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Volume 19, Fall 2006           
Nuremberg Trials 60th Anniversary

Section 1
Background and Preparation
Trial Chronology
Formulation of International Law
Preparation of the Palace of Justice
Translations at the International Military Tribunal
Section 2
Proceedings of the International Military Tribunal
Section 3
Twelve Subsequent Trials

The International Military Tribunal (IMT) November 1945 and October 1946

Some historians have referred to the International Military Tribunal between November 1945 and October 1946 as "the greatest trial in history." Representatives of the four victorious powers, Great Britain, the United States, France, and the Soviet Union, sat in judgment of twenty one Nazi leaders. The procedures for an international tribunal were determined during six weeks of meetings in London during the summer of 1945. The London Charter and Agreement of August 8, 1945 laid out the organization of the tribunal and the rules that would govern evidence and procedure in the tribunal. For the first time in history, international standards of behavior during war time that had been discussed in meetings since the nineteenth century were to be applied in the implementation of the international tribunal.

Goering at Nuremberg
Nuremberg after World War II  
Nuremberg Courtroom


Think about the following:
  1. What is the purpose of a trial?

  2. Classroom Activity (KWL: What do you know? What do you want to know? What did you learn?)
"Recently, an instructional technique known as K-W-L, created by Ogle (1986) was introduced into classrooms. Teachers activate students' prior knowledge by asking them what they already Know; then students (collaborating as a classroom unit or within small groups) set goals specifying what they Want to learn; and after reading students discuss what they have Learned. Students apply higher-order thinking strategies which help them construct meaning from what they read and help them monitor their progress toward their goals. A worksheet is given to every student that includes columns for each of these activities."

What I WANT to Know


  1. What was the purpose of the Nuremberg Trials?
Allied Powers Meet to Discuss Charges and Procedures for Tribunals Throughout the summer of 1945, representatives of the allied powers met in London to discuss the charges to be brought against the Nazi war criminals and to work out procedures for an international tribunal. After considerable negotiation, they agreed to four specific charges.


Conspiracy: Leaders, organizations, instigators, and accomplices in the formulation or execution of a common plan, or conspiracy to commit any of the following crimes are responsible for all acts performed by any persons in execution of such a plan;

Crimes Against Peace: namely, planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression, or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances, or participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the foregoing;

War Crimes: namely, violations of the laws or customs of war. Such violations shall include, but not be limited to, murder, ill-treatment or deportation to slave labor or for any other purpose of civilian 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;

Crimes Against Humanity: namely, murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war; or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law or the country where perpetrated. Quoted in Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior (Brookline, 1994), 423.

Who Collected Evidence?

The American prosecutors collected evidence for count one, while their British counterparts took charge of gathering the necessary evidence for count two. The French and Russians shared tasks in preparing evidence for the last two counts. In accord with proper legal procedures, the defendants were entitled to counsel and to full copies of the indictments against them. The Chief Prosecutor, Robert Jackson's Opening Statement at the Nuremberg Trials

Robert Jackson, the chief prosecutor for the United States, opened the International Military Trial with an eloquent speech, stressing the importance of holding Nazi leaders accountable and preserving the rule of law.

Robert Jackson

The privilege of opening the first trial in history for crimes against the peace of the world imposes a grave responsibility. 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 Power has ever paid to Reason.....

We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well. We must summon such detachment and intellectual integrity that this trial will commend itself to posterity as fulfilling humanity's aspirations to do justice . . .

The French prosecution table at the International
Military Tribunal trial of war criminals at Nuremberg

The prosecutors clarified the three principal themes during the 428 sessions of the tribunal
  • First, the policies of the Third Reich had not been irrational. Individuals and organizations in authority carefully calculated plans for the extermination of undesirable peoples, for aggressive war in non-German territories, and for the mistreatment of civilian populations and prisoners of war in occupied territories. Ironically, the Nazi bureaucrats had been so meticulous in documenting the programs of the Third Reich that the prosecution could use these very documents in substantiating charges against the defendants.

  • Secondly, the National Socialist Party had come to power gradually. There had been opportunities for the German people to prevent the Nazi accumulation of power and to oppose Nazi domestic and military policies.

  • Thirdly, the genocidal policies of the Third Reich culminated years of less stringent discriminatory polices against undesirable peoples. When organizations had objected to these measures, Hitler and his colleagues took the opportunity to escalate plans for extermination.
Robert Jackson aptly summed up the results of the Nazi war crimes in his final address to the Tribunal:

It is common to think of our own time as standing at the apex of civilization. . . . The reality is that in the long perspective of history, the present century will not hold an admirable position, unless its second half is to redeem its first. . . . Two world wars have left a legacy of dead with numbers more than all the armies engaged in war that made ancient and medieval history. No half-century ever witnessed slaughter on such a scale, such cruelties and inhumanities, such wholesale deportations of peoples into slavery, such annihilations of minorities.

The defense counselors could not deny that their clients had supported and at times initiated wars of aggression and crimes against humanity. Nevertheless, they sought to discredit the Tribunal, stressing that the proceedings represented a "victors' justice" over the vanquished and that legal procedures were window dressing for a kangaroo court. Moreover, the defense lawyers argued that the defendants could not be held accountable for their deeds; they had been obeying orders of higher authorities and their failure to comply with these commands would have led to severe reprisals.

The judgment of the Tribunal discounted the arguments of the defense. Twelve defendants received sentences of death by hanging; seven were given prison terms ranging from ten years to life; and only three were acquitted. The executions took place on the night of October 15-16, 1946 although Goering managed to cheat the hangman by swallowing a cyanide capsule only hours before the scheduled executions.

Seven key precedents were embodied in the decisions of the International Military Trial:
  1. The initiating and waging of aggressive war is a crime.

  2. Conspiracy to wage aggressive war is a crime.

  3. The violation of the laws or customs of war is a crime.

  4. Inhumane acts upon civilians in execution of, or in connection with, aggressive war constitute a crime.

  5. Individuals may be held accountable for crimes committed by them as heads of state.

  6. Individuals may be held accountable for crimes committed by them pursuant to superior orders.

  7. An individual charged with crime under international law is entitled to a fair trial.
The Twelve Subsequent Trials

The organization and precedents adopted by the International Military Trial provided the bases for a series of subsequent war crimes trials. Immediately after the International Military Trial, American judges held twelve trials at the same Nuremberg courthouse for almost two hundred persons who had held important positions in the Third Reich, physicians, military officers, government officials, jurists and industrialists. The twelve trials under American auspices were known as the Nuremberg Military Trials or the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials (NMT).

Other War Crimes Trials

Thousands of other war crimes trials were held in countries that had been at war with Germany. These included trials by Americans, French, English and Russians in their respective zones of occupation in Germany, along with trials held in Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Holland, Norway, Poland, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia. In addition war crimes trials took place in Pacific areas against Japanese war criminals.

Trials of Nazi Collaborators

Some of the European countries also tried their own Nazi collaborators. Most prominent among these trials were the Norwegian proceedings against their wartime prime minister Quisling and the French trials against Marshall Petain, head of the Vichy Regime, and Petain's prime minister, Pierre Laval, who willingly carried out a policy of destruction against French Jewry.

Marshall Petain (left)

International Military Tribunal, Far East

Another proceeding, which followed the model of the International Military Trial, was the eleven nations International Military Tribunal, Far East held in Tokyo between 1946 and 1948. The defendants were the principle Japanese wartime leaders and the trials were more complicated than their European counterpart in that they were more multilingual and covered a larger area of the world.

Sole Survivor of Bombing of Nanking, China Railroad Station

Were War Crimes Prevented by the Nuremberg Trials?

It would be naive to argue that the International Military Trial and the many war crimes trials that came after have prevented the outbreak of aggressive war or crimes against humanity in the post-World War II world. Incidents in Biafra, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Central America, Bosnia and Rwanda make it all too evident that genocides have taken place since the Holocaust.

Concentration Camp

Indeed, genocide is ongoing in the
Sudan, in the Darfur area.

United Nations Efforts

Efforts of the United Nations to draft resolutions against war and genocide have remained paper threats against violators because there exists no international force to uphold the UN decisions. On the other hand, Nuremberg has left modern society with important lessons, which should be borne in mind as we try to deal with contemporary world issues. As Robert Conot observed at the conclusion of Justice at Nuremberg:

The world . . . can ignore the lessons of Nuremberg only at its peril. The balance of nuclear terror has been accepted as a way of life on the presumption that safeguards and sanity of the world's leaders will preclude the unleashing of a holocaust. But what would happen if Hitler were regenerated in the guise of another dictator? . . . Had Hitler possessed atomic weapons and believed it to his advantage to use them, he would not have had scruples about doing so.

Questions following the Overview of the Nuremberg Trials
  1. What is a just war?

  2. What rules of war do you think are necessary for a just war to take place?

  3. What options were left to Allied leaders at the end of World War II when the liberation of camps revealed the atrocities Nazis and their collaborators committed against Jews and other minorities deemed enemies of the Nazi state?

    Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain at the end of the war, strenuously argued that there should not be trials of war criminals. He suggested that the leading war criminals be immediately executed and the world could then get on with its business. Some American leaders tended to side with Churchill and opposed plans for elaborate war crimes trials. President Harry S. Truman, on the other hand, strenuously argued for a trial that, one, would document what had happened and that, two, would punish the war criminals. Stalin argued yet another point of view, that is, show trials (outcome pre-determined).

  4. From what you know about the Holocaust and what the defendants did, which position would you argue?

  5. Precedent six states, "Individuals may be held accountable for crimes committed by them pursuant to superior orders." How do you feel about the defense that many of the defendants used. "I was only following orders"?

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Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the Holocaust-- Part I

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Remembrance and Commemoration of Two Catastrophes: September 11th and the Holocaust

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