The Nuremberg Trails, 1945-1946

Beginning November 20, 1945, 24 Nazis sat on the Nuremberg Court House's seating area for the accused. These were the men defined as the main criminals

Even before the end of WWII, the three strongest nations among the Allied Powers (United States, Soviet Union, Great Britain) decided upon a series of arrangements in anticipation of the war’s end. At the summit meetings that took place in Tehran and Yalta, and after the end of the war at the Potsdam Conference, it was decided that now that Germany had been defeated, an international court would be established.

The Allies agreed among themselves to establish an international military court vested with the responsibility of investigating and conducting trials for the deeds committed in Germany’s name prior to and during the war. The idea was mainly to address war crimes, crimes committed against civilians and crimes committed in the concentration camps. Prior to the establishment of the court, France joined the three major Allied nations and was also admitted to the bench (two judges were appointed from each country).

The city of Nuremberg was selected as the site of the military court, for a number of reasons. First, despite the great destruction that visited this city, the local court building was almost unscathed, such that discussions could be held with a large number of participants and a sizeable audience. Next to it was the prison, where the accused could be held during the discussions and easily transported as required. Secondly, precisely due to the prominent role of Nuremberg in Nazi ideology ­– as the city where the Nazi Party conventions were held and the racist anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws were legislated – conducting the trials in this city, of all places, had a clear symbolic dimension.

A contemporary response to the Nuremberg Trails, London 1945

In order for the court to perform its task vis-à-vis the accused, it was necessary to apprehend them. Immediately after the last days of the war, it emerged that several of the senior Nazis were no longer alive: Hitler and Goebbels committed suicide on April 30 and May 1 respectively. Hitler’s secretary, Martin Bormann, disappeared (his remains were discovered only in the 70s, in Berlin). Other prominent Nazis initially tried to hide, but during the weeks following Germany’s surrender, an increasing number were captured in remote locations and in prisoner of war camps, where they had disguised themselves among the masses of German soldiers taken prisoner by the Allies. Such was the case of the Reich Leader of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, who tried to survive under an assumed identity. Despite his efforts, British soldiers identified him, but before the British authorities managed to interrogate him thoroughly, he managed to commit suicide. Rudolf Hess, the second-highest ranking member of the Nazi Party, was arrested already in 1941, when he flew to England of his own accord to conduct peace negotiations on behalf of Germany. The highest-ranking Nazi to be captured alive was Hermann Göring. Göring surrendered to American forces, together with his family and property, loaded on to no fewer than 17 trucks.

Beginning November 20, 1945, 24 Nazis sat on the Nuremberg Court House’s seating area for the accused. These were the men defined as the main criminals. Eight judges presided over the trials. Heading the international military court was British Justice Sir Geoffrey Lawrence. Each of the participating Allied nations appointed a prosecutor.

During the preliminary discussions on the question of accusations, it became clear that the issue was inconceivably more complex than could have been anticipated. While there was no doubt regarding German responsibility for the war, some of the same crimes carried out by the Nazis were also committed de facto by certain Allied armies. For example, in September 1939, the Soviet Union attacked Poland, together with Germany, and summarily executed thousands of Polish officers in the city of Katyn and in other locations. And just as the Germans bombed many cities across Europe with the goal of destroying them, so, too, did the British and Americans – bombed German cities with the same intention. Therefore, in order to hold the Nuremberg Trials while not undermining the authority of the court, the international jurists were required to refrain from comparisons, and to focus on the German acts. Additionally, already in the early days of the discussions, tensions began mounting between the Soviet Union and the Allied Powers regarding the ideological differences between the blocs, which eventually, indeed, led to the Cold War.

The discussions took place in various languages: English, French, Russian and German. For the duration of almost a year, the Court heard 240 witnesses and was presented with many written documents and much film footage. The international Nuremberg Trials were groundbreaking in many senses: They took place simultaneously in a number of languages and were accompanied by simultaneous translation; the prosecution relied on the idea that the international court would try responsible individuals from a particular country that committed a crime according to international law and against humanity as a whole. The work of the court at Nuremberg as well as that of a similar body that operated after the end of the war in the Far East served as an example for the functioning of the International Court of Justice at the Hague, established following the experience and resulting insights garnered from the trials after WWII.

At the end of the trials, on September 30 and on October 1 1945, 12 of the accused were sentenced to death, three were exonerated and the rest were imprisoned in Allied prisons in the old Spandau Citadel in Berlin, after being handed prison sentences ranging from ten years to life imprisonment. None of them pleaded guilty. On October 16, those sentenced to death were executed. Göring convinced an American soldier to obtain poison for him, managing to kill himself just a few hours before he was scheduled to be hanged. The last prisoner in the Berlin jail was Rudolf Hess. Ultimately, Hess also killed himself, in 1987, at the age of 93.

The opening page of the protocols series’ first volume, London 1946

Many journalists reported on the Nuremberg Trials. Among them were well known personalities and writers, including Willy Brandt, Alfred Dublin, Ilya Ehrenberg, Ernest Hemingway, Erich Kästner, John Steinbeck and many others. Haaretz’s reporter covering the trials was Robert Weltsch, later the director of the Leo Baeck Institute in London. Surprisingly, Weltsch did not believe that the trial conducted at Nuremberg had great significance or would be very effective. In a letter to Martin Buber from Nuremberg of December 1945, he even stated that the entire trial “is actually not interesting at all.” The trial was documented in films, and when it ended, the protocols were published in English, French and German. The trials themselves and the publications about them spurred the beginning of the comprehensive study of the Third Reich and Nazi crimes.

Governments and Crises: Memories of Israel’s and Germany’s Ambassadors

Due to the complexity of the relations between the countries, the role of the German ambassador in Israel and that of his Israeli counterpart in Germany were most certainly among the most challenging faced by members of the diplomatic corps in the two countries

Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany in 1965, many served as ambassadors for the two countries in Tel Aviv, Bonn and Berlin. Due to the complexity of the relations between the countries, the role of the German ambassador in Israel and that of his Israeli counterpart in Germany were most certainly among the most challenging faced by members of the diplomatic corps in the two countries. It is reasonable to assume that the ambassadors were aware of the demanding requirements and expectations of these representatives of their countries vis-a-vis a foreign government: skills in the art of diplomacy, preservation of national interests, understanding of the other side’s positions, realistic assessments regarding possible measures, and more.

Asher Ben-Natan’s book

For the past 50 years, ambassadors who have served in these positions have met with great success, and became relatively popular among the public of the host country. The political goals of both sides were ostensibly identical – improving ties with the other country, while preserving self-interest. And yet, self-interest was defined differently in each of the countries, due to the difficult history of the Holocaust period, which stayed with – and still lingers in – the relations between them. The West German public expected rapid “normalization” between Germans and Jews, and it was often not clear whether this was a kind of obfuscation and repression of historical guilt. In contrast, considerable portions of the Israeli public opposed the establishment of diplomatic relations or even any form of ties between the two countries, out of a fear that it would cause the horrific crime and its victims to be forgotten. The official Israeli representatives needed to heed the demands of the Israeli public, anticipating clarifications regarding the topic of collective and individual guilt of Germany and the Germans, but were also interested in advancing ties with the Federal Republic, since these ties were essential to Israel’s diplomatic and economic development.

Meroz’s book in Hebrew, 1988

During the first years of the relations, the presence of Germany’s ambassadors in Israel sparked demonstrations and other forms of public opposition.

It is well known that during the first trip of Rolf Pauls, West Germany’s first ambassador to Israel, to visit representatives of the Israeli government in 1965, the ambassador met with catcalls and even violence on the part of angry demonstrators. Klaus Schütz, who served in this same position between 1977 and 1981, also encountered catcalls while the German national anthem played during his official reception at the president’s residence in Jerusalem.

Asher Ben-Natan, the first Israeli Ambassador to Bonn, was also received by a large crowd on landing at the Cologne Airport in 1965, but no catcalls were sounded; the throngs, including journalists, were curious to see the official attaché of the Jewish state in Germany and to hear his first remarks on assuming his post. The ambassadors and consulate employees of both countries were witness to an ongoing series of critical incidents that posed a threat to the character of the relations, and were involved in devising solutions during times of crisis: the supply of German arms to various countries in the Middle East that threatened Israel’s security, the Six-Day War in 1967, the massacre of the Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in 1972, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the hijacking of Israeli and German airplanes during the days of left-wing terror in the 1970s, the Lebanon War in 1982, and the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany in 1989-90.

The job of the ambassador, given the complex web of relations between Germany and Israel, including guilt, responsibility and the desire to develop “normal relations,” in addition to the complicated historical background, provided interesting angles for the composition of personal memoirs.

It therefore comes as no surprise that there is an impressive list of memoirs by ambassadors from both sides, and even a collection of articles that brings together texts by Israeli and German ambassadors over the decades.

The first to record their recollections of the activity between Israel and Germany was Felix Eliezer Shinnar, who was the director of the Israeli delegation in Germany, which opened immediately following the Reparations Agreement of 1952 in Luxembourg. Shinnar remained in this post until the establishment of diplomatic relations, and was involved in paving the way for improving them. Shinnar’s memoir was published – simultaneously in Hebrew and in German – already in 1967.

Asher Ben-Natan, the first Israeli Ambassador to Germany, beginning in 1965, published his book, “The Audacity to Live,” only in 2002, and a year later in Germay. This book is an autobiography, and also includes chapters about Ben-Natan’s work as an ambassador. These chapters were also published as a separate volume in 2005, but only in German.

The first ambassador from Germany to publish his recollections was Klaus Schütz. Already before his appointment in 1977, Schütz served as the Mayor of West Berlin, and in this role gained experience in managing sensitive situations. Schütz’s book was published in 1992, only in Germany. A description of his days as ambassador to Israel does not occupy a significant portion of the book, and perhaps this is why it was never translated into Hebrew.

Another Israeli ambassador, Yohanan Meroz, served at the embassy from 1974-1981, and published his report in 1986 in Germany, and two years later in Hebrew, under the title: “Was it All in Vain? – An Israeli Ambassador in Germany’s Summing Up.” Meroz lived in Bonn during difficult years for West-German society, under the shadow of terrorist attacks by left-wing extremists who collaborated with Palestinian activists – what makes his composition most interesting.

Niels Hansen, who was Germany’s ambassador to Israel from 1981-1985, wrote a non-fiction work that does not revolve around his memories as a diplomat, but rather the relations between the two countries during the tenure of Konrad Adenauer and David Ben-Gurion. In this aspect, this voluminous work greatly resembles that of Shinnar mentioned above. A compendium of articles from 2005 brings together additional texts on the topic, featuring writings by other ambassadors who did not publish books on their years of diplomatic service: Rolf Pauls, Eliashiv Ben-Horin, Jesko von Puttkamer, Benjamin Navon and others. The book, however, was published only in German, like many of the books mentioned here, while in Hebrew the only books available are those by Shinnar, Ben-Natan and Meroz.

Even the book by Avi Primor, who was ambassador to unified Germany, was never published in Hebrew. Books of this type, so it seems, found more readers among the German public – at least according to the estimates of the writers and the Israeli publishers.

Shakespeare’s Signature

​Shakespeare's Signature at the National Library

The cover of a first edition copy of the book Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences by Cornelius Agrippa (1569)

​In a riveting article published in Haaretz on 16.11.2012, Dr. Avner Ben-Zaken reports that the National Library may be in possession of the original signature of none other than William Shakespeare. Said signature is found on the cover of a first edition copy of the book Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences by Cornelius Agrippa (1569). Dr. Ben-Zaken examined the specimen closely after hearing about the book from Hava Nowerstern, the librarian in charge of the National Library’s Edelstein Collection of history, philosophy and sociology of science.  Ben Zaken’s interest in the book derives from his research on the connection between magic and science during the Renaissance, a subject in which Cornelius Agrippa is a central figure.

Ben-Zaken ties together the image of the sorcerer-scientist who intervenes in natural processes in order to obtain a systematic description of phenomena and that of Shakespeare, actor turned playwright who “wrote plays in the forms of experiments… conducted by one who, just like Agrippa’s sorcerer, mixes the practical with the theoretical… .”


The cover of a first edition copy of the book Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences by Cornelius Agrippa (1569)


Ben-Zaken takes the reader on a tour of the intellectual milieu that Shakespeare became part of when he came to London from the country. As turns out the Agrippa’s Vanitie was a primary text among the intellectuals of the time. Not only is its influence manifest in works by several of them, such as Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nash, but the book and its author are mentioned by name. Moreover, Ben-Zaken reminds us that Agrippa’s book, and his intellectual philosophy, played a foundational role in the works of Francis Bacon, the principal advocate of experimentation as a means to investigate reality. Bacon compared conducting experiments to a theatrical performance in front of an audience. The experiment, like the dramatic event, is in need of the affirmation of an audience. Ben-Zaken describes the unfolding of an intellectual revolution involving a blending of the practical and the philosophical.  Cornelius Agrippa’s book played an important role in this revolution and Shakespeare embodied several of its central principles in his activities as an actor and playwright who broke with convention and experimented with various points of view.

Experts have concluded that the signature on the cover of the National Library of Israel’s copy of Cornelius Agrippa’s book is comparable to other signatures attributed to Shakespeare. Such signatures exist on several documents, among them a deed of ownership on his house and his will and testament. However, the existence of his signature on a book by Cornelius Agrippa amounts to confirmation of a physical, tangible connection between Shakespeare and the intellectual zeitgeist that influenced his writing. Avner Ben-Zaken points to several instances where the explicit presence of Agrippa’s Vanities can be identified in Shakespeare’s plays: As You like It, the Merry Wives of Windsor, The Merchant of Venice, and particularly the Tempest. Furthermore, signs of Cornelius Agrippa’s ideas regarding the four humors of man abound in Shakespeare’s plays, among them Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard II, and Richard III.



The discovery of Shakespeare’s signature in the National Library’s collections rekindles our interest in why it is we find the signatures of famous individuals so fascinating. The signature of a well-known person or historical figure furnishes us with a sense of closeness, almost intimacy, with that person. Autographs are coveted by collectors and the National Library features the immense Chevadron Collection of such treasures. An autograph is a historical artifact, even when uninformative and out of context. When one appears on a book, as in the present case, it is a voice from the past saying: “Shakespeare held this book, this very book, in his hands.” Moreover, on a book so strongly associated with Shakespeare’s work, his autograph bears physical testimony to that book’s importance to the acclaimed bard. The excitement at discovering an autograph is similar to that of an archeological discovery. One knows with certainty, when walking in the galleries of the Coliseum or among the pillars of the Parthenon, that he is walking in the footsteps of history and the written word. In one respect, an autograph is even more authentic: the movement of a hand, the ink, the slight tremor, the slanted script, the use of space, the very place where Shakespeare rested his hand, the pages he traced with his fingers, the ink he blew upon to dry.

All the alleged Shakespearean autographs are controversial. The argument is rooted in disagreements over the figure of Shakespeare, who we know precious little about despite his artistic prowess. Ben-Zaken ties the roots of the argument about Shakespeare’s origins to his not being a certified product of a university. Moreover, Ben-Zaken avers that the iconoclasm that characterizes Shakespeare’s work was also fodder for those who doubted his authorship. In this context, any autograph of Shakespeare’s supports the belief that he did indeed mix in the intellectual circles of his time and that his oeuvre emerged from this world. The autograph on Agrippa’s Vanities is a significant and exciting addition to those who espouse this view. The book came to the National Library from Sidney Edelstein (Hebrew Wikipedia entry), who probably purchased it from William Stoddard, an early 20th century Shakespearean scholar.  Edelstein placed his collection in the custody of the National Library and thus, brought Shakespeare to Jerusalem.