WAR CRIMES: Night without Dawn

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Through the cold, wet darkness, the people hurried homeward silently, drawing threadbare coats tightly around hunched shoulders. Policemen paced beneath feeble street lights, stamping their feet. A sharp wind whispered through shattered walls and broken towers, bringing shivers to everyone in Nürnberg. This was a night which had been longed for by millions in death cells, in all of Europe's fearful prisons and pens. But now, in the piercing wind, victors and vanquished alike felt the chilling doubts that invariably attend man's deliberate killing in the name of justice.

9 p.m. The eleven men for whom this night held no dawn ate a last supper of potato salad, sausage, cold cuts, black bread and tea. At 9 p.m., the prison lights were dimmed. At 10:45, U.S. Army Security officer Colonel Burton C. Andrus walked across the prison courtyard to set the night's lethal machinery in motion. The whole prison was permeated by the thought of impending death. (The Courthouse movie announced the next day's attraction: Deadline for Murder.)

Just then Hermann Göring was crunching a phial of potassium cyanide (no one knew where it came from). When guards and a chaplain rushed into his cell, he was dying. Meanwhile, near Nürnberg's old imperial Castle, a band of German children hung Göring in effigy. Then they burned the makeshift scaffold and silently marched around the fire, watching it scatter weird shadows among the rubble.

In the small gymnasium of the jail (its floor dusty, its walls dirty grey), three black gallows had been erected with more attention to numerology than to efficiency. The platforms were eight feet apart, stood eight feet above the ground, measured eight feet square. From each platform rose two heavy beams, supporting a heavy crosspiece with a hook for the rope in the middle. An inconspicuous lever served to open the traps. The space beneath the traps was hidden by curtains. 1:11 a.m. Two white-helmeted guards led Joachim von Ribbentrop from his cell down the corridor and across the courtyard. He walked as in a trance, his eyes half closed. The wind ruffled his sparse grey hair. Overhead, the same wind whipped clouds into bizarre patterns.

At 1:11 a.m. he entered the gymnasium, and all officers, official witnesses and correspondents rose to attention. Ribbentrop's manacles were removed and he mounted the steps (there were 13) to the gallows. With the noose around his neck, he said: "My last wish ... is an understanding between East and West. . . ." All present removed their hats. The executioner tightened the noose. A chaplain standing beside him prayed. The assistant executioner pulled the lever, the trap dropped open with a rumbling noise, and Ribbentrop's hooded figure disappeared. The rope was suddenly taut, and swung back & forth, creaking audibly.

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