It’s 1945 and World War II is over. Adolf Hitler is dead. So are his top lieutenants: Heinrich Himmler and Joseph Goebbels. But dozens of high level Nazis are still alive and in prison. What do the Allied powers do with them? They take them to court in their own backyard. The Nuremberg trials were a series of international prosecutions that decided the fates of Nazi war criminals. Why hold these trials in the German city of Nuremberg? For one, unlike a lot of German towns, Nuremberg was relatively undamaged by the war and, just as importantly, this city had been the site of several infamous Nazi rallies. Prosecuting Nazi leaders there brought a symbolic close to the Third Reich.
The trials were administered by the four principle nations of the Allied powers: the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and France. However, each of these countries had their own laws and legal systems and had to settle on a common framework of justice. They couldn’t try each defendant four different ways. So, in August of 1945, they all sat down and hammered out the London Charter of the International Military Tribunal. With the London Charter, the Allies agreed that the defendants would stand trial and be allowed to have their own defense attorneys. Instead of a single judge, there would be a tribunal: four judges, one from each Allied country. The London Charter also defined the three major charges each criminal would face:
- Crimes against peace: like planning and starting a war
- War crimes: such as killing POWs
- And crimes against humanity: in other words killing civilians (as the Nazis did in the Holocaust.)
The most common defense strategy was that the crimes defined in the London Charter were examples of ex post facto law; that is, they were laws that criminalized actions committed before the laws were drafted. Another defense was that the trial was a form of “victor’s justice”–the Allies were applying a harsh standard to crimes committed by Germans and leniency to crimes committed by their own soldiers.
As the accused men and judges spoke four different languages, the trial saw the introduction of a technological innovation taken for granted today: instantaneous translation. IBM provided the technology and recruited men and women from international telephone exchanges to provide on-the-spot translations through headphones in English, French, German and Russian.
The trials lasted at Nuremberg from 1945 to 1949. However, the highest profile cases were brought to court between 1945 and 1946. This period was known as the “Trial of the Major War Criminals.” Among the 22 Nazi leaders on trial at Nuremberg were Gestapo founder Hermann GÖring, Deputy Fuhrer Rudolf Hess, Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim Von Ribbentrop, and the German architect Albert Speer. Two additional Nazis had been indicted, but one, Labor Chief Robert Ley, killed himself before the trials. Another, weapons manufacturer Gustav Krupp Von Bohlen Und Halbach, was declared mentally unfit: he was senial.
Starting in November of 1945, the tribunal heard testimony and reviewed evidence for 216 court sessions. The horrors and crimes of the Nazis were put on display for all the world to see. In October of 1946, the court handed down its verdicts: Twelve death sentences (including those for GÖring and Ribbentrop), three got life in prison, four got lengthy jail terms, and three were acquitted. The Nazis’ highest authority, the person most to blame for the Holocaust, was missing at the trials. Adolf Hitler had committed suicide in the final days of the war, as had several of his closest aides. Many more criminals were never tried. Some fled Germany to live abroad.
Following the Trial of Major War Criminals, there were 12 additional trials held at Nuremberg. These proceedings, lasting from December 1946 to April 1949, are grouped together as the Subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings. They differed from the first trial in that they were conducted before U.S. military tribunals rather than the international tribunal that decided the fate of the major Nazi leaders. The reason for the change was that growing differences among the four Allied powers had made other joint trials impossible. The subsequent trials were held in the same location at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg. These proceedings included the Doctors Trial (December 9, 1946-August 20, 1947), in which 23 defendants were accused of crimes against humanity, including medical experiments on prisoners of war. In the Judges Trial (March 5-December 4, 1947), 16 lawyers and judges were charged with furthering the Nazi plan for racial purity by implementing the eugenics laws of the Third Reich. Other subsequent trials dealt with German industrialists accused of using slave labor and plundering occupied countries; high-ranking army officers accused of atrocities against prisoners of war; and SS officers accused of violence against concentration-camp inmates. In all, 199 defendants were tried at Nuremberg, 161 were convicted and 37 were sentenced to death, including 12 of those tried by the International Military Tribunal. Authorities later reduced a number of the prison sentences.
Trials of Nazis continued to take place both in Germany and many other countries. Simon Wiesenthal, a Nazi-hunter, provided leads for war crimes investigators about Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann, who had helped plan and carry out the deportations of millions of Jews, was brought to trial in Israel. The testimony of hundreds of witnesses, many of them survivors, was followed all over the world. Eichmann was found guilty and executed in 1962.
Nothing could undo the devastation of the war. Nothing could bring back the millions of lives lost in the Holocaust and the millions more lost in combat, but the Nuremberg trials were an important step towards rebuilding an international system of justice. It established important legal precedents for future international trials including those for Japanese war criminals and for trials decades later such as Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. The Nuremberg trials officially entered the crimes of the Third Reich into the historical record so that there could be no doubt about what the regime had done.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “The Nuremberg Trials.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/the-nuremberg-trials
History. Nuremberg Trials. A&E Television Networks. 2019. https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/nuremberg-trials