For Justice Robert Jackson, one of the purposes of the Nuremberg trials was to show the world exactly what the Nazis had done. The “undeniable proof of incredible events”1
provided by the prosecutors during the trials would spell out the details. Some Germans claimed that only after hearing the evidence in the trials did they fully understand the crimes their nation had committed.
Alfons Heck (see readings, Joining the Hitler Youth and Models of Obedience in Chapter 6), who became a high-ranking Hitler Youth leader during the war, was captured in Germany by the Allies in March 1945. When his captors confronted him with evidence of atrocities committed by Germans, he refused to believe it:
I was forced to look at documentary footage of concentration camps and death camps. And it was the first time that I was shown the atrocities committed by our nation. We looked at this, and I said to my friends, “What do they take us for? This stuff is staged!” And one of us began to snicker, and our captors became so incensed that they started yelling at us, “You Goddamned Nazi bastards! Do you think this is a comedy? This is what you have done!”
1Robert H. Jackson, “Opening Statement before the International Military Tribunal,” The Robert H. Jackson Center, accessed June 7, 2016.
German Soldiers Watch Holocaust Atrocities
German Soldiers Watch Holocaust Atrocities
German soldiers are forced by the Allies after World War II to watch a film about the atrocities at German concentration camps.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Joseph Eaton
When Heck was released by the Allies in 1946, he went to Nuremberg. He said that what he learned there made him begin to believe what his captors had told him.
It was almost a year before I was able to accept the veracity of the films that I had seen. And it occurred at the war crimes trials in Nuremberg in 1946. . . . While I listened on the loudspeakers outside, I heard the full evidence of the accusations directed at the 22 top Nazis who were on trial. One of them was my leader, the former leader of the Hitler Youth, Baldur von Schirach. He was the principal reason why I came to Nuremberg. I wanted to know what he had to say, in particular, in regard to the activities of the Hitler Youth. Von Schirach told the Court, “It was my guilt that I have trained youth for a man who became a murderer a million times over.”
Baldur von Schirach received twenty years for crimes against humanity. That, in turn, implicated me too in the count [accusation] of mass murder because I had served Hitler as fanatically as von Schirach. I had an overwhelming sense of betrayal in Nuremberg and I recognized that the man I had adored was, in fact, the biggest monster in human history . . .
The experience of the Hitler Youth in Nazi Germany constitutes a massive case of child abuse. Out of millions of basically innocent children, Hitler and his regime succeeded in creating potential monsters.
Could it happen again today? Of course it can. Children are like empty vessels: you can fill them with good; you can fill them with evil; you can fill them with compassion. So the story of the Hitler Youth can be repeated.2
How did Alfons Heck first respond to evidence of concentration camps and death camps? Why do you think he responded this way?
What is Heck’s view of his own responsibility for the crimes of the Nazis? What words and phrases help you to understand his perspective?
Why did Heck feel an “overwhelming sense of betrayal” at Nuremberg? Who had betrayed him? How?
What did Heck mean when he said, “The experience of the Hitler Youth in Nazi Germany constitutes a massive case of child abuse”? Do you agree with Heck that children are “empty vessels”?
What do Heck’s remarks suggest about the value of the trial to the German people? Was it important for them to hear what had happened during the war in the perpetrators’ own words?
Heck shared these reflections nearly 40 years after the events of World War II and the Holocaust. What are the limitations of using such a source to help us understand this history? What are the benefits?
2Alfons Heck, Heil Hitler: Confessions of a Hitler Youth (documentary film), directed by Arthur Holch (Round Hill Productions, 1991).