- Curious Peoples
- Nuremberg Trials
Judging the Architects of War
The Nuremberg trials, a series of 13 trials held in Nuremberg, Germany, from 1945 to 1949, aimed to bring Nazi war criminals to justice immediately following World War II. These trials targeted Nazi Party officials, high-ranking military officers, and German industrialists, lawyers, and doctors, charging them with war crimes, crimes against peace, and crimes against humanity. Adolf Hitler, the Nazi leader, had committed suicide and thus was not tried.
Nuremberg, located in the German state of Bavaria, was chosen for its Palace of Justice, which had survived the war relatively unscathed and had a large prison area. This city, once the backdrop for annual Nazi propaganda rallies, was selected to symbolize the downfall of Hitler’s Third Reich.
An aerial view of the Palace of Justice in 1945, with a prison building right behind it
In December 1942, the Allied leaders from Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union made a historic joint declaration, officially acknowledging the mass murder of European Jewry and committing to prosecute those responsible for civilian violence. Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, initially suggested executing high-ranking Nazis without trial. However, American leaders convinced him that a formal criminal trial would be more effective and guard against future claims of unjust condemnation without evidence.
Before the Nuremberg trials, there was no example of an international trial for war criminals. Although there had been prosecutions for war crimes, such as the execution of Confederate army officer Henry Wirz for mistreatment of Union prisoners during the American Civil War, and the Turkish courts-martial for the Armenian genocide, these were conducted under the laws of one nation, not an international coalition with diverse legal systems like the Nuremberg trials.
An overhead look at the judge’s desk at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany, 1945
As Germany neared surrender in May 1945, US President Harry Truman appointed Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson as the chief US prosecutor for the upcoming trials of European Axis powers. Jackson played a pivotal role in uniting the Allies—American, British, French, and Soviet governments—around the London Charter, which established the procedures for the Nuremberg Trials. The London Agreement, signed on August 8, 1945, led to the creation of the International Military Tribunal (IMT), with each of the four Allied nations appointing a judge and a prosecution team.
The Trial of the Major War Criminals, the most notable of the Nuremberg trials, saw 24 top officials from the Nazi Party, such as Rudolf Hess, Hermann Göring, and Wilhelm Frick, being prosecuted for crimes against humanity. Before these trials could take place, Adolf Hitler, along with his close associates Heinrich Himmler and Joseph Goebbels, took their own lives in the spring of 1945, evading prosecution.
Hermann Goering, the commander of the Luftwaffe, being questioned during his trial for war crimes, Nuremberg, Germany, 1946
The trial’s format blended legal traditions, incorporating elements of both British and American law with prosecutors and defense attorneys, while verdicts and sentences came from a tribunal made up of judges from the four Allied powers, rather than from a traditional jury. Each Allied nation contributed two judges, a primary and an alternate, to this tribunal.
Defendants had the right to select their defense lawyers, and a prevalent defense strategy was to argue that the London Charter’s definitions of crimes constituted ex post facto laws. Essentially, this meant the defendants were being accused of actions that were only criminalized after they had been committed.
A noteworthy feature of the trial was the introduction of simultaneous translation, a technological innovation at the time, facilitated by IBM. This system enabled real-time translation across English, French, German, and Russian, thanks to the efforts of staff from international telephone exchanges, overcoming the language barriers among the accused and the judges.
Ultimately, the tribunal convicted nearly all the defendants, with only three acquitted. Twelve received death sentences—one in absentia—while the others faced prison terms ranging from ten years to life. Hermann Göring, slated to be Hitler’s successor and commander of the Luftwaffe, took his own life with a concealed cyanide capsule on the eve of his execution, evading the tribunal’s final judgment.
After the Trial of the Major War Criminals, the Nuremberg trials continued with 12 additional proceedings from December 1946 to April 1949, known collectively as the Subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings. These trials covered a wide array of war crimes, including the Doctors Trial, where 23 defendants were charged with conducting inhumane medical experiments on prisoners of war, and the Judges Trial, which indicted 16 lawyers and judges for enforcing the Third Reich’s eugenics laws aimed at racial purity. Other trials targeted German industrialists for using slave labor, high-ranking army officers for atrocities against prisoners of war, and SS officers for their violence against concentration camp inmates.
Out of the 185 people indicted in these subsequent trials, 12 were sentenced to death, 8 received life sentences, and another 77 were given varying terms of imprisonment.
The Nuremberg trials sparked controversy, with Harlan Stone, the US Supreme Court’s chief justice at the time, criticizing them as a “sanctimonious fraud” and a “high-grade lynching party.” Despite this, the trials were largely seen as a pivotal step towards the development of international law, leading directly to the United Nations Genocide Convention, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Geneva Convention on the Laws and Customs of War.
Words of wisdom
“I am not young enough to know everything.” —Oscar Wilde
“In a good bookroom you feel in some mysterious way that you are absorbing the wisdom contained in all the books through your skin, without even opening them.” —Mark Twain
“You cannot find peace by avoiding life.” —Michael Cunningham
“When you’re in jail, a good friend will be trying to bail you out. A best friend will be in the cell next to you saying, ’Damn, that was fun’.” —Groucho Marx
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