WHEN the Allies occupied Nuremberg at the end of the second World War, the central square of the town, known as the Adolf Hitler Platz, was fringed with ruins and rubble.

Six months after the surrender of the German Wehrmacht at Berlin-Karlshorst on May 8th, 1945, the leading members of the defeated Nazi regime were charged with major crimes of war by the International Military Tribunal at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg.

Two remarkable Dubliners, a brilliant young history graduate and a formidable middle-aged law professor, visited Nuremberg to witness the extraordinary proceedings of the historic trial, which opened on November 20th, 1945, and concluded after 216 court sessions on October 1st, 1946.

The authority to conduct the trial at Nuremberg stemmed from the London Agreement of August 8th, 1945, signed by the British, American, Soviet and provisional French governments. Later another 19 nations accepted the provisions of the agreement, which included a charter to establish an international military tribunal to conduct trials of major Axis war criminals.

Crimes Against Humanity

Under a charter drawn up for the Nuremberg court the Nazi leaders were charged under international law with crimes against peace, by the planning preparation, initiation and waging of wars in violation of international treaties and agreements, with war crimes and with crimes against humanity.

The International War Crimes Tribunal consisted of four judges (each with an alternate) from the four signatory countries. Their judgment was to seal the fate of the leading Nazis who had been captured by the Allies.

When the case against the 20 defendants present in court opened on the second day of the trial, November 21st, 1945, the American chief prosecutor, Justice Robert Jackson, outlined the significance of the proceedings. The crimes the tribunal "sought to condemn had been so calculated, so malignant and devastating that civilisation could not tolerate their being ignored because it could not survive their being repeated", he said.

Only 20 of the 24 indicted men were in court. Robert Ley had committed suicide before the opening of the trial, Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach could not be tried on account of his physical and mental condition and Martin Bormann was tried in absentia. Ernst Kaltenbrunner, who was later sentenced to death and executed, also missed the opening: of the trial due to illness.

It took nine months of hearings before the tribunal reached its verdict. Three men were acquitted, 12 sentenced to death (Bormann in absentia), three to life imprisonment and four to lesser prison terms. The men sentenced to death were executed in the early hours of the morning of October 17th, 1946, on three scaffolds in the gymnasium of Nuremberg prison.

Hermann Goering, former chief of the Luftwaffe and successor-designate to Hitler, managed to avoid the hangman's noose by committing suicide by taking poison in his cell a few hours before he was due to be executed.

Remarkable Trials

By a remarkable coincidence two Irish academics found themselves in Nuremberg during the course of one of the most remarkable trials of the 29th century, a trial largely without precedent in the history of modern conflict.

The brilliant Dublin history graduate who attended the trial was T. Desmond Williams, who had accepted a post with the British Foreign Office as joint editor for the publication of the archives of its German counterpart after studying at UCD and Cambridge. In 1949 he became professor of modern history at UCD. He died on January 18th, 1987, two years into his retirement.

The formidable Dublin professor of law who also visited Nuremberg at that time was Frances Elizabeth Moran, the first woman Regius Professor of Laws at Trinity College Dublin.

Williams, who was born in Dublin in 1921, read history and German, as well as nine other subjects, for his BA at UCD. He also read law and became auditor of the college Law Society. After winning the John Brooke Memorial Scholarship to King's Inns he was called to the Bar and served on the Western Circuit. He was awarded a first-class honours MA at UCD for a thesis on the origins of National Socialism and then moved to Cambridge.

During his time in Germany working for the British Foreign Office he met Albert Speer, Minister for Armaments and Hitler's architect, who later received a 20-year prison sentence at Nuremberg. He also met Admiral Raeder, the commander of the German navy, who was sentenced to life imprisonment, and his successor Admiral Doenitz, who received a 10-year sentence.

On his 63rd birthday he reflected on the Nuremberg period in an interview with The Irish Times. "History was intended to be of service in the ideological war that was to continue for many years after 1945," he said.

"There was one other aim: the punishment of diplomatic, military and party leaders. Major attention focused here on the celebrated trials which took place at Nuremberg . . . We were concerned with assessing the responsibility of these men for the political crimes committed by them or in their name."

It was a process which he viewed with some reservation, although its historic significance was to yield valuable experience to a professional historian returning to a neutral country.

Monumental Significance

Moran was also to return to Ireland, conscious of the monumental significance of the trial at Nuremberg. Born in Dublin on December 6th, 1893, in 1918 she graduated from Trinity College Dublin with an LIB and LID the following year. She was called to the Irish Bar in 1924 and to the English Bar in 1940. The following year she was the first woman to take silk in Ireland, when she was called to the Inner Bar.

From 1925 until 1930 she was Reid Professor in the Law School of TCD and lecturer in law from 1930 to 1934. From then until 1944 she was Professor of Laws. In 1968 she became an Honorary Fellow and Honorary Bencher of the King's Inns in Dublin. She was also President of the International Federation of University Women. She died on October 7th, 1977.

When she returned from Germany, her colleagues and friends were anxious to find out what the men on trial had actually been like. According to R.F.V. Heuston, another former Regius Professor of Laws at TCD, who paid tribute to Moran in an article contained in a volume of the Dublin University Law Journal from 1989, "I have never forgotten her reply as she tried to describe the impact made on her by the men who had made all Europe shiver with fright. `They looked so ordinary,' she said. `Like men who had sat up all night in a third-class railway carriage'."