Nuremburg Trials Essay, Research Paper
At the end of the Second World War, it was found that the Germans had
committed atrocities against the Jews of Europe in what came to be known as The
Holocaust. The Allies decided to prosecute the Nazi leaders in a trial of crimes against
humanity. In early October 1945, the four prosecuting nations; the United States, Great
Britain, France and Russia, issued an indictment against 24 men and six organizations. The
individual defendants were charged not only with the systematic murder of millions of
people, but also with planning and carrying out the war in Europe.
Twenty-one of the indicted men eventually sat in the dock in the Nuremberg
courtroom. One of those named, labor leader Robert Ley hanged himself before the trial
began. Another, the industrialist Gustav Krupp, was judged too frail to stand trial. Martin
Bormann, who as Adolf Hitler’s private secretary was one of the most powerful Nazi
leaders, was nowhere to be found. He was tried in absentia and sentenced to hang if he
should ever turn up. Bormann apparently died as the Soviets entered Berlin, his remains
were identified there in 1972 and he was declared dead by a German court the following
year. At the conclusion of the trial against the 21 individuals, the International Military
Tribunal spent a month hearing testimony about the organizations.
The four powers divided the prosecution work, giving the United States the
complicated and most difficult job of proving CountOne: the conspiracy charge.
Count One: Conspiracy to Wage Aggressive War
The conspiracy charge was designed to get around the problem of how to deal with crimes
committed before the war. The defendants charged under Count One were accused of
agreeing to commit crimes.
Count Two: Waging Aggressive War, or “Crimes Against Peace”
This evidence was presented by the British prosecutors and was defined in the indictment
as “the planning, preparation, initiation, and waging of wars of aggression, which were
also wars in violation of international treaties, agreements, andassurances.”
This charge created problems for the prosecutors. Although Hitler had
clearly waged an aggressive war, beginning with the invasion of Poland in 1939, Count
Two was based on allegations that the Germans had violated international agreements
such as the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928. Countries that had signed that agreement had
renounced war as an instrument of national policy (as opposed, say, to defensive war), but
the pact did not define “aggressive war” and did not spell out the penalties for its violation.
The Soviet Union also had broken the Kellogg-Briand Pact by invading Finland, Poland
and the Baltics, and had schemed with Hitler to sign the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact
in 1939 (which secretly divided Poland).
Robert Jackson, the chief U.S. prosecutor, wanted the International Military
Tribunal to create new international law that would outlaw aggressive war. Clearly, the
idea that it is possible to outlaw war is a questionable one.
Count Three: War Crimes
The Russian and French prosecutors presented evidence on atrocities committed in the
East and West.
Count Three was intended to deal with acts that violated traditional concepts of
the law of war, such as the use of slave labor; bombing civilian populations; the Reprisal
Order (signed by Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, a defendant, this order required that 50
Soviet soldiers be shot for every German killed by partisans); the Commando Order
(issued by Keitel, it ordered that downed Allied airmen be shot rather than taken captive).
International laws of war had developed during the 18th and 19th centuries. The
Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 dealt with the conduct of war by outlawing certain
types of weapons (dum-dum bullets, poison gas) and outlining treatment of POWs
and civilians. The Geneva Conventions of 1864 and 1906 dealt with treatment of the sick
and wounded. Naval law developed separately and originally dealt with
problems of piracy, rescue, false flags, etc.
War crimes were defined under the London Charter (the document drafted by the
Allies before the trial began) as “murder, ill treatment or deportation to slave labor or for
any other purpose of civilian population or in occupied territory, murder or ill-treatment of
prisoners-of-war or persons on the seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private
property, wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages or devastation not justified by
military necessity.” The Nazi s were tried based under these principles.
Count Four: Crimes Against Humanity
The Russians and the French again divided responsibility along East-West lines.Count
Four was applied to defendants responsible for the death camps, concentration camps and
killing rampages in the East. Initially, crimes against humanity were understood to be
crimes committed by a government against its own people, and there was some question
as to whether the concept could be applied internationally. Their inclusion in the London
Charter was a novel extension of the concept.
Regarding the actual Germans on trial, they were a representation of the Nazi
regime. The list of the accused was to an extent, somewhat irrelevant. The defendants
represented the major administrative branches of the Third Reich and included prisoners
held by each of the four prosecuting nations. Attention was generally paid to how well
known they were and how much power they had wielded. However, Hans Fritzsche, who
was held by the Russians, had been a relatively minor official in Josef Goebbels’
propaganda ministry but was included, along with Admiral Erich Raeder, to appease the
In the end, three of the defendants were acquitted. Eight received long prison
sentences and the rest were sentenced to death. At 10:45 p.m. on October 15, 1946,
Hermann Goering cheated the hangman with a cyanide capsule. Two hours later, the
The trial of Goering, Rudolf Hess, Albert Speer and the others was part show trial
and part noble effort to create new international law in the face of crimes that were
horrofic and atrocious to society. Some say it was the trial of the century. In the words of
Norman Birkett, who served as a British alternate judge: it was “the greatest
trial in history.”