On Oct. 1, 1946, sentences were passed upon 22 Nazi defendants at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal in Germany, thus ending the proceedings. The trial had been the first major international effort to bring war criminals to justice and resulted in a new standard for international law and justice.
At the conclusion of World War II, Allied leaders favored an international tribunal to try Nazi criminals. U.S. President Harry Truman selected supreme court Justice Robert Jackson to head up the trial in Germany and act as the chief prosecutor for the United States.
Working with British, French and Soviet legal teams, Jackson crafted the central crimes to be tried in four counts: Count one charged the defendants with a conspiracy to commit a war of aggression; count two dealt with the actual waging of aggressive war; count three covered crimes committed during the course of the war, such as the unnecessary German bombing of Rotterdam, Holland, in 1940, and the massacre of POWs; and count four charged the defendants with crimes against humanity, namely the mass murder of Jews and other minority groups throughout Europe.
To many, the idea of an international tribunal seemed legally vague and logistically impossible. For instance, many asked, what right did an American or French prosecutor have to argue a case against a German before a British or Russian judge over events that occurred in Poland? Nevertheless, Jackson and his team, as well as British, French and Soviet lawyers, were determined to make this trial a new instrument for international justice and to see to it that Nazi crimes did not go unanswered.
The court was likewise presided over by four judges and four alternates from each of the four Allied nations.
In his opening statement to the court on Nov. 21, 1945, Jackson said: “May it please your honors, the privilege of opening the first trial in history for crimes against the peace of the world imposes a grave responsibility. 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. That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury, stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that power has ever paid to reason.”
Though the court initially indicted 24 accused Nazi criminals, three did not see trial. Gustav Krupp, an industrialist of the Krupp steel firm in Essen, Germany, was judged too old and infirm to stand trial. Robert Ley, the head of Hitler's labor movement, managed to strangle himself in his cell several weeks before the trial began. Martin Bormann, Adolf Hitler's personal secretary, had disappeared at war's end and was thought to have escaped to South America, though he was tried in absentia.
Hitler; his chief propagandist, Josef Goebbels; and the head of the dreaded SS, Heinrich Himmler, had all committed suicide at the end of the war.
The remaining 21 defendants included a virtual who's who of the Third Reich, and were selected by the prosecutors because they appeared to represent the broad spectrum of Nazi criminality. The highest ranking Nazi was Herman Göring, the head of the German air force and Hitler's designated successor since 1939. Rudolf Hess had been the No. 3 man in the Reich, but had quit Hitler in 1941 and flown solo to Scotland in a half-baked “peace” mission. By now all were convinced that Hess was mad.
Others included Germany's foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop; Hitler's lawyer and governor of occupied Poland, Hans Frank; governor of the occupied Netherlands, Arthur Seyss-Inquart; the leader of the Hitler Youth movement, Baldur von Schirach; and Hitler's architect and war production minister, Albert Speer. In addition, figures from the German military, Gestapo and industry were indicted.
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