By Eugene B. Kordahl
Why Visit Courtroom 600?
Why would a Court Watcher be interested in visiting the famous Nuremberg Palace of Justice’s courtroom 600? Because it was here that, after World War II ended, Nazi war criminals were brought to justice in dramatic trials held by Allied military tribunals.
13 major trials of alleged war criminals were held in courtroom 600 between November 20, 1945 and October 1, 1949, and had we at Court Watch NOLA been around at the time, our eyes and ears would have been full of untold astounding facts, exhibits, and statements.
The four great allied powers (France, U.S.S.R., United States, and United Kingdom) agreed to the “London Charter” on August 8, 1945, which formed the legal basis for the trial and punishment of the major war criminals of the European Axis countries (Germany and Italy). Indictments for conspiracy, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and membership in criminal organizations were then brought against the alleged war criminals on behalf of 14 countries that the Nazis waged war in or against during World War II.
Robert Jackson, the Chief Prosecutor for the United States, was a U.S. Supreme Court Justice selected for the job by President Truman. Jackson’s entire formal schooling consisted of a high school diploma and one year at Albany Law School.
Since this was a military tribunal, each of the four great allied powers provided two judges – one main judge and one alternate – who collectively conducted the trials.
Twenty-four defendants, who were generally German military officials and/or high-ranking members of the Nazi Party, were initially tried. The defendants included: Wilhelm Frick, Minister of the Interior, Julius Streicher, the editor of the Der Sturmer newspaper, Admiral Karl Doenitz, Commander of the German Navy, and Reichsmarschall Herman Goering, along with other leading Nazi industrialists, lawyers and doctors.
The International Military Tribunal returned the initial twenty-four verdicts on October 1, 1946: three defendants were acquitted, four were imprisoned for between ten and twenty years, three received life sentences, and eleven were sentenced to death by hanging. The American public was most closely following three of the defendants, however:
Martin Bormann: although the missing Bormann was convicted in absentia and sentenced to death by hanging, his body was not found for years, and his presence was reported for many years in places like Russia, Spain, Italy, and Paraguay. In 1998 researchers finally discovered Bormann’s body by comparing his suspected remains with tissue from an 83-year old relative of his. And far from living a life on the run, he died just a few hundred feet from Hitler’s bunker at the war’s close.
Rudolf Hess: this leading Nazi politician was Adolph Hitler’s Deputy Fuhrer from 1933 until 1941, when he flew solo to Scotland to try to negotiate a peace treaty and avoid further war. The military tribunal nevertheless sentenced Hess to life imprisonment in Spandau Prison. After serving 40 years in prison and being released, Hess committed suicide in 1987 at age 93.
Hermann Goering: Goering was the Nazi Party’s second-in-command, answering only to Hitler. Goering established the Gestapo (the Nazi secret police), the Luftwaffe (Nazi air force), and the concentration camp system. Found guilty on all counts, he was sentenced to death by hanging, but committed suicide just hours before the sentence was to be carried out, thanks to a cyanide capsule that he obtained despite being under heavy guard.
How Goering got the cyanide capsule is one of the Nuremberg Trials’ deepest mysteries. While over the years people have claimed that the capsule was imbedded in one of his teeth, hidden in a body cavity, given to him via a kiss from his wife, or provided to him by a guard, to this day nobody knows for sure how this war criminal escaped the Allies’ ultimate punishment.
For many of my fellow court watchers, Courtroom 600 will look familiar because we have seen it over the past 70 years in movies, on the Internet, or on television. At the time of the International Military Tribunals, the courtroom was roughly four times the size of Section J of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court (Judge Derbigny’s courtroom).
Major changes were made to Court Room 600 in order to accommodate the war crimes trials. The dock had to be moved and expanded to handle so many defendants and their guards (pictured above), and the Judges’ bench had to be expanded and moved as well. Spectator’s accommodations had to be created and technology invented and installed by IBM to allow for simultaneous translations of testimony and court business into four different languages.
Today, Courtroom 600 is mainly used for murder trials and looks much different, and much smaller.
During my visit, I asked the docent why my impression of the courtroom was so much larger, and he explained that, since the Nuremberg Trials, Courtroom 600 had been restored to its original appearance from when it was built in 1909. To accommodate the tribunal, the courtroom was expanded by removing a wall (the wall with the ornate doorway in the photo), and relocating the large judges’ chairs (also visible above). In this photo, the docent (in green) is standing approximately where the defendants’ podium was located in 1945, while the tribunal judges would have had their backs to the windows. The defense and prosecution would have sat to the left, where the restored wall now lies. Further to the left (not visible) there was seating for the press and a balcony for spectators. The acoustics in the courtroom are quite excellent.
As a court watcher, the reactions of my fellow visitors were of special interest.
The younger folks – say, those under 30 – took a quick look at the courtroom, chatted with one another, and seemed (mostly) disconnected from this historical chamber. Instead, they appeared to be interested in their iPods. It then occurred to me that the Nuremberg Trials were as pertinent to their lives as the First Peloponnesian War. The young historians in the group, however, asked sensible and genuinely incisive questions of our very knowledgeable docent.
The middle-aged among us seemed to be more involved and knowledgeable about the significance of Courtroom 600. Some were anxious, took their time viewing things, and asked quite knowledgeable questions of the docent. They had vague remembrances of the reason for the tribunals and some had family ties to the war.
The seniors among us, on the other hand, presented silence, frowns, tears, remembrances, grins, looks of puzzlement, muted conversations, respect, and noted the startling difference between the appearance of the 1945 and the 2015 courtrooms.
Should any court watcher ever have the opportunity to visit Nuremberg, it would certainly be worth that person’s time and even some research before taking the tour.
 Eugene Kordahl is an accomplished businessman, devoted student of history, and long-time Court Watch NOLA volunteer. Court Watch NOLA has not verified the accuracy of the information contained in this article, and the views and opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the position or opinion of Court Watch NOLA, its officers, or its directors.
 The countries on behalf of whom the charges were brought included: Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, the U.S.S.R., the United Kingdom, the United States, and Yugoslavia.