Most visitors to Nuremberg come for the beautiful historic city center loaded with bustling squares, canals and churches, the Kaiserburg castle perched on a hill overlooking the dog and most importantly, the Nuremberger sausages. Or they come for the greatest Christmas market in Germany! But not long ago, Nuremberg held a more sinister role in Germany’s history and there is so much more history beneath the surface of the city.
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If you paid attention in your history class in high school, you probably remember learning that the Nuremberg Trials were held here after the defeat of Nazi Germany. High ranking Nazi officials were held on trial here for their crimes against humanity. It was no coincidence that the trials were held here, but as a matter of significance. Nuremberg played an important role in the rise and fall of Nazi Germany,3 and what you probably didn’t realize was that Nuremberg was once the “Stadt der Reichsparteiage” (City of Party Rallies) and to hold the trials here to demand justice for those who perished under this regime only seemed fitting.
Why was Nuremberg so important to the Third Reich?
Nuremberg was important to the Nazi’s for multiple reasons. First of all, the city held historical importance as it was once the “unofficial” seat of the Holy Roman Empire and the city prospered from being quite a central location within Germany. Hitler was obsessed with racial ideology and regarded the Germanic peoples of Europe and being racially superior and envisioned an empire as great as the Holy Roman Empire. For this reason, Nuremberg was chosen as a central point for Nazi party conventions. Perhaps you’ve seen old black and white videos of mass rallies with torch bearing Nazi members and alarming speeches made by Hitler. These were used as a form of propaganda and became a symbol of the hatred and evil that spewed out of the party. Therefore, between 1933 and 1938, Nuremberg was a breeding ground within the Nazi Germany, recruiting loyal followers to do the dirty work.
The Nazi Rally Grounds
It comes as no surprise that Nuremberg has struggled with how best to cope with its dark past. While throughout Germany, anything related to the Nazi empire was destroyed for fear of becoming a Neo-Nazi rally point, much of Nuremberg’s dark history still remains.
Crumbling and falling to pieces, the massive Nazi Rally grounds have been left abandoned by the city, unsure of what to do with it. Destroy it and wipe away the past? Or turn it into a museum to teach future generations not to repeat history?
We began our hunt for understanding at the Zeppelin Field, so named after the Zeppelin which landed here in 1909. The fields also include a zoo, swimming pool, exhibition, Congress Hall, a lake as well as a stadium which on this day eerily echoed with cheers of joy which rumbled in the distance, reminding me of a similar sound of chants (although negative) which once emanated from here.
The Zeppelin Field is today an eerily imposing structure, the remnants of the past. A large cement stadium, where Hitler would give his raging speeches from his grandstand, with his highest ranking officials sat on on either side of him, who peered out into the crowd to lower members of the party on the field. The field itself is larger that 12 football fields which one can only imagine how many Nazi party members stood in perfect unison absorbing every words Hitler spewed. The whole idea was to make each person feel small and emasculated in the presence of greatness, to be a part of something larger than themselves. It gave me the shivers to know that I was standing where Hitler once stood.
Between 1933 and 1938, six Nazi rallies were held here and in 1938, the “Cathedral of Light“ took place here and large floodlights beamed into the sky. It has been said the lights could be seen as far as Prague which was seen in the 1937 propaganda film.
Upon the victory of the allies, the US troops celebrated by blowing up the massive swastika which once topped the grandstand. Afterwards, the grounds were simply abandoned and left to fall into ruin and used as storage for the Nuremberg Christmas Market until it was finally decided to preserve these last remaining WWII relics, not out of commemoration but so that future generations can learn from the past.
Today, the field is falling into ruin, despite 100,000 € being spent on it each year to maintain it. The structure has become so dilapidated that the safety of visitors can no longer be guaranteed without extra reinforcement, fences, nets and barriers. The structure has been known to host concerts and even drag racing.
Walking Along the “Great Street”
The grounds were designed by Albert Speer, Hitler’s chief architect, 1,500 meters long by 60 meters wide “Great Street” (Große Straße) which aligns perfectly from the Nazi Party Rally Grounds to the Nuremberg Castle. Large granite slabs stretch as far as the eye can see and symbolically glorified the past imperial days of Germany to the desires of the Third Reich, lined with tall, imposing towers which portrayed an image of importance and power.
The road stretches from the Congress Hall to the Märzfeld and was never used as a parade road. After the war, the US Army used it as an airfield, however, it is more commonly used as a parking area during festival season.
The Congress Hall
After walking along the Great Street, passing the lake (Großer Dutzendteich) of which you’ll catch a glimpse of the a larger than life structure known as the Congress Hall (Kongresshalle). Also purposely left in ruins, it is yet another stark reminder of Nuremberg’s Nazi past. A testament to Hitler’s megalomaniac personality, this was to be the grand stage Hitler intended to give a speech once a year to some 50,000 people, however, it was never completed but you can certainly try to imagine how small one might have felt here. If you watch Man in the High Castle, you’ll have seen the People’s Hall in Berlin which would have held up to 180,000 people in Season 2, Episode 18 “Loose Lips”.
Today, the unfinished Congress Hall has been partially incorporated into the Documentation Center with a permanent exhibition on the Nazi Party’s rise and fall and is today one of TripAdvisor’s #1 rated things to do in Nuremberg!
The museum showcases an exhibition on how Hitler wished to be portrayed and how he came to be the undisputed “Führer” (leader), the important that architecture played within the Third Reich, how large numbers of people quickly fell under his spell and believed and implemented his ideals and finally concluding in an estimation of how many people were systematically murdered for being Jewish, homosexual, Communist, Romani, ethnic Poles and even people who were political prisoners or had disabilities.
It’s worth visiting the Documentation Center to truly get an understanding of how someone like Hitler could become the almighty Dictator and how people fell under his spell. The “Faszination und Gewalt” (Fascination and Terror) exhibit showcases in chronological order how the Nazi ideology became so popular through modern marketing and media at the time which also showcases how critics and political opponents were quickly shut down and eliminated. They were sent to the Dachau Concentration Camp which was opened shortly after Hitler became Reichskanzler (chancellor).
Entry to the museum is 5 € per person which includes an audio guide in English and other languages. However, if you plan to visit at least one other museum in Nuremberg that day, I suggest getting the day pass museum ticket for 7.50 € which allows entry to both. Trust me, you will want this, especially if you’re interested in visiting the courthouse where the Nuremberg Trials were held!
The Nuremberg Trials Courthouse
Across town, we next visited the Nuremberg Palace of Justice, where after the defeat of the Third Reich justice was given. For the first time in history, top military officials and Nazi leaders were held responsible for the crimes they committed during the war at what would become known as the World Criminal Court. Today, you can visit Courtroom 600 where the highest ranking officials in the Nazi Party had to answer for their crimes before the International Military Tribunal which lasted from November 20, 1945 to October 1, 1946.
Robert H. Jackson, who served as an Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, was appointed by President Harry S. Truman as the U.S. Chief of Counsel to prosecute Nazi war criminals. He was responsible for helping to draft the London Charter of the International Military Tribunal which was the foundation of the Nuremberg Trials.
In all, 8 judges, two from each of the allied countries (US, Great Britain, France and Russia) were tasked with condemning 12 high ranking officials to death by hanging for crimes committed during the Holocaust. The crimes were divided into the following four categories: war crimes, crimes against humanity, and participating or planning crimes against peace. Three of the highest ranking Nazi officials committed suicide to avoid paying for their crimes: Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler and Joseph Goebbels.
The trials had enormous influence of the development of international criminal law which is still in effect today. To this day, Courtroom 600 is still a working courtroom, however, visiting is still possible as long as the room is not being used. The recently opened museum provides enlightens visitors about the defendants and which of the crimes they were changed with as well as the impact the trials have had.
How to get here: For the easiest way to get to/from the Documentation Center to the Nuremberg Palace of Justice, we took Bus 65 from Nürnberg Doku-Zentrum to Röthenbach (5 stations) and get off at Nürnberg Frankenstr. and take the Underground U1 to Hardhöhe (8 stations), for a total of around 17 minutes +/-.
Coming to Terms with the Past
To fully understand the events of the Second World War, it’s important to understand the significance of Nuremberg’s role in it all. I highly recommend visiting all of the sights in order to truly comprehend the rise and fall of the Third Reich. Germany has been burdened by coming to terms with their unfortunate past and have had to make up for the wrong that happened. Germany and especially Nuremberg, have done a magnificent job of not just remembering the past and honoring the victims, but also explaining the history in the hopes of educating future generations. It’s important to learn from the past to avoid making the same mistake twice. We owe it not just to ourselves and to future generations to understand how evil can spread if we’re not careful by remembering those terrible years and those who perished under the Nazi regime.
Some generations might prefer to forget the past and not think of it while younger generations might even feel like they are obligated to carry the weight of shame for what was done 70 years ago. We are not responsible for what happened then, but we are certainly responsible for what happens tomorrow.
“Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it” – George Santayana
If you’re interested in visiting Germany and are looking for more information, I highly recommend using the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide! Without these guides, I would be lost! This is my travel Bible!
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