The Nuremberg trials

nuremberg trials
Hermann Goering during his trial in 1946

The Nuremberg trials were a series of military tribunals held in the months after World War II, to investigate Nazi war crimes and dispense justice to prominent Nazi leaders and commanders. This was the first

The Nuremberg trials were held between November 1945 and October 1948. Since there were hundreds of Nazi defendants, the Allies decided to prosecute them in ‘groupings’ rather than individually (a process that may have taken many years). The separate trials in 1948, for example, considered the fate of Nazi civilian ministers, Einsatzgruppen officers and soldiers, and directors of the gigantic industrial company Krupp. This article, however, is primarily concerned with the first and best-known of the Nuremberg hearings: the ‘trial of major war criminals’. This trial was heard before the International Military Tribunal (IMT) between November 20th 1945 and October 1st 1946. The defendants were 24 senior Nazi officials, including Herman Goering, Rudolf Hess, Julius Streicher, Albert Speer and military commanders Alfred Jodl and Karl Donitz. The IMT itself was comprised of judges from the four major Allied powers: Britain, France, United States and the Soviet Union.

The city of Nuremberg was chosen to host the trial for three reasons. It had not suffered as much extensive damage as the capital, Berlin. Also, Nuremberg housed the largest courthouse still standing in Germany, known as the Palace of Justice, and its attached prison was large enough to house all 24 defendants. The Allies also identified a certain symmetry in bringing leading Nazis to justice in a city that had been the ceremonial heartland of Nazism. Recently uncovered evidence suggests that Allied discussions on bringing enemy leaders and war criminals to justice had taken place almost two years before the war had ended. US president Franklin Roosevelt, and later president Harry Truman, favoured a conservative, judicially-sanctioned punishment, after due process and a fair trial. The leaders of European nations, who had been more directly affected by Nazi aggression and occupation, took a stronger line. The Soviets, and at times the British, favoured retribution against Nazi leaders and soldiers – even mass execution in some cases. But the Americans’ significant political muscle won out, leading to the formation of a military tribunal. The legal basis for the trials was established by the London Charter, issued on August 8th 1945. This charter proclaimed that persons of Axis nations could be prosecuted for breaches of international law and the laws of war. Allied personnel would not be tried for war crimes in Nuremberg. The IMT was to comprise one judge from each of the four Allied nations. The prosecution team was also to contain one chief prosecutor from the same nations. Legal representation for Nazi defendants was provided mostly by German lawyers.

At the opening of the trial, the 24 defendants were charged with one or more of the following four charges:

Charge One: Participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of a crime against peace.
Charge Two: Planning, initiating and waging wars of aggression and other crimes against peace.
Charge Three: War crimes.
Charge Four: Crimes against humanity.

The Nuremberg trials employed legal procedures that were common in Western legal systems and courtrooms. The London Charter also provided the trials with their own rules of evidence. Among the evidence considered and accepted by the IMT were eyewitness testimonies, film and photographic material, government documents, and the findings of earlier military tribunals and investigations. The hearings were conducted in four ‘official’ languages (English, French, German and Russian) so to facilitate a smooth trial without constant interruptions, the IMT organised a new system of simultaneous translation. Interpreters were placed in sound-proof booths and translated trial proceedings in real time. Judges, legal counsel and defendants were each outfitted with equipment, supplied by IBM; they could don headphones and switch between any of the four languages.

“Many historians have concluded that the Nuremberg trials did not present an authoritative historical account of the Holocaust, and may even have distorted the record for future generations. Instead of an explanation built on German nationalism and anti-Semitism, the court identified war and “renegade militarism” as the primary motivating factors for the anti-Jewish policies of Nazi Germany. Justice Robert H. Jackson considered the extermination of the Jews not a principal Nazi objective in and of itself, but a function of other war aims of the German High Command. Douglas asserts that because the prosecution treated crimes against humanity as secondary to crimes against peace, it implicitly accepted the Nazi portrayal of Jews as potential fifth-columnists and saboteurs, who had to be eliminated…”
Richard Wilson, historian

Of the 24 men placed on trial, 18 were found guilty of one or more charges and four were acquitted. Martin Bormann could not be located and was tried in absentia, while labour boss Robert Ley committed suicide before the trial began. Some of the notable verdicts included:

  • Herman Goering. Goering was Hitler’s second in command. Amongst other duties he oversaw Germany’s rearmament program and commanded the Luftwaffe (air force). Guilty on four charges, sentenced to death.
  • Rudolf Hess. Hess was a faithful ally to Hitler and head of the Nazi Chancellery. He flew to England in 1941. Guilty on two charges, sentenced to life imprisonment.
  • Albert Speer. Speer was the leading Nazi architect and Hitler’s manager of war production. Guilty on two charges, sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment.
  • Julius Streicher. The founding editor of Der Sturmer, Streicher was a vocal and embittered anti-Semite. Guilty on one charge, sentenced to death.
  • Joachim von Ribbentrop. Ribbentrop was Hitler’s foreign minister and an important signatory to Nazi treaties. Guilty on four charges, sentenced to death.
  • Martin Bormann. Bormann was Hitler’s private secretary and replaced Hess as controller of his inner circle. Guilty on two charges, sentenced to death in absentia.
  • Wilhelm Keitel. Commander of the Wehrmacht (army). Guilty on four charges, sentenced to death.
  • Karl Donitz. Head of the German navy. Guilty on two charges, sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment.

The 12 men sentenced to death – except for the missing Bormann and Goering, who had suicided the night before – were executed on October 16th 1946. Although firing squads are usually employed for military executions, the IMT chose to hang the Nuremberg convicts, believing it more appropriate for their criminal conduct. Two American soldiers were selected to carry out the hangings, which took place in the gymnasium of the Nuremberg prison. Many of the hangings were carried out with short rope that caused prisoners to die a long, lingering death from suffocation, rather than an instantaneous death from a broken neck. Afterwards, their bodies were shipped to Munich and incinerated at Dachau, the site of many Nazi atrocities. The ashes were scattered over the River Isar. The seven Nazis given prison sentences were shipped to Spandau Prison in Berlin. This prison was run by the British, French, Americans and Russians in alternating three-month shifts, for the next 40 years. By 1966 there was only one remaining prisoner: Rudolf Hess. He was Spandau’s only inmate for 21 years, until his death in 1987, aged 91. Spandau was immediately bulldozed after Hess’ death, to prevent it becoming a shrine for neo-Nazis. The site is now occupied by an ALDI store.

nuremberg trials

1. The Allies were considering what to do with Nazi leader and war criminals post-war, as early as 1943.
2. They established war crimes tribunals in Nuremberg, the ceremonial home of the Nazi Party.
3. Trial procedures were set down in the London Charter, with the four Allied nations taking a lead role.
4. The tribunals utilised procedures from Western legal systems and heard a range of evidence.
5. In the main trial, 24 leading Nazis were tried, 18 found guilty and 12 sentenced to death.

Citation information
Title: “The Nuremberg trials”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: August 19, 2019
Date accessed: July 14, 2024
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