Were the Nuremberg Trials Only Held in Nuremberg?

The Nazis committed some of the most horrific war crimes and atrocities against civilians in history. How would they be held accountable after World War II?

Jun 23, 2024By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA

nuremberg trials united states


After World War II, the Allies decided that leaders of the Nazi regime must be put on trial for the atrocities they committed. These trials ran from November 1945 to April 1949, beginning with the most high-ranking members of the Nazi leadership. From December 1946 onward, the subsequent Nuremberg trials were held by the different Allies in their own zones of occupation. Believing it was important to hold perpetrators of war crimes and the Holocaust responsible and dissuade future regimes from committing similar crimes without fear of prosecution, the United States put 177 former Nazis on trial, ranging from SS officers to generals to industrialists. Today, the concept of international justice remains prevalent, especially in regard to the Russo-Ukrainian War.


Setting the Stage: Failure of the League of Nations

A letter from German foreign minister Konstantin Freiherr von Neurath terminating Germany’s membership in the League of Nations in October 1933. Source: Library of Congress


The horrors of World War I sparked a wave of idealism among some of the victors, especially US President Woodrow Wilson. These idealists wanted to prevent such a war from occurring again, and set out to create a new international order to promote peace and justice. Wilson’s proposals at the Paris Peace Conference ended up creating the League of Nations, although the US Senate refused to allow America to join. Briefly, it appeared that an international coalition could prevent large-scale wars by applying diplomatic and economic pressure to aggressor states.


Unfortunately, few members of the League wanted to use their own resources to confront aggressor states. Also, nations that were condemned of aggression by the League, such as Germany, Italy, and Japan (the future Axis Powers of World War II), simply left the organization. By the late 1930s, it was clear that the League of Nations had failed in its mission to prevent wars – Italy had seized Ethiopia, and Japan was conquering swaths of China. By the end of 1941, much of the Northern Hemisphere was engulfed in a massive, industrialized war.


Setting the Stage: Nazi War Crimes

German troops near Malmedy, Belgium during the Battle of Bulge. The massacre of American prisoners of war on December 17, 1944 later resulted in trials. Source: New Hampshire PBS


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In Europe, the Allies faced off against Nazi Germany. German troops, particularly the Waffen SS, were notorious for war crimes committed against surrendering Allied troops, especially those from the Soviet Union. The first large-scale war crimes committed by Germans occurred in captured areas of the Soviet Union in the summer and autumn of 1941. After the US invasion of France in June 1944, the large number of US forces fighting German troops meant that war crimes were committed against Americans as well. The most infamous instance of war crimes committed against US troops occurred during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944.


With Allied troops having pushed almost all Germans out of France and back into Germany itself, dictator Adolf Hitler urged a massive counteroffensive. On December 17, one day into the Ardennes Offensive (another name for the Battle of the Bulge), SS troops under the command of Joachim Peiper surprised an American column and captured about 130 soldiers. After taking the American soldiers’ valuables, the SS troops opened fire with machine guns, killing 84. This massacre, near Malmedy, Belgium, quickly became known as the Malmedy Massacre and one of the Nazis’ worst war crimes against Americans.


Setting the Stage: Discovering the Holocaust

American generals viewing a crematorial pyre at a concentration camp, used to burn bodies of victims of the SS. Source: National World War II Museum – New Orleans


Shortly after the Germans’ unsuccessful Ardennes Offensive, Americans resumed their push into Germany. Allied troops from both the west (Britain, Canada, and the US) and east (Soviet Union) quickly discovered the horrific concentration camps that had been systematically killing Jews, Roma, Sinti, homosexuals, and political prisoners since before the war began. Although many commanders of the camps fled before they could be captured, the Allies began investigating the perpetrators of the Holocaust.


Fortunately for investigators, the Nazis had kept records of prisoners and camp activities. This provided evidence of the scale of the atrocities committed, including the mass seizure of valuables owned by Jewish families. Modern technology, including video cameras, allowed Allied liberators of camps to thoroughly document what they discovered. Unlike previous wars, the forced seizure of most German territory allowed the Allies to document the atrocities committed against civilians. Many demanded justice for the horrors that had been inflicted.


May 1945: Surrender of Nazi Germany

Nazi leaders surrendering unconditionally in May 1945, ending World War II in Europe and setting the stage for prosecution of war criminals. Source: National World War II Museum


On April 30, 1945, German dictator Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker underneath the capital city of Berlin. One week later, his successor, Admiral Karl Doenitz, surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. The next day, May 8, Victory in Europe Day (V-E Day) was proclaimed; World War II in Europe was over. Unfortunately, the rebuilding of Europe would be a long and arduous process. Much of France, Germany, Italy, and Eastern Europe was in ruins. However, unconditional surrender gave the Allies unprecedented control in rebuilding Europe and restructuring the defeated nation of Germany.


This restructuring included holding Nazis accountable for the horrors of their war of aggression. Unconditional surrender meant that no immunity would be given to former leaders of Nazi Germany. Wars that ended in armistices, however, often left military and civilian leaders of defeated nations untouched. Colonies and territory might be seized and reparations paid, but generals and political figures remained sovereign citizens and would not be handed over for trial. The unconditional surrender signed by Germany gave the Allies the legal authority to arrest and put on trial the former cronies of Adolf Hitler.


The Nuremberg Trials Begin

Hermann Goering, former leader of the German Luftwaffe (air force) and onetime planned successor of dictator Adolf Hitler, sits on trial at Nuremberg. Source: WGBH Educational Foundation


Quickly, the Allies arrested the top figures of the former Nazi regime. Although some had committed suicide during or shortly after the fall of Berlin, many were apprehended. The International Military Tribunal (IMT) was created on August 8, 1945, to run the trials. It was important for the world and the German people to see that fair justice was being conducted. Fair trials would make the Allies seem more trustworthy and, therefore, discourage rogue states from launching future wars of aggression.


The IMT trials in Europe began on November 20, 1945 in Nuremberg, Germany, thus giving them the name Nuremberg Trials. Simultaneously, the IMT also held trials in Tokyo to hold the leaders of imperial Japan accountable, known as the Tokyo War Crimes Trials. In Nuremberg, twenty-four high-ranking Nazis were placed on trial, though two committed suicide before the hearings began. On October 1, 1946, the trial concluded and found nineteen of the defendants guilty of waging a war of aggression and perpetrating crimes of humanity (the Holocaust) against civilians.


Nuremberg Trials Conducted by the United States

A US Army sergeant testifying at the Malmedy Massacre trial in 1946, with SS defendants seated behind him wearing numbers. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC


While the top Nazis had been tried in court, many wondered if the mid-ranking officers who had physically carried out their orders would also be held accountable. Many, including those at the original Nuremberg Trials, tried to use the defense that they were “just following orders.” This became known as the Nuremberg defense, which prosecutors rejected. It was quickly established that officers should have refused to carry out orders they knew to be illegal. The United States conducted twelve major hearings against lower-ranking Nazis beginning in 1946.


A defendant in one of the subsequent Nuremberg Trials (1947-49), in which industrialists and other non-political figures from Nazi Germany were charged. Source: Foundation Hirondelle


These subsequent Nuremberg trials, held in the US zone of occupied Germany, included trying both war crimes against US troops and atrocities committed during the Holocaust. A separate trial, not directly included in the twelve hearings of the subsequent Nuremberg trials but known as the Dachau trials, involved the trying of seventy-four captured members of the 1st SS panzer regiment led by Joachim Peiper.


In the summer of 1946, these men were placed on trial, and all were convicted. Later, however, the death sentences handed out to many of the men were commuted to life imprisonment. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the sentences of many Nazis convicted in the Nuremberg trials were reduced as Germany was re-integrated into Western Europe (and was seen as a necessary ally against the Soviet Union).


Controversies of the Nuremberg Trials

Mass rallies during the 1930s showed the strong conformism trends encouraged by the Nazi Party in Germany. Source: National Public Radio (NPR)


Although few people had any sympathy for Hitler’s cronies, there was some concern about how fairly and accurately rank-and-file field officers, such as captains and below, could be held accountable due to the fog of war. Some critics argued that the trials had predetermined outcomes and were an example of victors’ justice or akin to the Moscow show trials of the 1930s. Indeed, some Allied units had committed war crimes against surrendering Germans. At one of the Dachau trials, German commando leader Otto Skorzeny was acquitted on the charge of espionage for having his men wear American uniforms in combat after it was revealed that Allied commandos sometimes wore German uniforms as well.


A second controversy about trying lower-ranked officers stemmed from psychology and sociology. In the early 1960s, the Milgram experiments indicated that most individuals would commit illegal actions when faced with applied pressure from authority figures. This reinforced the findings of the Asch conformity experiments a decade earlier, which found that many people would knowingly give incorrect answers in order to “fit in” with a larger group. Ten years after the Milgram experiments, the Stanford Prison Experiment revealed that most people were highly susceptible to changing their behavior, even radically, to fit within a new role, such as prison guard, police officer, or soldier.


Controversial: Operation Paperclip

Photographs of the launch of a German V2 rocket, a super-weapon made late in World War II with the use of slave labor. Source: NPR


As Nazi Germany was crumbling, the Allies were eager to get their hands on German scientists and engineers who had successfully created super-weapons like the Me-262 jet fighter, the Me-163 rocket fighter, and the V-2 rocket. Operation Paperclip was an American effort to recruit German scientists to come work in the United States…even high-ranking Nazis. Some of these German scientists and engineers had used concentration camp labor to build their weapons, and the US government allegedly “sanitized” the records of these men to fit within acceptable parameters to allow them to escape prosecution and immigrate to the United States.


Most famously, many former Nazis ended up working in aeronautics in the United States, with V-2 rocket creator Wernher von Braun being credited with helping the US win the space race to the moon. The V-2 rocket and its smaller cousin, the V-1 buzz bomb, were both manufactured using slave labor. Of 60,000 forced laborers on the V projects, up to 20,000 perished before the end of the war. Slave labor was also used to make some parts for the Me-262 jet fighter, for which industrialist Willy Messerschmitt was placed on trial.


Aftermath: International Justice Today

A photograph of the International Criminal Court in 2013, which tries those accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Source: Brookings Institution


Despite high hopes, international justice was not applied frequently after the International Military Tribunals following World War II. Not until 1993, following the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, did the International Criminal Court see usage. When the formerly communist state collapsed in the early 1990s, a devastating civil war wracked the country, and horrible atrocities were committed against civilians, including ethnic cleansing.


Most famously, former Serbian president Slobodan Milošević was tried in the International Criminal Court from 2002 until his death in March 2006. In 2001, Milosevic had been handed over to the Court, held in The Hague, Netherlands (giving the ICC the nickname The Hague), almost two years after being indicted. This was considered a major victory for international justice and the first time a former head of state had been handed over by his own country to be tried and sentenced by the international community. Since Milosevic, several others have been tried and sentenced, mostly from Africa and the Middle East.


Aftermath: Is International Justice Selective?

A map showing which nations recognize the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC) today, with the United States not a signatory. Source: ICC and Statista


Despite the continued use of the International Criminal Court since 1993, many world powers refuse to recognize its jurisdiction over their own citizens. This includes the United States, Russia, and China. This represents what critics call a double standard of international justice: world powers are eager for it to be used against accused war criminals from poorer countries but do not accept it for their own citizens. For example, the US supported the ICC during its trials of alleged war criminals from Yugoslavia but later withdrew its support. This is in line with a trend of many nations supporting the United Nations (UN) when UN resolutions and policies benefit them but then criticizing the UN when its policies are less favorable.


Currently, the ICC is involved with the war of aggression being waged by Russia against Ukraine. Most nations support Ukraine and want Russia’s leader, President Vladimir Putin, to be held accountable for invading a sovereign state. Although it is unlikely that Putin will ever be arrested and transferred to The Hague, proponents of international justice want more nations to ratify treaties accepting its jurisdiction so that Putin is further restricted on where he can travel. If the Russian president travels to a nation that accepts ICC jurisdiction, he may be arrested and handed over to the Court.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.