Nuremberg Trials Fact Sheet
What role should the international community play in pursuing justice after a nation has been through genocide or mass violence? What are the benefits as well as limitations of trying perpetrators of genocide in an international court of law?
After genocide, particularly when a war has taken place at the same time, a country can be left incapacitated; literally incapable of carrying out basic governmental responsibilities. In addition, the international community itself might determine that the country is unwilling or unable to adequately address the crimes that have been committed. The international military tribunals, now commonly referred to as the Nuremberg Trials, represented a critical intervention in the history of prosecutions because it was a moment when powerful members of the international community said that what took place during World War II and the Holocaust had to be addressed in a court of law. For the first time in history, an international military tribunal challenged the world to apply law to mass violence and to recognize crimes against humanity. This fact sheet provides a brief introduction to the trials.
Towards the end of World War II, as the Allied Powers began to realize that victory was imminent, there was disagreement on the question of what to do with the defeated Nazi leaders. While Allied leaders such as Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wanted summary executions without trials for high-ranking Nazi military officials, the U.S. was strongly committed to the idea of an international war crimes trial. While the victors ultimately agreed to such an approach, many questions still remained: Who would be put on trial? Who would judge those defendants, and according to which laws? And what role would Jews and other Nazi-targeted groups play in the trials?
In 1945 the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust became known to the world through an international military tribunal—now commonly called the Nuremberg trials—when dozens of Nazi officials were tried for their crimes. The first Nuremberg trial began on November 20, 1945. The trials were set up by an International Military Tribunal (IMT), created by Britain, France, the United States, and the former Soviet Union. U.S. Chief Prosecutor, Robert Jackson, said of the Nuremberg trials, "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." This was the first time human beings were charged with "crimes against humanity," a term coined in response to the Armenian Genocide. (For more information on the Armenian Genocide, see Facing History and Ourselves' resource book, Crimes Against Humanity and Civilization: The Genocide of the Armenians.)
After the first set of trials ended, the United States held twelve others at Nuremberg. These trials were authorized by multinational agreements and based on international law. Among those brought to trial were:
- 26 military leaders, including five field marshals;
- 56 high-ranking SS and other police officers, including leaders in the Einsatzgruppen and key officials in Heinrich Himmler's central office which supervised the concentration camps and the extermination program; and
- 14 officials of other SS organizations that engaged in racial persecution.
Each of the four nations prosecuting at Nuremberg (the United States, Great Britain, France, and the former Soviet Union) had a judge and its own prosecutorial team. The United States presented Count 1 (Conspiracy to Wage Aggressive War), the British presented Count 2 (Crimes Against Peace), and the French and Soviets jointly presented Counts 3 and 4 (War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity respectively). Each defendant chose a lawyer to represent him during the course of the trials. The head prosecutor for the United States was Robert Jackson, who was also the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Sir Hartley Shawcross led the British prosecution while François de Menthon spearheaded the French team.
Throughout the trials immediately after the war, the prosecution used the Nazis' own detailed records as evidence. Holocaust survivors were rarely asked to testify.* Focusing on the words of the perpetrators allows us to think about why they acted as they did. It also raises the question of how they persuaded others to participate. Using Nazi documents as evidence had important consequences. One was the focus on conspiracy and crimes of aggression. These were easier to prove from documentary evidence than "war crimes" or "crimes against humanity."
(*It was not until the trial in Israel of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 that victims of the Holocaust were encouraged to tell their stories in a courtroom and televised for the world to witness.)
There were a total of 24 men indicted. Two of them never stood trial. Robert Ley, the head of the Nazi labor movement, committed suicide before the trial began. And the court ruled that Gustav Krupp, an industrialist, was too ill to be tried. Many other top Nazi leaders, including Hitler and Goebbels, had killed themselves in the final days of the war. Of the 22 men actually brought to trial, 21 were present (Martin Bormann fled before he could be captured and was tried despite not being present). They were:
- Martin Bormann: Secretary to Hitler, Head of the Nazi Party Chancellery
- Karl Doenitz: Commander-in-Chief of the German Navy
- Hans Frank: Governor-General of occupied Poland
- Wilhelm Frick: Minister of the Interior
- Hans Fritzsche: Head of the Wireless News Service (radio produced by the Reich)
- Walther Funk: Minister of Economics
- Hermann Goering: Second-in-command to Hitler, Luftwaffe (Air Force) Chief, President of Reichstag
- Rudolf Hess: Deputy to Hitler, Nazi Party Leader
- Alfred Jodl: Chief of Operations for the German High Command (Army)
- Ernst Kaltenbrunner: Chief of Security Police, Chief of RSHA (an organization containing, among other things, the Austrian branches of the SS and the Gestapo)
- Wilhelm Keitel: Chief of Staff of the German High Command
- Erich Raeder: Commander-in-Chief of the German Navy (before Doenitz)
- Alfred Rosenberg: Minister of the Eastern Occupied Territories, Chief Nazi Philosopher
- Fritz Sauckel: Head of Slave Labor Recruitment
- Hjalmar Schacht: Minister of Economics (pre-war), President of Reichsbank
- Arthur Seyss-Inquart: Chancellor of Austria, Reich Commissioner of the Netherlands
- Albert Speer: Minister of Armaments and Munitions, Hitler's architect and friend
- Julius Streicher: Editor of Der Sturmer (anti-Semitic publication)
- Konstantin von Neurath: Minister of Foreign Affairs, Reich Protector for Bohemia and Moravia
- Franz von Papen: Chancellor of Reich before Hitler, Vice Chancellor under Hitler, Ambassador to Turkey
- Joachim von Ribbentrop: Foreign Minister, Ambassador to Great Britain
- Baldur von Schirach: Head of the Hitler Youth
There were four charges against the defendants. The first was Conspiracy to Wage Aggressive War. The second charge was Crimes Against Peace, including the violation of treaties (i.e., Versailles, Kellogg-Briand Pact) and other agreements. The third count was War Crimes, such as the use of slave labor and the unfair treatment of prisoners of war. The fourth count was Crimes Against Humanity, which involved the events in concentration and death camps, as well as other vicious attacks on civilians. Of the 22 defendants, all 22 were tried on Count 1, 16 were tried on Count 2, 18 were tried on Count 3, and 18 were tried on Count 4.
Nineteen of the 22 defendants were convicted on at least one charge. Of the 19 defendants who were convicted, two were convicted on just one count, seven were convicted on two counts, four were convicted on three counts, and six more were convicted on all four counts. On Count 1 (Conspiracy to Wage Aggressive War), eight of the defendants were found guilty. On Count 2 (Crimes Against Peace), 12 defendants were convicted. On both the third Charge (War Crimes) and the fourth charge (Crimes Against Humanity), 16 defendants were convicted.
Three of the defendants were acquitted and released. Of the nineteen that were convicted, 12 (11 of whom were present) were sentenced to death by hanging. The other seven defendants were given prison sentences ranging from ten years to life in prison. Hermann Goering committed suicide the day before his execution by ingesting a cyanide pill.
After the war, the Allies had to deal not only with questions of guilt and innocence but also with questions of restitution. What claims did the victims have on the perpetrators? On Germany itself? Click here for more information.
Although this fact sheet gives a basic overview of the Nuremberg Trials, it is by no means a comprehensive document. We highly recommend that you take some time to go deeper and learn more. The following resources and websites are excellent starting points for such an exploration.
- Facing History and Ourselves: Nuremberg Remembered (13 minutes). The Nuremberg Trials, held from 1945 to 1949, were a galvanizing moment in history, international law, and human rights. This documentary by Rebecca Cohen about the Trials combines both archival footage and modern-day interviews with trial participants who served in a variety of roles, including members of the legal team for the prosecution and a journalist reporting on the events for the press.
- The Legal and Educational Legacies of The Nuremberg Tribunal (18 minutes). In this video clip excerpt from a panel discussion at Pursuing Human Dignity, conference on the legacy of the Nuremberg Tribunal co-sponsored by Facing History and Ourselves and the Harvard Law School, the following people reflect on the legal and educational legacies of Nuremberg: Gary Bass, Professor of Politics and International Affairs, Princeton University; John Barrett, Professor of Law, St. John's University; Ernie Michel, Holocaust survivor and reporter, Nuremberg Trials; Ben Ferencz, former Nuremberg War Crimes Prosecutor; Martha Minow, Jeremiah Smith, Jr. Professor of Law, Harvard Law School; Fernando Reimers, Ford Foundation Professor of International Education, Director, International Policy Program, Harvard Graduate School of Education; and Margot Stern Strom, Executive Director, Facing History and Ourselves.
- The Avalon Project at Yale Law School: The Nuremberg War Crimes Trials is a comprehensive collection of transcripts and documentation from the trials.
- The University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law website on the Nuremberg Trials. This site provides information about the indictments, verdicts, and sentences of the major defendants at the Nuremberg Tribunal.
- The Harvard Law School Library's Nuremberg Trials Project has approximately one million pages of documents relating to the trial of military and political leaders of Nazi Germany before the International Military Tribunal (IMT) and to the twelve trials of other accused war criminals before the United States Nuremberg Military Tribunals (NMT). Currently, the site has documents from and relating to the Medical Case, which was Case 1 of the NMT trials. The Medical Case (U.S.A. v. Karl Brandt et al., also known as the Doctors' Trial) was held in 1946 and 1947 and involved 23 defendants accused of organizing and participating in war crimes and crimes against humanity in the form of harmful or fatal medical experiments and other medical procedures inflicted on both civilians and prisoners of war. Over time, the project will be digitizing and uploading other documentation from other Nuremberg trials.