Weekend Wanderlust: Exploring Nuremberg’s lesser-known history

Now don’t be coy: if blood, guts and medieval malarkey is your cup of mead, then you’re going love Nuremberg.

Weekend Wanderlust: Exploring Nuremberg's lesser-known history
The Kaiserburg Castle, part of the 'Nürnberger Burg'. Photo: DPA

Located in the region of Franconia, in the state of Bavaria, Nuremberg has been a centre of commerce and power for almost 800 years. Indeed, it held the title of Imperial Free City, that granted it a deal of autonomy that drew tradesmen, merchants and other, less salubrious sorts from miles around.

If you want to get a view of the city from the very bottom up, start by booking yourself a tour of the Lochgefängnisse – the city’s underground prison, that is located under the town hall.

This dark, dank warren of tunnels and cells, tunnelled into the city’s distinct sandstone, was used for the better part of six hundred years to house murderers, thieves and other rogues, prior to sentencing.

You’ll even find a torture chamber with original implements still in place. Recently, the entire area was overhauled with a media guide, that paints a very vivid picture of what went on down there. Probably not one for the kids.

Having visited the dungeon, perhaps the next logical step is to visit the Henkerhaus Museum, the former home of the city’s executioner. Both feared and reviled, executioners in the German middle ages and early modern period occupied a unique place in the city’s hierarchy and were always supplied with a steady stream of work.

Visitors to the Henkerhaus Museum. Photo: DPA

Nuremberg is unique in that we know a heck of a lot about one particular executioner, a 16th century gentleman named Franz Schmidt. In Joel F. Harrington’s book, ‘The Faithful Executioner’, Schmidt’s handwritten diary is used to tell the very human story of a man trying his best, under some very trying circumstances.

The Henkerhaus Museum expands on the book to tell more stories of medieval crime and punishment, while making a conscious effort to remind the visitor that real people were involved.

A castle call

From there, why not head uphill and visit the home of the city’s most famous son, Albrecht Dürer. The Albrecht Dürer House does a very good job of telling the story of the Northern Renaissance’s most famous painter, while placing him in the context of 15th and 16th century life in Nuremberg – loud, raucous, and even a little smelly.

The home is kept in much the condition that Dürer might have known, with one highlight being his studio, full of bones, furs and other strange reference objects. While he drew and painted some fantastical creatures, he was also very careful to reproduce nature as he saw it, as accompanying interpretive materials show.

Make your way to the top of the city’s hierarchy by climbing up to the Nürnberger Burg, or series of castles, enclosed within a giant fortification, that loom over the city. Not only was this the home to local nobility, but also a place where the court of the Holy Roman Empire sat at various times.

Visitors to the Nürnberger Burg. Photo: DPA

Now, city and nobility didn’t always get along, so there were more than a few battles taking place around the complex as each tried to impose dominance on the other, and some scars can still be pointed out, should you ask.

The castle was also the site of a famous thwarted execution. In 1372, the infamous robber baron Eppelein von Gailingen asked to sit on his horse one more time before he was hanged. When his wish was granted, he whipped the horse into action, leaping over the castle walls to freedom. There are still marks showing the exact height of the leap.

Today the castle has been restored after decades of hard work, and visitors can explore the vast halls once used by the Imperial Court, as well as viewing exhibitions of saints relics, medieval art and finely-crafted weapons of war – it’s quite the experience.

Finish you day by heading back down from the castle and making your way out to the where the city walls once stood. There, you’ll find Zum Gulden Stern. An unpretentious, unassuming guesthouse that has been serving traditional Nuremberg beer and sausages for – wait for it – 600 years this year.

“Zum gulben Stern”. Photo: DPA

Cooked over a beechwood grill, the city’s distinctive thin sausages are served there every day of the year, in appropriately rustic, half-timbered surrounds. The beer is also outstanding. A real hidden gem, and long may it continue!

Nuremberg by night

If you’re staying overnight, I heartily recommend the Hotel Drei Raben, close to the city’s train station (and former site of execution). Located in a historic building, the hotel has a number of themed rooms, but please don’t think they’re in any way tacky or corny!

No, each is beautifully decorated and devoted to an aspect of the city’s history or mythology, and staying there is a memorable way to soak in the atmosphere and heritage of the city. The staff will be happy to explain the significance of the hotel’s many rooms, giving you the inside scoop on some very strange and wonderful happenings!

There is so, so much more to do in Nuremberg, and this article only scratches the surface – albeit in a rather bloody manner. It’s a good thing, then, that the city is easily reached by train from Stuttgart, Munich, Ulm and Augsburg, as well as Berlin. The city is also served by a number of autobahns.

Have you been to Nuremberg lately? Do you have your own recommendations? Let us know by sending us an email at [email protected] and we may use them in a future article!


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Today in history: Nuremberg Trials open 75 years ago

On November 20, 1945, the first international trial in history opened in Nuremberg, Germany, forcing 21 senior Nazi officials to face justice for the first time.

Today in history: Nuremberg Trials open 75 years ago
The opening day of the Nuremberg Trial on November 20th, 1945. Photo: DPA

Adolf Hitler's designated successor Hermann Göring was one of the accused.

The Allies had prepared to punish German war criminals since 1943 and agreed to hold an unprecedented public trial once the Nazis were defeated.

Just six months after the fighting ended, prosecutors from four victorious nations had collected 300,000 witness statements and 6,600 pieces of evidence, laid out in a 42-volume archive.

Nuremberg, a former imperial German city now in ruins, served as backdrop for the trial, its main courthouse and adjacent prison were fortunately still intact.

The city was also symbolic because it was there that Hitler staged massive rallies before the war and anti-Jewish laws were passed in 1935.

Crimes against humanity

At 10:00 am, British judge Geoffrey Lawrence addressed the audience in courtroom 600, declaring: “This trial, which is now to begin, is unique in the annals of jurisprudence.”

In his memorable opening statement, US prosecutor Robert Jackson told the tribunal: “The real complaining party at your bar is Civilisation.”

In the dock sat many of the highest-ranking Nazi officials aside from Hitler, Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler, all of whom had committed suicide.

READ ALSO: 70 years on: When the first Nazis were tried

They included Göring, the regime's second most powerful figure, Hitler aid Rudolf Hess, Nazi ideologist Alfred Rosenberg, Fritz Sauckel, who had organised forced labour, and former foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop.

The charges included crimes against peace, war crimes, and for the first time in history, crimes against humanity.

All of the accused pleaded “nicht schuldig,” or not guilty.

Shocking images

The proceedings were swiftly marked by a film produced by the western Allies in liberated concentration camps.

“Sauckel trembles at the sight of the crematorium oven at Buchenwald. When a lampshade made out of human skin is shown, Julius Streicher, the head of the Nazi propaganda newspaper, Der Stürmer, says: “I do not believe that.”

“Wilhelm Frick (who drew up the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws) shakes his head with an incredulous air, when a woman doctor describes the treatment and the experiments inflicted on prisoners at Belsen,” adds G.M. Gilbert, the prison psychologist during the trial, in his “Nuremberg Diary” published in 1947.

The main defendants (L-R) Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess and Joachim von Ribbentrop in the dock during the Nuremberg Trials on February 13th 1946.

Among the 33 witnesses for the prosecution, the French resistance fighter Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier, who survived the camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Ravensbrück, delivers harrowing testimony lasting more than two hours.

She speaks of women who gave birth and whose newborn children were drowned before their very eyes, prisoners forced to drink the water from puddles before washing there and being forced out of bed to work at three in the morning.

“Before addressing the court I walked in front of the accused, very slowly. I wanted to look at them up close,” she told the French daily l'Humanite.

“I wanted to know what people who were capable of such monstrous crimes looked like.”

On October 1, 1946 after hearings that lasted 218 days, the sentences were read out. Twelve of the men were condemned to death, including one in absentia, Hitler's personal secretary Martin Bormann.

Unbeknown to the court, Bormann was already dead.

Three defendants were sentenced to life in prison, two to 20-year terms and one each to 15 and 10 years behind bars.

Three of those accused were set free, which surprised observers at the time but which served to reinforce the court's reputation for impartiality.

Göring commits suicide

The Nuremberg trials did not escape all criticism of being another case of victors' justice.

The proceedings also turned a blind eye to possible Soviet crimes, notably the Katyn Massacre that Soviet prosecutors blamed on the Nazis.

A Nazi-Soviet pact agreed upon early in World War II also went unmentioned.

On October 16, 1946 at 1:00 a.m., 10 of those sentenced to death were hanged.

Göring had killed himself a few hours earlier by swallowing cyanide to escape what he considered a humiliating end for a soldier.

All of the bodies were cremated and the ashes dumped into a tributary of the Isar river to prevent their graves becoming gathering places for Nazi sympathisers.

Nuremberg later hosted 12 more trials, of Nazi doctors, ministers and military chiefs.

By Bénédicte Rey