02/14/06 — Professor discusses historic Nazi trials

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Professor discusses historic Nazi trials

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on February 14, 2006 1:54 PM

As the clock inched towards 7 p.m., the lights still hadn't been turned on in Courtroom One. A long line wrapped around the top floor of Wayne County Courthouse as eager learners filed into the room and took their seats in the dark.

The second chapter in the Wayne County Reads program closed Monday as Dr. Gerhard Weinberg lectured close to 200 people on the Nuremberg Trials.

The event's official start time had come and gone yet the lights remained off. Local attorney Geoffrey Hulse silenced the crowd and explained that despite seemingly fitting technical difficulties, the show would go on.

"Well, I guess it's only fitting that this year's book is "Night" and the lights aren't cooperating with us," he said.

As his introduction of the speaker came to a close, the lights suddenly flashed on, evoking cheers from the audience. The light revealed an aged scholar, sitting at a desk to the left of the jury box. - his class was now in session.

"As soon as I'm about to mention Dr. Weinberg's name the lights come on," Hulse said. "How about that."

Dr. Gerhard began with some background on the war. His goal, he said, was to discuss the main trail at Nuremberg - the world's prosecution, Nazi Germany's defense and the outcome.

"In discussing the Nuremberg trials, I am going to focus on the main trail as it has come to be called and the subsequent trials that related to it," he said.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor's talk had all the qualities of a great college lecture - a commanding tone, people in the front row aggressively taking notes and a the occasional ring of a cell-phone that hardly phased Weinberg.

He began with some background on Nazi Germany, particularly, why the Allied powers declared war.

"The people and governments of the Allies were constantly hearing about terrible things that were going on in German occupied Europe," he said. "As more and more of this information came out, some of them acted."

He added that that these nations eventually warned the Nazi's that their crimes against humanity would not be ignored - or go unpunished.

"It (warning) was issued by the Allies and denounced the acts of mass murder and other terrible things," he said. "And it a very general way, said that those who did these things could expect to be punished."

They had hoped their warning would put an end to the cruel practices. It did not.

Later, when the war was won, those who had committed these crimes were to be captured and prosecutor. The end product was a multi-nation trial. Despite early disputes over what type of courtroom to run, the prosecution began and 12 men would eventually be put to death for their war crimes.

Weinberg talked about the importance of certain precedents set at Nuremberg that are still use today - like the use of translators.

"This was the first time that a trial could be heard in many different languages at the same time," he said. "There were translators so that people could hear things and understand them in their own language."

He added that witnesses were brought in, and some of that evidence was very dramatic - and only one piece of that evidence was ruled inadmissible.

"It was a letter...that the prosecution could only produce in its English translation and not the German original," he said. "The court said, 'we can't have that.'"

After the prosecution made its case, Weinberg said the defendants made theirs - claiming they were just following orders and feared for their own lives.

"The defendants themselves testified," he said. "And at the end of the trial they were each allowed to make a closing statement."

The Nazi's were found guilty and 12 men were sentenced to death.

"It is out of this trial that there came the concept of crimes against humanity," he said. "The official definition of war crime came to be," he said.

The lecture came to an end; roughly an hour after the lights in Courtroom One finally flickered on. After a thunderous applause, Weinberg took a few questions and watched as hundreds of enlightened students left his classroom.