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Nuremberg 101: city of Nazis' grandest glory and greatest defeat

Nuremberg, Hitler's "most German of German cities", is the city most closely associated with the Nazis -- from their massive propaganda rallies to the first-ever war crimes trials.

Hermann Goering was the highest-ranking Nazi defendant at the  Nuremberg war crimes trial 1945-1946. Its courtroom in Nuremberg's Palace of Justice can be toured.
Hermann Goering was the highest-ranking Nazi defendant at the Nuremberg war crimes trial 1945-1946. Its courtroom in Nuremberg's Palace of Justice can be toured. Nazi Hermann Goering at Nuremberg war crimes trial. Photo: Charles Alexander. Courtesy of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum
Nazi rally at Nuremberg's Zeppelin Field, 1937
Nazi rally at Nuremberg's Zeppelin Field, 1937 U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Julien Bryan Archive

But it's also the first city to win the UNESCO prize for Human Rights Education in 2000. UNESCO praised "its determination to become a 'City of Peace and Human Rights'" -- Nuremberg's motto.

That education is riveting, terrifying, but then uplifting, with the judgments at Nuremberg.

Nuremberg was the first stop on my first trip to Germany, and the Nazi party rallying grounds at Zeppelin Field were the first stop.

Scenes of those rabid rallies are emblazoned indelibly on our minds. Most shots are from one of the first 1934 rallies, filmed by Leni Riefenstahl for her propaganda masterpiece, "Triumph of the Will". She had described the rallies as "so gripping and grandiose that I cannot compare it to anything I experienced before..."

The Zeppelin Field, filled to its capacity of 250,000, can be seen also in these two film clips (click here and here) showing Hitler greeting the troops and crowds at a 1937 Nazi rally.

"Flags flew, feet marched, brains were paralyzed," our guide Ruth quoted an unnamed writer.

To lighten the grimness, Ruth noted that Zeppelin Field more recently hosted Led Zeppelin and other concerts by the Rolling Stones, Metallica, Bob Dylan, among others in its "Rocking Park".

The field, its neo-Classical viewing stands, and its gargantuan unfinished Coliseum, planned to be one and a half times the size of Rome's Coliseum and hold 400,000 people, were designed by Hitler and his architect, Albert Speer.

The huge swastika atop the stands was removed swiftly by victorious Allied troops. All such symbols, including the Nazi salute and anti-Semitic slogans are outlawed. Punishments include imprisonment and a fine.

In the unfinished Congress Hall, intended to seat 50,000 Nazi officials within the four-square mile grounds, is a Documentation Center Museum (DCM) whose motto is "Talk about it, discuss it, display it."

The guide euphemized it as "our dark history -- you can't sweep it under the rug."

Watch that dark history of Nuremberg welcoming a young Hitler. As a newspaper reported the adulation, "The jubilation of the population is simply indescribable."

"Propaganda tries to force a doctrine on the whole people," Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf (1926). "Propaganda works on the general public from the standpoint of an idea and makes them ripe for the victory of this idea."

The foundation of the Holocaust idea began in this city. The Nuremberg Race Laws were passed at a special session of the Nazi-controlled German parliament (Reichstag) here, and announced at a rally on Sept. 15, 1935.

The "Law for the Safeguard of German Blood and German Honor" and "Reich Citizenship Law", the so-called Nuremberg Laws were "a crucial step in Nazi racial laws that led "ultimately to the segregation, confinement, and extermination" of Jews in Germany and other eventual Nazi-occupied countries, the National Archives explains.

Some six million Jews, and hundreds of thousands of gypsies, homosexuals, and disabled people died in the Holocaust during World War Two.

Moving forward, post-war Nuremberg was the site of the world's first-ever, precedent-setting trials for "crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity."

Why Nuremberg? Although most of the city was destroyed by Allied bombs (click here for film clips, and here for a photo) -- only Dresden suffered more damage -- Nuremberg had the only undamaged facility, the Palace of Justice, that was extensive enough to accommodate the trial. The Palace of Justice also had a prison with capacity for 1,200 inmates.

So, on Oct. 18, 1945, five months after the war ended, 22 of Nazi Germany's *highest-ranking officials were brought to trial in the palace's expanded Courtroom 600. It can be visited, and is still used today for murder and manslaughter cases.

The highest-ranking Nazi to be tried was Hermann Goering, head of the Luftwaffe (Air Force), President of the Reichstag, among other titles (click here for a film and transcript of his testimony.)

The other best-known defendants were Rudolf Hess, longtime personal aide to Hitler; and Albert Speer, Hitler's architect who designed Zeppelin Field and other Nazi structures; and Hans Frank, Hitler's legal adviser and Bavarian Minister of Justice, known as the "butcher of Poland". Click here for brief bios of defendants, and here to see a photo of the defendants' box.)

The International Military Tribunal (IMT) delivered its judgment against these Nazi former leaders on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, 1946. Twelve of the defendants were sentenced to death by hanging, three to life imprisonment, four to imprisonment ranging from 10 to 20 years, and three were acquitted.

Goering committed suicide on the eve of his execution. Hess, the only one to serve the full life sentence, committed suicide at age 93 in prison, where he had spent almost half his life.

(For more info on the trials: click here for the DCM's brochure; click here for Library of Congress info and photos; here for a timeline and here for photographs from the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum; and from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), click here for photographs; here for the main trial, and here for the dozen subsequent Nuremberg Trials. They lasted through 1949. The classic film "Judgment at Nuremberg" is about one of these later trials; not the famed one.)

*The three highest-ranking Nazis escaped judgment by committing suicide as the war was ending: Hitler, who had termed Nuremberg "the most German of German cities"; Heinrich Himmler, Gestapo leader and architect-implementer of the "Final Solution", genocide of the Jews; and Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.

Another infamous Nazi, Adolf Eichmann, fled to Argentina where he lived until 1960,

Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor, and members of the Israeli Secret Service tracked him down and took him to Israel. There, Eichmann was tried and convicted of crimes against the Jewish people and executed in 1962.

(The large boulevard along the rally grounds was re-named for Yitzhak Rabin, the first Israeli Prime Minister to make an official visit to West Germany, in 1975.)

Overall, Germany has done much more than most other Holocaust-related nations to combat its "dark history" and anti-Semitism.

That first day ended in brilliant brightness, thanks to returning to the welcoming comfort of the Viking Freya, continuing the fascinating eight-day Viking River Cruise along the Danube.

The captain Ferenc Horvath and Viking Freya hotel manager Jodok Greber led a toast welcoming the 181 passengers in its glassed-in Aquavit Lounge, and program director Cornelia Svatek briefed us on the next glorious ports of call through Germany, Austria, and Hungary.

And here's a toast to peace and peace of mind, frieden and ruhe.

For more info: Nuremberg. German National Tourist Office, www.germany.travel/en/index.html. Viking River Cruises, www.vikingrivercruises.com, 800-706-1483.