November 20, 1945 marked the beginning of the Nuremberg Trials in Germany. Though the trials continued over the course of several years, the first and most well known of the trials is the Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal (IMT). Twenty-four high ranking Nazis were brought to trial and charged with crimes committed during World War II.
The main allied forces, the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union and France discussed their policies for dealing with the Nazi leadership. After several ideas did not find favor with either colleagues or the public of their countries, the plan for "the Trial of European War Criminals" was drafted by United States Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, and the U.S. War Department.
In 1942, the Inter-Allied Resolution on German War Crimes was drafted in London by representatives from the nine occupying countries. Subsequent meetings over the next two years resulted in agreement between the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) on the punishment format for war crimes during WWII. France was given a spot on the tribunal as well.
Nuremberg was chosen as the site for the trials because the Palace of Justice was one of the few buildings that had not suffered major damage from the Allied bombings and it contained a large prison. In addition, Nuremberg was considered the ceremonial birthplace of the Nazi Party and thus an appropriate place to symbolize the demise of the party. The Soviet Union was in favor of holding the trials in Berlin so as a compromise, Berlin was named the official home of the Tribunal authorities. France was to become the permanent seat of the IMT. Each of the four countries provided one judge, one alternate judge and one chief prosecutor. The full prosecution staff included 600 Americans alone. The American Chief Prosecutor was Robert Jackson, appointed by President Harry S. Truman. British Judge Colonel Sir Geoffrey Lawrence was elected the Chief Judge of the IMT.
The Accused and the Charges of the Nuremberg Trial
The first session of the Nuremberg Trials were presided over by the Soviet Judge Major General Iona Nikitchenko. Several Nazi leaders escaped capture, thus were never tried or punished. Adolf Hitler shot himself two days before Jackson accepted the appointment of America's Chief Prosecutor. Not long after, Heinrich Himmler swallowed a cyanide pill. Joseph Goebbels was already dead and Martin Bormann was missing, though Bormann was tried and convicted in absentia. The prosecution team entered indictments against 24 individuals and six organizations.
The 24 men accused of war crimes were Martin Bormann, Karl DÃ¶nitz, Hans Frank, Wilhelm Frick, Hans Fritzsche, Walther Funk, Hermann GÃ¶ring, Rudolf Hess, Alfred Jodl, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Wilhelm Keitel, Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, Robert Ley, Baron Konstantin von Neurath, Franz von Papen, Erich Raeder, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Alfred Rosenberg, Fritz Sauckel, Dr. Hjalmar Schacht, Baldur von Schirach, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, Albert Speer, and Julius Streicher.
The six organizations were the leadership of the Nazi party, the Gestapo, the Schutzstaffel (SS) and Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the Sturmabteilung (SA) and the "General Staff and High Command" which comprised several categories of senior military officers.
The indictments of the accused concerned four counts. All of the individual defendants were indicted on at least two of the counts and some of the men were indicted on all four counts. These indictments were:
- Count One: "Conspiracy to wage aggressive war;" this indictment addressed crimes committed before the war began.
- Count Two: "Waging an aggressive war;" also called "crimes against peace."
- Count Three: "War crimes;" this addressed traditional violations such as killing or mistreating prisoners of war.
- Count Four: "Crimes against humanity;" this addressed the crimes committed against the Jews, other ethnic minorities, the disabled and civilians in occupied countries. The most serious of this crime was of course the mass murders of the Jewish people in the concentration camps which the Nazis called "the Final Solution."
The entire first day was spent with the prosecutors reading a detailed list of the accused crimes of each of the defendants.
The Proceedings of the Nuremberg Trials
The second day of the trial was opened with U.S. Prosecutor Robert Jackson delivering a two hour opening statement in which he told the court "The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive their being repeated."
The first phase of the prosecutors' case focused on the criminalities of the Nazi regime and the second phase attempted to establish the guilt of the individual defendants. The prosecutors took two weeks to lay out the case that the invasions of Austria, Denmark, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Poland, Norway, Yugoslavia, Luxembourg, Greece, Holland, and the Soviet Union constituted an aggressive war.
Next, the prosecution began to present evidence of the Nazi's use of slave labor and concentration camps. It was during this phase of the trial that the true horrors of what the Nazi regime vested upon, in particular the Jewish community, came to full light of the world. By mid December, the prosecution began introducing evidence to establish the criminality of the Nazi party leadership, the Gestapo, the SS, the SD, the SA, the Reich Cabinet and the German High Command. In January, concentration camps victims began to take the stand to testify about their experiences. In February Soviet prosecutors entered a film into evidence which included captured German footage that showed Nazi atrocities such as the shooting of a young boy because he refused to give his pet to an SS man. After 33 witnesses and hundreds of documents and other pieces of evidence were entered as exhibits, in March the prosecution rested its case.
The lawyers for the defendants presented their evidence over the next four months. Most of the defendants took the stand in attempts to present their actions in as positive manner as possible. Many claimed to know nothing about the concentration camps even when presented with evidence to the contrary. Some of the defendants tried to emphasize they were merely following orders; though this defense was disallowed by the IMT.
When Hermann Goering took the stand, his defense lawyer asked him if the Nazi party had come to power through legal means. Goering gave a long answer and said when the party came to power; they were determined to hold it under all circumstances. He claimed the concentration camps were necessary to preserve order. He was unapologetic and showed no remorse. He compared the leadership principle of concentrating all power in the Fuhrer to that which the Catholic Church and the USSR government were based.
Jackson spent four days cross-examining Goering. The first couple of days, Goering was able to keep Jackson from making any progress in dealing blows to the defense. However, on the third day, Jackson began asking questions regarding actions against the Jewish community. He asked Goering if he signed a series of decrees that deprived Jews of the right to own businesses and ordered them to surrender any gold and jewelry they owned to the government and denied them the ability to claim compensation for damages to their property caused by the government. Goering admitted that he did sign those decrees.
Goering also admitted to the accuracy of a quote at a meeting of German insurance officials who were concerned about the loss of non-Jewish property on consignment at Jewish shops when the shops were destroyed during the events of Kristallnacht; the night of November 9, 1938 during which 815 Jewish shops were destroyed and over 20,000 Jews were arrested and was, according to many historians, the beginning of the holocaust. During this meeting Goering admitted saying "German Jewry shall, as punishment for their abominable crimes, etcetera, have to make a contribution of one billion marks. That will work. The swine won't commit another murder. Incidentally, I would like to say that I would not like to be a Jew in Germany." Hans Fritzsche was the last defendant to testify and at the end of June, the defense rested.
Verdicts Handed Down to the Nuremberg Trials Defendants
While the defense began their summations, there was a brief interruption as the trial for Martin Bormann was conducted. His attorney claimed his client was dead, which later proved to be true, and the defense continued their summation with closing arguments concluding on July 25. On July 26, Jackson began his closing arguments focusing his strongest attacks against Goering who arrogantly counted how many times he was referenced. The last stage of the trial was a defense of the Nazi organization which was followed by final statements made by each of the defendants.
Goering was the first defendant to speak and he claimed the trial had nothing to do with justice; it was merely an exercise of power of the victors of the war. Some of the defendants apologized, others wept; Hess referenced visitors with "strange" and "glassy" eyes and said it was a pleasure to work under the greatest son his people had ever produced.
Finally, on October 1 Sir Geoffrey Lawrence read the verdicts to the defendants. He started with Goering stating Hermann Goering was second only to Adolf Hitler, a moving force of the aggressive war and directed Himmler and Heydrich to conduct the complete solution of the Jewish question. He was found guilty on all four counts. Eighteen defendants were convicted of one or more counts. Schact, von Papen and Fritzsche were found not guilty; however, the three were immediately arrested by German policemen to be tried for alleged violations of German law.
That afternoon, the convicted men received their sentences. Goering was sentenced to death by hanging. Ribbentrop, Rosenberg, Keitel, Kaltenbrunner,Frank, Streicher, Frick, Jodl, Sauchel and Seyss-Inquart were also sentenced to death by hanging. Funk, Hess and Raeder were sentenced to life in prison. Speer and von Schirach were sentenced to 20 years, von Newrath 15 years and Doenitz 10 years in prison. After 315 days, the trial was concluded.
For the next two weeks the lawyers attempted to appeal the verdicts to the Allied Control Council, but the Council rejected all appeals. Goering, refusing to be hung, swallowed a smuggled cyanide pill the day before his scheduled hanging. On October 16, the other condemned men were hung.
Over the next several years, lesser trials continued, but the IMT did not preside over those trials. Judges for these trials came from the American judiciary. Those trials included the "Judges" trial and the "Doctors" trials. In all, the trials resulted in 5,025 defendants being convicted with 806 handed death sentences.
Aftermath of the Nuremberg Trials
As a result of the Nuremberg Trials, the Nuremberg Principles were established which are guidelines as to what constitutes a war crime. The Doctors' Trial led to the development of the Nuremberg Code which is a set of research ethics principles for using humans in experiments.
In addition, the Nuremberg Trials were a big influence on the development of international criminal law. The Conclusions of the Nuremberg Trials were models for the Genocide Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights established in 1948, The Convention on the Abolition of the Statute of Limitations on War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity ratified in 1968 and the Geneva Convention on the Laws and Customs of War established in 1949 and its supplementary protocols of 1977.
As with many events in history, the Nuremberg Trials and results have been debated over the years. Discussion regarding the legitimacy of the Tribunal and the appropriateness of the verdicts bring questions to many. Many question whether the trials even mattered. The trials did expose many atrocities and denied martyrdom to the defendants. However, perhaps the biggest dream of the advocates of the trials was not realized. The hope of ending wars of aggression was unfulfilled and the trials did not end genocide. Atrocities against humanity continue in other countries to this day.
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