Nuremberg TrialsHISTORY.COM EDITORSUPDATED:JUN 7, 2019ORIGINAL:JAN 29, 2010

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https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/nuremberg-trials

CONTENTS

  1. The Road to the Nuremberg Trials 
  2. The Major War Criminals’ Trial: 1945-46 
  3. Subsequent Trials: 1946-49 
  4. Aftermath 

Held for the purpose of bringing Nazi war criminals to justice, the Nuremberg trials were a series of 13 trials carried out in Nuremberg, Germany, between 1945 and 1949. The defendants, who included Nazi Party officials and high-ranking military officers along with German industrialists, lawyers and doctors, were indicted on such charges as crimes against peace and crimes against humanity. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) committed suicide and was never brought to trial. Although the legal justifications for the trials and their procedural innovations were controversial at the time, the Nuremberg trials are now regarded as a milestone toward the establishment of a permanent international court, and an important precedent for dealing with later instances of genocide and other crimes against humanity.

READ MORE: 10 Things You May Not Know About the Nuremberg Trials

The Road to the Nuremberg Trials 

Shortly after Adolf Hitler came to power as chancellor of Germany in 1933, he and his Nazi government began implementing policies designed to persecute German-Jewish people and other perceived enemies of the Nazi state. Over the next decade, these policies grew increasingly repressive and violent and resulted, by the end of World War II (1939-45), in the systematic, state-sponsored murder of some 6 million European Jews (along with an estimated 4 million to 6 million non-Jews).

Did you know? The death sentences imposed in October 1946 were carried out by Master Sergeant John C. Woods (1903-50), who told a reporter from Time magazine that he was proud of his work. “The way I look at this hanging job, somebody has to do it . . . 10 men in 103 minutes. That’s fast work.”

In December 1942, the Allied leaders of Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union “issued the first joint declaration officially noting the mass murder of European Jewry and resolving to prosecute those responsible for violence against civilian populations,” according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), the Soviet leader, initially proposed the execution of 50,000 to 100,000 German staff officers. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965) discussed the possibility of summary execution (execution without a trial) of high-ranking Nazis, but was persuaded by American leaders that a criminal trial would be more effective. Among other advantages, criminal proceedings would require documentation of the crimes charged against the defendants and prevent later accusations that the defendants had been condemned without evidence.

There were many legal and procedural difficulties to overcome in setting up the Nuremberg trials. First, there was no precedent for an international trial of war criminals. There were earlier instances of prosecution for war crimes, such as the execution of Confederate army officer Henry Wirz (1823-65) for his maltreatment of Union prisoners of war during the American Civil War (1861-65); and the courts-martial held by Turkey in 1919-20 to punish those responsible for the Armenian genocide of 1915-16. However, these were trials conducted according to the laws of a single nation rather than, as in the case of the Nuremberg trials, a group of four powers (France, Britain, the Soviet Union and the U.S.) with different legal traditions and practices.

The Allies eventually established the laws and procedures for the Nuremberg trials with the London Charter of the International Military Tribunal (IMT), issued on August 8, 1945. Among other things, the charter defined three categories of crimes: crimes against peace (including planning, preparing, starting or waging wars of aggression or wars in violation of international agreements), war crimes (including violations of customs or laws of war, including improper treatment of civilians and prisoners of war) and crimes against humanity (including murder, enslavement or deportation of civilians or persecution on political, religious or racial grounds). It was determined that civilian officials as well as military officers could be accused of war crimes.

The city of Nuremberg (also known as Nurnberg) in the German state of Bavaria was selected as the location for the trials because its Palace of Justice was relatively undamaged by the war and included a large prison area. Additionally, Nuremberg had been the site of annual Nazi propaganda rallies; holding the postwar trials there marked the symbolic end of Hitler’s government, the Third Reich.

The Major War Criminals’ Trial: 1945-46

The best-known of the Nuremberg trials was the Trial of Major War Criminals, held from November 20, 1945, to October 1, 1946. The format of the trial was a mix of legal traditions: There were prosecutors and defense attorneys according to British and American law, but the decisions and sentences were imposed by a tribunal (panel of judges) rather than a single judge and a jury. The chief American prosecutor was Robert H. Jackson (1892-1954), an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Each of the four Allied powers supplied two judges–a main judge and an alternate.