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 trial defendants Nuremberg Trial: 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 Trial defendants 1 Nuremberg Trial 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, or Czechia), on June 9, 1942.

Nuremberg: Tyranny on Trial. A History Channel Documentary