They were among the most feared men in Europe but Nazi leaders such as Hermann Goering and Julius Streicher did not impress a young New Zealander who saw part of their war crimes trial.

Among declassified Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade documents is an account by Colin Aikman of the Nuremberg trials.

Dr Aikman, a Department of External Affairs lawyer who was accredited to attend the trials, went on to become one of this country's most distinguished jurists and diplomats.

He died in 2002, aged 83.

The International Military Tribunal, sitting in Nuremberg, tried 22 Nazi leaders.

Eleven were sentenced to death, three to life imprisonment, four given sentences of 10 to 20 years, and three were acquitted. Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering committed suicide before his death sentence could be carried out.

"With the possible exception of Goering and [former Foreign Minister Joachim] von Ribbentrop, they are a very ordinary-looking set of old buffers," Dr Aikman reported back to New Zealand.

"Only [military Chief of Staff Wilhelm] Keitel, [Wehrmacht Operations section chief Albert] Jodl and Goering are in uniform, and the fact that some are in flannels doesn't help them impress.

"[Hitler's former deputy, Rudolph] Hess, although looking very ill, did not behave abnormally. Goering was, and took care to remain, the centre of attraction ... He is a person of considerable personality - a lot thinner than past pictures would have suggested, but looking well and very jolly."

Dr Aikman was present during cross-examinations of Vice-Admiral Karl Doenitz and Streicher, editor-in-chief of the anti-Semitic paper Der Stuermer.

He also heard evidence about the evils committed at Dachau concentration camp, although his report said the atmosphere of the courtroom did not deliver a sense of horror over such atrocities unless someone was giving vivid personal evidence.

"As a general impression of all the prisoners, they are a bunch of second-rate men whom opportunism and the accidents of history have put in a position to perform first-rate atrocities," Dr Aikman wrote.

While in Germany, Dr Aikman also explored the possibility of New Zealand taking people left homeless by the war, especially from Baltic countries, as farm workers.