With the recent move by President Trump to issue pardons to some U.S. soldiers that were either charged with or convicted of war crimes, it is fitting that the largest war crimes trials in history and the ones that changed how the world treats war crimes began on this day in 1945.
These trials would last from November 20, 1945 to October 1, 1946. Of the initial 24 men tried, 12 would be found guilty (one in absentia) and hanged. Of the rest, three were acquitted; one was found unfit for trial by reason of bad health; one committed suicide before the trial could commence; and one was indicted incorrectly and not tried. The rest were given long prison sentences.
This trial was significant because something of this scope had never been attempted before. (Of a smaller scale, in the United States, Henry Wirz was convicted of war crimes and executed over the maltreatment of Union prisoners of war at Andersonville prison during the Civil War. The Turks also held a trial in 1920 for the 1915-1916 Armenian Genocide.)
But besides its scope, another novelty of the trial was that four different legal systems (British, French, American, and Soviet) would be applied to try the alleged illegal and criminal activities of a fifth nation (Nazi Germany). Therefore, the rules of the trial had to be worked out beforehand.
After the Germans surrendered on May 7, 1945, the four countries went to work on the laws and procedures that they would use to conduct the trial. Eventually, on August 8, 1945, the Allies agreed on the London Charter of the International Military Tribunal (IMT).
The London Charter defined three categories of crimes:
- Crimes Against Peace (which included the planning, preparing, starting or waging wars of aggression or wars in violation of international agreements)
- War Crimes ( violations of customs or laws of war, including improper treatment of civilians and prisoners of war)
- Crimes Against Humanity (including murder, enslavement or deportation of civilians or persecution on political, religious or racial grounds).
When producing the charter, the Allies decided that civilian officials as well as military officers, could be accused of war crimes. The results of the trial were important in establishing principles of international law regarding war crimes, crimes against humanity and wars of aggression. The trial was also instrumental in the eventual (50 years later) development of the International Criminal Court.
The Nuremberg trials also tried genocide for the first time. The Nazis were tried for “the extermination of racial and national groups, against the civilian populations of certain occupied territories in order to destroy particular races and classes of people and national, racial, or religious groups, particularly Jews, Poles, and Gypsies and others.”
The Soviets wanted to hold the trial in Berlin, which was the capital of the “fascist conspirators,” but eventually it was decided to use Nuremberg.
The Palace of Justice in Nuremberg was both large enough and nearly undamaged by the Allied bombing campaign. It also included a large prison area as part of the complex. Nuremberg also had symbolic value, since it was there that for 15 years the Nazis had been holding their annual rally.
Each of the Allied countries had one judge and one alternate. Each also had one chief prosecutor. The Nazi defendants were mainly represented by German lawyers.
The initial trial began on Nov. 20, 1945. 24 suspected major war criminals were to be tried, along with seven organizations including the leadership of the Nazi party. These were the Reich Cabinet, the Schutzstaffel (SS), Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the Gestapo, the Sturmabteilung (SA) and the “General Staff and High Command.” They comprised several categories of senior military officers. These organizations were to be declared “criminal” if found guilty.
The four major indictments against the defendants were for:
- Participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of a crime against peace
- Planning, initiating and waging wars of aggression and other crimes against peace
- Participating in War crimes
- Crimes against humanity
Because the defendants, judges, and prosecutors spoke different languages, the trial saw the introduction of instantaneous translation. All of the court members were issued headphones while translators provided on-the-spot translations in English, French, German and Russian.
Robert Jackson, the American prosecutor gave the opening statement, which has since become famous and encapsulates what the Allies were trying the Germans for. This was followed by Albert Speer’s opening remarks, which lasted two hours. In his remarks Speer said: “The trial began with the grand, devastating opening address by the Chief American Prosecutor, Justice Robert H. Jackson. But I took comfort from one sentence in it which accused the defendants of guilt for the regime’s crimes, but not the German people.”
Part of Jackson’s opening remarks:
What makes this inquest significant is that these prisoners represent sinister influences that will lurk in the world long after their bodies have returned to dust. We will show them to be living symbols of racial hatreds, of terrorism and violence, and of the arrogance and cruelty of power. They are symbols of fierce nationalisms and of militarism, of intrigue and war-making which have embroiled Europe generation after generation, crushing its manhood, destroying its homes, and impoverishing its life…. Civilization can afford no compromise with the social forces which would gain renewed strength if we deal ambiguously or indecisively with the men in whom those forces now precariously survive.
Here is a list of the defendants and the outcomes of their trial.
Hermann Göring – Reichsmarschall and Hitler’s deputy – Sentenced to death – Committed suicide the night before his execution.
Joachim von Ribbentrop – Foreign Minister – Sentenced to death – Hanged October 16, 1946.
Wilhelm Keitel – Chief of the Armed Forces High Command – Sentenced to death – Hanged October 16, 1946.
Ernst Kaltenbrunner – Chief of the Reich Main Security Office – Sentenced to death – Hanged October 16, 1946.
Alfred Rosenberg – Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories and Leader of the Foreign Policy Office – Sentenced to death – Hanged October 16, 1946.
Hans Frank – Governor-General of Occupied Poland – Sentenced to death – Hanged October 16, 1946.
Wilhelm Frick – Minister of the Interior – Sentenced to death – Hanged October 16, 1946.
Julius Streicher – Founder and publisher of the anti-Semitic newspaper “Der Stürmer”- Sentenced to death – Hanged October 16, 1946.
Fritz Sauckel – General Plenipotentiary for Labour Deployment – Sentenced to death – Hanged October 16, 1946.
Alfred Jodl – Chief of the Operations Staff of the Armed Forces High Command – Sentenced to Death – Hanged October 16, 1946.
Arthur Seyss-Inquart – Reichskommissar for the Occupied Dutch Territories – Sentenced to death – Hanged October 16, 1946.
Martin Bormann – Chief of the Nazi Party Chancellery – Sentenced to death in absentia – Later his bones were found in Berlin. He died in May 1945 while trying to escape Berlin.
Rudolf Hess – Deputy Führer of the Nazi Party – Sentenced to Life Imprisonment – Committed suicide in prison in 1987.
Walther Funk – Reich Minister of Economics – – Sentenced to Life Imprisonment – Released because of ill health, May 16, 1957.
Erich Raeder – Grand Admiral – Sentenced to Life Imprisonment – Released because of ill health, September 26, 1957.
Karl Doenitz – Raeder’s successor and briefly President of the German Reich – Sentenced to 10 years – Released October 1, 1956.
Baldur von Schirach – National Youth Leader (Hitler Youth) – Sentenced to 20 years – Released September 30, 1966.
Albert Speer – Minister of Armaments and War Production – Sentenced to 20 years – Released October 1, 1966.
Konstantin von Neurath – Protector of Bohemia and Moravia Sentenced to 15 years – Released because of ill health (heart attack) November 6, 1954.
Hjalmar Schacht -Reich Minister of Economics – Acquitted.
Franz von Papen – Chancellor of Germany – Acquitted.
Hans Fritzche – Ministerialdirektor in the Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda – Acquitted.
Robert Ley – Head of DAF, German Labor Front – No Decision – Committed suicide on October 26, 1945 prior to the trial starting.
Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach – German Industrialist – No Decision – Medically unfit for trial. Due to an error, Gustav, instead of his son Alfried (who ran Krupp for his father during most of the war), was selected for indictment.