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The Nuremberg Trials
The defendants at the International Military Tribunal trial of war criminals at Nuremberg. Goering, Hess, von Ribbentrop, and Keitel can be seen in the front row.

The Nuremberg Trials is the name given to the two trials of Nazis after the Second World War. The trials were held in the German city of Nuremberg from 1945 to 1949.The first and more famous of these trials was the trial of the major war criminals before the International Military Tribunal (IMT). This Tribunal tried 24 of the most important leaders of Nazi Germany. It was held from November 20, 1945 to October 1, 1946. The second set of trials of lesser war criminals was conducted at the U.S. Nuremburg Military Tribunals (NMT) and included trials of Nazi Doctors and Judges.

The Court

The Allies had agreed before the end of the Second World War that there should be a trial. Winston Churchill of Great Britain was initially against this and wanted major Nazis executed without trial. But the United States and the Soviet Union felt a trial was necessary. In the end their view prevailed. The final treaty setting up the trial and the court were established by the London Charter, issued on August 8, 1945.

The court was set up in the former court house in the city of Nuremberg in the American zone of Germany. It was to be the first international tribunal of its kind in history. Never before had a war crimes trial taken place. The 4 judges came from the Allies – U.S.A., (Francis Biddle) U.S.S.R. (Iona Nikitchenko)), Great Britain (Geoffrey Lawrence) and France (Henri Donnedieu de Vabres)). It was a multi-lingual court (4 languages) with interpreters and translators working around the clock.

The Defendants

The 22 defendants in the first trial were all prominent members of the Nazi hierarchy. They had been captured or had surrendered during the last days of the war. Adolf Hitler escaped the trials by committing suicide.
  • Karl Dönitz, Admiral of the Fleet, sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment. Released in 1956, he died in 1980.
  • Hans Frank, Governor-General of Poland since 1939. Sentenced to death.
  • Wilhelm Frick, Minister for Internal Affairs. Sentenced to death.
  • Hans Fritzsche, Head of the news service section in the Press Division of the Ministry for Propaganda since May, 1933. He was acquitted. He died in 1953.
  • Walter Funk, President of the German Central Bank. Sentenced to life imprisonment. Released in 1957 because of sickness, he died in 1960.
  • Herman Goering, created the Secret Police, which later developed into the Gestapo., He was sentenced to death. On the night before his execution, he committed suicide.
  • Rudolf Hess, the Führer's deputy in the NSDAP. Sentenced to life imprisonment. He committed suicide in 1987 in the allies' prison for war criminals in Berlin-Spandau.
  • Alfred Jodl, head of the military command and advisor to Hitler. He was sentenced to death.
  • Ernst Kaltenbrunner, head of the Security Police (SD). Sentenced to death.
  • Wilhelm Keitel, Field-marshal of the army. Sentenced to death.
  • Konstantin von Neurath, Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. Sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment. Released in 1954 due to illness, he died in 1956.
  • Franz von Papen, vice-chancellor in the first cabinet of Hitler in 1933 and later ambassador in Vienna and Ankara. He was acquitted. Died in 1969.
  • Erich Raeder, Commander-in-Chief of the Navy. Sentenced to life imprisonment. Due to illness, he was released in 1955 and died in 1960.
  • Joachim von Ribbentrop, Foreign Minister from 1938 - 1945. He was sentenced to death.
  • Alfred Rosenberg, Minister for the Occupied Territories in the East. He was sentenced to death.
  • Fritz, Sauckel, responsible for organising labour forces and as such responsible for the more than 5 million men and women from the occupied territories, who were forced to work in Germany. Sentenced to death.
  • Hjalmar,Schacht, President of the Reichsbank and Minister of Economics. Acquitted. He died in 1970.
  • Baldur von Schirach, head of the Ministry for Youth. sentenced to twenty years in prison. Released in 1966, he died in 1974.
  • Arthur Seyss-lnquart, Commissioner for the Occupied Netherlands from 1940-1945. Sentenced to death.
  • Albert Speer, Minister for Weapons and Munitions. Sentenced to twenty years in prison. Released in 1966, he died in 1981.
  • Julius Streicher, founded in 1923 the anti-Semitic weekly newspaper "Der Stürmer". He was sentenced to death.
  • Gustav Krupp industrialist, responsible for German heavy industry and armament production. He was physically unable to appear in court and the charges against him were dropped. He died in 1950.
  • Martin Bormann, closest advisor to Hitler. Was tried in his absence. His fate at the end of the war is not entirely clear. He probably died in May 1945 in Berlin.

The Prosecutors

The Main Prosecutor for the U.S. was Justice Robert H. Jackson (who was also Chief of Counsel). The other justices were: Sir Hartley Shawcross from Great Britain, Francois de Menthon from France and General R.A. Rudenko from the Soviet Union.

Justice Robert Jackson opened the trial with the following words:

"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 ever has paid to Reason…We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow."

The Charges

The accused were put on trial and were charged with the following
  • Crimes against peace
  • War crimes (violations of the customs of war i.e. killing of hostages, using civilians as slave labor)
  • Crimes against humanity (atrocities such as murder, extermination, deportation of civilian deportations)
  • Conspiracy to commit these crimes (leaders, organizers, instigators, accomplices would be accountable as direct perpetrators, the official position of a defendant no matter how high his/her rank would not free him/her from full responsibility. In other words they could not use “I was only following orders” as a reason).

The Sentencing

The defendants were defended by lawyers of their own choice. The sentences were finally announced at the end of a trial. Three of the accused were acquitted, 3 defendants received life sentences, 4 received jail sentences of ten to twenty years and the remaining twelve were condemned to death by hanging.

The trials at Nuremberg tried only small numbers of people. The allies never intended to put all war criminals on trial. Germany was expected to deal with these criminals itself, which is in fact what happen at a later time. A total of some 200 German war crimes defendants were tried at Nuremberg, and 1,600 others were tried through the traditional channels of military justice.

Influence of Nuremburg

The Nuremberg trials had a great influence on the development of international criminal law. The lessons learned from and the conclusions drawn from the Nuremberg trials helped to draft the following important declarations and conventions:
  • The Genocide Convention, 1948.
  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.
  • The Geneva Convention on the Laws and Customs of War, 1949; its supplementary protocols, 1977.
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Photo credit: USHMM, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park.
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This day in history
Today: 11 December 2017
Then: 11 December 1941

Germany and Italy declare war on the United States; the U.S. respond in kind.

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