Nuremberg War Crimes Trials

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The trials of major Nazi leaders at Nuremberg, Germany, which dramatically changed international law and politics and introduced the criminal liability of political leaders for their atrocious acts, came close to not happening. The Nuremberg principle of arraigning state leaders for crimes against peace and humanity was unprecedented, and the British Foreign Office argued as early as 1942 that the crimes were so grave that ordinary judicial proceedings were unable to deal with the guilt.

The U.S. war department was the keenest supporter of setting up the tribunal as a way of demonstrating the superiority of the rule of law. Support for the use of judicial proceedings came unexpectedly from Joseph Stalin, the head of the Soviet Union. The Moscow trials of the 1930s had persuaded the Russian jurists that justice should be public and popular, while ensuring that the outcome would be certain convictions and executions. At the Yalta meeting of the leaders of United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union in 1944, Winston Churchill still favored the summary execution of war criminals. But the American-Soviet alliance won the argument, and the San Francisco summit meeting of May 1945 agreed to set up a military tribunal to try Nazi leaders. Under the London charter establishing the tribunal, eight judges were appointed, two each from the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and France.

The assistant U.S. Supreme Court justice Robert Jackson (1892–1954) was appointed chief American prosecutor by President Harry Truman. Jackson and the Americans became the driving force of the tribunal, smoothing the differences among the British, Soviet, and French lawyers. The trials were a first in every way, and legal arguments broke out in relation both to the list of defendants and the charges to be brought. Eventually twenty-two Nazis were prosecuted. Six were major leaders, such as Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, and Joachim von Ribbentrop, while others were chosen to represent different parts of the Nazi state. The framing of the indictment was equally difficult. The charge of war crimes existed in prewar international law and was the easiest to prosecute. But the crime of waging an aggressive war had no proper legal definition and could not cover atrocities against the German people or the elimination of civilians on grounds of race. The first problem was dealt with by the legal device of prosecuting the defendants for conspiracy to wage war. The latter was dealt with through the creation of the novel legal category of crimes against humanity. The conspiracy charge allowed the prosecution of a number of Nazi organizations and weakened the defendants' argument that the crimes did not exist at the time of their commission.

The trials started on 20 November 1945. The prosecution gave detailed evidence in relation to the charges, called witnesses, and cross-examined the defendants. The defense attacked the exceptional character of the trials, arguing that they were an example of victors' justice. The defendants challenged the jurisdiction of the tribunal, except in relation to war crimes. The defendants also challenged the retroactive application of criminal law, arguing that the novel category of crimes against humanity meant that the defendants could not have known the principles they were allegedly violating.

The court relied on prewar treaties banning wars of aggression and rejected the objection about the retroactive character of the criminal prosecutions. Trying to stay within the bounds of prewar legal concepts, the tribunal restricted the examination of crimes against humanity to those committed in the context of a war of aggression and excluded from the indictment acts committed before the invasion of Poland. The defense objections were often rejected by means of weak legal arguments, but the tribunal made it clear that the trials were creating a new type of postwar world order based on the rule of law.

The trials were concluded on 30 September 1946. Twelve defendants, including Goering and Ribbentropp, were sentenced to death. Hess was sentenced to life imprisonment, six defendants to various prison terms, and three were acquitted. Those sentenced to death were hanged on 16 October 1946. By then Goering had committed suicide by poison smuggled into his prison cell.

The Nuremberg trials were a turning point in international law. The tribunal revitalized the ancient theory of natural law, which had been abandoned in the positivist dominance of the twentieth century. According to this theory, certain acts are prohibited by a universal law that stands higher than the law of the state. Those committing them cannot be excused by invoking the laws of their domestic legal system. The human rights revolution of the second half of the twentieth century owes much of its moral force to the arguments put forward at Nuremberg. By inaugurating the individual criminal liability of political leaders, the trials paved the legal way for the weakening of state sovereignty in cases of grave violations of human rights and the creation of a universal jurisdiction to deal with such crimes. The International Criminal Court that came into operation in 2002 is the direct descendant of the Nuremberg trials. Later experience indicates that the law and criminal responsibility cannot prevent atrocities on their own. But the aspiration is honorable, and the concept of crimes against humanity has created a universal standard that no government or politician should be able to violate with impunity.

See alsoConcentration Camps; Goering, Hermann; Hess, Rudolf; Holocaust; Human Rights; War Crimes.


Primary Sources

Collected Recordings from the Nuremberg Trial of Major German War Criminals. Vincent Voice Library, Michigan State University. VVL-01-0001. Available at

Secondary Sources

Conot, Robert. Justice at Nuremberg. New York, 1983.

Douglas, Lawrence. The Memory of Judgment: Making Law and History in the Trials of the Holocaust. New Haven, Conn., 2001.

Marrus, Michael R., comp. The Nuremberg War Crimes Trial, 1945–46: A Documentary History. Boston, 1997.

Sands, Philippe, ed. From Nuremberg to the Hague: The Future of International Criminal Justice. Cambridge, U.K., 2003.

Smith, Bradley. Reaching Judgment at Nuremberg. New York, 1977.

Taylor, Telford. The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials: A Personal Memoir. New York, 1992.

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