risky experiments. Eyewitnesses described in their memoirs the many tricks they used to sneak into the courtroom. Journalists were persistent troublemakers, including Soviet ones.
The cartoonist Boris Efimov was lucky enough to patronise the prominent Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg. Here's how he tells a story that began at the Grand Hotel, where most of the foreigners stayed. “I found a man in a beret and a yellow sheepskin coat in the lobby, in a state of extreme irritation. It was Ilya Ehrenburg (...)
‘What's going on here?’ Ehrenburg said in a raised voice. ‘I came from Prague in the Willys that General Svoboda gave me, I was tired and hungry, and they wouldn't let me, Ehrenburg, in the hotel, demanding some kind of entry-pass. What's going on here?’
I went on to explain to the hotel manager that we were talking about the most famous Soviet writer and anti-fascist activist, and ignoring him would have the most serious consequences. The manager, after hesitating for a while, gave permission. Ehrenburg was settled.
The next day, Ilya Grigoryevich ‘entrusted’ me with the trouble of obtaining an entrance pass for him to attend the trials. And so began the quest through American bureaucratic circles in search of a certain Colonel Madary, who was in charge of the passes (...) That slowly but surely put Ehrenburg on edge.
‘Tell him’, he said nervously, ‘that I have only come here for two days and if I am not given a pass immediately, I will leave at once. Let it be known that Ehrenburg was not allowed to attend the trial against Hitler's criminals’.
I carefully interpret this tirade against another American major, who is not the least bit impressed by it. He nonchalantly repeats that the pass limit for the Soviet delegation has been exhausted and there is nothing he can do (...)
It ends with Ehrenburg taking my pass and walking unhindered into the courtroom”.
Another correspondent (if the narrator's memory is correct – French or English, “but certainly not Soviet”) managed to outwit the stern American guards in the most daring way.
“He glued a photo of his much-loved pug in a sports cap and a necktie to the entrance pass”, Soviet translator Tatiana Stupnikova writes. “With this pass, the correspondent got through security without any difficulty and was in the courtroom by the start of the proceedings. I do not know what kind of bet he won in this case, but all his friends assured me that it was not due to insufficient vigilance on the part of the guards. The correspondent and his pug, as often happens with owners and their dogs, looked very much alike – just the same face! So, one should not doubt the reliability of the US military guards. All the more so because, as it happens, no one dared to repeat the trick”.
This was not the only curiosity involving guards and dogs. In the unofficial history of the Nuremberg trials, apart from the pug, there would remain a huge mastiff dog, white with black spots. His owner was late for the morning session and in his hurry did not lock the door to his hotel room. The dog followed the unsuspecting owner out of the hotel and into the Palace of Justice. The dog safely passed the guard post at the entrance to the building and then made its way down the corridors and stairs to the courtroom.
“No one tried, or rather didn't dare, to stop this proud aristocrat, a representative of the old English breed”, writes Tatiana Stupnikova. “The guards only silently accompanied it at a certain distance... Nobody knows how it would have turned out, but luckily American MPs managed to warn the security chief, who by some miracle managed to find the owner of the dog in the courtroom and bring him in. The moment the mastiff had put its paw down on the massive doorknob, intending to enter the courtroom, the frightened owner politely, but emphatically, prevented it from doing so. The honour of the US military police, as well as that of the dog, was saved, the tribunal session went on as if nothing had happened, and no one in the courtroom noticed the bustle at one of the doors”.
Those who were the most desperate continued to test the MPs (military police) even in the courtroom. Soviet war correspondent Yevgeny Khaldei revealed how he took one of his famous photographs. The press area had a not-so-great view of the dock and the interrogation rostrum – on the side. The courageous photographer, who had gone through the war, wanted to capture Göring from an angle that was inaccessible to others – full face. He made a deal with the secretary of the court, whose seat was right at the foot of the judge's table and opposite the defendant's bench. In exchange for two bottles of whiskey, he let Khaldei take his seat. And the photographer shot Göring full face - to the envy of his colleagues. It was a serious breach of discipline. Not only could Khaldei have been removed from the courtroom, but his accreditation for the entire trials could have been revoked.
Certain events came to be regarded as curiosities in time, but at the time, the eyewitnesses were not in the mood for jokes.
On a summer morning, employees of the tribunal were on their way to work as usual and suddenly discovered an American tank outside the courthouse. In the long corridors of the Palace of Justice, overnight the Americans had erected pillboxes in which soldiers armed with assault rifles and machine guns stood guard. Anti-aircraft posts were placed on the roof of the Palace. Even a civilian could see at once that the entire American guard was on alert. Something had happened.
The Americans made no secret of the reason for the mobilisation: the SS prisoners were to blame. From the first days of the tribunal, anyone who approached the courthouse would notice men clearing rubble and tidying up the neighbourhood under the supervision of American soldiers. In the palace, they moved furniture, cleaned the premises, and did other similar work. They were indeed prisoners from the SS forces. At night, they were taken to the camp in covered trucks.
One night, word came that the SS had disarmed the guards and were on their way to the prison of the Palace of Justice, intending to seize the defendants. They were either planning to rescue them from imminent execution or to lynch them for their defeat in the war. The information turned out to be false – the prisoners were all in place. The tank was withdrawn, the pillboxes were dismantled, and the American guards returned the automatic rifles and machine guns to the armoury. And the whole story became a subject for jokes.
‘Last Woman’ in Göring’s Arms
The defendants on more than one occasion also gave the audience a chance to laugh - especially Hermann Göring.
“There were occasions in the work of the tribunal when Göring’s examinations turned the trial into a show”, Alexander Zvyagintsev writes. “The tribunal courtroom was overflowing with people who wanted to see the Reichsmarschall's speech. For example, this was the case on 13 and 18 March 1946. On those days, Göring was demonstrating uncommon eloquence. The president of the International War Crimes Tribunal at Nuremberg, Lord Justice Lawrence, a great opponent of frivolities, could not stop the bursts of laughter that accompanied the speech of the ‘Führer of the defendants’ in the courtroom”.
However, his inherent sense of humour could not change the fundamental fact – Göring was a monster, even in the eyes of those who saw him at the trial on a daily basis. He was terrifying even when he posed no danger, and even when he acted like a gentleman and a decent man.
An incredible story happened to the interpreter Tatiana Stupnikova, in which Hermann Göring was the main character. Here is what she writes in her book:
“On one hot summer day in early August, I rushed down the corridor to the courtroom, our interpretation ‘aquarium’, which was accessible through a side door at the end of the corridor. Needless to say, we were supposed to be at our workplace before the judge’s marshal proclaims: ‘Stand up! The court is coming!’ – That is before the opening of the next session. Late arrivals were undesirable, and the stern American chief interpreter was in the habit of personally checking our punctuality. So I ran as fast as I could to be on time without noticing anything around me, but suddenly I slipped on a flat floor, ‘flew’ by inertia some distance, and would probably have fallen if someone big and strong hadn't caught me.
At first, I didn’t understand anything, and I only felt the strength of a man's arms. I found myself in the arms of a strong man who prevented me from falling. It must have lasted a few seconds, which seemed like an eternity. When I woke up and looked up at my rescuer, the smiling face of Hermann Göring was there, whispering in my ear: ‘Vorsicht, mein Kind!’ (‘Careful, my child!’). I remember that the horror made me feel cold inside...
I don't know how I reached the door to the ‘aquarium’. But here, too, a new challenge awaited me. A French correspondent jumped out of nowhere and approached me. We, the interpreters, were well-known to everyone, as we sat daily in the courtroom next to the defendants, in plain sight. With a sly wink, the correspondent said in German: ‘You will now be the richest woman in the world’. And, obviously noticing my confusion, explained: ‘You are the last woman in Göring's arms. Don't you get it?’
Yes, I couldn't understand that. The Frenchman failed to take into account the most important thing, namely that a Soviet woman had found herself in the arms of a Nazi criminal. And that said it all. If it had been an Englishwoman, a Frenchwoman, or a woman from any other country on the other side of the Iron Curtain, it would have been easy to imagine such an outcome”.
And what the Frenchman also did not know was that Tatiana Stupnikova was from a family of the repressed, her assignment to Nuremberg was in itself something unprecedented. Soviet counterintelligence officers, who were vigilant about the reliability of the staff, turned a blind eye to what had happened, and the “last woman in Göring's arms” was not punished.
by Julia Ignatieva
“The Nuremberg Epilogue” by Arkady Poltorak
“Nothing but the Truth. The Nuremberg Trials. Memoirs of an Interpreter” by Tatiana Stupnikova
“The Nuremberg Trials” by Alexander Zvyagintsev
“Ten Decades” by Boris Efimov