On the 8th of May, 1945, what was left of the Third Reich surrendered to the Allies unconditionally. The crimes the Nazi regime had committed were immense and undeniably heinous. However, the four Allied powers–the United Kingdom, the United States, the Soviet Union, and France–could not decide what was to be done with the Nazi leaders. It was evident that some sort of punishment should be enacted, but what?
Eventually, the London Conference of Allied leaders decided that the solution was a series of trials run by modified common law against individuals in the Nazi regime. The permanent seat for the trials was in Berlin, but the most famous post-war trials were held in Nuremberg, a city in Bavaria. Most people understand that the Nuremberg Trials are famous for convicting Nazis but know little else. Here are 6 facts that explain the lesser-known aspects of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg from 1945 to 1949.
1. The Establishment of the Nuremberg Trials Was Initially Disagreed Upon
Beginning in 1943, the Allied powers began to plan for post-war indictments of the Nazi regime. On November 1st of that year, the Allies issued a statement that promised criminal prosecution to the fullest extent of the law for the crimes committed by the Nazis. However, after the Yalta Conference of February 1945, any idea of what a trial would look like was yet to be decided.
The Soviet Union wanted a show trial, which would mean swift convictions and reparations to help rebuild their economy. The United States insisted on a fair trial, citing the need to reform Germany. This was a legitimate concern, seeing as Germany’s devolution into fascism happened partially by way of post-World War I sanctions. The British could see no benefit in any trial at all and instead lobbied for the summary execution of Nazi officials.
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The London Conference, held from June to August of 1945, attempted to iron out a solution to the form that prosecution would take. Representatives from all of the Allied countries, including France, debated the merits of several forms of retribution. The American delegation threatened to walk away from the conference, several heated discussions were had, and no one was sure that a trial would be held at all. However, on August 8, 1945, the Nuremberg Charter was released, and it delegated the terms of retribution that would be used against the Germans.
Instead of holding the state accountable, the charter held individuals accountable for war crimes, crimes of aggression, and crimes against humanity committed during the war. It also specifically stated that the terms of the charter would be used only in Germany, as the Allies wanted to avoid the terms being used against their actions by another tribunal. It was decided that Nuremberg would be the site of the trials, as it was a particularly poignant location for the Nazi Party. The Allies felt that it was only right to convict the Nazis in the place where their party had symbolically been established. The Nazi Palace of Justice at Nuremberg was also a deciding factor in the location, as it was big enough for the tribunal and could house the prisoners.
On November 20th, 1945, the first trial began. Twenty-four high-level Nazis were indicted, and the International Military Tribunal (IMT) was underway.
2. The Prosecutors Faced Controversy from Contemporaries
Four judges from each Allied country presided over the trials at Nuremberg. With them, each country brought a prosecution team, the most important member being the lead prosecutor. President Truman appointed associate Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson as the prosecutor for the United States and Francis Biddle, the former Attorney General, as the judge. The British prosecutor was Hartley Shawcross, a Labour Party politician, and the judge was Sir Geoffery Lawrence, who in theory was the tribunal’s president, but in practice, Biddle was given more authority. For the French, the prosecutor was Auguste Champetier de Ribes with judge Henri Donnedieu de Vabres.
The Soviets, still expecting a show trial, appointed Iona Nikitchenko as judge and Roman Rudenko as prosecutor, both of whom were show trial lawyers, with Nikitchenko having presided over the Moscow Trials of 1936-38. The Soviet lawyers had the least influence in the trials, if not solely because of their lack of knowledge of English and international diplomacy. They were unable to make decisions without consulting a Moscow-based commission familiar with diplomacy and international politics.
The contemporary reactions to the trials were mixed. Most of these reactions were based on the rather ironic nature of the trials, seeing as the Allies were prosecuting Germans for crimes that they themselves had committed or were in the process of committing. Many saw the trials as a show of victor’s vengeance to stroke the Allies’ egos and distract from any crimes they had committed along the same lines. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Harlan Stone, claimed that the trials were simply a “high grade lynching party.”
The lead prosecutor, Robert Jackson, had his own doubts about the trials. In a letter to the President, he wrote, “We are prosecuting plunder and our Allies are practicing it…We say aggressive war is a crime and one of our Allies asserts sovereignty over the Baltic States based on no title except conquest.” Additionally, Jackson pointed out that the French were treating German prisoners on a harsher level than the Germans treated POWs, treatment for which the French were in the process of prosecuting the Nazis.
Regardless of the questionable morality of the trials, many found them flawed based on legal technicalities. The Nazi leaders were convicted for crimes that didn’t exist when they were committed, and the IMT accepted evidence without any basis other than their opinions on its validity. This caused legal professionals in Germany and beyond to consider the trials unfair.
3. The Nuremberg Trials Were Full of Firsts
While the legal and moral ambiguity of the Nuremberg Trials should be considered, so too should the innovations it brought to international legal processes. The Nuremberg Trials were the first to prosecute crimes against humanity, a phrase developed to explain systematic violations of human rights on behalf of a state. This went beyond the already established war crimes, as crimes against humanity were not defined in the context of war. The term was levied against several powers before the Nuremberg Trials, but individuals were prosecuted for this crime for the first time in 1945.
The Nuremberg Trials also gave rise to the term “genocide.” Raphael Limkin was a Polish lawyer who served as an advisor to the American prosecution team, and he coined the word in 1944 by combining the Greek word “geno,” meaning “race,” and “-cide,” the Latin word for killing. Lemkin defined the word as “a coordinated plan of different actions aimed at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.” For the first time, the Nuremberg Trials charged people with the crime of genocide.
A problem that the IMT encountered when planning for the trials was a language barrier. English, French, German, and Russian were all used during the proceedings, and a translator for each would have made the trial unnecessarily long. IBM proposed a solution by using simultaneous translation, in which the participants could use a headset to hear translations in real-time. Simultaneous translation worked on a system of microphone lights, which alerted speakers if they needed to slow down or repeat themselves.
4. The Sentences Given Were Not Uniform & Some Weren’t Sentenced at All
Of the 24 men indicted on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes against peace, only three were acquitted. Twelve were sentenced to death by hanging, three were sentenced to life in prison, and four were sentenced to 10 to 20 years. The sentences were deliberated upon by how many of the crimes the defendants were charged with. One defendant, Martin Bormann, was sentenced to death by hanging in absentia, as the tribunal was unaware of his death at the time. Robert Ley, a high-ranking Nazi administrator, died by suicide before the trial, and Gustav Krupp, a leader in the German economy, was too sick to stand trial.
This left 21 defendants present, including many prominent ministry leaders, propagandists, economic leaders, and politicians who had supported the Nazi government. The men who were sentenced to prison were not found to have as much evidence against them as those sentenced to death, and those acquitted were found so due to the judges’ deadlock.
Franz von Papen was indicted based on his role as Hitler’s predecessor as Chancellor and subsequent role as vice-Chancellor, which helped spread Nazism. He was acquitted because there was insufficient evidence to support his direct involvement in initiating aggressive war. Hjalmar Schacht, a low-level Nazi official, was indicted for the same reasoning as von Papen, though there was very little evidence that linked him to war crimes beyond his dislike of the Treaty of Versailles and his belief in the annexation of Austria. Finally, Hans Fritzsche was indicted on charges of spreading Nazi propaganda as the preeminent radio broadcaster of the Nazi era. However, it could not be determined whether Fritzsche was just assenting to the demands of Joseph Goebbels or if he actually wrote the material.
5. The Executions Represented a Low Point for the Tribunal
On the night of October 15, 1946, Hermann Goering, the most high-profile Nazi official sentenced at the trials, killed himself in his prison cell. Clothed in his silk pajamas, Goering took a capsule of potassium cyanide that he had managed to smuggle into the prison and died. Goering left a suicide note to his wife, wherein he wrote that he would have taken being executed by firing squad but could not bear to die by being hanged, as it was below him. His words were, “I have decided to take my own life, lest I be executed in so terrible a fashion by my enemies.”
Goering’s suicide caused a frenzy among the Allies, and they immediately ordered that the rest of those sentenced to death be hanged immediately. The remaining ten men were handcuffed to guards and quickly administered last rites as scaffolding was constructed in the prison gym. The executions took nearly two hours to complete and were replete with errors, according to witnesses. The United States Army’s official hangman, Master Sergeant John C. Woods, claimed that the executions went off without a hitch, but witnesses said that they were “cruelly bungled.” Ropes were cut too short, and platforms were built too small, which meant that those hanged slowly suffocated to death instead of receiving a quick death by a broken neck.
6. There were Many Subsequent Nuremberg Trials
After the initial trial of the 24 high-level Nazi leaders, 12 subsequent trials indicted 177 Nazi officials and sympathizers. This included doctors accused of human experimentation, military members accused of cruel treatment of POWs and concentration camp inmates, lawyers and judges who implemented Nazi “racial purity,” and industrialists who took advantage of slave labor and profited from the Nazi regime. Unlike the initial Nuremberg trials, these trials were presided over solely by the United States Military Tribunal amid growing unrest surrounding the Cold War. Of those indicted, 142 were convicted, and 25 death sentences were handed down. While 13 sets of trials occurred at Nuremberg, over 900 additional tribunals were held in various locations in the latter half of the 20th century.