On Saturday, we visited the town of Nuremberg, Germany (aka Nurnberg). Nuremberg is along the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal and is the second largest city in the German state of Bavaria, with a half million in population. Our guests could choose one of two tours: Medieval Nuremberg or World War II. I joined Kati on the World War II tour, as I had always heard about Nuremberg and the Nuremberg trials but didn’t know much about the history. Hitler declared Nuremberg the “City of Reichsparteitage” (Reich Party Congresses) in March 1933. Six Nazi party rallies occurred in Nuremberg and each took place for a week in September from 1933-1938 and were mandatory for anyone affiliated with the Nazi party. The official Nazi party rally grounds covered about 11 square kilometers, including the Zeppelinfeld, Kongresshalle and the Grobe Strabe. The grounds were mostly planned by Hitler’s architect Albert Speer. The first stop on our tour was the courtroom where the Nuremberg trials took place, Courtroom 600.
The Nuremberg trials were held for the purpose of bringing Nazi war criminals to justice and were a series of 13 trials carried out between 1945 and 1949.
Judges from the allied powers, Great Britain, France, the. Soviet Union and the United States, presided over the hearings of twenty-two major Nazi criminals. The defendants, who included Nazi party officials and high-ranking officers along with German industrialists, lawyers and doctors, were indicted on such charges as crimes against peace and crimes against humanity. Twelve prominent Nazis were sentenced to death, ten of which were hanged. There were seven imprisonments and three acquittals. Most of the defendants admitted to the crimes of which they were accused, although most claimed that they were simply following the orders of a higher authority. The Nazi’s highest authority, the person most to blame for the Holocaust, was missing at the trials. Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) committed suicide in the final days of the war and was never brought to trial. The Nuremberg trials are now regarded as a milestone toward the establishment of a permanent international court, and an important precedent for dealing with later instances of genocide and other crimes against humanity. After leaving Courtroom 600, we boarded the coach en route to the Zeppelin Field.
Zeppelin Field was the official Nazi party rally grounds and included a large grandstand. The grandstand is where Hitler stood during the rallies and is famous as the building that had the swastika blown from atop it in 1945, after Germany’s fall in World War II.
It was a chilly, gloomy day and I wasn’t seeing colors. My vision was almost black and white, as if I was looking at an old photograph. The temperature seemed to drop while we were standing there, as if it reflected the history of our surroundings. While I appreciated learning about the history of the city, I felt quite uncomfortable standing on the same land where the Nazi rallies took place.
I have been to the Holocaust Museums in Washington, DC and Jerusalem and wasn’t quite sure what to expect as we approached this stop on the tour. It turns out that the Documentation Center is not a Holocaust museum, but a historical look at how Hitler and the Nazi party came to power.
I have often wondered how one man could rise to such power and after visiting the Documentation Center, I started to get a more clear picture of the history:
Austrian born in 1889, Adolf Hitler had a troubled childhood; mistreated by his father and a mother who was chronically ill. As a child, he dreamed of being an artist. At a young age, Hitler had shown a strong talent in drawing and this talent was also observed by his high school instructors but things did not go smoothly for him. Hitler’s father died in 1904 and now there was no one to tell Hitler what to do, so he did as he pleased. Hitler was a lazy and uncooperative student who eventually flunked out at the age of 16. To escape the reality of that failure and avoid the dreaded reality of a workday existence, Hitler put all of his hope in the dream of achieving greatness as an artist. In 1907, at the age of 17, Hitler made the decision to attend the prestigious Vienna Academy of the Fine Arts. Leaving his mother back in Linz, Austria, suffering from breast cancer, Hitler made the move to Vienna to take the two-day entrance exam for the academy’s school of painting. Confident and self assured, he awaited the result, quite sure he would get in but failure struck him like a bolt of lightening. His test drawings were judged unsatisfactory and he was not admitted. Hitler was badly shaken by this rejection. He took the entrance exam again the following year and was once again rejected. Feeling quite depressed, Hitler left Vienna and headed home to Linz where his mother was now in her final days, which only made matters worse. After both of his parents had died, Adolf was left to fend for himself on the streets. To keep from starving and freezing, Hitler enlisted for the Germans in the Great War, World War I. He blamed the war and his poor living conditions on the Jews coming to Germany, as he believed they had stolen his money, his job opportunities and were the underlying cause of the war. Hitler developed a strong hatred for the Jews and further believed that Germany should be pure of all Jews and filled by the original Aryan race to protect the security of the German people. Hitler’s continuing rise to power was based upon many long-term factors. In the early 1930s, the mood in Germany was grim. The worldwide economic depression had hit the country especially hard, and millions of people were out of work. Still fresh in the minds of many was Germany’s humiliating defeat fifteen years earlier during World War I, and Germans lacked confidence in their weak government, known as the Weimar Republic. These conditions provided the chance for the rise of a new leader, Adolf Hitler, and his party, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, or Nazi party for short.
Hitler was a powerful and spellbinding speaker who attracted a wide following of Germans desperate for change. He promised the disenchanted a better life and a new and glorious Germany. The Nazis appealed especially to the unemployed, young people, and members of the lower middle class (small store owners, office employees, craftsmen, and farmers). The party’s rise to power was rapid and forceful. Before the economic depression struck, the Nazis were practically unknown, winning only 3 percent of the vote to the Reichstag (German Parliament) in elections in 1924. In the 1932 elections, the Nazis won 33 percent of the votes, more than any other party. In January 1933 Hitler was appointed Chancellor, the head of the German government, and many Germans believed that they had found a savior for their nation. Two months later, in March 1933, Hitler also became the Dictator of Germany. Less than one month later, in April 1933, the SS opened Dachau concentration camp outside of Munich and there was a German boycott of Jewish-owned shops. Less than one year later, in August 1934, President Hindenburg died. Hitler decided that he should succeed Hindenburg, but not as President, instead of Fuhrer (supreme leader) of the German people. An election was held in August 1934 and 95% of registered voters in Germany went to the polls and gave Hitler 38 million (38 MILLION!?!?!….scary!) “Ja” votes. Thus, Hitler could now claim he was Fuhrer of the German nation with the overwhelming approval of the people. The very next day, mandatory loyalty oaths for all public officials in Germany were introduced: “I swear: I shall be loyal and obedient to Adolf Hitler, the Fuhrer of the German Reich and people, respect the laws, and fulfill my official duties conscientiously, so help me God.” Hitler, at long last, had achieved total power in Germany. Chancellor, Dictator and Fuhrer….a dangerous combination! Not long after, Hitler also became Army Commander.
Over the next 5 years, Hitler and the Nazi party continued to take control and on November 9/10, 1938, Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass” occurred throughout Germany and other annexed areas. Kristallnacht owes its’ name to the shards of glass that lined German streets in the wake of the pogrom (a Russian word meaning “to wreak havoc, to demolish violently”) – broken glass from the windows of synagogues, homes and Jewish-owned businesses.
As the pogrom spread, units of the SS and Gestapo arrested up to 30,000 Jewish males and transferred most of them to Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen and other concentration camps. Significantly, Kristallnacht marks the first instance in which the Nazi regime incarcerated Jews in a massive scale simply on the basis of their ethnicity. With the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later and Word War II began. After Japan bombs Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States declares war on Japan the following day. Just four days later, Nazi Germany and its’ Axis partners declare war on the United States. Over the next four years, Hitler and the Nazi party murder nearly 6 million Jews and approximately 5 million Gypsies, mentally and physically disabled persons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and others were murdered as well.
Concentration camps were established and Jews were pulled from the ghettos and placed into the concentration camps, where they were forced into slave labor until disease, starvation or exhaustion killed them. As Hitler and the Nazis continued to conquer new areas of Europe, new ghettos and concentration camps were set up. Additionally, death squads began to execute Jews and others in mass shootings, burying them in mass graves throughout Europe. Later in the course of WWII, the Nazis set the “Final Solution” into motion, and it was then that some of the concentration camps became extermination camps. The sole purpose of these camps was simply to execute as many people as possible in as efficient manner as possible.
The war continued and with an eminent German defeat, Hitler committed suicide as the end of the war grew near. WWII came to an end in August 1945.
Just imagine how different history may have been written had Hitler passed his art entrance exam. If only…