Seventy-five years ago, on Wednesday, March 13, 1946, Hermann Goering takes the stand at Nuremberg’s International Military Tribunal, the first of the accused to testify on his own behalf. After long months of listening to the voluminous evidence against him and his fellow defendants, it is finally Goering’s turn to speak. Executive Trial Counsel Tom Dodd describes the moment in a letter to his wife, Grace.
DODD: ANOTHER DAY – GOERING DAY, IF YOU PLEASE. HE TOOK THE STAND AT 2:30 P.M. IT CAME VERY SUDDENLY. WE HAD FINISHED OUR CROSS-EXAMINATION FOR THE WITNESS KESSELRING JUST AFTER THE NOON RECESS WHEN DR. [STAHMER], COUNSEL FOR GOERING, SUDDENLY CALLED HIM TO THE STAND. THERE WAS A FLURRY IN THE COURTROOM. PRESS MEN RUSHED TO GET THE WORD ON THE WIRES. PEOPLE CAME INTO THE COURTROOM IN A HURRY AND IN TWO MINUTES IT WAS PACKED TO THE DOORS. OUR TRIAL TABLE WAS FILLED UP. JACKSON SITS IN THE LEFT FRONT AND I SIT IN THE RIGHT FRONT SEAT. BEHIND US SIT THE LAWYERS IN TWO ROWS ON EITHER SIDE OF THE TABLE. WE ALL FELT IT WAS A MOMENT OF HISTORICAL IMPORTANCE. GOERING WAS VERY CALM AS HE BEGAN HIS TESTIMONY. THE DEFENDANTS ALL LEANED FORWARD IN THE DOCK – THE JUDGES TURNED IN THEIR HIGH CHAIRS TO STARE AT HIM. HE IS A CHARMING RASCAL – A REAL BUCCANEER.
Earlier that day, prison psychologist Dr. Gustave Gilbert interviews Goering in his cell.
GOERING: I STILL DON’T RECOGNIZE THE AUTHORITY OF THE COURT – I CAN SAY, LIKE [MARY] STUART, THAT I CAN BE TRIED ONLY BY A COURT OF PEERS.
After the trial adjourns for the evening, however, Gilbert encounters a far more philosophical Prisoner Number One.
GOERING: YOU MUST REALIZE THAT AFTER BEING IMPRISONED FOR ALMOST A YEAR, AND SITTING THROUGH THIS TRIAL FOR 5 MONTHS WITHOUT SAYING A WORD IN COURT, IT WAS REALLY A STRAIN FOR ME – ESPECIALLY THE FIRST 10 MINUTES. THE ONE THING THAT ANNOYED ME, DAMMIT, IS THAT I COULD NOT KEEP MY HAND FROM SHAKING.
Crime Story will explore Goering’s full defense in future episodes, as well as his contentious responses to Robert H. Jackson’s cross examination. For the moment, to commemorate the anniversary of Goering’s testimony, we share this film excerpt of Goering’s March 13 direct examination by his counsel, Dr. Otto Stahmer; the exchanges are in the original German. The clip begins shortly after Goering takes the stand, when he describes attending a demonstration in Munich in 1922 where Adolf Hitler is scheduled to speak. In fact, it details Goering’s first, fateful encounter with the Nazi Party leader. The translated transcript below corresponds to 0:00 -1:06 of the clip.
GOERING: I WENT TO THIS PROTEST DEMONSTRATION AS A SPECTATOR, WITHOUT HAVING ANY CONNECTION WITH IT. VARIOUS SPEAKERS FROM PARTIES AND ORGANIZATIONS SPOKE THERE. AT THE END HITLER, TOO, WAS CALLED FOR. I HAD HEARD HIS NAME ONCE BEFORE BRIEFLY AND WANTED TO HEAR WHAT HE HAD TO SAY. HE DECLINED TO SPEAK AND IT WAS PURE COINCIDENCE THAT I STOOD NEARBY AND HEARD THE REASONS FOR HIS REFUSAL. HE DID NOT WANT TO DISTURB THE UNANIMITY OF THE DEMONSTRATION; HE COULD NOT SEE HIMSELF SPEAKING, AS HE PUT IT, TO THESE TAME, BOURGEOIS PIRATES. HE CONSIDERED IT SENSELESS TO LAUNCH PROTESTS WITH NO WEIGHT BEHIND THEM. THIS MADE A DEEP IMPRESSION ON ME; I WAS OF THE SAME OPINION.
Goering’s direct testimony stretches out over five days. Writing home to Grace, Dodd admits to being quietly impressed but, more so, dismayed by Goering’s long-winded answers.
DODD: GOERING WAS IN HIS ELEMENT, OBVIOUSLY ENJOYING HIS POSITION AS A WITNESS AND PARTICULARLY IN HIS POSE AS THE SUCCESSOR TO HITLER AND THE NO. 1 NAZI NOW ALIVE. HE REALLY WENT OUT OF HIS WAY TO TAKE SHOTS AT THE ALLIED COUNTRIES. WE ALL THOUGHT THE EXAMINATION WAS TERRIBLY LENGTHY AND OUR SPIRITS SANK BECAUSE IF THIS WAS ANY STANDARD THEN OUR CHANCES OF FINISHING THIS CASE IN ANYTHING LIKE A REASONABLE TIME ARE PRACTICALLY NIL.
We will return to Goering’s direct testimony and cross-examination in future episodes. The next episode of Crime Story’s Nuremberg series will examine the prosecution’s use of documentary film as evidence of Nazi atrocities. The tactic unsettled courtroom viewers and introduced an unexpected and visceral new element into the already highly-charged proceedings.