20 minute read

Nuremberg Trials

Further Readings

The Nuremberg trials were a series of trials held between 1945 and 1949 in which the Allies prosecuted German military leaders, political officials, industrialists, and financiers for crimes they had committed during WORLD WAR II.

The first trial took place in Nuremberg, Germany, and involved twenty-four top-ranking survivors of the National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nazi Party). The subsequent trials were held throughout Germany and involved approximately two hundred additional defendants, including Nazi physicians who performed vile experiments on human subjects, concentration camp commandants who ordered the extermination of their prisoners, and judges who upheld Nazi practices.

World War II began in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. Over the next few years, the European Axis powers (Germany, Italy, Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania) successfully invaded and occupied France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway, Greece, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Finland, and the Netherlands. But when ADOLF HITLER's troops invaded the Soviet Union, the Nazi war machine stalled. By the end of the war, the Axis powers were battered and beleaguered, and in 1945 they unconditionally surrendered to the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France (the four Allied powers).

Although the surrender of the Axis powers brought the war to its formal conclusion, the Third Reich had left an indelible imprint on the world. During Germany's attempted conquest and occupation of Europe and Asia, the Nazis slaughtered, tortured, starved, and tormented over six million Jews and countless others—including Catholics, prisoners of war, dissenters, intelligentsia, nobility, and other innocent civilians. As part of their systematic effort to extinguish persons they deemed subversive, dangerous, or impure, the Nazis constructed concentration camps around Europe where they murdered their victims in gas chambers and incinerated their bodies in crematories. Persons who escaped this fate were deported to Nazi labor camps where they were compelled upon threat of death to work for the Third Reich.

The Allies had been discussing the idea of punishing war criminals since 1943 when U.S. president FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT, British prime minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet premier JOSEPH STALIN signed the Moscow Declaration promising to hold the Axis powers, particularly Germany, Italy, and Japan, responsible for any atrocities they committed during World War II. In 1944 Roosevelt and Churchill briefly entertained the idea of summarily executing the highest-ranking members of the Third Reich without a trial or legal proceeding of any kind.

However, by June of 1945, when delegations from the four Allied powers gathered in London at the International Conference of Military Trials, the U.S. representatives firmly believed that the Nazi leaders could not be executed without first being afforded the opportunity to defend themselves in a judicial proceeding. Principles of justice, fairness, and DUE PROCESS, delegates from the United States argued, required no less. U.S. leaders also feared that the Allies would be perceived as hypocritical for denying the vanquished powers the same basic legal rights that were denied to those persons summarily executed by Germany, Italy, and Japan during the war.

On August 8, 1945, the four Allied powers signed a convention called the Agreement for the Prosecution and Punishment of the Major War Criminals of the European Axis Powers, which set forth the parameters by which the accused would be tried. Under this convention, which is sometimes referred to as the London Agreement or Nuremberg Charter, the Allies would conduct the trials of leaders of the European Axis powers in Nuremberg, and would subsequently prosecute lower-ranking officials and less important figures in the four occupied zones of Germany. American military tribunals in the South Pacific, under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, tried accused Japanese war criminals.

The London Agreement also established the International Military Tribunal (IMT), which was a panel of eight judges, two named by each of the four Allied powers. One judge from each country actively presided at trial, and the other four sat on the panel as alternates. The four Allied powers also selected the prosecutors, who agreed to pursue a conviction against the defendants on behalf of the newly formed UNITED NATIONS.

Under the Nuremberg Charter, each defendant accused of a war crime was afforded the right to be represented by an attorney of his choice. The accused war criminals were presumed innocent by the tribunal and could not be convicted until their guilt was proven BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT. In addition, the defendants were guaranteed the right to challenge incriminating evidence, cross-examine adverse witnesses, and introduce exculpatory evidence of their own.

The court appointed interpreters to translate the proceedings into four languages: French, German, Russian, and English. Written evidence submitted by the prosecution was translated into the native language of each defendant. When considering the admissibility of particular documents or testimony, the IMT was not bound by technical RULES OF EVIDENCE common to Anglo-American systems of justice. The tribunal retained discretion to evaluate HEARSAY and other forms of evidence that are normally considered unreliable in the United States and Great Britain.

The IMT made all of its decisions by a majority vote of the four judges. On issues that divided the judges equally, the president of the court, Lord Justice Geoffrey Lawrence from Great Britain, was endowed with the deciding vote. In all other situations, a vote cast by Lawrence carried no greater weight than a vote cast by Soviet judge Ion Nikitchenko, French judge Henri Donnedieu de Vabres, American judge FRANCIS BIDDLE, or any of the alternates. The IMT's decisions, including any rulings, judgments, or sentences, were final and could not be appealed.

Neither the defense nor the prosecution was permitted to challenge the legal, political, or military authority of the court. The IMT said that its jurisdiction stemmed from the London Agreement that was promulgated by the Allies pursuant to their inherent legislative powers over the conquered nations, which had unconditionally surrendered. According to the tribunal, each Ally possessed the unqualified right to legislate over the territory that it occupied. By establishing the IMT, the court said, the Allies "had done together what any one of them might have done singly."

The IMT was given authority to hear four counts of criminal complaints: conspiracy, crimes against peace, WAR CRIMES, and crimes against humanity. Count I encompassed conspiracies to commit crimes against peace, whereas count II covered persons who committed such crimes in their individual capacities. Crimes against peace included the planning, preparation, initiation, and waging of aggressive war in violation of international treaties, agreements, or assurances. Crimes against peace differed from other war crimes, the tribunal said, in that they represented the "accumulated evil" of the Axis powers.

Count III consisted of war crimes committed in violation of the laws and customs of war as accepted and practiced around the world. This count aimed to punish those individuals who were responsible for issuing or executing orders that resulted in the plundering of public and private property, the wanton destruction of European cities and villages, the murder of captured Allied soldiers, and the CONSCRIPTION of civilians in occupied territories for deportation to German labor camps.

Count IV consisted of crimes against humanity, including murder, extermination, enslavement, and other inhumane acts committed against civilian populations, as well as every form of political, racial, and religious persecution carried out in furtherance of a crime punishable by the IMT. This count aimed to punish the most notorious crimes committed by the Nazi regime, such as GENOCIDE and torture. Early in the trial, however, the IMT ruled that the court did not have authority to try the defendants for crimes they committed before 1939 when World War II began.

Many of the prospective Nazi defendants were dead or could not be found after the war. Adolf Hitler, the totalitarian dictator of Germany who was the emotional and intellectual catalyst behind most of the war crimes committed by the Nuremberg defendants, Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS (Schutzstaffel, or Black-shirts, the Nazi organization in charge of the concentration camps and the Gestapo, the German secret police), and Paul Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, had all killed themselves during the final days of the war. BENITO MUSSOLINI, totalitarian dictator of Italy, was shot and hung by his own people in Milan in April 1945. Other German officials such as Karl Adolf Eichmann, a lieutenant colonel in the SS who was the architect of Hitler's "final solution" to exterminate the Jewish population in Europe and Asia, and Dr. Josef Mengele, a physician who performed barbaric experiments on prisoners at the concentration camp in Auschwitz, Poland, eluded the Allies by fleeing Germany after the war.

Not all of the Nazi leadership was able to escape justice. Twenty-four Nazi officials were indicted under the Nuremberg Charter for war crimes. The tribunal convicted eighteen of the defendants and acquitted three defendants (Dr. Hjalmar H. G. Schacht, president of the German Central Bank, Hans Fritzsche, propaganda minister for German radio, and Franz von Papen, vice chancellor of Germany). One defendant (Dr. Robert Ley, leader of the Nazi Labor Front) committed suicide before the proceedings began; one defendant (Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, a German military industrialist) was deemed mentally and physically incompetent to stand trial; and one defendant (Martin Bormann, Hitler's secretary and head of the Nazi Party Chancellery) was tried and convicted in absentia because his whereabouts were unknown.

The trial began on November 20, 1945, and concluded on October 1, 1946. Thirty-three witnesses testified for the prosecution. Eighty witnesses testified for the defense, including nineteen of the defendants. An additional 140 witnesses provided evidence for the defense through written interrogatories. The prosecution introduced written evidence of its own, including original military, diplomatic, and government files of the Nazi regime that fell into the hands of the Allies after the collapse of the Third Reich.

ROBERT H. JACKSON, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, led the prosecution team. President HARRY S. TRUMAN had asked Jackson to assemble a staff of U.S. attorneys to investigate alleged war crimes and present evidence against the defendants. Jackson was joined on the prosecution team by Roman Rudenko, François de Menthon, and Sir Hartley Shawcross, the chief prosecutors for Russia, France, and Great Britain, respectively. Each of the four powers employed a number of assistant prosecutors as well.

Jackson commenced the trial with an OPENING STATEMENT that is considered one of the most eloquent in the annals of JURISPRUDENCE. "The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish", Jackson said, "have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive their being repeated…. That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury, stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that power has ever paid to reason."

Hermann Goering was the most powerful surviving member of the German government to be tried at Nuremberg. Goering had been elected president of the Reichstag (the German parliament) in 1932. After Hitler was named chancellor of Germany in 1933, Goering was appointed minister of interior for Prussia where he created the Gestapo and established the first concentration camps. In 1935 Goering became chief of the Luftwaffe (the German air force), and two years later he was made commissioner of the Four Year Plan, an economic program designed to make Germany self-sufficient in preparation for the ensuing Nazi blitzkrieg. After Germany's invasion of Finland in 1939, Goering was elevated to Reich marshall, the highest military rank in Germany, and designated as Hitler's successor in the event of Hitler's death.

The IMT convicted the Reich marshall on all four counts and sentenced him to death. The prosecution demonstrated that Goering had helped plan and direct the invasions of Poland and Austria. Other evidence indicated that Goering had ordered the Luftwaffe to destroy a business district in Rotterdam, Netherlands, even though the city had already surrendered. Goering was also implicated in the extermination of Polish intelligentsia, nobility, and clergy, the execution of British prisoners of war, the deportation of foreign laborers to Germany, the theft of art from French museums, and the suppression of domestic political opposition. Additionally, Goering admitted on cross-examination that he was responsible for promulgating laws that had facilitated the persecution of Jews throughout Europe.

Rudolph Hess was another influential Nazi official prosecuted at Nuremberg. Hess was a longtime friend of Hitler. In 1923 the two joined forces in an unsuccessful attempt to incite a Nazi revolution in a Munich tavern. Although Hitler was arrested and convicted of TREASON for his role in the so-called beer hall putsch, German interest in the Nazi movement grew after the publication of Mein Kampf, a manifesto Hitler dictated to Hess while serving his prison term. Mein Kampf planted the seeds of Aryan supremacy, German nationalism, anti-Semitism, and totalitarian government, seeds that Hess later cultivated in his capacity as deputy führer to the Third Reich.

During the Nuremberg trial, the prosecution offered evidence that Hess had signed orders authorizing the persecution of European Jews and the ransacking of churches. Documents signed by Hess and meetings he attended reflected his support for Hitler's plan to invade Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Hess originally asserted a defense of amnesia to these charges, claiming that he had forgotten the entire period of his life in which he had acted as deputy führer. However, Hess withdrew this defense upon realizing that he would not stand trial with the other defendants if he were diagnosed as incompetent. Hess was convicted of counts I and II and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Joachim von Ribbentrop, Germany's foreign minister during World War II, was convicted on all four counts and sentenced to death. When he took the witness stand, the prosecution asked him if he considered Germany's invasions of Poland, Denmark, Norway, Greece, France, and the Soviet Union "acts of aggression." In each case Ribbentrop answered in the negative, arguing that such invasions were more properly described as acts of war. Confronted with evidence that he had urged the German regent of Hungary to exterminate the Jews in that country, Ribbentrop responded only by saying that he did not use those words exactly.

Dr. Ernst Kaltenbrunner was the head of the Reich Central Security Office, the Nazi organization in charge of the Gestapo and the SD (Sicherheitsdienst, Security Service, the German intelligence agency) and was second in command to Himmler at the SS. Kaltenbrunner faced a mountain of evidence demonstrating that he visited a number of concentration camps and had personally witnessed prisoners being gassed and incinerated. One letter signed by Kaltenbrunner authorized the execution of Allied prisoners of war, and another letter authorized the conscription and deportation of foreign laborers. Laborers who were too weak to contribute, Kaltenbrunner wrote, should be executed,

Twenty of the 24 defendants at the Nuremberg Trials listen to the hearings. Eighteen of the Nazi officials indicted by the International Military Tribunal were convicted; three were acquitted.

regardless of their age or gender. Kaltenbrunner received a death sentence after being convicted under counts III and IV.

Alfred Rosenberg was the Nazi minister for the occupied Eastern European territories. Rosenberg told Axis troops that the accepted rules of land warfare could be disregarded in areas under his control. He ordered the SEGREGATION of Jews into ghettos where his subordinates murdered them. His signature was found at the bottom of a directive approving the deportation of forty-five thousand youths to German labor camps. Cross-examined about his role in the unlawful confiscation of Jewish property, Rosenberg claimed that all such property was seized to protect it from Allied bombing raids. Rosenberg was found guilty on all four counts and sentenced to death by hanging.

Hans Frank, the governor-general of Poland during German occupation, was sentenced to hang after being convicted on counts III and IV. Frank described his administration's policy by stating that Poland was "treated like a colony" in which the Polish people became "the slaves of the Greater German World Empire." The tribunal found that this policy entailed the destruction of Poland as a national entity, the evisceration of all political opposition, and the ruthless exploitation of human resources to promote Hitler's reign of terror. While on the witness stand, Frank confessed to participating in the Nazis' systematic attempt to annihilate the Jewish race.

Wilhelm Frick, the German minister of interior, was found guilty on counts I, II, and III and sentenced to be hanged. Frick had signed decrees sanctioning the execution of Jews and other persons held in "protective custody" at the concentration camps and had given Himmler a blank check to take any "security measures" necessary to ensure the German foothold in the occupied territories. The tribunal also determined that Frick exercised supreme authority over Bohemia and Moravia and was responsible for implementing Hitler's policies of enslavement, deportation, torture, and extermination in these territories.

Wilhelm Keitel, field marshall for the High Command of the armed forces, was sentenced to die after being found guilty on every count. On direct examination Keitel admitted that there were "a large number of orders" bearing his signature that "contained deviations from existing international law." He also conceded that a number of atrocities had been committed under his command during Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union. As a defense to these charges, Keitel asserted that he had been following the orders of his superiors when committing these crimes. Yet some witnesses testifying on behalf of the defense tended to undermine this assertion.

Alfred Jodl, chief of the operations staff for the armed forces, also received the death sentence after being convicted on every count. During the early stages of World War II, Jodl had been asked to review an order drafted by Hitler authorizing German troops to execute all Soviet military commissars captured during the Nazi invasion of Russia. Aware that this order was a violation of the customs, practices, and laws governing the treatment of prisoners during times of war, Jodl made no attempt to dissuade Hitler from issuing it. Jodl was also found responsible for distributing an order that authorized the execution of Allied commandos caught by the Axis powers and for mobilizing the German army against its European foes.

Julius Streicher, an anti-Semitic propagandist, was found guilty of count IV and sentenced to death. Author, editor, and publisher of Der Stuermer, a privately owned Jew-baiting newspaper, Streicher held no meaningful government position with the Axis powers during World War II. Yet the tribunal determined that circulation of Streicher's racist newspaper had fueled the Nazis' maniacal hatred of Jews and fomented an atmosphere in which genocide was acceptable and desirable. The prosecution introduced an article Streicher had published during 1942 in which he described Jewish procreation as a curse of God that could only be lifted through a process of political and ethnic emasculation.

Albert Speer, Nazi minister of armaments, received a prison term of twenty years after being convicted on counts III and IV. Speer had fascinated Hitler long before the war with his architectural prowess, designing buildings that were both immense and imposing. After the war began, however, Speer's primary obligation was to supply the German armed forces with military supplies, equipment, and weapons. Thus, Speer became a lynchpin in the Nazi military empire. In an effort to maintain this empire, the prosecution demonstrated, Speer had repeatedly cajoled Hitler to procure foreign labor to work in his weapons factories.

Dr. Arthur Seyss-Inquart, an Austrian who was appointed by Hitler to govern Austria and the Netherlands during German occupation, was found guilty on counts II, III, and IV and sentenced to death for his confessed mistreatment of racial minorities in those territories, including the deportation of more than 250,000 Jews to Germany. Seyss-Inquart also assisted Hitler's takeover of Austria, Poland, and Czechoslovakia.

Baron Konstantin von Neurath, Reich protector of Czechoslovakia, was convicted on all four counts and sentenced to fifteen years in prison for participating in the Nazi militarization campaign. Hoping to immunize the Nazi regime from its obligations under INTERNATIONAL LAW, Neurath had advocated Germany's withdrawal from the LEAGUE OF NATIONS and denounced the Versailles Treaty that had formally concluded WORLD WAR I. Neurath was also implicated in various brutalities committed against the Czechoslovakian civilian population.

Baldur von Schirach, governor of occupied Vienna and leader of the Hitler Youth, was convicted on count IV and sentenced to a twenty-year prison term. The IMT determined that Schirach had provided the visceral foundations for the militarization of Germany's youngest Nazis through psychological and educational indoctrination and had conspired with Hitler to deport Viennese Jews to Poland where most of them met their death. Fritz Sauckel, the plenipotentiary general for the allocation of labor, was convicted on counts III and IV and sentenced to death for his central role in the Nazi forced labor program that enslaved more than eleven million Europeans.

Erich Raeder served as Germany's naval commander and chief until 1943 when he resigned due to a disagreement with Hitler, and he was succeeded by Karl Doenitz. Both Raeder and Doenitz were indicted under counts I, II, and III for war crimes committed on the high seas, and both were convicted based in part on evidence that they had authorized German submarines to fire on Allied commercial ships without warning in contravention of international law. Doenitz was sentenced to a ten-year prison term, and Raeder received a life sentence. Walther Funk, Nazi minister of economics, also received a life sentence for financing Germany's aggressive warfare and for exploiting foreign laborers in German industry.

The IMT declared four Nazi organizations to be criminal: the SS, the SD, the Gestapo, and the Nazi Party. A team of Allied attorneys, including American Telford Taylor, subsequently prosecuted individual members of these organizations. Three Nazi organizations were acquitted: the SA (Sturmabteilung, the paramilitary organization also known as the Brownshirts or Stormtroopers), and the general staff and High Command of the German armed forces.

The Nuremberg trials made three important contributions to international law. First, they established a precedent that all persons, regardless of their station or occupation in life, can be held individually accountable for their behavior during times of war. Defendants cannot insulate themselves from personal responsibility by blaming the country, government, or military branch for which they committed the particular war crime.

Second, the Nuremberg trials established that individuals cannot shield themselves from liability for war crimes by asserting that they were simply following orders issued by a superior in the chain of command. Subordinates in the military or government are now bound by their obligations under international law, obligations that transcend their duty to obey an order issued by a superior. Orders to initiate aggressive (as opposed to defensive) warfare, to violate recognized rules and customs of warfare, or to persecute civilians and prisoners are considered illegal under the Nuremberg principles.

Third, the Nuremberg trials clearly established three discrete substantive war crimes that are punishable under international law: crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, and crimes in violation of transnational obligations embodied in treaties and other agreements. Before the Nuremberg trials, these crimes were not well defined, and persons who committed such crimes had never been punished by a multinational tribunal. For these reasons the Nuremberg convictions have sometimes been criticized as EX POST FACTO justice.

The Nuremberg trials have also been criticized as "victor's justice." Historians have observed that the Allied nations that tried and convicted the leading Nazis at Nuremberg did not come to the table with clean hands. The Soviet Union had participated in Germany's invasion and occupation of Poland and had been implicated in the massacre of more than a thousand Poles in the Katyn forest. Bombing raids conducted by the United States and Great Britain during World War II left thousands of civilians dead in cities like Dresden, Germany, and Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan. President Roosevelt had implemented a relocation program for more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent that confined them to concentration camps around the United States.

The Nuremberg trials were not typical partisan trials, though. The defendants were afforded the RIGHT TO COUNSEL, plus a full panoply of evidentiary and procedural protections. The Nuremberg verdicts demonstrate that these protections were taken seriously by the tribunal. The IMT completely exonerated three defendants of war crimes and acquitted most of the remaining defendants of at least some charges. Thus, the Nuremberg trials, while not perfect, changed the face of international law, both procedurally and substantively.


Tokyo Trial.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Notice of abandonment to Ordinary resolution