Pierrepoint took pride in his job as hangman, executing Lord Haw Haw in eight seconds
Worldwide, ever more people are against the death penalty - in America, state after state is removing execution from the statute books. But 70 years ago this autumn, the judges at Nuremberg - where 'crimes against humanity' and 'genocide' were first properly defined - unanimously decided that a dozen of the top Nazis should be sentenced to hang. Twenty-four were tried, but 12, most famously the mad Rudolf Hess and Hitler's architect, Albert Speer, got custodial sentences.
The civilised world was in agreement that the heinous crimes committed by the Nazis should merit the death penalty. And yet it was melancholy. "Though it might be right to hang these men, it was not easy," wrote the journalist Rebecca West. Several hangings were botched: Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler's foreign minister, gasped and struggled at the end of a rope for 20 minutes, as did Field-Marshall Wilhelm Keitel. The American hangman, John Woods, had miscalculated the drop, and the hanged men suffered head injuries from the trap door - which was too small - as they fell.
The British executioner, Albert Pierrepoint, was appalled at the lack of professionalism. Pierrepoint took pride in his ability to hang a man, or a woman, with the swiftest despatch and the minimum of suffering. He hanged William Joyce ('Lord Haw-Haw') in eight seconds.
At Nuremberg - where the main war trial ended on October 1, 1946 - the prime prisoner, Hermann Goering, the Luftwaffe chief, cheated the hangman by biting into a capsule of cyanide the night before he was to be executed. One of the key lawyers at Nuremberg, Telford Taylor, wrote in his memoir that he was certain Goering's American guard, Jack 'Tex' Wheelis, had helped Goering to obtain the suicide pill. Tex, a large, handsome Texan GI, had struck up a sympathetic relationship with Goering and the Nazi chief had given him some valuable gifts, including a gold cigarette case, a solid gold fountain pen and a fancy Swiss watch. The authorities were furious to find that Goering had died by his own hand, but he certainly avoided the extra torment, and humiliation, of gradually choking to death: not that the Nazis, after their unspeakable cruelties, didn't deserve the ultimate punishment.
Goering, like all his fellow prisoners, was offered the services of a chaplain in his death cell. A Lutheran pastor, Henry Gerecke, and an Irish-American Catholic priest, Sixtus O'Connor, were made available to the condemned men - both spoke German. Six of the accused were Catholics, the rest Lutheran.
Pastor Gerecke, a popular army padre, asked Goering if he believed in Jesus Christ as his redeemer: Goering barked back that "this Jesus you always speak of - to me, he's just another smart Jew". Later, as death approached, Goering did leave messages for his family that he died a Christian. Maybe the "smart Jew" eventually had a redeeming effect.
The ghastly Julius Streicher - who had published such horrible anti-Semitic propaganda in his newspaper Der Stuermer - and the egregious Alfred Rosenberg, the Estonian-born 'philosopher' of Nazi ideology, rebuffed the chaplain's offers of spiritual comfort. Others welcomed it.
Keitel took his Bible studies seriously, and Albert Speer quite eagerly. Ribbentrop, who had the grace to weep uncontrollably when the dreadful documentary films of Auschwitz and Belsen were shown in court, was rueful and reflective. He was far away, now, from his glittering days at the Court of St James, when he had boldly greeted King Edward VIII (later the Duke of Windsor) with the Hitler salute.
These were men who had done unspeakably wicked things and they knew it. That was the purpose of the trial. Churchill had been in favour of shooting the Nazi elite summarily, but the American insistence on justice "being seen to be done" prevailed. Even if some commentators thought Nuremberg was "victors' justice" (the Soviet judges represented Stalin, rather than impartial law), it set a standard in the conduct of war, established the crime of genocide and showed that consequences would follow war crimes.
Hanging reinforced the gravity of the crimes - although today, Europeans would not enforce that penalty.
In death, as in life, there are always inequalities. Speer, who held a very senior position in the Nazi hierarchy, got off relatively lightly with a 20-year sentence (and afterwards, TV appearances and best-selling memoirs). Fritz Sauckel, who was his junior, was hanged. Speer was educated, good-looking, upper middle-class, pleasing in manner and impressed the judges with his apparent sincerity in admitting guilt. Sauckel, short, squat, with a strong working-class accent, a father of 10 children, was despatched in tears to the gallows. He had organised slave labour, so he deserved condemnation, but it was evident that being less attractive was part of that condemnation.
I met Sir Hartley (later Lord) Shawcross, Nuremberg prosecutor, in old age and he told me he was "never happy with the death penalty". But it was the law - and the values of the time - and you had to abide by what the law directed.
A rehearsed reading of Mary Kenny's play about the execution of William Joyce, Conversation Before A Hanging - produced by Bryn Coldrick and directed by Richard Ball - will take place at the Solstice Arts Centre in Navan on September 17 and the Birr Theatre on September 18. To book, email email@example.com