On 20 November 1945 the Nuremberg Trials began. Prominent members of the political, military, judicial and economic leadership of Nazi Germany, who planned, carried out, or otherwise participated in the Holocaust and other war crimes were tried on charges of:
crimes against peace
crimes against humanity.
The classification of ‘War Criminals’ had not previously existed. The trials marked a new chapter in international law.
22 leading Nazis were tried. 12 were sentenced to death by hanging, 7 to terms of imprisonment, 3 were acquitted. Hermann Göring committed suicide the night before his execution.
The War Artists’ Advisory Committee commissioned an artist to create a pictorial representation of the trials. Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970) was selected and this is the work she created.
NUREMBERG TRIAL, Knight, 1946, oil on canvas, 6’ x 5’ – 1.82 x 1.52m, Imperial War Museum
Knight had been an official war artist in both World Wars. For this commission she was appointed a war correspondent and made a BBC broadcast from Nuremberg. She gained special access to the broadcasting box just above the prisoners where she was able to make studies of the main protagonists. The lower three quarters of the work reproduces faithfully the courtroom scene and is, in effect, a group portrait of the prisoners.
A rare colour photo of the Nuremberg trials
Behind the defendants stands a line of white-helmeted American military police who guard the benches. On the left, in front of the defendants, sit two rows of lawyers, largely in black robes. The lawyers and the defendants study sheaves of paper and listen to translations of the proceedings on headphones.
Knight spent three months observing the trial.
But how do you convey such an historic and horrifically unique event? Knight was up to the task and not afraid of controversy. She had caused a stir when she first appeared on the art scene with ‘Self Portrait with Nude’. Nothing unusual in seeing nude women in art – the entire pantheon of western art history is full of them. But previous to this nudes had been painted by
men for men.
SELF PORTRAIT WITH NUDE, Knight, 1913, oil on canvas, 5’ x 4’2’’ – 1.52 x 1.27m, National Portrait Gallery
Despite being created during the fight for women’s suffrage, the work received mixed reviews. The Daily Telegraph called the painting
‘vulgar’ and suggested that ‘it might quite appropriately have stayed in the artist’s studio.’ 25 years later The Times was still describing the painting as ‘regrettable’.
Knight was deeply disturbed by what she heard during the trials. Faced with both the devastation of Nuremberg, and the inconceivable crimes for which the men were being tried, Knight, a realist painter throughout her career, found her usual narrative compositional methods lacking.
Knight expresses her horror in her treatment of the upper part of the composition which depicts a landscape of desolation floating above the courtroom like a shared nightmare. The courtroom has only one visible wall. Knight frames the dock with what she called
‘a mirage’ of the ruined city.
NUREMBERG TRIAL, detail, Knight, 1946, oil on canvas, Imperial War Museum
Knight explained her choice of composition in a letter to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee:
‘In that ruined city death and destruction are ever present. They had to come into the picture; without them, it would not be the Nuremberg as it now is during the trial, when the death of millions and utter devastation are the sole topics of conversation wherever one goes – whatever one is doing.’
An unimaginable event captured.