U.S. prosecutor Whitney R. Harris gazed at the top Nazis in front of him, men like Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, Julius Streicher, as their war crimes trial opened 60 years ago and immediately knew his mission.
Later he would reflect on the significance of the landmark trial - the establishment of charges like "war crimes" in a new international law and the principle that individuals could be held responsible for their aggression.
On Nov. 20, 1945, it was justice that 33-year-old Harris sought for the 21 Nazis. Harris, aged 93, returned Sunday with three other eyewitnesses to Courtroom 600 in the Nuremberg Palace of Justice, where the trials were held to mark the anniversary.
Arno Hamburger, 82, recalled seeing many of the defendants at the Nazi's annual rallies in Nuremberg before he fled the country because he was Jewish.
When it ended, however, Hamburger said that "my feeling was that finally, in spite of all the atrocities, justice won over." Over 218 trial days, the top-ranking Nazis faced a panel of judges that represented the victorious allies- the United States, Soviet Union, Britain and France.
The trial established the offenses of crimes against peace, waging a war of aggression, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Its legacy can be seen in the cases under way or being prepared against former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and the leaders of the genocide in Rwanda.
It was also a precursor to today's international system of justice, said Johann-Georg Schaetzler, one of Hess' defense attorneys. Prosecutors were able to rely on the Nazi's own meticulous records for much of their case, as well as hundreds of statements, with witnesses often recounting the greatest horrors with the utmost banality, Harris recalled.
He remembered interrogating Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess for three days, taking a statement that would later be used to prosecute him for war crimes and send him to the gallows. As a young journalist covering the trials for the German DANA news agency, Susanne von Paczensky said she was proud to be one of the few local reporters sending stories about the Nazi's crimes back to the German people.
On Oct. 1, 1946, Goering, Adolf Hitler's air force chief and a top aide, was sentenced to death along with 11 others, including Streicher, an anti-Jewish propagandist, and Martin Bormann, Hitler's vanished deputy, who was tried in absentia. Hess, Hitler's deputy, and six others drew long prison sentences and three were acquitted. Fifteen days later, the condemned men were hanged in the courthouse's adjacent prison. Goering committed suicide by swallowing a poison pill in his cell the night before, AP reports.
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