In November 1945, the historic Nuremberg Trials began. They constituted a landmark exercise of a post-war legal system. As hate groups resurface in America today, what can we learn from court proceedings against Nazi war criminals?
At the point when it was likely we would emerge victorious in World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt asked his War Department to come up with a plan for the Nazi leaders. Before the War Department could draft a plan, other Cabinet members weighed in with their own ideas. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau proposed an eye-for-an-eye approach: he suggested summarily shooting many prominent Nazi leaders at the time of capture and banishing others to far off corners of the world. Under the Morgenthau plan, German POWs would have been forced to rebuild Europe. He aimed to destroy Germany’s remaining industrial base and turn Germany into a weak, agricultural country.
Secretary of War Henry Stimson saw things differently, however. The counter-proposal Stimson endorsed would try Nazi leaders in court for war crimes.
This is a transcript from the video series The Great Trials of World History and the Lessons They Teach Us. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
Roosevelt chose to support the War Department’s plan for trials, but other Allied leaders had their own ideas. Churchill reportedly told Stalin that he favored the speedy execution of captured Nazi leaders. In reply, Stalin answered, “In the Soviet Union, we never execute anyone without a trial.” Churchill agreed. “Of course, of course. We should give them a trial first.”
The Start of the Trials
On the opening day of the trial, the twenty-one indicted war trial defendants took their seats in the dock at the rear of the dark-paneled room. Behind the defendants stood six helmeted American sentries with their backs against the wall. The marshal shouted, “Attention! All rise. The tribunal will now enter.” The judges from the four countries walked through a door and took their seats at the bench. Chief Judge, Sir Geoffrey Lawrence of Britain, rapped his gavel. “This trial, which is now to begin,” said Lawrence, “is unique in the annals of jurisprudence.”
The trial opened with the reading of the indictments, which included four counts:
- Count One, “conspiracy to wage aggressive war,” addressed crimes committed before the war began.
- Count Two, “waging an aggressive war” (also called “crimes against peace”), addressed the undertaking of war in violation of international treaties and assurances.
- Count Three, “war crimes,” addressed more traditional violations of the laws of war such as the killing or mistreatment of prisoners of war.
- Count Four, “crimes against humanity,” addressed crimes committed against Jews, ethnic minorities, the physically and mentally disabled, civilians in occupied countries, and other persons. The greatest of these crimes against humanity was, of course, the mass murder of Jews in concentration camps—the so-called “Final Solution.” For an entire day, defendants listened as prosecutors read a detailed list of the crimes they were accused of committing.
On the second day of trial, Justice Jackson delivered his eloquent opening statement for the prosecution. Jackson told the court, “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 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 power has ever paid to reason.”
Learn more about the Nuremberg Trials
The prosecution’s case was divided into two main phases. The first phase focused on establishing the criminality of various components of the Nazi regime. The second phase sought to establish the guilt of individual defendants.
“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 power has ever paid to reason.”
The prosecution first moved to show the Nazis waged an aggressive war. This is obvious to us now, of course, but the process demanded legal proof. Evidence of the unprovoked invasion of Austria was presented. Then the prosecution, over two weeks, produced documentary evidence relating to the invasions of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Greece, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union.
Documentary evidence had one big disadvantage: it was boring. Hour upon hour of various letters and other communications being read into the record caused the press to leave in droves. The Allies worried that excessive reliance on documentary evidence was undermining their goal of educating the public about the horrors inflicted by the Nazi regime. Prosecutors agreed that something must be done to enliven the proceedings—so they decided to rely more heavily on real, physical evidence and witnesses.
The prosecution also had to prove in their case that the Nazis used slave labor and operated concentration camps. Some of the more horrifying atrocities were introduced as evidence during this part of the trial and were difficult for many to swallow. One infamous piece of evidence, USA Exhibit #253, was the tanned human tattooed skin from concentration camp victims. The skin had been preserved for Ilse Koch, the wife of the Commandant of Buchenwald. Koch had had the flesh fashioned into lampshades and other household objects for her home, while her husband had the shrunken head of a former prisoner as a paperweight in his office.
Learn more about the case that put the theory of evolution on trial
In January, a series of concentration camp victims testified about their experiences. The testimony was powerful and heartbreaking. Spectators wiped away tears. Marie Claude Vaillant-Couturier, a 33-year-old French woman, was taken from France by train to Auschwitz in 1942. Vaillant-Couturier described the scene upon arrival at the concentration camp. She described how a Nazi orchestra played happy tunes as soldiers separated those destined for slave labor from those that would be gassed. She also testified about a night she was “awakened by horrible cries.” The next day, she said, she learned of the reason. She explained, “We learned that the Nazis had run out of gas and the children had been hurled into the furnaces alive.”
Near the end of the prosecution’s case, in February 1946, Soviet prosecutors introduced a film entitled Documentary Evidence of the German Fascist Invaders. The film consisted mostly of captured German footage. It showed Nazi atrocities, accompanied by a Russian narration. In one scene, a boy was shown being shot because he refused to give his pet dove to an SS man. In another scene, naked women are forced into a ditch, then made to lie down as German soldiers—smiling for the camera—shoot them.
The prosecution rested on March 6. After the thirty-three witnesses and hundreds of exhibits, no one could deny that crimes against humanity had been committed in Europe.
Learn more about a jousting battle whose victor will be vindicated as a matter of law
Common Questions About the Nuremberg Trials
In the Nuremberg trials, four of the twenty-four defendants (Karl Dönitz, Baldur von Schirach, Albert Speer, and Konstantin von Neurath) were sentenced to prison with terms lasting from ten to twenty years. Three (Rudolf Hess, Walther Funk, and Erich Raeder) received life sentences. Twelve received an execution of death by hanging: Hans Frank, Wilhelm Frick, Julius Streicher, Alfred Rosenberg, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Fritz Sauckel, Alfred Jodl, Wilhelm Keitel, Martin Bormann, Hermann Göring, and Arthur Seyss-Inquart.
During World War II, Nuremberg was famous for being the Nazi headquarters, where they would plan their propaganda campaigns against the Jews. Now, Nuremberg is most well-known for being the spot where the Nuremberg trials were held.