On This Day

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Associated Press
Hermann Goering, top left, and other accused Nazi war criminals sit in the defendant’s dock during the Nuremberg trials, November 1945.

On This Day: Nuremberg Trials Begin

November 20, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Nov. 20, 1945, the International Military Tribunal began proceedings against 22 high-ranking Nazis indicted for war crimes; the Nuremberg Trials set a precedent in international human rights law.

Trials of Nazi War Criminals Begin

At the end of World War II, the Allied powers sought to bring those responsible for the Holocaust and World War II atrocities to justice. Low-level offenders were tried by court-martial, while Germans who primarily committed crimes in foreign countries would be tried in those countries.

The most serious offenders would be tried under the Charter of the International Military Tribunal, also known as the London Charter, a body of laws drafted by judges from the United States, United Kingdom, Soviet Union and France in August 1945. The main trials under the new legislation were held at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Germany.

The four Allies divided the workload for the prosecution. The United States handled the charges of conspiracy, Britain handled crimes against peace, and France and the Soviet Union shared war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In the first and most famous of the 12 trials at Nuremberg, 24 Nazi war criminals were indicted. Industrialist Gustav Krupp was ruled too ill to face trial and labor leader Robert Ley committed suicide before trial. The tribunal began proceedings against the remaining 22 men—including with Hitler’s deputy Martin Bormann, who was tried in absentia—on Nov. 20, 1945.

The first day was spent reading the 24,000-word indictment against the defendants, broadcast through headphones in four different languages. The defendants sat together in a two-level dock, guarded by a row of white steel-helmeted American military personnel. The following day each defendant pleaded not guilty and the prosecution, headed by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, began its case.

“The privilege of opening the first trial in history for crimes against the peace of the world imposes a grave responsibility,” Jackson began. “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 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.”

The Defendants

Many of the men most responsible for the atrocities under the Third Reich, including Chancellor Adolf Hitler, SS head Heinrich Himmler and propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, had committed suicide to avoid being captured.

The 24 men chosen to face trial included Deputy Fuhrer Rudolph Hess, Hans Frank, the “Butcher of Poland,” Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, and Hermann Goering, the former head of the Luftwaffe, president of the Reichstag and Hitler’s chosen successor.

Goering held no remorse for his actions and thought he committed no crimes. His testimony was one of the most well-known moments of the trial; “Göring obviously enjoyed himself as he kept the courtroom spellbound for days,” wrote Life magazine. “Göring was anxious, whatever his fate, that history record him as an important world figure and as a German hero.”

19 Convicted, 12 Sentenced to Death

Over the next month, the prosecution presented evidence of Nazi atrocities, including a film with footage from concentration camps and the Warsaw ghetto. In a 1992 interview, interrogator Henry Kellermann, a Jew who emigrated from Germany 1937, spoke of the defendants’ reactions to the film.

“It was amazing how they fell apart,” he said. “[Hermann] Goering never looked at it, neither did [Rudolf] Hess. [Hans] Frank, the ‘Butcher of Poland,’ broke into tears.”

The prosecution began their cases against each individual defendant in January and, from March to June, most of the defendants would testify. Final statements were made Aug. 31 and the justices reached their verdicts on Oct. 1.

Twelve of the defendants were sentenced to death, including Bormann. Seven were given prison sentences and three were acquitted. Goering evaded the hangman by swallowing a poison capsule the day before his scheduled execution.

Reference: Trial Proceedings; Key Documents

The Library of Congress features several large volumes of information relating to the Nuremberg trials, including trial proceedings, trial evidence and records of subsequent trials of lesser war criminals at Nuremberg.

The Avalon Project has the full proceedings of the Nuremberg Trials online.

The Harvard University Law School Library has more than 1 million original documents relating to the Nuremberg Trials, including transcripts, briefings and evidence files. Many of the texts documented here have become too fragile to permit the public to handle them, so the library has scanned and digitized them to preserve this information and make it available to the public.

“The Nuremberg Trials,” a documentary by PBS’ “American Experience” series, has a companion Web site featuring the film’s transcript, an overview of the trials, pictures and video, and relevant links.

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