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Volume 19, Fall 2006
Nuremberg Trials 60th Anniversary
The Executions

Section 1
Background and Preparation for the Nuremberg Trials
Section 2
Chief Prosecutors
Highlights of the Military Tribunal
Examination of Goering
Verdicts and Sentences
The Executions
Section 3
Twelve Subsequent Trials

According to Dr. Gilbert, “the hangings were carried out during the early morning hours of October 16, 1946 in a small gymnasium erected in the prison's courtyard. Three gallows filled the room - two to be used alternatively as each condemned man was dispatched and the third to act as a spare. The executions were briskly conducted ­the entire procedure lasted just over 3 1/2 hours.”

Kingsbury Smith, a reporter for the International News Service, was selected as the sole representative of the American press at the executions. Here are some of his observations:

Hermann Goering “‘cheated the hangman’ by swallowing a cyanide capsule and dying in his cell shortly before his scheduled hanging.”

Von Ribbentrop “entered the execution chamber at 1:11 AM. Nuremberg time. He was stopped immediately inside the door by two Army sergeants who closed in on each side of him and held his arms, while another sergeant who had followed him in removed manacles from his hands and replaced them with a leather strap. It was planned originally to permit the condemned men to walk from their cells to the execution chamber with their hands free, but all were manacled immediately following Goering's suicide. Von Ribbentrop was able to maintain his apparent stoicism to the last. He walked steadily toward the scaffold between his two guards, but he did not answer at first when an officer standing at the foot of the gallows went through the formality of asking his name. When the query was repeated he almost shouted, 'Joachim von Ribbentrop!' and then mounted the steps without any sign of hesitation.

When he was turned around on the platform to face the witnesses, he seemed to clench his teeth and raise his head with the old arrogance. When asked whether he had any final message he said, 'God protect Germany,' in German, and then added, 'May I say something else?'

The interpreter nodded and the former diplomatic wizard of Nazidom spoke his last words in loud, firm tones: 'My last wish is that Germany realize its entity and that an understanding be reached between the East and the West. I wish peace to the world.'

As the black hood was placed in position on his head, Von Ribbentrop looked straight ahead.

Then the hangman adjusted the rope, pulled the lever, and Von Ribbentrop slipped away to his fate.”

Keitel “entered the chamber two minutes after the trap had dropped beneath Von Ribbentrop, while the latter still was at the end of his rope. But Von Ribbentrop's body was concealed inside the first scaffold; all that could be seen was the taut rope.

Keitel did not appear as tense as Von Ribbentrop. He held his head high while his hands were being tied and walked erect toward the gallows with a military bearing. When asked his name he responded loudly and mounted the gallows as he might have mounted a reviewing stand to take a salute from German armies.

He certainly did not appear to need the help of guards who walked alongside, holding his arms. When he turned around atop the platform he looked over the crowd with the iron-jawed haughtiness of a proud Prussian officer. His last words, uttered in a full, clear voice, were translated as ‘I call on God Almighty to have mercy on the German people. More than 2 million German soldiers went to their death for the fatherland before me. I follow now my sons—all for Germany.’”

Hans Frank “was next in the parade of death. He was the only one of the condemned to enter the chamber with a smile on his countenance. Although nervous and swallowing frequently, this man, who was converted to Roman Catholicism after his arrest, gave the appearance of being relieved at the prospect of atoning for his evil deeds.

He answered to his name quietly and when asked for any last statement, he replied in a low voice that was almost a whisper, ‘I am thankful for the kind treatment during my captivity and I ask God to accept me with mercy.’”

Alfred Jodl. “Ninth in the procession of death was Jodl. With the black coat-collar of his Wehrmacht uniform half turned up at the back as though hurriedly put on, JodI entered the dismal death house with obvious signs of nervousness. He wet his lips constantly and his features were drawn and haggard as he walked, not nearly so steady as Keitel, up the gallows steps. Yet his voice was calm when he uttered his last six words on earth: ‘My greetings to you, my Germany.’

At 2:34 AM Jodl plunged into the black hole of the scaffold.”

Hermann Goering The last of the condemned men was executed at 2:38 AM. Although Goering had escaped the hangman's noose, his death had to be officially recognized:

The gymnasium doors opened again and guards entered carrying Goering's body on a stretcher.

Goering after suicide

He had succeeded in wrecking plans of the Allied Control Council to have him lead the parade of condemned Nazi chieftains to their death. But the council's representatives were determined that Goering at least would take his place as a dead man beneath the shadow of the scaffold. The guards carrying the stretcher set it down between the first and second gallows. Goering's big bare feet stuck out from under the bottom end of a khaki-colored United States Army blanket. One blue-silk-clad arm was hanging over the side.

The colonel in charge of the proceedings ordered the blanket removed so that witnesses and Allied correspondents could see for themselves that Goering was definitely dead. The Army did not want any legend to develop that Goering had managed to escape. As the blanket came off it revealed Goering clad in black silk pajamas with a blue jacket shirt over them, and this was soaking wet, apparently the result of efforts by prison doctors to revive him. The face of this twentieth-century freebooting political racketeer was still contorted with the pain of his last agonizing moments and his final gesture of defiance. They covered him up quickly, and this Nazi warlord, who like a character out of the days of the Borgias, had wallowed in blood and beauty, passed behind a canvas curtain into the black pages of history."


Dr. Gilbert's account appears in Gilbert, G.M., Nuremberg Diary (1947); Kingsbury Smith's account appears in Kinnaird, Clark (ed.), It Happened in 1946 (1947), reprinted in Carey, John (ed.) Eyewitness to History (1987); Marrus, Michael R. The Nuremburg War Crimes Trial, 1945-46: A Documentary History (1997).--
"The Sentencing and Execution of Nazi War Criminals, 1946" Eyewitness to History, (2004). 1945-46: A Documentary History (1997). --

Questions for discussion:
  • One of the defendants at the International Military Tribunal was Hans Frank, the Governor General of Poland during the Nazi occupation of Poland and a longstanding member of the Nazi Party and SS. He kept diaries during the war indicating his dislike of some of the orders he was carrying out on behalf of the Third Reich. He thought these diaries would mitigate his guilt and lessen his responsibility since he continued to carry out Nazi directives throughout the war and did not show a determined opposition.

  • American prosecutors who participated in the International Military Tribunal look back at the experience as one of the most important events of their careers.
    From what you have read about the International Military Tribunal, why do you think the experience would so influence the character and outlook of young men and women involved in the experience?

  • Julius Streicher, one of the twenty two defendants at the International Military Tribunal, was the publisher of antisemitic publications and was an outspoken antisemite. He never killed anyone but his words were used to spread hatred. The International Military Tribunal found him guilty of “breaking the moral backbone” of the German nation. What do you think? Can words be used as weapons? Should a person be held accountable for his or her own words? By finding Streicher guilty at the International Military Tribunal, what message were the judges sending to others who would stir up hatred?

  • Baldur von Schirach, the head of the Hitler Youth during the Nazi era, was another defendant at the International Military Tribunal. He received a sentence of 20 years for leading German youth astray in following the dictates of Hitler and other Nazi leadership. Do you think the youth that blindly followed the orders of the Hitler Youth should also be held accountable for following orders? Watch the video Obedience to Authority, based on the Obedience Study done by Stanley Milgram at Yale in the early sixties. What relationship do you see between his study and the blind obedience of the Hitler Youth? (Another video that is related is The Wave.)

  • Almost all the International Military Trial defendants, for example, Hans Frank and Admiral Karl Doenitz, maintained that they were not responsible for their actions because they were following orders of the Führer and the only responsible person was the Führer. What do you think of this defense? At what point does one disobey orders or leadership?

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