Why on earth would a Nazi defendant go to a play based on his own trial?

Thinking in Public
Defendant Hjalmar Schacht [seated center with glasses in a dark suit] talks to his fellow defendants under the eye of an American military police officer at the International Military Tribunal trial of war criminals at Nuremberg. From the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Harry S. Truman Library.

This article features the work of Dr. Minou Arjomand, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin.

American audiences love a good trial. 57% of Americans watched the jury deliver their verdict in O.J. Simpson’s case in 1995. That’s 150 million viewers. But O.J. Simpson’s case wasn’t the only one attracting fans. The televised proceedings involving Rodney King, Ted Bundy, Casey Anthony, and even Lindsay Lohan piqued national interest. Many of the trials have even been adapted for plays, television, and film—American Crime Story recreated the events of The People vs. O.J. Simpson to critical acclaim.

Adapting trials for public consumption after the fact is no easy feat. It requires presenting and reflecting upon history. In Staged: Show Trials, Political Theater, and the Aesthetics of Judgment, Dr. Minou Arjomand delves into the politics of such “show trials.” Trials can go on for an extended time, which means that playwrights must condense their transcripts into digestible scenes. This creative licensing can be especially challenging if the trial’s principle figures are alive, as was the case for Trial in Nuremberg. The play’s author, Rolf Schneider, was a “young, up-and-coming playwright” in East Berlin. Along with his collaborators, Schneider sifted through 42 volumes of trial transcripts to write the play, which was initially performed under the controlling, socialist regime of the East German (GDR) government who censored all media. To present “evidence,” he chose to have actors record speeches and wiretapped phone conversations from the proceedings. During a performance of the play in spring 1969 at the famous Burgtheater in Vienna, Austria, one of the actual defendants from the Nuremberg trials, Hjalmar Schacht, attended a performance and sat in the front row.

A quick refresher on the Nuremberg trials, in case your post-WWII history is a little rusty. The trials took place in two phases: November 1945-October 1946 and October 1946-April 1949. The setting of the trials was strategically chosen–the courthouse in Nuremberg was close in proximity to the former site of Nazi party rallies. Allied judges from France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States conducted the first phase, trying 22 major war criminals such as Hermann Göring (Adolph Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Joseph Goebbels committed suicide before they could be tried). They also tried 7 factions of Nazi bureaucracy, which is how Schacht came to be on trial.

Schacht had worked for the Reichsbank, the central bank of Germany. At Nuremberg, prosecutors tried him for several reasons. They argued he supported Hitler’s ascension to power and the Nazi agenda through economic planning. Evidence demonstrated that as President of the Bank until 1939, Schacht oversaw the financing of Germany’s armament plans. However, the tribunal eventually acquitted Schacht of all conspiracy charges.

After watching the performance of Trial in Nuremberg 20 years later, Schacht chatted with reporters. He lauded actor Paul Hoffmann’s portrayal of him as “outstanding,” but condemned the playwright’s interpretation of events. Schacht insisted that he joined the Nazi government to help “tame unemployment” and claimed that he was “the only person in all of Europe” to complete such a task.

Dr. Arjomand offers more substantiated critiques for the role of show trials. Although the play “misrepresents the importance of crimes against Jews during the Nuremberg trials,” she explains how the play provided a nuanced version of history in a polarizing political climate. The inaccuracies in historical facts allowed it to slip under their radar, but also offer a  more accurate history of the Holocaust.

The next time you’re listening to all the new episodes of your favorite “true crime” podcast or watching yet another procedural on tv, consider the political implications of the story. Whether our staged courtroom stories find us rooting for the prosecutor, or the defendant, they typically direct our decision-making and emotional-responses to lean toward believing one side over the other. Schacht’s case reminds us that the politics of the courtroom should resist predetermined story arcs in favor of a nuanced reflection on justice. It’s less neat, but then so is history.

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