October 23, 2019 3 min read
October 1, 1946, was the last day of the first major Nuremburg trial. In the courtroom, the accused Nazis waited to hear the verdict. The judges came from the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and France. Sir Geoffrey Lawrence of Great Britain was the president of the tribunal, and he began reading the verdict. The defendants listened to headphones that translated the judge’s words into German.
Lawrence said that Hermann Goering was guilty on all four charges—conspiracy, crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Lawrence said, “…Goering was often, indeed almost always, the moving force, second only to his leader…he was the director of the slave labor program and the creator of the…program against the Jews and other races, at home and abroad. All of these crimes he has frankly admitted….His guilt is unique in its enormity. The record discloses no excuses for this man.”
Lawrence then addressed Rudolf Hess. He wasn’t wearing his headphones and was writing on a pad. Hess didn’t seem to know or care what was going to happen to him. Lawrence told him his verdict—guilty on two counts. Next up was Joachim von Ribbentrop. A reporter in the courtroom wrote that he “looks as if noose already around his neck…sweating.” Like Goering, he was found guilty on all four counts.
Lawrence and the other judges continued reading through the morning. Each defendant heard his name called and his crimes explained. When the judges were done, 18 of the 21 men in the room were found guilty, including Wilhelm Keitel and Ernst Kaltenbrunner. One of the men found innocent, Hans Fritzsche, was happily stunned by the verdict. When it came time to leave the courtroom, he rose from his chair but then fell back down into it. He sat there for several minutes before finally rising again.
At 1:45 p.m., Lawrence called for a break. The trial resumed around 3 p.m. Now, the guilty men would learn their sentences. Each of the 18 went into the courtroom one by one. Goering went first. Alone on the dock, he stood there as guards flanked him on either side. Lawrence said, “…the International Military Tribunal sentences you to death by hanging.”
Goering did not show any emotion after hearing his sentence. He left the courtroom and returned to his cell, where Dr. G.M. Gilbert greeted him. Throughout the trial, Gilbert had questioned the defendants, trying to understand their mental health. Gilbert said Goering’s face “was pale and frozen, his eyes popping. ‘Death!’ he said as he dropped on the cot…his eyes were moist and he was panting, fighting back an emotional breakdown.”
Hess came next. As in the morning session, he didn’t put on his headphones. He didn’t hear Lawrence say he would serve the rest of his life in prison. Von Ribbentrop, Keitel, and Kaltenbrunner all learned they would be joining Goering on the gallows. So would seven more of the convicted Nazis. The lightest sentence went to Karl Doenitz, an admiral in the German navy. By one account, none of the defendants said anything as Lawrence read their sentences. But one, Julius Streicher, angrily stomped his feet after hearing he too would die.
In less than an hour, all the defendants heard their sentences. The first international trial ever for war crimes was over. More would follow, as the Allies tried to punish the Nazis for their vicious acts before and during World War II.
Michael Burgan studied history at the University of Connecticut before embarking on his career of writing about history, current events, geography, science, and more for children. He worked at Weekly Reader for six years before becoming a freelance author. He is a member of Biographers International Organization and edits its monthly newsletter, The Biographer's Craft. A produced playwright, he is also a member of the Dramatists Guild.