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Volume 19, Fall 2006
Nuremberg Trials 60th Anniversary
Classroom Activity: Conducting Mock Nuremberg Trials

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

One of the most effective ways of helping students deal with questions of judgment and responsibility is to have them reenact the Nuremberg Trials.

Reenacting the Nuremberg Trials - this can be done in two ways:
  • Students examine the evidence and arguments for the actual defendants at Nuremberg either in the IMT or the Subsequent Trials

  • Students examine evidence and arguments for composite figures based on the original defendants.
This lesson will focus on actual persons that existed during the era of the Holocaust. Not all the defendants in the exercise were tried in the initial IMT or NMT but they all had some involvement in the era of the Holocaust. (Teachers who use composite figures often do this to avoid students getting all their information from the internet.)

Difference between simulation and mock trial

Conducting mock trials is an activity based on the actual evidence and follows the procedures used at the historic trials. This is not intended so much to be a simulation but rather an historical reenactment that engages students in critical thinking, using primary sources, and working cooperatively to develop arguments and gather evidence.

Mock Trials of the Actual Defendants
  • Need background on Holocaust and then background on trials

  • 2. Before having students examine the evidence and consider their arguments, it is critical that they have a general idea of what is involved in an international proceeding, what constitutes evidence, and what are components of arguments for both the prosecution and defense. When possible, it is helpful to have a lawyer versed in international law speak with the students.

  • After this general background, students should be broken up into groups: each group will have a defendant from the IMT or NMT or subsequent proceedings, whether they are domestic trials or de-Nazification proceedings, to consider.

  • It is useful to select defendants from a variety of backgrounds and involvement in the Nazi state so it does not appear those responsible for the Nazi regime were only the top leadership. Thus, there should be defendants who were not necessarily brought to trial at Nuremberg but were involved in some capacity in the Nazi state and its persecution of minorities. For example, members of the SS at Auschwitz, engineers and architects involved with building concentration and death camps, or members of the railway bureaucracy could be included.

  • Each group of four of five students needs to select one or more to act as prosecutors and one or more to act as defense counsel. One student may take the role of the defendant. Then each side should develop its arguments. You may want to limit the argument to the closing argument or the opening statement. This can be adapted to the amount of time available.
  • In preparation, each group needs time to do basic research on their defendant. Packets of basic background can be gathered and recommended websites and sources immediately available can be provided.

  • Following this, time is needed for each group to compose its respective arguments. Finally, time is needed for practice to keep within time limits and prepare evidence for presentation at trial.
Also, if possible, professionals from the community can be involved. At the Florida Holocaust Museum, local judges and a lawyer trained in international law donated their time. The lawyer introduced the basic concepts of international law and went over the components of a legal argument. The judges attended a preliminary meeting to go over the basic principles of Nuremberg and the agenda for the trial date: they read Joseph Persico’s Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial (1994), and Michael Marrus’s “The Prelude to the Nuremberg Trial,” Dimensions 10. 1: 23-8, as they prepared themselves for involvement.

Brief Vignettes of Defendants at the Mock Trial: An example

The following defendants were used at mock trials at the Florida Holocaust Museum and East Stroudsburg University:

Herman Goring: Born in 1893, Goring early distinguished himself as a fighter pilot for the German army and a commander of a fighter squadron. In 1922, he joined the Nazi Party and commanded the SA. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, he played a major role in the liquidation of the SA; in 1935 he was appointed the Reichsmarshall. In 1936, he was put in charge of the Four Year Plan to prepare the economy for wartime. After Kristallnacht in 1938, he was put in charge of the “Jewish Question” and was one of the principal architects of the “Final Solution” during the war years. At the outbreak of WWII Hitler appointed Goring as his successor.

Julius Streicher: Streicher was born in Bavaria in 1885 and was an elementary school teacher before WWI. During WWI he served the German army with distinction. In the postwar years he was one of the first members of the Nazi Party and took a leading role as a Gauleiter in Franconia during the late 1920s. Streicher was one of the most outspoken antisemites in the Nazi party: he founded the newspaper Der Stürmer in 1923. He also was responsible for the publication of children’s books with anti-Semitic themes. When the Nazis came to power in the 1930s he carried on as an anti-Semitic publisher and took a leading role in organizing the boycott of Jewish businesses in April 1933.

Alfons Heck: Alfons was a member of the Jungvolk at the age of 10 in 1935. He became devoted to the Nazi movement and his Fuhrer in the Jungvolk and later in the Hitler Youth organization. During the war years as a teenager he served in the German army and remained loyal to Hitler until the end of the war. Watching the proceedings at Nuremberg in 1945 he finally realized what the Nazis had done to millions of innocent victims. He felt that he himself was a victim of the Nazi indoctrination.

Kurt Prufer: Prufer was born in Erfurt, Germany in 1891. He began working for the firm of Topf and sons in 1911 and worked his way up to the position of senior engineer by the 1930s. His work for Topf became his entire career, and he was devoted to the company. In the war years he saw it as part of his job to help refine the crematoria for the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

Hans Friedrich: Friedrich was born in 1921 and raised with antisemitic propaganda. He joined the SS in 1940 and was involved with Einsatzgruppen actions in 1941.

Oskar Groening: Groening was born in 1921 and was early involved with ultra nationalistic youth organizations before joining the Hitler Youth in the 1930s. He joined the Waffen SS in 1940 and by 1942 was assigned to the bureaurcracy at Auschwitz where he served for two years.

Leni Riefenstahl: Leni Riefenstahl was born in Germany in 1902. She was trained as a painter and dancer. In her mid twenties she began working with cinema as an actor and later as a producer. During the 1930s she directed a series of documentary films supported by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Among these films were Triumph of the Will and Olympiad. She lived until 2003. A film of her life is entitled Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir.

Debriefing the Experience

The most effective debriefing has come after lawyers or judges involved in the mock trial discuss with participants what took place and how arguments were assessed.

Samples of Vignettes for Mock Nuremberg Trial
  • Kurt Prufer
  • Hans Friedrich
  • Oskar Groening
Kurt Prufer

Topf and Sons was the only civilian firm directly involved in the extermination of Jews in Auschwitz, not only in supplying cremation furnaces but in fitting out of the gas chambers in Birkenau crematoria. The firm founded in the nineteenth century was employing over one thousand people in the early twentieth century. Kurt Prufer began his career with the firm in 1911.

Kurt Prufer, born in Erfurt in 1891, was hired by Topf and Sons in 1911 as a foreman. Although he was short on education, he had considerable ambition. After his secondary schooling, he attended courses in structural engineering and worked at two other firms before joining Topf and Sons. Prufer was doing well with the firm when he was called into military service for World War I. Returning to Topf in 1919 after the war, Prufer continued his education in civil engineering and by 1928 was promoted to head the crematorium construction division.

The depression starting in 1929 impacted the business of Topf and Sons. While many employees were laid off, Prufer was able to retain his job and by 1934 as business improved Prufer’s job was assured.

Prufer joined the Nazi Party in 1934 or 1935 after his position at Topf was confirmed. Having arrived at his position by working his way up, he was vulnerable to other younger men who had better paper qualifications and a lower starting salary. His hope lay in the new Nazi regime and he undoubtedly knew members of the Nazi Party from his service in World War I. The New Germany was based on people like him, and his enrollment in the Nazi Party was at one and the same time both his thanks to those who had saved his situation and his license to enter future markets.

As of 1935, the German economy was definitely improving and the Topf firm benefited from the situation. Prufer became chief engineer. Four years later, the firm had 1,200 employees. It became the supplier of the Wehrmacht and stepped up purchase of materials to be able to fulfill army contracts. At this time, Prufer appeared to be a man who had arrived. He was confident of his own value to the firm.

Because he was a member of the Nazi Party, Prufer was able to introduce himself to concentration camp circles, where the demand for cremation furnaces was increasing due to high mortality and fear of disease. Prufer landed the contract for Topf with Dachau concentration camp and installed a two-muffle cremation furnace in November 1939.

Thanks to Prufer, Topf gradually introduced their cremation products into four of the concentration camps: Dachau, Buchenwald, Mauthausen and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Kori another firm that competed with Topf had built twenty of thirty of the cremation muffles at the camps. Prufer beat this record. Topf built 66 cremation muffles at camps; 46 were at Birkenau.

The new concentration camp market opened up a new outlet in October 1941: the Auschwitz camp. The site chosen was Birkenau, a marshy area requiring drainage. Working with the Birkenau architect Karl Bischoff, Prufer agreed to a project for a crematorium with five three-muffle furnaces, fed by two big underground morgues. The cremation capacity was 60 corpses per hour.

Prufer took pride in the fact that he obtained profitable contracts for Topf and Sons and worked steadily during the war years to build the cremation furnaces and repair them when cracks occurred. Even after the war when it was evident that the Topf firm had been involved with the crematorium, Prufer did not think anything would happen to him because he had destroyed what he thought was incriminating evidence. The following transcript of a Russian interrogation of Prufer in 1946 reveals his thinking on the matter and how there was no reason for him to be held accountable:

Q. How often and with what aim did you visit Auschwitz?

R. Five times. The first time [was] the beginning of 1943, to receive the orders of the SS Command, where the kremas were to be built. The second time [was] in spring 1943 to inspect the building site. The third time was in autumn 1943 to inspect a fault in the construction of a krema chimney. The fourth time [was] at the beginning of 1944, to inspect the repaired chimney. The fifth time [was] September-October 1944 when I visited Auschwitz in connection with the intended relocation [from Auschwitz] of the crematoriums, since the front was getting nearer. The crematoriums were not relocated because there were not enough workers.

Q. Did you see a gas chamber next to the crematorium?

R. Yes, I did see one next to the crematorium. Between the gas chamber and the crematorium there was a connecting structure.

Q. Did you know that in the gas chambers and the crematoriums there took place the liquidations of innocent human beings?

R. I have known since spring 1943 that innocent human beings were being liquidated in Auschwitz gas chambers and that their corpses were subsequently incinerated in the crematoriums. . . .

Q. Why were the brick lining of the muffles so quickly damaged?

R. The bricks were damaged after six months because the strain on the furnaces was colossal.

A. What motivated you to continue with the building of the other crematoriums as senior engineer with Topf and Sons?

R. I had my contract with the Topf firm and I was aware of the fact that my work was of great importance for the national socialist state. I knew that if I refused to continue with this work, I would be liquidated by the Gestapo.

Hans Friedrich

1941 was a turning point in World War II and the Holocaust. Germany broke its non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union and in June 1941 launched an invasion of the Soviet Union. This resulted in a large increase of Jews in the Greater Reich and millions of Soviet POWs, Nazi special killing units, Einsatzgruppen, followed the German army along with Russian Polish border and murdered more than a million civilians, often shooting victims in large trenches.

Hans Friedrich was a member of one of the SS infantry units that was sent to the East to reinforce the Einsatzgruppen in the summer of 1941. His SS brigade mainly operated in the Ukraine and as he recalls there was no resistance of Jews about to be murdered. “They [the Jews] were extremely shocked, utterly frightened and petrified, and you could do what you wanted with them. They had resigned themselves to their fate.” The SS and their collaborators in the Ukraine forced Jews out of their village and made them stand by a deep ditch. They were then shot into the ditch. Friedrich explains, “Someone had to go down into the ditch and check conscientiously whether they were still alive or not, because it never happened that they were all mortally wounded at the first shot. And if somebody wasn’t dead and was lying there injured, then he was shot with a pistol.”

Friedrich admits that he himself shot Jews in these pit killings. He says he thought “nothing” as he saw his victims standing just a few meters in front of him. “I only thought, ‘Aim carefully so that you hit.’ That was my thought. When you’ve got to the point where you’re standing there with a gun ready to shoot . . . there’s only one thing, a calm hand so that you hit well, Nothing else.” He claims that his conscience never bothered him. He never had a bad dream about the subject or questioned what he had done.

Documents confirm that Friedrich was a member of the SS 1st Infantry Brigade that entered the Ukraine on July 23rd. Records also reveal that he had been in several places in the Ukraine.

One action he was involved in took place in the town of Ostrog on August 4, 1941, where ten thousand Jews from surrounding villages had been gathered in Ostrog. According to an eye witness, groups of Jews around fifty or a hundred were brought to the pit and were shot by Einsatzgruppen. Shootings took place all day until almost all the Jews had been murdered. One victim who survived said that the victims were treated as subhumans and asked what would make these SS so cruel.

Hans Friedrich partly answers this question:

If I’m honest I have no empathy [for the Jews]. For the Jews harmed me and my parents so much that I cannot forget . . . . My hatred towards the Jews is too great.

Friedrich’s past provides additional insights into his actions in 1941. He was born in 1941 in an area of Romania dominated by ethnic Germans. While growing up, he learned to hate Jews. His father was a farmer and the Jews in the locality acted as traders, buying produce and then selling it on the market. Friedrich heard from his parents that Jews gained too much profit from their business dealings and that he and his family were cheated by them. “I would like to have seen you,” he explains, “if you had experienced what we experienced—if you were a farmer and wanted to sell, say pigs, and you couldn’t do it. You could only do it via a Jewish trader. Try to put yourself in our position. You were no longer master of your own life.”

During his teen years, Friedrich was proud to be involved in painting posters that denigrated Jews and he closely followed the antisemitic articles in Streicher’s Der Stürmer.

Friedrich joined the SS in 1940 because his Reich was at war and he wanted to be a part of it. He linked Jews and Bolshevism. While he and his comrades entered the Ukraine in the summer of 1941, he did not consider the Russians as part of a civilized country like France but a people far behind those of Western Europe. He willingly participated in the killing of Jews because he believed he was taking revenge for the traders who had cheated his parents. That these were different Jews altogether—Jews indeed, from another country—mattered not at all. “They’re all Jews,” he affirms.

Far from being sorry for having participated in the extermination of the Jews, Hans Friedrich had no regrets of any kind. Although he never said so in these terms, he gives every impression of being proud of what he and his comrades did. The justification for his actions is, in his mind, clear and absolute: The Jews did him and his family harm, and the world is a better place without them.

(This vignette is based on information in Program 1 of Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State and Laurence Rees’s Auschwitz: A New History [2005].)

Oskar Groening

(Some 7,000 members of the SS were involved with the bureaucracy of Auschwitz. Oskar Groening was involved with the administration of prisoners’ money and valuables and was at the camp for over two years.)

Oskar Groening was 21 years old when he was posted to Auschwitz. He arrived only weeks after thousands of French children were transported to Auschwitz and was an eye witness to what happened to these children and other early transports arriving at the camp. While standing on the ramp, his job was to supervise the luggage of the incoming transport. He also watched as SS doctors separated men from women and selected those who were fit for work and those who should be gassed. He estimates that between 80 and 90 percent of people in the first transports of September 1942 were selected to be murdered immediately.

The process [of selection] proceeded in a relatively orderly fashion but when it was over it was just like a fairground. There was a load of rubbish, and next to this rubbish were ill people, unable to walk, perhaps a child that had lost its mother, or perhaps during searching the train somebody had hidden—and these people were simply killed with a shot through the head. And the kind of way in which these people were treated brought me doubt and outrage. A child was simply pulled on the leg and thrown on a lorry . . . then when it cried like a sick chicken, they chucked it against the edge of the lorry. I couldn’t understand that an SS man would take a child and throw its head against the side of a lorry . . . or kill them by shooting them and then throw them on a lorry like a sack of wheat.

According to Groening, he was filled with doubt and outrage and went to his superior officer saying he could not stand the way that the killing was taking place without any framework and wanted to be transferred. His superior officer reminded him of his SS oath of allegiance and that he should forget any idea of leaving Auschwitz. However, the superior officer did say that the excesses he had witnessed were not typical and that Groening was right that SS should not be involved in such “sadistic” events. Documents confirm that Groening did put in for a transfer from Auschwitz. The request was refused, and Groening remained at Auschwitz.

It is important to note that Groening did not object to the principle of murdering Jews. He objected to how it was being carried out, and he admits he had ambiguous feelings about seeing people about to be killed in the gas chambers.

How do you feel when you’re in Russia, there’s a machine gun in front of you, and there’s a battalion of Russians coming running towards you and you have to pull the trigger and shoot as many as possible? I’m saying it on purpose like this because there’s always behind you the fact that the Jews are enemies who come from the inside of Germany. The propaganda had for us such an effect that you assumed that to exterminate them was basically something that happened in war. And to that extent a feeling of sympathy or empathy didn’t come up.

When asked how he explains why children were murdered, Groening responded: “The children are not the enemy at the moment. The enemy is the blood in them. The enemy is growing up to be a Jew who could be dangerous. And because of that the children were also affected.”

Indications to how Groening responded to the murders at Auschwitz are found in his background. He was born in 1921 in Lower Saxony. He was the son of a skilled textile worker who was intensely proud of his German heritage. As a child Groening looked at the photographs of his grandfather who had served an elite unit for the Duchy of Brunswick.

When Germany was defeated in World War I, Oskar’s father joined the right-wing Stahlhelm (Steel Helmet), an ultra nationalist organization bent on restoring Germany’s honor. As his father’s personal circumstances deteriorated in the 1920s, his father grew angrier and angrier about Germany’s treatment at the Treaty of Versailles. Oskar himself joined the Stahlhelm’s youth organization, the Scharnhost.

Hitler came to power in 1933 when Oskar was eleven years old. Oskar went from the Scharnhorst into the Hitler Youth and adopted his parents’ views that the Nazis were the most appropriate leadership for Germany. He participated in the book burning of non-Aryan authors and applauded the Nazi economic measures and plans for remilitarization.

Oskar completed high school at seventeen and took an internship in banking. Since so many young male interns were conscripted into the army, Oskar had opportunities for advancement that would not have been possible at other times. Although he was advancing in his banking career, Oskar and other trainees at the bank were eager to join the fighting after hearing of German victories in Poland and France. Oskar opted to join the elite Waffen SS.

Initially, Oskar had a job with the SS administration as a bookkeeper. He worked at this for about a year and then was sent to Berlin for preparation to become part of the administration at Auschwitz.

In Berlin Oskar and his comrades heard high ranking SS officers:

We had to listen to a lecture where we were told we had to fulfill orders that were given in trust—a task that wouldn’t be without difficulties. We were reminded that we had sworn an oath with the motto “My loyalty is my honor,” and that we could prove this loyalty by doing this task which was not given to us—the details of which we would find out later. Then a subordinate Ss leader said we were to keep absolutely silent about this task. It was top-secret, so that neither our relatives or friends or comrades or people who were not in the unit were to be told anything about it. So we had to march forward individually and sign a statement to this effect.

Then, Oskar and his comrades were divided up, and small groups were sent in different directions from Berlin. Oskar was included in the group to be sent to Auschwitz, a place he had not heard of previously.

Groening and his group arrived at Auschwitz late in the evening and were directed by military police to the main camp, where they reported to the central administrative building and were allocated “provisional” bunks in the SS barracks. The other members of the SS they met in the barracks that night were friendly and welcoming. They were offered ample food and drink. It was at this point that Oskar learned they were at a special kind of concentration camp.

The next day Groening and other new trainees went to the central SS administrative building. Since Groening indicated that he had worked in banking, he was assigned to work in the barracks where prisoners’ money was kept.

Thus far, Groening thought he was at a normal concentration camp. Yet, as he began registering prisoners’ money, he learned about the “unusual” function of the camp. “The people there [working in the barracks] let us know that this money didn’t all go back to the prisoners—Jews taken to the camp who were treated differently. The money was taken off them without their getting it back.” Groening asked, “Is this to do with the ‘transport’ that arrived during the night?” His colleagues replied, “Well, as they’re not able to work they’re got rid of.” Groening then learned the meaning of “got rid of.”

You cannot imagine it really. I could only accept it fully when I was guarding the valuables and the suitcases at the selection. If you ask me about it—it was a shock that you cannot take in at the first moment. But you mustn’t forget that not only from 1933 [Hitler’s acquisition of power], but even from before that, the propaganda I got as a boy in the press, the general society I lived in made us aware that the Jews were the cause of the First World War, and had also “stabbed Germany in the back” at the end. And that the Jews were actually the cause of the misery in which Germany found herself. We were convinced by our worldview that there was a great conspiracy of Jewishness against us, and that thought was expressed in Auschwitz—that it must be avoided, what happened in the First World War must be avoided, namely that the Jews put us into misery. The enemies who are within Germany are being killed—exterminated if necessary. And between these two fights, openly at the front line and then on the home front, there’s absolutely no difference—so we exterminated nothing but enemies.

Today, Oskar Groening is in his eighties. He speaks as if there was another Oskar Groening at Auschwitz. He shields himself against taking responsibility for being part of the killing process by referring to the propaganda against Jews that permeated his culture. The new Oskar did not appear until after the war when there was a new worldview to replace the antisemitic one of his youth.

This is not to say that Groening hides behind the defense of “just following orders.” He does not say he was a mindless robot. When the suggestion is put before him that he would have accepted Aryan children being murdered at Auschwitz, he rejects this. He makes a lie of the notion prevalent among some historians that the Ss men were so brutalized by their training that they would have killed anyone they were asked to. Groening’s decision-making was much less simplistic. He claims that he was influenced by the propaganda, but he also points out he made a series of personal choices during the war. He stayed working at Auschwitz not only because he was ordered to but because, having weighed the evidence put before him, he thought that the extermination process was right. Once the war was over he disputed the accuracy of the evidence put before him, but he did not claim that he acted as he did because he was some kind of robot. Throughout his life he believes he did what he thought was “right”; it’s just that what was “right” then turns out not to be “right” today.

In the postwar years, Oskar went on to pursue a career in accounting and was appointed as an honorary judge. He was never indicted for his role at Auschwitz and feels comfortable with his life.

Each person has the freedom to make the best of the situation he’s in. I did what every normal person tries to do, which is to make the best possible situation for himself and his loved ones, if he has a family. So I succeeded in doing that - others didn‘t succeed. What happened before is irrelevant.

He is currently motivated to speak out about Auschwitz because he wants to correct the deniers’ claims that there was no Holocaust. He does not feel remorse for his role at Auschwitz, but wants to make clear that he did witness the killing.

I would like you to believe me. I saw the gas chambers. I saw the crematorium. I saw the open fires. I was on the ramp when the selections took place. I would like you to believe that these atrocities happened, because I was there.

(This vignette is adapted from the film Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State and Laurence Rees’s Auschwitz: A New History [2005].)

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Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the Holocaust-- Part I

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