Nazi War Criminals Are Tried at Nuremberg

The Nuremberg Trials of twenty-two Germans accused of war crimes resulted in the conviction of nineteen of the defendants and provided thorough documentation of Nazi crimes against humanity.

Summary of Event

The war that Adolf Hitler launched in 1939 was not simply another military conflict involving territorial and economic disputes growing out of traditional international conflicts. In addition to serving those goals, it represented an attempt by the Nazi Nazism;Holocaust leadership to exploit or exterminate a large number of religious and ethnic groups in Europe classified as “racially inferior.” By 1942, the Allied leaders had decided that the Nazis’ crimes demanded retribution. The next year, the Allies formed a United Nations war crimes commission to collect evidence of the activities of war criminals. After reconquering Kharkov in 1943, the Soviet army tried and executed several German officers for committing war crimes against the Soviet population. The Moscow Declaration Moscow Declaration (1943) of 1943 stated that after the conflict, Germans accused of war crimes would be returned to the countries in which their crimes had been committed and that major Nazi war criminals would be placed before an international tribunal. War crimes;World War II
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[kw]Nazi War Criminals Are Tried at Nuremberg (Nov. 20, 1945-Oct. 1, 1946)
[kw]War Criminals Are Tried at Nuremberg, Nazi (Nov. 20, 1945-Oct. 1, 1946)
[kw]Criminals Are Tried at Nuremberg, Nazi War (Nov. 20, 1945-Oct. 1, 1946)
[kw]Nuremberg, Nazi War Criminals Are Tried at (Nov. 20, 1945-Oct. 1, 1946)
War crimes;World War II
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[g]Europe;Nov. 20, 1945-Oct. 1, 1946: Nazi War Criminals Are Tried at Nuremberg[01600]
[g]Germany;Nov. 20, 1945-Oct. 1, 1946: Nazi War Criminals Are Tried at Nuremberg[01600]
[c]Atrocities and war crimes;Nov. 20, 1945-Oct. 1, 1946: Nazi War Criminals Are Tried at Nuremberg[01600]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Nov. 20, 1945-Oct. 1, 1946: Nazi War Criminals Are Tried at Nuremberg[01600]
[c]World War II;Nov. 20, 1945-Oct. 1, 1946: Nazi War Criminals Are Tried at Nuremberg[01600]
Jackson, Robert H.
Lawrence, Geoffrey
Göring, Hermann
Speer, Albert
Keitel, Wilhelm
Frank, Hans

Hitler, Adolf
[p]Hitler, Adolf;Holocaust

Accused German war criminals at the Nuremberg Trials, left to right: Front row, Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and Wilhelm Keitel; back row, Karl Dönitz, Erich Raeder, Baldur von Schirach, and Fritz Sauckel.

(Digital Stock)

Much of the responsibility for designing the mechanism and procedure that would eventually result in the Nuremberg tribunal rested on American shoulders. The U.S. secretaries of war and state initiated plans for a trial. They faced the opposition of the U.S. secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Jr. Morgenthau, Henry, Jr. , and the British leaders Winston Churchill Churchill, Winston
[p]Churchill, Winston;war-crimes trials[war crimes trials] and Anthony Eden Eden, Anthony , who demanded the summary execution of Nazi war criminals. In October, 1944, Joseph Stalin Stalin, Joseph
[p]Stalin, Joseph;war-crimes trials[war crimes trials] expressed his support of a trial, and by January, 1945, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt Roosevelt, Franklin D.
[p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;war-crimes trials[war crimes trials] had also become convinced of the necessity of a judicial process. After Roosevelt’s death, President Harry S. Truman Truman, Harry S.
[p]Truman, Harry S.;World War II appointed Robert H. Jackson, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, as chief of counsel for the prosecution of Axis criminality. Jackson worked out the details for the trial in collaboration with other Allied representatives in London. On August 8, 1945, the Charter of the International Military Tribunal was issued in London, providing the legal basis for the prosecution of Nazi war criminals.

Nuremberg was selected as the site for the trial. The city was able to provide the essential facilities, since its palace of justice had survived Allied air attacks. In addition, Nuremberg had a symbolic significance, since it had hosted yearly Nazi Party rallies. A tribunal of eight judges was created, representing the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union and presided over by the British judge Geoffrey Lawrence. Only the four senior judges were permitted to vote on sentences and on guilt or innocence.

Each of the four Allied countries provided a prosecuting team in charge of specific tasks. Twenty-two Nazi leaders, including both civilian and military officials, were indicted. The defendants faced either all or a combination of the following four major charges: crimes of conspiracy, crimes against peace, crimes against the rule of war, and crimes against humanity. In addition, six organizations were charged: the Gestapo Gestapo , the Schutzstaffel Schutzstaffel (SS), the Nazi Party leadership corps, the Reich Cabinet, the Sturm Abteilung (SA), and the military high command. Based on a massive amount of documentation that came primarily from Nazi sources—the Nazis were among the best bureaucratic record keepers in world history—the prosecution presented its case between November 20, 1945, and March, 1946. The defense was faced with the difficult task of having to refute documentary evidence that frequently had been created by the various defendants themselves.

On October 1, 1946, the judges rendered their verdicts, pronouncing twelve death and seven prison sentences. Three of the defendants were freed. Three organizations, the SA, the Reich Cabinet, and the military high command, were found not to be criminal organizations, while the SS, the Nazi Party leadership corps, and the Gestapo were found guilty of a variety of crimes. Hermann Göring escaped execution by committing suicide, and nine other war criminals were hanged on October 16, 1946.

The written and oral record of the trial revealed a shocking history of Nazi crimes against Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Russians, and numerous other segments of European society defined as inferior by the Nazis. Most of the individuals tried and convicted at Nuremberg represented major criminal organizations that carried out these crimes. Göring, Hitler’s designated successor until late April, 1945, and the creator of the Gestapo in 1933 in Prussia, was the leading surviving representative of the Nazi hierarchy. Although he held a number of official titles, as plenipotentiary for the Nazi Four-Year Plan he had been responsible for the brutal exploitation of Europe for Nazi economic gains.

In addition, in the summer of 1941, Göring had delegated to Reinhard Heydrich Heydrich, Reinhard the task of preparing a plan for the “final solution” of the Jewish problem that resulted in the infamous Wannsee Conference Wannsee Conference (1942) in Berlin in January, 1942. Albert Speer, the minister of armaments, played a key role in increasing German military production after 1942 by exploiting European slave labor. Perhaps as many as four million workers from Eastern Europe perished in German factories and work camps.

Nazi war crimes and crimes against humanity expanded exponentially after the invasion of Poland in 1939 and particularly after the attack on Russia in June, 1941. Beginning in 1939, thousands of Germans suffering from mental and physical abnormalities were murdered by medical technicians. After the conquest and partition of Poland, Hans Frank was appointed governor-general of that country. His diary reveals the full horror of German occupation that affected both Jews and Poles. The Nazis made every effort to exterminate the Polish intellectual and cultural elite.

Before the invasion of Russia, the chief of the German high command, Wilhelm Keitel, agreed to issue orders to the troops that authorized the extermination of captured Soviet commissars. As a result of the neglect of the German army, millions of Soviet prisoners of war perished in German camps. The total of Poles, Russians, and other Eastern Europeans who died as a result of starvation, shootings, and physical exertion may have reached nine million. In addition, 40 percent of Europe’s Gypsies were murdered in extermination camps.

Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the head of the Reich Main Security Office, represented the SS organization at Nuremberg. After assuming office in early 1943, Kaltenbrunner became responsible for the Nazi police and extermination forces. The most notorious Nazi crimes against humanity involved the systematic murder of six million Jews. Beginning with the invasion of Russia, SS security forces executed thousands of Jews in Eastern Europe. By the spring of 1942, extermination camps with gas chambers were in operation. Jews were rounded up in all parts of Europe and sent to extermination camps in Eastern and Central Europe, particularly the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. The commander of that extermination camp vividly described the brutal process during the Nuremberg Trials. On April 18, 1946, the defendant Hans Frank declared that a thousand years would not erase German guilt for these crimes.


The most immediate impact of the Nuremberg Trials was the punishment of at least some leading Nazis and German military leaders for crimes committed by the Third Reich. Subsequent trials by the American military authorities between December, 1946, and March, 1949, resulted in the conviction of 150 additional war criminals ranging from industrialists to medical doctors. After West Germany regained much of its autonomy in the mid-1950’s, German courts continued their own legal proceedings against war criminals. In 1958, the West Germans established a special investigative center in Ludwigsburg in order to bring war criminals to trial. Seven years later, the German statute of limitations for murder was extended.

The trial produced an immense amount of documentation of German military and civilian war crimes. It clearly demonstrated to the German public and the world at large the full extent of Nazi war crimes. In an effort to atone for German crimes against European Jews, Konrad Adenauer Adenauer, Konrad , the West German chancellor after 1949, concluded an agreement with representatives from Israel that provided for sizable German payments World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];reparations
Israel;reparations to that state. However, Gypsies and former slave laborers from Eastern Europe had much less success in obtaining compensation from the German state. In addition, before its demise as an independent state in 1990, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) refused to accept any responsibility for crimes committed during the Third Reich.

The long-term impact of the Nuremberg Trials has been mixed. On one hand, the principles it espoused were subsequently integrated into the modern laws of war, beginning in 1946, when the General Assembly of the United Nations passed a resolution that accepted the principles of international law produced by the Nuremberg Trials. Many subsequent instruments, including Geneva Conventions under the supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross, promulgated and expanded upon the Nuremburg principles. The 1948 Genocide Convention outlawed such egregious violations of human rights and decency as those manifested by the Holocaust. In addition, article seven of the United Nations charter called for an international court of law. The United Nations, however, was unable in the near term to produce an acceptable code of crimes against peace and security. It has also been repeatedly demonstrated in subsequent years that international laws outlawing genocide are not themselves sufficient to prevent genocide. War crimes;World War II
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Further Reading

  • Biddiss, Michael. “The Nuremberg Trial: Two Exercises of Judgment.” Journal of Contemporary History 16 (December, 1981): 597-615. An excellent, short review of the major issues of the trial that concludes that the trial helped reveal the real nature of Nazism. The author’s notes and his evaluation of the trial’s value for historians are helpful for further research.
  • Conot, Robert E. Justice at Nuremberg. New York: Harper & Row, 1983. Based on a large variety of primary sources including papers of Francis Biddle and Robert Jackson, this work is valuable for the detailed biographies of the defendants and other participants in the trial. The author stresses the impact the trial had on Jackson during the United States Supreme Court decision to desegregate schools in 1954 and argues that the world cannot afford to ignore the lessons of the trial.
  • Gerhart, Eugene C. America’s Advocate: Robert H. Jackson. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1958. A laudatory biography of Jackson, focusing on his roles as both United States Supreme Court justice and chief American prosecutor at Nuremberg. One-third of the book is devoted to Jackson’s role at the Nuremberg Trials. Unlike many other scholars, the author enthusiastically praises Jackson’s performance at Nuremberg.
  • Göring, Hermann, defendant. Trial of the Major War Criminals Before the International Military Tribunal, Nuremberg, 14 November 1945-1 October 1946. 42 vols. Nuremberg: International Military Tribunal, 1947-1949. This is the official trial record in English. Includes the text of the trial and eighteen volumes of supporting documents. Most of the documents came from the prosecution, not the defense. Essential for any serious examination of the trial. Available in most major university libraries.
  • Harris, Whitney R. Tyranny on Trial: The Trial of the Major German War Criminals at the End of World War II at Nuremberg, Germany, 1945-1946. Dallas, Tex.: Southern Methodist University Press, 1999. Newly revised and expanded, this book written by a former staff member at Nuremberg details the evidence supplied at Nuremberg. Bibliography.
  • Marrus, Michael Robert. The Nuremberg War Crimes Trial, 1945-1946: A Documentary History. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997. This concise volume recounts the indictments of twenty-two Nazi leaders. Includes a chronology, a bibliography, and an index.
  • Persico, Joseph E. Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial. New York: Viking, 1994. A dramatic retelling of the Nuremberg trials written for a general audience. The author draws on many primary sources. Includes bibliography and appendixes.
  • Ratner, Steven R., and Jason S. Abrams. Accountability for Human Rights Atrocities in International Law: Beyond the Nuremberg Legacy. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Detailed, scholarly examination of the impact and application of laws punishing international crime.
  • Smith, Bradley F. Reaching Judgment at Nuremberg. New York: Basic Books, 1977. Based on thorough research and relying heavily on the Francis Biddle papers, this volume offers a fascinating insight into internal deliberations of the tribunal. Although the author questions some verdicts and procedures, he praises the tribunal’s performance. Smith notes that class bias, ideological preferences, and personal dislikes of defendants or their lawyers influenced the judges on the tribunal.
  • Tusa, Ann, and John Tusa. The Nuremberg Trial. New York: Atheneum, 1984. The most reliable survey of the trial, based on a thorough use of published and unpublished primary sources and interviews. Particularly valuable for the detailed discussion of the defense case of each accused, which takes up half of the book. Although well balanced on the whole, a British bias surfaces on occasion. Maintains that the American arguments and methods “lacked intellectual clarity and forensic sharpness.”

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