Between 1945 and 1949, there were a series of 13 International Military Tribunals known as The Nuremberg Trials. The first and best known, the Major War Criminals Trial, tried major figures in the Nazi killing machine. They appeared before The International Military Tribunal (IMT), consisting of Judges from the United States, the Soviet Union, France, and Great Britain (Lord Justice Geoffrey Lawrence presided). Defendants, which also included organizations, were charged with crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. This first trial commenced on November 20, 1945 and concluded on October 1, 1946.

A brief history

As early as April 20, 1942, representatives from the nine German-occupied countries met in London to draft the "Inter-Allied Resolution on German War Crimes." On November 1, 1943, the Allies, in anticipation of victory published their "Declaration on German Atrocities in Occupied Europe." The document made clear their intention to vigilantly pursue high ranking Nazis to ensure justice was done.

In 1944, just prior to the war’s end, President Roosevelt asked the War Department to develop such a plan. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau advocated shooting major Nazi leaders when captured, exiling others, with German POWs assigned to rebuild what they destroyed. Secretary of War Henry Stimson advocated a trial process focusing on: labeling Nazi atrocities and waging a war of aggression as part of a criminal conspiracy. Initially Winston Churchill reportedly favored execution, however, Stalin disagreed. Ultimately, at Yalta (February 1945) it was decided that the Allies would pursue the judicial route.

Shortly after FDR’s death in April 1945, respected jurist Robert Jackson was asked to be Chief Prosecutor for the United States. In this unprecedented series of trials, the powers, with differing judicial systems, had to sort through complex legal matters to create a format, the nature of charges, and a code of rules.

24 defendants in primary positions of power in the Nazi regime were tried in the first trial.

On August 6, the Charter of the International Military Tribunal, establishing the laws and procedures for the trials was signed. After some debate, it was agreed to hold the trials in Nuremberg for both practical and symbolic reasons. Nuremberg, although mostly destroyed, had an intact courtroom and hotel, and was the site of the many of Hitler’s horrific speeches, and the infamous Nuremberg Laws which the Nazi’s had stripped Jews of their rights.

In this first trial, the 24 defendants tried were in primary positions of power in The Nazi regime. Not included were Adolph Hitler, who committed suicide, along with Heinrich Himmler, and Joseph Goebbels. Martin Bormann (Hitler’s adjutant) was tried in absentia. (It was later confirmed he died in Berlin while trying to flee during the last few days of the war). Robert Ley (Head of the German Labour Front) committed suicide shortly before the commencement of the Trial.

The defendants included among others: Hermann Goering (Hitler's designated successor), Rudolf Hess (Hitler's Deputy Führer), Joachim von Ribbentrop (foreign minister), and Albert Speer (armaments minister).

There were two primary phases to the prosecution’s case. The first was to establish the criminal nature of aspects of the Nazi regime. The second focused on establishing the guilt of these specific defendants.

Horrific and overwhelming proof was presented. In fact the Nazi’s own meticulous records proved effective evidence. Along with records, films taken during the liberation of camps were shown, to the shock of those in attendance.

What was the outcome of the Major War Criminals Trial?

On Tuesday, October 1, the defendants entered the Nuremberg courtroom for the last time. Sir Geoffrey Lawrence instructed them to remain seated during the reading of the verdicts. Sentences were announced in the afternoon for the convicted defendants. Lawrence began with Goering: "The International Military Tribunal sentences you to death by hanging." Goering left the courtroom, expressionless. Ten other defendants (Ribbentrop, Keitel, Rosenberg, Frank, Frick, Kaltenbrunner, Streicher, Sauckel, Jodl, and Seyss-Inquart) were also told they would die on a rope. Life sentences were handed down to Hess, Funk, and Raeder. Von Schirach and Speer received 20-year sentences, Von Neurath a 15-year sentence, while Doenitz got a 10-year sentence.

The prosecution was successful in proving its case that cost over 40 million innocent civilians their lives in Europe alone and shocked the world with actual accounts of the atrocities committed by the Hitler regime. The indicted organizations were also found criminally guilty with the exception of: The General Reichsregierung Staff and High Command and The Sturmabteilung by virtue of the London Charter.

How were the punishments carried out?

The executions were carried out October 16, 1946 by hanging.

The executions were carried out October 16, 1946 by hanging, using the standard drop method. This was in violation of usual military procedure of death by firing squad – an important issue of dignity for those sentenced to death. The executioner was John C. Woods. The executions took place in the gymnasium of the court building, which was demolished in 1983. The pervasive rumor was the bodies were then taken to Dachau and burned. In fact, they were incinerated in a Munich crematorium and ashes were then thrown into the river Isar. Those sentenced to incarceration were transferred to Spandau Prison in 1947.

What were the attitudes and point of view of the defendants?

During the trial, many defendants claimed either ignorance, or pointed the finger at primarily Hitler and Himmler. A few expressed remorse. Dr. G. M. Gilbert was a prison psychologist assigned the responsibility of monitoring the behavior of the defendants while they stood trial and following the verdicts. Here are a few of his observations (excerpted):

“Goering came down first and strode into his cell, his face pale and frozen, his eyes popping. ‘Death!' His hands were trembling in spite of his attempt to be nonchalant. His eyes were moist and he was panting, fighting back an emotional breakdown. … He said that was glad that he had not gotten a life sentence, because those sentenced to life imprisonment never become martyrs. But there wasn't any of the old confident bravado in his voice. Goering seems to realize, at last, that there is nothing funny about death, when you're the one who is going to die.

“Rudolph Hess strutted in, laughing nervously, and said that he had not even been listening, so he did not know what the sentence was and what was more, he didn't care.

“Ribbentrop wandered in, aghast, and started to walk around the cell in a daze, whispering, 'Death!-Death! Now I won't be able to write my beautiful memoirs. Tsk! Tsk! So much hatred! Tsk! tsk!' Then he sat down, a completely broken man, and stared into space. . .”

"Don't let anybody tell you that they had no idea.” Frank Hans, the Butcher of Cracow

Frank Hans, called the "Jew butcher of Cracow said: "Don't let anybody tell you that they had no idea. Everybody sensed there was something horribly wrong with the system. Hitler has disgraced Germany for all time! He betrayed and disgraced the people that loved him! ... I will be the first to admit my guilt." When hanged he wore a beatific smile.

Hess suffered from paranoid delusions, apathy, amnesia, and was diagnosed as having a "hysterical personality.” Hess, sentenced to life in Spandau prison where ultimately he remained its only prisoner—was lost in his own mental fog until at age 93 (1987) he committed suicide. His final statement was reportedly how it had been his "pleasure" to work "under the greatest son which my people produced in its thousand-year history."

The strange case of Goering

Hermann Goering testified wearing a gray uniform and yellow boots. In a long examination, he discussed the Nazi rise to power, saying: "Once we came to power, we were determined to hold on to it under all circumstances." He showed no remorse and offered no apologies claiming the concentration camps were created to “remove danger.” Janet Flanner of the New Yorker described Goering as "a brain without a conscience." On the day before the executions, October 15, Goering wrote the following note to the Allied Council:

“I would have had no objection to being shot. However, I will not facilitate execution of Germany's Reichsmarschall by hanging! For the sake of Germany, I cannot permit this. Moreover, I feel no moral obligation to submit to my enemies' punishment. For this reason, I have chosen to die like the great Hannibal."

He then ingested a smuggled cyanide pill and late that evening committed suicide, rather than face an undignified death.

Amid the executions, however, The Council, placed his body beneath the shadow of the scaffold to prove he indeed was dead. He was wearing black silk pajamas and a blue jacket.

Perhaps, most disturbing was the very “ordinariness” of those in the dock with the exception of higher I.Q.s than average. These were men with families, who played with dogs, told jokes, and for the most part, looked nothing like their Aryan ideal image. Years later, reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt wrote of "the banality of evil." Most Nuremberg defendants never thought of themselves as villains, yet were unable to appreciate the inhumanity of their ambitions – or the cost.

The subsequent trials

Following the Trial of Major War Criminals, there were 12 additional trials held at Nuremberg over the next two years, grouped together as the Subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings. They differed from the first trial in that they were conducted before U.S. military tribunals but were also located at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg.

They included among others:

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. The experiments ranged from studying the effects of high altitude and malaria to sterilization.

The Judges Trial (March 5-December 4, 1947) in which 16 lawyers and judges were charged with implementing the eugenics laws of the Third Reich. Of the 185 people indicted in these subsequent Nuremberg trials, 142 were found guilty. Among the verdicts, 12 defendants received death sentences, eight others were given life in prison and 77 received prison terms of varying lengths, although many were later reduced. The remaining defendants were removed due to illness, or committed suicide.

The trials of lesser German and Axis war criminals continued in Germany into the 1950s and resulted in the conviction of 5,025 other defendants and the execution of 806.

Was there criticism of the trials?

There were some respected jurists who debated the Charter’s legality primarily on the grounds of: Ex post facto laws (whether one could be held criminally liable for breaking laws that did not exist at the time of the actions in question); Double Standards as The Trials exempted the allies, particularly the Soviets, from being accused of “similar” acts of aggression.

The legacy of the Trials

The aftermath of the trials were enormous and changed international jurisprudence by setting forth specific guidelines constituting crimes against humanity.

In addition to denying “martyrdom” to leading Nazis by exposing their inhumanity to the world, the findings led to:

  • The 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention (1948) and Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • The Geneva Convention on the Laws and Customs of War (1949).
  • The Nuremberg Principles, 1950.
  • The 1968 Convention on the Abolition of the Statute of Limitations on War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity.
  • Precedents for the trials of Japanese war criminals in Tokyo (1946-48); the 1961 trial of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann (1906-62); and the establishment of tribunals for war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia (1993) and in Rwanda (1994).

The fictional film, Judgement at Nuremberg (1961) combined elements of several trials (but most nearly resembles the so-called "justice" or "Alstoetter" case). At the conclusion of the Trial, the Chief Justice Haywood played masterfully by Spencer Tracy, sums up the harsh reality, making the case for decency, accountability and humanity: "A country isn't a rock. It's not an extension of one's self. It's what it stands for. It's what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.”