The Nuremberg Trials – 75 years on

Friday, November 20 marks 75 years since the beginning of the Nuremberg Trials, when the political, military, judicial, and economic leaders of Nazi Germany were put on trial for war crimes at the end of WWII.

After six years of a war that decimated Europe and took the lives of an estimated 75 million people worldwide, the victorious Allied powers – Great Britain, the Soviet Union, France and the United States – came together in an unprecedented collective to deliver justice to leaders that had planned and executed the Holocaust, the mass murder of millions in Eastern Europe, and 12 years of dictatorship over the German people.

The German city of Nuremberg was chosen as it was considered the ceremonial heartland of the Nazi Party. The city had given its name to the racial Nuremberg Laws, antisemitic and racist legislation that barred Jews from German citizenship and marriage to Germans. Although not the first antisemitic legislation passed by the Nazis, it was one of the most important in the gradual dehumanization of Germany’s Jewish population.

The city also hosted the infamous Nazi Party rallies, epic in their images of flags, fires, and marching hordes of Nazis. It was only fitting that the city was chosen to mark the Party’s demise and the end of Nazi Germany.

Germany’s leader Adolf Hitler had committed suicide in May 1945 as the Soviets closed in on his bunker in Berlin, along with Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. SS leader and one of the chief architects of the Holocaust, Heinrich Himmler, committed suicide at the end of May whilst in British custody. But there were still many prominent leaders of the regime to prosecute.

The International Military Tribunal that was to deliver justice opened with indictments against 24 leading Nazis, among them Albert Speer, Armaments Minister from 1942; Hans Frank, leader of Nazi Poland; Martin Bormann, Nazi Party Secretary; Joachim von Ribbentrop, Germany’s Foreign Minister and Herman Goring, Reichsmarschall and Commander of the Luftwaffe who was the highest ranking Nazi to be tried. Deputy Nazi Party Leader Rudolf Hess, who was captured after flying to Scotland in 1941 and held in Britain, was transported to Nuremberg to be tried alongside his former collaborators.

US Prosecutor Robert H. Jackson spoke for several hours in his opening statement and his speech made a worldwide lasting impression.

“We will show [the accused] to be living symbols of racial hatreds, of terrorism and violence, and of the arrogance and cruelty of power,” Jackson said. “They are symbols of fierce nationalism and of militarism, of intrigue and war-making which have embroiled Europe generation after generation, crushing its manhood, destroying its homes, and impoverishing its life.”

After 10 months of testimony – including over 200 witnesses, cross examinations and 300,000 affidavits -the court adjourned and on the afternoon of  October 1, 1946, individual sentences were read out.

Twelve of the defendants were sentenced to death by hanging for war crimes and the new concept of “crimes against humanity,” including Hess, Frank and Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the highest-ranking SS officer to be tried at Nuremberg.

Seven received prison sentences and five were either acquitted or received no decision.

Of the twelve sentenced to death, Martin Bormann was tried and sentenced in absentia having been last seen attempting to flee Berlin in the last days of the war. Human remains found close to Hitler’s Bunker were later confirmed in 1972 to be his.

Herman Goring, the most infamous of the Nuremberg defendants, took a cyanide pill the night before he was to be hanged and died before justice could be carried out.

The lasting impact of the Nuremberg Trials cannot be underestimated. Although the concept of collective justice had existed since WWI when brief, joint-military trials were carried out, Nuremberg marked the first time major world powers came together to deliver justice on such a scale.

The events of WWII led to the creation of the United Nations, intent on never letting such a global conflict occur again, and individual tribunals such as those against war crimes in the former Yugoslav republics and the Rwandan genocide have shown that Nuremberg’s influence is still lasting in the 21st century.  

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