At the first Nuremberg trial, twenty-one defendants were tried in person: Karl Dönitz, Hans Frank, Wilhelm Frick, Hans Fritzsche, Walther Funk, Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, Alfred Jodl, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Wilhelm Keitel, Konstantin von Neurath, Franz von Papen, Erich Raeder, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Alfred Rosenberg, Fritz Sauckel, Hjalmar Schacht, Baldur von Schirach, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, Albert Speer, and Julius Streicher.

The official trial languages were English, German, French, and Russian. The participants (including the German-speaking defendants) were provided with headphones for simultaneous translation. However, in many photographs of the proceedings, not all of the defendants are wearing headphones. While it may be the case that these defendants simply weren't paying attention, or that they had removed their headphones during a lull in the proceedings, it may also be the case that they already had a sufficient command of the foreign language(s) being spoken.

Which of the Nuremberg defendants could already speak English, French, or Russian at the time of the trial? And of those who survived the trial, did any of them later learn English, French, or Russian?

I know only part of the answer already: there are video recordings of Karl Dönitz speaking English, and Albert Speer speaking French and English. However, these were made long after the war, so I don't know whether they understood these languages during their trial.

  • "in many photographs of the proceedings, not all of the defendants are wearing headphones" -- given the gruesome nature of evidence being presented against them, some of them might just want to take a break from the horror (not that I feel sorry for them). – sds Oct 23 '17 at 14:27

Sourced information

Hitler and the Nazi Leaders, by Robert K. Latimer, has some information. Latimer was one of the physicians at the first Nuremberg Trial, a urologist, who had quite a bit of contact with the defendants, and wrote about them. He says:

Göring had excellent English.

Hess had decent English, but had trouble with Scottish accents when he arrived there.

Ribbentrop spoke decent English and French.

Schacht had excellent English and French.

Speer had English and French, and maybe more. Latimer says he sometimes assisted the translators at Nuremberg.

Streicher studied English during the trial, and claimed to speak French, although this may have been gallows humour.


Göring presumably had some Swedish, since he lived there for years, and his first wife was Swedish.

Dönitz probably had some English, having been a PoW there in WWI.

Neurath must have spoken English, since he spent 11 years in London as a diplomat; he likely had some Italian too, having been ambassador to Italy.

Papen had enough English to talk to his American captors easily, he'd been a military attaché in the USA.

Raeder spoke fluent Russian and had served as an observer of the Russo-Japanese war.

Rosenberg must have had decent Russian, having received a PhD in Engineering from Moscow University in 1917.

Sauckel would have had some Swedish and Norwegian, having served on their merchant ships before WWI.

Von Schirach had an American mother, and spoke good English.

Weak or no information

Frank may have spoken Italian, but this is unsourced.

Funk apparently spoke broken English.

Jodl apparently spoke some English, but this is unsourced. When he negotiated the German surrender, Major-General Kenneth Strong, the head of Intelligence at SHAEF, acted as interpreter.

Kaltenbrunner apparently spoke some English, but this is unsourced.

Keitel: I can't find anything, except that he took an interpreter for English with him to sign the surrender.

I haven't found anything about the language abilities of Frick, Fritzsche, Ley, or Seyss-Inquart.

There are some threads on axishistory.com and straightdope.com about this, but none of them quote any sources.

  • According to Johannes Kroll's "Arthur Seyß-Inquart und die deutsche Besatzungspolitik in den Niederlanden (1940-1945)" (2016), page 109, main text and footnote 2, Seyß-Inquart did not have any significant foreign language skills. At various points in his life he tried to learn English and French (and Czech and Dutch) without much success. He was apparently described by a friend as "an anti-talent in languages". – 0range Dec 2 '16 at 19:20

protected by T.E.D. Oct 6 '16 at 22:17

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