27 December 2020

Did Marlene Dietrich participate in the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial 75 years ago?

We're pleased to share this contribution from Horst Zumkley. You can also read it in German at Werner Sudendorf's Alte Filme site

I. The first trial before the International Military Tribunal against the main war criminals of the Nazi regime was held in Nuremberg 75 years ago, from November 20, 1945 to October 1, 1946. The trial, which made legal history, was a major media event from the outset, with some 250 accredited newspaper and radio reporters from around the world [1].

The author Eva Gesine Baur writes in her biography of Marlene Dietrich that Dietrich took part in the Nuremberg Trial on November 27, 1945; the idea of a visit there was suggested to her by Billy Wilder (Baur, 2017, p. 311). Dietrich had been sitting on the guest balcony in American uniform and in the evening she had been smiling and signing autographs in a pompous bar, surrounded by a swarm of people (p. 312).

Six months later, in his double biography about Dietrich and her sister Liesel, Heinrich Thies also writes that in 1945 Dietrich "witnessed for a few hours how things actually happened at the Nuremberg Trials. The Americans had secretly provided her with a seat in the visitors' gallery" (Thies, 2017, p. 303). As source for this he cites the Baur book (Thies, 2017, p. 405).

If this was true, it would be real and not unimportant news in the biography of Marlene Dietrich, which has remained completely unknown so far. 

Except for the Baur biography, I was not aware of any references, reports, testimonies or evidence that mentioned, confirmed, or substantiated this trial visit: Neither in the Dietrich’s autobiography nor in her many interviews, neither in the the Dietrich biography by her daughter Maria Riva nor in the book and documentary by her grandson J.David Riva is there anything about it. And there is no mention of it in the many Dietrich biographies (e.g., by Bach, Higham, Spoto, Sudendorf, Walker); nor in the exhibition catalogue of the "Memorial Hall Oberhausen" (2016), which documents Dietrich's resistance activities against the Nazi regime.

Therefore, the question arises: Can this be true? Because the Baur book is a "fictionalized" biography in which source-related facts are freely supplemented and combined into a new, novel-like whole [2]. One wonders: Is Dietrich's trial visit in November 1945 a fact or a novelistic invention? On what evidence or "sources" does Eva Gesine Baur base her report? And can the true facts of the case be clarified? Is there any reliable evidence?

II. The only source Baur refers to is a book by Boris N. Polewoi, who was then accredited as Pravda correspondent at the 1st Nuremberg Trial [1]. His "Nuremberg Diary" was published in 1971 as a translation from Russian in the former GDR. However, his book is not a diary in the usual sense, but he has "now, more than 20 years after the trial...literally edited the records of that time, trying to preserve the spirit of those days and my view of things at that time" (p. 6). The whole text is written like a novel (and is advertised as a book as well), without any precise or anchoring data of that time.

What Polewoi (1971) writes about the Dietrich visit at the Nuremberg Trial is spread over several pages in short sections. There it says [in English translation]:

"I arrived on the sixth day of the trial [3] and I realized already in the car that I had missed a lot. More than three hundred reporters, photographers, film people and press artists had come from all corners of the world. (p. 13).

"The colonel ... led us to the guest corridor where an honorable audience crowded in. He let me take a seat next to a very pretty, not quite young woman, who wore an American uniform and somehow looked familiar to me" (p. 15).

"My beautiful neighbor asked me something in English, and her melodious voice immediately brought me the large hall lined with oak and green stone. She did not understand my silence, asked again, and I answered with the only sentence I knew in English: “I don't speak English" (p. 17).

At lunchtime, Polewoi and friends "went to the pompous bar, sparkling with marble and chrome, where gorgeous, long-legged girls, as it were emerging from the front pages of New York magazines, served the guests coffee, juice or Coca Cola, this, it seemed, obligatory attribute of the American way of life.

By the way, I rediscovered my neighbour in the bar, who was surrounded by a swarm of people. Smiling, she handed out autographs, in notebooks, on business cards and even on playing cards.

"Who is she?" I asked the photojournalist of Pravda, Viktor Tjomin. "Ignorant," he scornfully threw down, "and in gala uniform to boot! That is Marlene Dietrich herself!"

As the trial went on, I took my seat in the front row again, next to my famous neighbour. Without taking off her headphones she looked tiredly into the hall. Then she pulled a tin of sweets out of her purse, put one in her mouth and held another one out to me. I took the candy and politely spoke my second English sentence, which I had already learned in Nuremberg: "Thank you." It may have sounded rather funny, like "thank cow", but I was glad that I didn't embarrass myself worse in front of the famous actress" (p. 20).

What's a person to think? Polewoi meets a (bonbon-sucking) woman in uniform in the visitors' gallery of the courtroom, whom he doesn't know, who signs autographs in a bar during the lunch break [for Baur it's "in the evening"] and whose name is then given to him by a colleague: "Marlene Dietrich". 

Is this really serious, or is it rather a joke that his colleague Tjomin has allowed himself to make? 

Or maybe just a fruit of his "literary adaptation" 20 years later, shortly after the film "Judgement at Nuremberg" was released?

III. Dietrich was well known for her films and her involvement in the war, and it is unlikely that her appearance at the trial would have been hidden from the hundreds of journalists and the many prominent writers [1] who reported from there. But there were no reports about it at the time.

One of these journalists accredited at the time was Markus Wolf [4], who later became head of the GDR's foreign secret service. He was the only German correspondent (of “Berlin Radio” of the Soviet Occupation Zone) allowed to report  from the first day of the trial (Krösche, 2009, p. 59). Wolf (2006) contributed to J. David Riva's book on Dietrich’s activities during World War II. In it he extensively honors among other things the "anti-fascist resistance" (p.100) of Dietrich during the war. And he also praises her role in the film "Judgement at Nuremberg". He recalls that he himself experienced practically the entire Nuremberg Trial and that Stanley Kramer's film captured the atmosphere of the trial very authentically. If the journalist Wolf had known of a visit of Dietrich at the trial at that time, he would certainly have mentioned this in his book contribution here.

IV. Inquiries were made to two institutions that had original documents from the time, whether there was any evidence of a visit by Dietrich to the Nuremberg Trial: A) At the "Memorium Nuremberg Trials" in Nuremberg [5] and (B) at the "Marlene Dietrich Collection Berlin" (MDCB) [6].

A) Request at the "Memorium": Although the Nuremberg Trial was public, the access of the participants was strictly regulated and was precisely recorded (cf. Krösche, 2009). Polewoi also writes of "American military police officers who checked the admission tickets" (1971, p. 19). It is hard to believe that Dietrich could simply walk into the courtroom. So the question arises whether the name "Marlene Dietrich" appears on an accreditation or visitor list.

The research inquiry at the museum "Memorium", whether a visit of Dietrich on that day is known and on record, resulted in the following answer:

"In any case, she is not on the accreditation list compiled by the Americans and she would have got there through the US delegation. And she probably would have been on the list at that early stage. It is at most possible that she could have been there as a spectator on that day. Perhaps as part of a visit to the troop care centre. Unfortunately, I cannot say anything about that" (Fischer, 2020).

This means that there is no evidence of a visit by Dietrich on that day in the original trial documents.

Concerning a possible visit of Dietrich on November 27, 1945 in Nuremberg in the context of the troop support of the USO Camp Shows (United Service Organizations), this can be excluded, as can be seen on the USO homepage:

“Marlene Dietrich was also a familiar face on the Foxhole Circuit in Europe, making two USO tours there during the war. According to the Library of Congress, ‘The first was to North Africa and Italy, where she became the first entertainer to reach rescued soldiers at Anzio. During her second tour [after D-Day], lasting 11 months, she entertained near the front in France and Germany’” [7].

Because D-Day (the beginning of the landing of Allied troops in Normandy) was June 6, 1944, this means that in November 1945, her second USO tour had ended months earlier. Sudendorf (2001, p. 137) dates her second USO tour from September 1944 to July 1945.

B) Request to the "MDCB: In 1993 the State of Berlin took over the estate of Marlene Dietrich. The extensive holdings of this personal archive of the “Deutsche Kinemathek” document almost completely the biography of the actress and singer. The inquiry there concerning the trial visit of Dietrich in Nuremberg resulted in the following answer:

"According to the material in the estate and to my knowledge, there is nothing that supports or proves the claim of the visit to the Nuremberg Trials.

In November 1945, Marlene Dietrich was first in Paris. On November 4 she learned that her mother had died the day before. She was not able to reach Berlin until November 9; in addition to the formalities, there was hardly any or no flying for several days due to very heavy fog.

After the "night and fog" burial of her mother, Marlene is said to have left for Paris again. There is no proof of this; it seems plausible, especially since Jean Gabin was also in Paris.

If she had travelled to Nuremberg again in November '45 (she was there with the US troops for a few days in April/May 1945), there would certainly have been a corresponding indication somewhere. But neither in the letters to Rudi Sieber, nor in his diary there are any such indications. She herself never referred to it; not even when she talked to Maximilian Schell again much later about the film "Judgement at Nuremberg ". She would certainly have mentioned it, if not even pointed it out, if she had been there herself.

On what occasion? Private, at her own request? At that time it was not possible to get from A to B without further ado. There is no pass or any other document that refers to it. Nor is there any indication that she might have gone there accompanied by others. As far as I know, none of the prominent rapporteurs (Kästner, Hemingway, Erika Mann, John Dos Passos, etc.) has ever mentioned in passing that Marlene had been there. Of course, the rapporteurs did not focus on who else was "seen" there.

The only source seems to be this "Nuremberg Diary", written by a front reporter of the Pravda - who did not recognize the woman herself and who learns from a Pravda colleague of all people that it is Marlene Dietrich.

So there is hardly anything in favour, but a lot against it. On the basis of the facts, however, it cannot be completely ruled out"(Ronneburg, 2018).

Conclusion: As a result of these explanations, the question asked at the beginning must probably be answered with "no". According to the current state of affairs, there are no reliable indications or facts that prove that Marlene Dietrich visited the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial 75 years ago (unless new evidence has surfaced).

The only proven connection to the Nuremberg trial is probably Marlene Dietrich's appearance in the film "Judgement at Nuremberg". The world premiere of the film took place in the Berlin Congress Hall on December 14, 1961.


     Baur, Eva Gesine (2017). Einsame Klasse - Das Leben der Marlene Dietrich.       München: Verlag C. H. Beck. 

     Fischer, A. (2020). E-Mail vom 02.06.2020 von Axel Fischer, Memorium Nürnberger Prozesse, Nürnberg.

     Gedenkhalle Oberhausen (Hrsg.).(2016). Marlene Dietrich. Die Diva. Ihre Haltung. Und die Nazis. Oberhausen: Verlag Karl Maria Laufen. [Katalogbuch zur Ausstellung in der Gedenkhalle Oberhausen vom 12.6.2016 bis 11.12.2016].

     Krösche, Heike (2009). Zwischen Vergangenheitsdiskurs und Wiederaufbau. Die Reaktion der deutschen Öffentlichkeit auf den Nürnberger Prozess gegen die Hauptkriegsverbrecher 1945/46, den Ulmer Einsatzgruppenprozess und den Sommer-Prozess 1958. Phil. Diss., Universität Oldenburg []. 

     Polewoi, Boris (1971). Nürnberger Tagebuch. Berlin: Verlag Volk und Welt.

     Riva, J. David (Ed.) (2006). A woman at war: Marlene Dietrich Remembered (Painted Turtle Books). Wayne St. Univ. Press.

     Ronneburg, S. (2018). E-Mail vom 18.04.2018 von Silke Ronneburg, MDCB der Deutschen Kinemathek, Berlin. 

     Sudendorf, W. (2001). Marlene Dietrich. München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag.

     Thies, Heinrich (2017). Fesche Lola, brave Liesel. Marlene Dietrich und ihre verleugnete Schwester. Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe. 

     Wolf, M. (2006). Chapter pp. 95-101. In: Riva, J. David (Ed.) (2006). A woman at war: Marlene Dietrich Remembered (Painted Turtle Books). Wayne St. Univ. Press.




[3] Aus der Angabe „sechster Prozesstag“ rekonstruierte Baur das genaue Datum, den 27.11.1945 / Baur reconstructed the exact date from the information "sixth process day“: