Nuremberg, Time And Memory


I came to know Francis Biddle better in the scholarly silence of the Syracuse University library’s special-collections room. Thus far, to me, Biddle had been only a remote Main Line Philadelphian and former U.S. Attorney General. But as I held in my hands the letters he wrote his wife from Nuremberg, his vanities and vulnerabilities rose from the pages. He might not be the de jure president of the Nuremberg court, Biddie told her, but he was certainly its leader de facto, far more influential than the Britisher, Lord Geoffrey Lawrence, who held the formal post. (“I really do run this show and have won on every point.” And writing on another occasion: “Lawrence never has a thought of his own … though he does make an admirable presiding officer.”) On the train home from Syracuse, I rode with Francis Biddle, recalling his voice, by turns proud, humorous, malicious, always human.

Research next took me, with my wife, Sylvia, to Europe. During the interview phase I had put a stock question to the trial alumni: “What was your immediate impression on arriving in Nuremberg?” From the mosaic of answers, I had composed a picture in my mind that was about to be tested by present reality. In 1945 the U.S. Army had found Nuremberg 90 percent destroyed and had declared it a “dead city.” Nurembergers have long since lifted the Alte Stadt , the old town, from its ruins. Gabled roofs, timbered eaves, arched doorways, and flower boxes again evoked the city center’s medieval past. But it was a veneer. Thermal windows, the newness of carpentry and masonry all made clear that we were seeing a version of what had been, “Old Europe” in an almost theme-park setting. As I gazed out our hotel window, the patina of restoration dissolved into a lunar landscape of desolation, a neo-cave world where people lived in cellars under wrecked houses and cooked outdoors over oil drums, while kerchiefed women in unraveling sweaters shoveled paths beneath the rubble and one-legged veterans of the Afrika Korps scavenged garbage cans outside former SS barracks where GIs now bunked.

We exited a street-car on Fürther-strasse before a huge Gothic edifice, gray and frowning, the “Palace of Justice,” site of the trial. This courthouse and the city’s luxury hotel, the Grand, were among a handful of buildings still standing after eleven Allied air raids had flattened Nuremberg. The Soviet judge, I. T. Nikitchenko, once jokingly remarked to Francis Biddle that sparing two such useful structures had to have been deliberate, and the Russian expressed his admiration for the pinpoint precision of Allied bombers. Today the yard before the court-house is filled with late-model BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes, and Volkswagens. But I see instead jeeps and staff cars, GIs tossing footballs, the four-nation honor guards trying to outdo one another in precision drill as Allied prosecutors and drably attired German defense lawyers nod in passing.

Dr. Klaus Kastner, vice president of the Nuremberg-Fürth District Court, greets us. Judge Kastner, a smiling, boyish mid-fifties, is natty in a three-piece suit, a floppy bow tie, and rimless glasses. “I will take you to the famous Room 600,” he announces. As we mount a marble staircase, I wonder what my reaction will be, or what it should be, on entering the courtroom that I have been living in vicariously for two years.

The room is smaller than I expected and too brightly lit to suit the somber picture in my memory (though I knew at the time that it was harshly illuminated by fluorescent lighting so that the photographers could shoot without the distraction of flashbulbs). Three black-robed judges are sitting on the bench, questioning the defendant in a drug case. My thoughts drift beyond the young blond, slack-jawed defendant. I see instead, Hermann Goering in the dock, occupying the corner seat, alternately bullying his fellow defendants or regaling them with hamhanded humor. I see the once imperious Nazi foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, now dressed as if by a ragpicker, the notorious Jew-baiter Julius Streicher chomping on PX gum, and the hulking, scar-faced Ernst Kaltenbrunner, overseer of the Gestapo and concentration camps, who cries for his family when he returns to his cell.


Dr. Kastner was nine years old during the trial. Over lunch I ask him if he can reconstruct that world. What did the trial mean to his family, to their neighbors? “Who cared?” he says with a dismissive wave. “We were hungry, homeless, happy if we found a piece of soap. For us, the trial was happening on the moon.”