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.
Each of the defendants began the trial with the words “nicht schuldig,” or, “not guilty.” Over the course of the next year the prosecution made its case against each defendant, and then the defense team responded.
Göring remained defiant throughout the trial, claiming that Hitler had acted as a great leader who had made tough decisions. Though Göring had ended the war grotesquely overweight, drug-addicted and ineffectual, months of a Spartan diet and exercise in Allied custody had returned his keen wits. When Jackson cross-examined him on the stand he was largely outclassed by a revitalized Göring's sharp mind.
Göring attempted to liken Nazi crimes to the destruction caused by the Allied bombing campaign. He also claimed that German treatment of the Jews was little different from the way Americans treated African-Americans, though he strenuously denied the program of mass murder. Göring even claimed that when Hitler subverted Germany's republican constitution by amalgamating the offices of chancellor and president, he was merely emulating the powers of the office of President of the United States, which merged the roles of head of government and head of state. Many of the defendants followed Göring's defiant lead.
By contrast, Speer acknowledged the need for the trial and his own culpability, though he denied any direct knowledge of war crimes or the Holocaust. In his memoir of trial, “Nuremberg Diary,” U.S. Army psychiatrist G. M. Gilbert records Speer's response when asked if he accepted common responsibility for the regime's crimes: “Absolutely, I shall say so in my final speech.”
Whether Speer's apparent mea culpa was a genuine act of contrition or merely an elaborate ruse to bolster his chances during the trial is still the subject of debate.
On Oct. 1, shortly after the trial had concluded, the defendants prepared to learn their individual verdicts and sentences. In his book “Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial,” historian Joseph E. Persico relates the advice of Col. Burton C. Andrus, the commandant of the Nuremberg prison, to his charges:
“You men have a duty to yourselves, to the German people and to posterity, to face this day with dignity and manliness. I expect you to go into that courtroom, stand at attention, listen to your sentence and then retire. You may be assured that there will be people to assist you after you have moved out of sight of the general public.”
Persico then describes the atmosphere that permeated the courtroom: “The verdicts would be delivered first, the chief judge announced, followed by sentencing. The 21 men in the dock were to remain seated while they heard the judgments on the four counts applicable to them. Lawyers, researchers and off-duty translators sat packed shoulder to shoulder at the prosecution tables. Movie cameras whirred and still cameras clicked in fluorescent light that gave the defendants a corpse's pallor.”
The prosecution was found not to have proven its case against three of the defendants. Hans Fritsche, a low-ranking propagandist; Franz von Papen, Hitler's vice chancellor and diplomat; and Hjalmar Schacht, Hitler's preeminent economist, were all acquitted.Comment on this story
Of those that were found guilty on some or all of the counts, 12 were given a death sentence. The rest received jail terms ranging from 10 years to life, though some were released early for health reasons. The court sentenced Göring to death, though he cheated the hangman hours before his execution by taking poison, most likely smuggled into prison by an American guard. The elusive Bormann was also sentenced to hang, in absentia, though in the early 1970's his remains had been located in Berlin. He had not survived the war.
Albert Speer was sentenced to 20 years and was released in 1966. He soon began a second career as a writer, and his memoirs of his time with Hitler became bestsellers. He remained quite open about his role in the Third Reich and his guilt in helping it to function, though many continue to doubt his sincerity. Rudolf Hess, the longest lived of the Nuremberg defendants, died the only resident of Spandau prison in 1987. The 93-year-old apparently committed suicide.
The Nuremberg Tribunal became a model for international justice. In the several years following the tribunal, subsequent trials in Germany and Japan tried hundreds more accused of war crimes.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. Cody has also appeared on many local stages including Hale Center Theater and Off Broadway Theater. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org