The Nuremberg Trials is the general name for two sets of trials of Nazis involved in World War II and the Holocaust. The trials were held in the German city of Nuremberg from 1945 to 1949 at the Nuremberg Palace of Justice (which was specifically built for the trials by architect Dan Kiley). The first and most famous of these trials was the Trial of the Major War Criminals Before the International Military Tribunal or IMT, which tried twenty-four of the most important captured (or still believed to be alive) leaders of Nazi Germany. It was held from November 20, 1945 to October 1, 1946. The second set of trials of lesser war criminals was conducted under Control Council Law No. 10 at the U.S. Nuremberg Military Tribunals (NMT), including the famous Doctors' Trial. This article primarily deals with the IMT.
Origin of the Trials
By 1944, victory for the allies had become inevitable. Jewish advocate groups (who had received detailed information regarding Nazi plans of mass extermination, or the "Final Solution") and governments in exile became concerned that the Nazis would unleash a final wave of atrocities. To help prevent the escalation of violence, the United Nations War Crimes Commission (UNWCC) was established, an organization which began to compile a list of probable war criminals. However, the Allies failed to consolidate these threats (of the possible prosecution of war crimes) against the Nazis due to a fear of reprisals on prisoners of war.
Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. suggested a plan of the total denazification of Germany; this was known as the Morgenthau Plan. The plan detailed methods of deportation, forced labour, and economic repression similar to that of the Treaty of Versailles. Both Churchill and Roosevelt supported this plan, and went as far as attempting its authorization at the Quebec Conference in September of 1944. However, the Soviet Union announced its preference for a judicial process (possibly seeing this as an opportunity for a "show trial"). Later, details leaked to the public, generating widespread protest. Roosevelt, seeing strong public disapproval, abandoned the plan, but did not proceed to adopt support for another position on the matter. The demise of the Morgenthau Plan created the need for an alternative method of dealing with the Nazi leadership. The plan for the “Trial of European War Criminals” was drafted by Stimson and the War Department. When Roosevelt died in 1945, Truman gained the presidency and gave strong approval for a judicial process. After series of negotiations with the Soviet Union, Britain, and France, details of the trial were worked out. The trials were set to commence on November 20th, 1945, in the city of Nuremberg.
Creation of the court
At the meetings in Tehran (1943), Yalta (1945) and Potsdam (1945), the three major wartime powers USA, USSR and Britain agreed on the format to punish those responsible for war-crimes during World War II. France was also awarded a place on the tribunal.
The legal basis for the trial was established by the 'London Charter', issued on August 8, 1945, which restricted the trial to "trial and punishment of the major war criminals of the European Axis countries". Thus, accusations of Allied war crimes could not be tried. Some 200 German war crimes defendants were tried at Nuremberg, and 1,600 others were tried under the traditional channels of military justice. The legal basis for the jurisdiction of the court was that by the Instrument of Surrender of Germany, political authority for Germany had been transferred to the Allied Control Council which having sovereign power over Germany could choose to punish violations of international law and the laws of war. Because the court was limited to violations of the laws of war, it did not have jurisdiction over crimes that took place before the outbreak of war on September 1, 1939.
The Soviet Union had wanted the trials to take place in Berlin, but Nuremberg was chosen as the site for the trials for specific reasons:
- It was located in the American sector (at this time, Germany was divided into four sectors).
- The Palace of Justice was spacious and largely undamaged (one of the few that had remained largely intact through extensive Allied bombing of Germany). A large prison was also part of the complex.
- Because Nuremberg had been appointed "City of the party rallies", there was symbolic value in making it the place of the party's demise.
It was also agreed that Berlin would become the permanent seat of the IMT and that the first trial (several were planned) would take place in Nuremberg. Because of the Cold War, there were no subsequent trials.
Each of the four countries provided one judge and an alternate; and the prosecutors. The judges were:
The Chief prosecutors were Robert H. Jackson for the United States, Hartley Shawcross for the UK, General R. A. Rudenko for the Soviet Union, and François de Menthon and Auguste Champetier de Ribes for France.
The validity of the court
- The defendants were not allowed to appeal or affect the selection of judges. Some people argue that, because the judges were appointed by the victors, the Tribunal was not impartial and could not be regarded as a court in the true sense. A.L. Goodheart, Professor at Oxford, opposed this view, writing:
- "Attractive as this argument may sound in theory, it ignores the fact that it runs counter to the administration of law in every country. If it were true then no spy could be given a legal trial, because his case is always heard by judges representing the enemy country. Yet no one has ever argued that in such cases it was necessary to call on neutral judges. The prisoner has the right to demand that his judges shall be fair, but not that they shall be neutral. As Lord Writ has pointed out, the same principle is applicable to ordinary criminal law because 'a burglar cannot complain that he is being tried by a jury of honest citizens." -- The Legality of the Nuremberg Trials, Juridical Review, April 1946
- The trials were conducted under their own rules of evidence; the indictments were created ex post facto and were not based on any nation's law; the tu quoque defense was removed; and the entire spirit of the assembly was "victor's justice".
- There were no trials for alleged war crimes of the allied countries. These included targeting of civilians (which was already defined as a war crime in international law) such as in the fire-bombings of Dresden and of Tokyo, unrestricted warfare in the Pacific, attacking submarines displaying Red Cross flags in the Laconia incident, and mistreatment of prisoners of war.
All this did little to help the credibility of trials. But the spirit of the time was well reflected at Nuremberg - a long, brutal and extraordinarily costly war had been fought and the surviving leaders of the losing side could not expect to simply walk away from the disaster they had created.
The main trial
Defendants in the dock - Front row: Göring, Hess, von Ribbentrop, and Keitel. Second row: Dönitz, Raeder, Schirach, Sauckel.
The International Military Tribunal was opened on October 18, 1945, in the Supreme Court Building in Berlin. The first session was presided over by the Soviet judge, Nikitchenko. The prosecution entered indictments against 24 major war criminals and six criminal organizations - the leadership of the Nazi party, the SS and SD, the Gestapo, the SA and the High Command of the German army (OKW). The indictments were for:
- Conspiracy to commit crimes against peace
- Planning, initiating and waging wars of aggression
- War crimes
- Crimes against humanity
The twenty-four accused were:
"I" indicted "G" indicted and found guilty "º" Not Charged
The definition of what constitutes a war crime is described by the Nuremberg Principles, a document which was created as a result of the trial. The medical experiments conducted by German doctors led to the creation of the Nuremberg Code to control future trials involving human subjects, including the so-called Doctors' Trial.
Influence on the development of international criminal law
The Nuremberg trials had a great influence on the development of international criminal law. The International Law Commission, acting on the request of the United Nations General Assembly, produced in 1950 the report Principles of International Law Recognized in the Charter of the Nürnberg Tribunal and in the Judgment of the Tribunal (Yearbook of the International Law Commission, 1950, vol. III). The influence of the tribunal can also be seen in the proposals for a permanent international criminal court, and the drafting of international criminal codes, later prepared by the International Law Commission.
The Nuremberg trials initiated a movement for the prompt establishment of a permanent international criminal court, eventually leading over fifty years later to the adoption of the Statute of the International Criminal Court.
- The Conclusions of the Nuremberg trials served to help draft:
|The Nuremberg Trials |
|Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal |
|Trials before the U.S. Nuremberg Military Tribunals |