The Nuremberg trials

The Nuremberg trials

Who was tried at Nuremberg? 

On 20 November 1945, six months after the Allies declared victory in Europe, the first of 13 trials opened in the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Bavaria. Twentyfour leaders of the Third Reich were tried, including Hermann Göring, the second-highest-ranking member of the Nazi party; Hans Frank, governorgeneral of occupied Poland; Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister; and Rudolf Hess, formerly Hitler’s deputy. The gravity of the moment was conveyed by the US chief prosecutor, Robert H. Jackson, speaking on behalf of the Allied powers: “That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury, stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that power has ever paid to reason.”

How were the trials convened? 

The Allies had planned to punish crimes committed during the Second World War as early as 1941, but the form the punishment would take became the subject of profound disagreement. In 1943, Joseph Stalin suggested executing 50,000 German staff officers. In 1945, at the Yalta conference, Winston Churchill proposed to Stalin and Franklin D. Roosevelt the summary execution of dozens of Nazi leaders. But Roosevelt and his successor, Harry S. Truman, disagreed and were persuaded instead by the argument of Jackson, a Supreme Court justice, that execution of Nazi leaders without trial “would not sit easily on the American conscience or be remembered by our children with pride”. After months of wrangling, the deadlock was broken by Stalin, who threw his support behind the trials. The French and the British, despite reservations, fell into line.

What precise form did they take? 

The London Agreement of August 1945 stipulated that the leaders of the Axis powers could be tried before an International Military Tribunal, charged not just with war crimes – an established, though far from settled, concept – but also with the novel offences of “crimes against peace” (waging wars of aggression) and “crimes against humanity” (against civilians, whether part of a war effort or not). The English Lord Justice Colonel Sir Geoffrey Lawrence would preside over a panel of eight judges, two from each of the four Allied powers. The Allies also each provided a chief prosecutor; all the defence lawyers would be German. Nuremberg was chosen as it was a city of great symbolic importance to Nazism – the scene of the Party’s annual rallies and of the passing of the Nuremberg Laws, which enshrined its anti-Semitic and racist ideology in 1935.

How did the trials progress? 

Jackson opened the first of the trials by calmly laying out the atrocities allegedly committed by the defendants. He described the “mass killings of countless human beings in cold blood”, crimes which he noted had been documented by the Nazis with a “Teutonic passion for thoroughness”. Göring, a charismatic figure who assumed a position of leadership among the prisoners, refused to acknowledge the court’s authority and declared: “I just wish we all had the courage to confine our defence to three simple words: ‘Lick my arse!’” His mocking and evasive responses infuriated Jackson, prompting Göring to boast to the others: “If you all handle yourselves half as well as I did, you will do all right.” Only Albert Speer, Hitler’s chief architect and later armaments minister, accepted any small measure of responsibility.

What evidence was heard? 

Over the course of 11 months, the judges heard from 240 witnesses, with 300,000 statements read. Films, photographs and official records were presented. They heard diary entries from Frank, who proclaimed the Jews “a race which has to be eliminated”. They were shown grotesque artefacts – tattooed human skin, a shrunken head. Rudolph Höss, former commandant of Auschwitz, and Samuel Rajzman, a rare survivor of Treblinka death camp, both testified. Some defendants seemed to accept the scale of their atrocities, sobbing or averting their eyes when shown graphic footage of emaciated bodies at death camps. “A thousand years will pass and still this guilt of Germany will not have been erased,” Frank said during cross-examination – a statement he later retracted. Others, like Göring, remained unmoved.

What was the outcome? 

On 30 September and 1 October 1946, the judgment was delivered: three of the defendants were acquitted; seven were handed prison sentences ranging from ten years to life; 12 were sentenced to death by hanging. (No decision was reached in two cases.) The condemned men were hanged in the gymnasium of the court building. Göring escaped the noose, committing suicide using smuggled cyanide hours before he was due to be hanged. A further 12 trials, completed by 1949, were conducted before US military courts owing to differences with the Soviets.

How were the trials perceived? 

At the time, most of the German population dismissed them as “victors’ justice”. (This perception wasn’t helped by the fact that Russian judge Iona Nikitchenko had presided over some of Stalin’s most notorious show trials.) Many Allied jurists agreed. The laws had been created ex post facto to criminalise the defendants. The Soviets had also waged wars of aggression, against Poland and Finland; the Western Allies had bombed civilians in vast numbers. Harlan Fiske Stone, the US Supreme Court chief justice, called Nuremberg a “high-grade lynching party”. Nevertheless, today the trials are seen, though flawed, as having committed to the record a vast amount of credible evidence of Nazi crimes, and as marking a watershed moment in the history of international law .