Nuremberg, Germany November 21, 1945

On this date in 1945 in Germany the International Mili­tary Tri­bu­nal (Nurem­berg Trials) of Nazi leaders got down to busi­ness in the Bava­rian city where Adolf Hitler had staged his 1930s showy Nazi Party rallies. The legal basis for the trials was estab­lished by the London Char­ter, issued by France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States on August 8, 1945, which restricted the trials to “punish­ment of the major war crimi­nals of the Euro­pean Axis coun­tries.” Ratified later by 19 other Allies states, the charter defined three cate­gories of crimes: war crimes (i.e., crimes that took place after the out­break of war on Septem­ber 1, 1939), crimes against peace, and crimes against humanity. The inter­national tribu­nal at Nurem­berg (Novem­ber 20, 1945, to Octo­ber 1, 1946) defined crimes against human­ity as “murder, exter­mi­na­tion, en­slave­ment, depor­ta­tion . . . or per­se­cutions on political, racial, or religious grounds.”

Some 200 German political, military, and econo­mic leaders were tried by the IMT, and 1,600 other defen­dants were tried under the tradi­tional channels of mili­tary jus­tice. With the excep­tion of Hitler, Hein­rich Himm­ler, and Joseph Goeb­bels, all three sui­cides, 21 of Hitler’s most promi­nent hench­men were indicted and 12 sen­tenced to death by the panel of judges. Among them were Reich Marshal and Luft­waffe chief Her­mann Goering, the star defen­dant who cheated the hang­man’s noose by suicide; Field Marshal Wil­helm Kei­tel and Col. Gen. Alfred Jodl, signers of Germany’s Instru­ment of Sur­render in May 1945; Joachim von Ribben­trop, Hitler’s foreign minis­ter; Wil­helm Frick, Minis­ter of the Inte­rior and co-author of the Nurem­berg race laws; Hans Frank, gover­nor-gene­ral of German-occupied Poland; and Adolf Eich­mann, who over­saw the exter­mi­na­tion of 400,000 Hun­garian Jews in 1944. Eich­mann, sen­tenced to death in absen­tia, later was caught, tried, and hanged in Israel in 1961. Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz, Hitler’s poli­tical suc­cess­or after his sui­cide, was incar­cer­ated for 10 years. Albert Speer, Hitler’s favor­ite archi­tect and from 1942 onward Minis­ter of Arma­ments and War Pro­duc­tion, was sen­tenced to 20 years. The un­stable Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s Deputy Fuehrer until May 12, 1941, after his far­ci­cal “peace mis­sion” to England failed, was the last of the Nuremberg prisoners to die, by suicide in 1987.

The Nuremberg Trials served as the model for the Inter­na­tional Mili­tary Tri­bunal for the Far East (April 29, 1946, to Novem­ber 12, 1948), which tried Japa­nese offi­cials for crimes against peace and against humanity. The most infamous defen­dant at the IMTFE was Japa­nese Prime Minister and War Minister Hideki Tōjō. Iron­i­cally, Japa­nese Shōwa Emperor Hiro­hito, who rubber-stamped all impor­tant deci­sions of Japan’s mili­tary and political leaders, was never brought before the IMTFE.

Postwar Trials of German War Criminals at Nuremberg

Nuremberg defendants Chief U.S. prosecutor Robert Jackson delivers the prosecution's opening statement

Left: When the International Military Tribunal (IMT) trial of major war crimi­nals opened in court­room 600 of the Nurem­berg Palace of Justice on Novem­ber 20, 1945, 21 defen­dants appeared before judges repre­senting the Allied powers. Not all of the 24 in­dicted defen­dants were in Allied cus­tody or able to stand trial. Nazi Party Secre­tary and Hitler’s right-hand man Martin Bor­mann was tried and convicted in absentia. (Bor­mann’s remains with a cya­nide cap­sule in his jaw were uncovered by construc­tion workers in West Berlin in 1972.) German indus­trialist Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Hal­bach, included in the orig­inal indict­ment, was excluded due to his advanced age and failing health. And Robert Ley, head of the German Labor Front, committed suicide in prison on the eve of the trial.

Right: This photo shows chief Ameri­can pro­se­cu­tor and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jack­son (behind large desk, right in photo) as he deliv­ered the pro­se­cu­tion’s opening state­ment at the Inter­na­tional Mili­tary Tri­bu­nal at Nurem­berg on Novem­ber 21, 1945. Jackson played an im­por­tant role not only in the trial itself, but also in the crea­tion of the IMT, for it was he who led the Ameri­can dele­ga­tion to Lon­don that helped devise the London Charter or Nuremberg Charter in the summer of 1945.

Nuremberg defendants 1 Nuremberg defendants 2

Left: The defendants listen as the prosecu­tion begins intro­ducing docu­ments at the Inter­na­tional Military Tribunal trial of German war criminals, November 22, 1945. The defen­dants were tried before a panel of judges rather than a jury. The judges were accorded broad lati­tude to hear cul­pa­tory evi­dence, that is, hear­say, out-of-court state­ments that helped the pros­e­cu­tion prove its case and ipso facto made cross-exami­na­tion impos­sible. Inter­estingly and less well known IMT defen­dants were seven organi­za­tions indicted for war crimes, among them the Gestapo (secret state police), the para­military Schutz­staffel (SS), the intel­li­gence agency of the SS known as the Sicher­heits­dienst (SD), and the Sturmabteilung (SA) that consisted of Nazi Party goons.

Right: Some of the defendants left-to-right, front row: Reich Marshal and Luft­waffe chief Her­mann Goering, former Deputy Fuehrer Rudolf Hess, Foreign Minis­ter Joachim von Ribben­trop, and Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces High Com­mand Wil­helm Kei­tel; back row: Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz, retired Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, Nazi Youth Leader Baldur von Schirach, and Slave Labor Deployment Chief Fritz Sauckel.

Einsatzgruppe D commander Ohlendorf during Trial 9 of the Subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings Prosecution witness Maria Dolezalova at the RuSHA Trial

Left: Under the aegis of the IMT, the U.S., acting alone, con­ducted 12 further trials of lower-level German func­tionaries at Nurem­berg. These trials are often referred to collec­tively as the Sub­se­quent Nurem­berg Pro­ceed­ings (or some­times the “Amer­i­can Nurem­berg Trials”), and they pro­vide a far broader pic­ture of Nazi atro­cities than their more famous pred­e­cessor. Between Decem­ber 1946 and April 1949, U.S. pro­se­cu­tors tried 177 per­sons and won con­vic­tions of 97 defen­dants. Leading physi­cians (Nurem­berg Medi­cal Trial), mem­bers of Ein­satz­gruppen (mobile killing units), members of the German justice admin­i­stra­tion and German Foreign Office, mem­bers of the German High Com­mand (High Com­mand Trial), and leading German indus­trialists were among the groups of indi­viduals who stood in the dock. This photo­graph shows Otto Ohlen­dorf, com­mander of Ein­satz­gruppe D, which gathered its victims in South­ern Ukraine and the Crimea, during Trial 9 of the Sub­se­quent Nurem­berg Pro­ceedings at his arraign­ment during the Ein­satz­gruppen Trial (Septem­ber 29, 1947, to April 10, 1948) in Nurem­berg. Ohlen­dorf was sen­tenced to death and hanged in Bavaria’s Landsberg Prison on June 8, 1951.

Right: In the RuSHA Trial (short for Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamt), which took place in Nurem­berg between Octo­ber 20, 1947, and March 10 of the following year, the 14 defen­dants were all offi­cials of various SS organi­za­tions respon­sible for the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the Nazi “pure race” pro­gram. Fifteen-year-old Maria Doleza­lova is shown here being sworn in on Octo­ber 30, 1947, as a pro­se­cu­tion wit­ness at the RuSHA Trial. Doleza­lova was among the chil­dren kid­napped by German forces after they had mas­sacred all males over 16 in Lidice and Ležáky, Czecho­slo­vakia (in today’s Czech Republic), on June 9, 1942.

Nuremberg: Tyranny on Trial. A History Channel Documentary