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Coordinates: The Nuremberg Trials were a series of military tribunals, held by the victorious Allied forces of World War II, most notable for the prosecution of prominent members of the political, military, and economic leadership of the defeated Nazi Germany. The trials were held in the city of Nuremberg, Bavaria, Germany, in 1945–46, at the Palace of Justice. The first and best known of these trials was the Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal (IMT), which tried 25 of the most important captured leaders of the Third Reich, though several key architects of the war (such as Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Joseph Goebbels) had committed suicide before the trials began.
The initial trials were held from November 20, 1945 to October 1, 1946. The second set of trials of lesser war criminals was conducted under Control Council Law No. 10 at the US Nuremberg Military Tribunals (NMT); among them included the Doctors' Trial and the Judges' Trial. This article primarily deals with the IMT; see the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials for details on those trials.
British War Cabinet documents, released on 2 January 2006, showed that as early as December 1944, the Cabinet had discussed their policy for the punishment of the leading Nazis if captured. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had then advocated a policy of summary execution in some circumstances, with the use of an Act of Attainder to circumvent legal obstacles, being dissuaded from this only by talks with US leaders later in the war. In late 1943, during the Tripartite Dinner Meeting at the Tehran Conference, the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, proposed executing 50,000–100,000 German staff officers. US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, joked that perhaps 49,000 would do. Churchill denounced the idea of "the cold blooded execution of soldiers who fought for their country" and that he'd rather be "taken out in the courtyard and shot" himself than to partake in any action. However, he also stated that war criminals must pay for their crimes and that in accordance with the Moscow Document which he himself had written, they should be tried at the places where the crimes were committed. Churchill was vigorously opposed to executions "for political purposes." According to the minutes of a Roosevelt-Stalin meeting during the Yalta Conference, on February 4, 1945, at the Livadia Palace, President Roosevelt "said that he had been very much struck by the extent of German destruction in the Crimea and therefore he was more bloodthirsty in regard to the Germans than he had been a year ago, and he hoped that Marshal Stalin would again propose a toast to the execution of 50,000 officers of the German Army."
US Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., suggested a plan for the total denazification of Germany; this was known as the Morgenthau Plan. The plan advocated the forced de-industrialisation of Germany. Roosevelt initially supported this plan, and managed to convince Churchill to support it in a less drastic form. Later, details were leaked to the public, generating widespread protest.[clarification needed] Roosevelt, aware of strong public disapproval, abandoned the plan, but did not adopt an alternate position on the matter. The demise of the Morgenthau Plan created the need for an alternative method of dealing with the Nazi leadership. The plan for the "Trial of European War Criminals" was drafted by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and the War Department. Following Roosevelt's death in April 1945, the new president, Harry S. Truman, gave strong approval for a judicial process. After a series of negotiations between Britain, the US, Soviet Union and France, details of the trial were worked out. The trials were to commence on 20 November 1945, in the Bavarian city of Nuremberg.
On January 14, 1942, representatives from the nine occupying countries met in London to draft the Inter-Allied Resolution on German War Crimes. At the meetings in Tehran (1943), Yalta (1945) and Potsdam (1945), the three major wartime powers, the United Kingdom, United States, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics agreed on the format of punishment for those responsible for war crimes during World War II. France was also awarded a place on the tribunal.
The legal basis for the trial was established by the London Charter, issued on August 8, 1945, which restricted the trial to "punishment of the major war criminals of the European Axis countries." Some 200 German war crimes defendants were tried at Nuremberg, and 1,600 others were tried under the traditional channels of military justice. The legal basis for the jurisdiction of the court was that defined by the Instrument of Surrender of Germany. Political authority for Germany had been transferred to the Allied Control Council which, having sovereign power over Germany, could choose to punish violations of international law and the laws of war. Because the court was limited to violations of the laws of war, it did not have jurisdiction over crimes that took place before the outbreak of war on September 3, 1939.
Leipzig, Munich and Luxembourg were briefly considered as the location for the trial. The Soviet Union had wanted the trials to take place in Berlin, as the capital city of the 'fascist conspirators', but Nuremberg was chosen as the site for two specific reasons:
Each of the four countries provided one judge and an alternate, as well as a prosecutor.
Assisting Jackson was the lawyer Telford Taylor, Thomas J. Dodd and a young US Army interpreter named Richard Sonnenfeldt. Assisting Shawcross were Major Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe and Sir John Wheeler-Bennett. Mervyn Griffith-Jones, later to become famous as the chief prosecutor in the Lady Chatterley's Lover obscenity trial, was also on Shawcross's team. Shawcross also recruited a young barrister, Anthony Marreco, who was the son of a friend of his, to help the British team with the heavy workload. Assisting de Menthon was Auguste Champetier de Ribes.
The International Military Tribunal was opened on October 18, 1945, in the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg. The first session was presided over by the Soviet judge, Nikitchenko. The prosecution entered indictments against 24 major war criminals and seven criminal organizations – the leadership of the Nazi party, the Reich Cabinet, the Schutzstaffel (SS), Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the Gestapo, the Sturmabteilung (SA) and the "General Staff and High Command," comprising several categories of senior military officers.
The indictments were for:
The 24 accused were, with respect to each charge, either indicted but acquitted (I), indicted and found guilty (G), or not charged (-), as listed below by defendant, charge, and eventual outcome:
|I||-||G||G||Death||Successor to Hess as Nazi Party Secretary. Sentenced to death in absentia. Remains found in Berlin in 1972 and dated to 1945.|
|I||G||G||-||10 years||Leader of the Kriegsmarine from 1943, succeeded Raeder. Initiator of the U-boat campaign. Briefly became President of Germany following Hitler's death. Convicted of carrying out unrestricted submarine warfare in breach of the 1936 Second London Naval Treaty, but was not punished for that charge because the United States committed the same breach. Defense attorney: Otto Kranzbühler|
|I||-||G||G||Death||Reich Law Leader 1933–45 and Governor-General of the General Government in occupied Poland 1939–45. Expressed repentance.|
|I||G||G||G||Death||Hitler's Minister of the Interior 1933–43 and Reich Protector of Bohemia-Moravia 1943–45. Authored the Nuremberg Race Laws.|
|I||I||I||-||Acquitted||Popular radio commentator; head of the news division of the Nazi Propaganda Ministry. Tried in place of Joseph Goebbels.|
|I||G||G||G||Life Imprisonment||Hitler's Minister of Economics; succeeded Schacht as head of the Reichsbank. Released because of ill health on 16 May 1957. Died 31 May 1960.|
||G||G||G||G||Death||Reichsmarschall, Commander of the Luftwaffe 1935–45, Chief of the 4-Year Plan 1936–45, and original head of the Gestapo before turning it over to the SS in April 1934. Originally Hitler's designated successor and the second highest ranking Nazi official. By 1942, with his power waning, Göring fell out of favor and was replaced in the Nazi hierarchy by Himmler. Committed suicide the night before his execution.|
|G||G||I||I||Life Imprisonment||Hitler's Deputy Führer until he flew to Scotland in 1941 in attempt to broker peace with Great Britain. After trial, committed to Spandau Prison; died in 1987.|
||G||G||G||G||Death||Wehrmacht Generaloberst, Keitel's subordinate and Chief of the OKW's Operations Division 1938–45.|
||I||-||G||G||Death||Highest surviving SS-leader. Chief of RSHA 1943–45, the Nazi organ made up of the intelligence service (SD), Secret State Police (Gestapo), Criminal Police (Kripo) and had overall command over the Einsatzgruppen.|
||G||G||G||G||Death||Head of Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) 1938–45. Expressed regrets.|
|I||I||I||----||Major Nazi industrialist. C.E.O. of Krupp A.G. 1912–45. Medically unfit for trial (died January 16, 1950). The prosecutors attempted to substitute his son Alfried (who ran Krupp for his father during most of the war) in the indictment, but the judges rejected this as being too close to trial. Alfried was tried in a separate Nuremberg trial (the Krupp Trial) for his use of slave labor, thus escaping the worst notoriety and possibly death.|
||I||I||I||I||----||Head of DAF, The German Labour Front. Suicide on 25 October 1945, before the trial began.|
Baron Konstantin von Neurath
|G||G||G||G||15 years||Minister of Foreign Affairs 1932–38, succeeded by Ribbentrop. Later, Protector of Bohemia and Moravia 1939–43. Resigned in 1943 because of a dispute with Hitler. Released (ill health) 6 November 1954 after having a heart attack. Died 14 August 1956.|
||I||I||-||-||Acquitted||Chancellor of Germany in 1932 and Vice-Chancellor under Hitler in 1933–34. Ambassador to Austria 1934–38 and ambassador to Turkey 1939–44. Although acquitted at Nuremberg, von Papen was reclassified as a war criminal in 1947 by a German de-Nazification court, and sentenced to eight years' hard labour. He was acquitted following appeal after serving two years.|
||G||G||G||-||Life Imprisonment||Commander In Chief of the Kriegsmarine from 1928 until his retirement in 1943, succeeded by Dönitz. Released (ill health) 26 September 1955. Died 6 November 1960.|
||G||G||G||G||Death||Ambassador-Plenipotentiary 1935–36. Ambassador to the United Kingdom 1936–38. Nazi Minister of Foreign Affairs 1938–45.|
||G||G||G||G||Death||Racial theory ideologist. Later, Minister of the Eastern Occupied Territories 1941–45.|
||I||I||G||G||Death||Gauleiter of Thuringia 1927–45. Plenipotentiary of the Nazi slave labor program 1942–45. Defense attorney: Robert Servatius|
||I||I||-||-||Acquitted||Prominent banker and economist. Pre-war president of the Reichsbank 1923–30 & 1933–38 and Economics Minister 1934–37. Admitted to violating the Treaty of Versailles.|
||I||-||-||G||20 years||Head of the Hitlerjugend from 1933–40, Gauleiter of Vienna 1940–45. Expressed repentance.|
||I||G||G||G||Death||Instrumental in the Anschluss and briefly Austrian Chancellor 1938. Deputy to Frank in Poland 1939–40. Later, Reich Commissioner of the occupied Netherlands 1940–45. Expressed repentance.|
||I||I||G||G||20 Years||Hitler's favorite architect, close friend, and Minister of Armaments from 1942 until the end of the war. In this capacity, he was ultimately responsible for the use of slave laborers from the occupied territories in armaments production. Expressed repentance.|
||I||-||-||G||Death||Gauleiter of Franconia 1922–40. Publisher of the weekly newspaper, Der Stürmer.|
The accusers were successful in unveiling the background of developments that had led to the outbreak of World War II, which cost at least 40 million lives in Europe alone, as well as the extent of the atrocities committed in the name of the Hitler regime. Twelve of the accused were sentenced to death, seven received prison sentences, and three were acquitted.
Throughout the trials, specifically between January and July 1946, the defendants and a number of witnesses were interviewed by American psychiatrist Leon Goldensohn. His notes detailing the demeanor and comments of the defendants survive; they were edited into book form and published in 2004.
The death sentences were carried out 16 October 1946 by hanging using the standard drop method instead of long drop. The U.S. army denied claims that the drop length was too short which caused the condemned to die slowly from strangulation instead of quickly from a broken neck.
The executioner was John C. Woods. Although the rumor has long persisted that the bodies were taken to Dachau and burned there, they were actually incinerated in a crematorium in Munich, and the ashes scattered over the river Isar. The French judges suggested the use of a firing squad for the military condemned, as is standard for military courts-martial, but this was opposed by Biddle and the Soviet judges. They argued that the military officers violated their military ethos and were not worthy of it, which was considered to be more dignified. The prisoners sentenced to incarceration were transferred to Spandau Prison in 1947.
Of the 12 defendants sentenced to death by hanging, two were not hanged: Hermann Göring committed suicide the night before the execution and Martin Bormann was not present when convicted (he had, unbeknownst to the Allies, committed suicide in Berlin in 1945). The remaining 10 defendants sentenced to death were hanged.
The definition of what constitutes a war crime is described by the Nuremberg Principles, a set of guidelines document which was created as a result of the trial. The medical experiments conducted by German doctors and prosecuted in the so-called Doctors' Trial led to the creation of the Nuremberg Code to control future trials involving human subjects, a set of research ethics principles for human experimentation.
Of the organizations the following were found not to be criminal:
The American authorities conducted subsequent Nuremberg Trials in their occupied zone.
Other trials conducted after the Nuremberg Trials include the following:
While Sir Geoffrey Lawrence of Britain was the judge chosen as president of the court, the most prominent of the judges at trial arguably was his American counterpart, Francis Biddle. Prior to the trial, Biddle had been Attorney General of the United States but had been asked to resign by Truman earlier in 1945.
Some accounts argue that Truman had appointed Biddle as the main American judge for the trial as an apology for asking for his resignation. Ironically, Biddle was known during his time as Attorney General for opposing the idea of prosecuting Nazi leaders for crimes committed before the beginning of the war, even sending out a memorandum on January 5, 1945 on the subject. The note also expressed Biddle’s opinion that instead of proceeding with the original plan for prosecuting entire organizations, there should simply be more trials that would prosecute specific offenders.
Biddle soon changed his mind, as he approved a modified version of the plan on January 21, 1945, likely due to time constraints, since the trial would be one of the main issues discussed at Yalta. At trial, the Nuremberg tribunal ruled that any member of an organization convicted of war crimes, such as the SS or Gestapo, who had joined after 1939 would be considered a war criminal Biddle managed to convince the other judges to make an exemption for any member who was drafted or had no knowledge of the crimes being committed by these organizations.
Justice Robert Jackson played an important role in not only the trial itself, but also in the creation of the International Military Tribunal, as he led the American delegation to London that, in the summer of 1945, argued in favour of prosecuting the Nazi leadership as a criminal conspiracy. According to Airey Neave, Jackson was also the one behind the prosecution’s decision to include membership in any of the six criminal organizations in the indictments at the trial, though the IMT rejected this on the grounds that it was wholly without precedent in either international law or the domestic laws of any of the Allies. Jackson also attempted to have Alfried Krupp be tried in place of his father, Gustav, and even suggested that Alfried volunteer to be tried in his father’s place. Both proposals were rejected by the IMT, particularly by Sir Lawrence and Biddle, and some sources indicate that this resulted in Jackson being viewed unfavourably by the latter.
The creation of the IMT was followed by trials of lesser Nazi officials and the trials of Nazi doctors, who performed experiments on people in prison camps. It served as the model for the International Military Tribunal for the Far East which tried Japanese officials for crimes against peace and against humanity. It also served as the model for the Eichmann trial and for present-day courts at The Hague, for trying crimes committed during the Balkan wars of the early 1990s, and at Arusha, for trying the people responsible for the genocide in Rwanda.
The Nuremberg trials had a great influence on the development of international criminal law. The Conclusions of the Nuremberg trials served as models for:
The International Law Commission, acting on the request of the United Nations General Assembly, produced in 1950 the report Principles of International Law Recognized in the Charter of the Nürnberg Tribunal and in the Judgement of the Tribunal (Yearbook of the International Law Commission, 1950, vol. II). See Nuremberg Principles.
The influence of the tribunal can also be seen in the proposals for a permanent international criminal court, and the drafting of international criminal codes, later prepared by the International Law Commission.
The Nuremberg trials initiated a movement for the prompt establishment of a permanent international criminal court, eventually leading over fifty years later to the adoption of the Statute of the International Criminal Court.
Critics of the Nuremberg trials argued that the charges against the defendants were only defined as "crimes" after they were committed and that therefore the trial was invalid as a form of "victors' justice". As Biddiss noted "...the Nuremberg Trial continues to haunt us... It is a question also of the weaknesses and strengths of the proceedings themselves. The undoubted flaws rightly continue to trouble the thoughtful."
Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court Harlan Fiske Stone called the Nuremberg trials a fraud. "(Chief U.S. prosecutor) Jackson is away conducting his high-grade lynching party in Nuremberg," he wrote. "I don't mind what he does to the Nazis, but I hate to see the pretense that he is running a court and proceeding according to common law. This is a little too sanctimonious a fraud to meet my old-fashioned ideas."
Jackson, in a letter discussing the weaknesses of the trial, in October 1945 told U.S. President Harry S. Truman that the Allies themselves "have done or are doing some of the very things we are prosecuting the Germans for. The French are so violating the Geneva Convention in the treatment of prisoners of war that our command is taking back prisoners sent to them. We are prosecuting plunder and our Allies are practicing it. We say aggressive war is a crime and one of our allies asserts sovereignty over the Baltic States based on no title except conquest."
Associate Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas charged that the Allies were guilty of "substituting power for principle" at Nuremberg. "I thought at the time and still think that the Nuremberg trials were unprincipled," he wrote. "Law was created ex post facto to suit the passion and clamor of the time."
Many Germans who agreed with the idea of punishment for war crimes, admitted trepidation concerning the trials. A contemporary German jurist said: “That the defendants at Nuremberg were held responsible, condemned and punished, will seem to most of us initially as a kind of historical justice. However, no one who takes the question of guilt seriously, above all no responsibly thoughtful jurist, will be content with this sensibility nor should they be allowed to be. Justice is not served when the guilty parties are punished in any old way, even if this seems appropriate with regard to their measure of guilt. Justice is only served when the guilty are punished in a way that carefully and conscientiously considers their criminal errors according to the provisions of valid law under the jurisdiction of a legally appointed judge.”
The validity of the court has been questioned for a variety of reasons:
Moreover, the Tribunal itself strongly disputed that the London Charter was ex post facto law, pointing to existing international agreements signed by Germany that made aggressive war and certain wartime actions unlawful, such as the Kellogg-Briand Pact, the Covenant of the League of Nations, and the Hague Conventions.
Additionally, commentators such as Professor Henry T. King and some of the defendants and their legal teams believed the Nuremberg Trials represented a step forward in extending fairness to the vanquished by requiring that actual criminal misdeeds be proved before punishment could ensue:
In his opening statements to the trial, after the indictments had been read and the defendants had enterered pleas of not guilty to the charges, Mr Justice Jackson explained some of the difficulties faced by the prosecution:
In justice to the nations and the men associated in this prosecution, I must remind you of certain difficulties which may leave their mark on this case. Never before in legal history has an effort been made to bring within the scope of a single litigation the developments of a decade, covering a whole continent, and involving a score of nations, countless individuals, and innumerable events. Despite the magnitude of the task, the world has demanded immediate action. This demand has had to be met, though perhaps at the cost of finished craftmanship. In my country, established courts, following familiar procedures, applying well-thumbed precedents, and dealing with the legal consequences of local and limited events, seldom commence a trial within a year of the event in litigation. Yet less than eight months ago to-day the courtroom in which you sit was an enemy fortress in the hands of German S.S. troops. Less than eight months ago nearly all our witnesses and documents were in enemy hands.
He also acknowledged that the trial would not be perfect, as well as asserting the legal precedent being set:
I should be the last to deny that the case may well suffer from incomplete researches, and quite likely will not be the example of professional work which any of the prosecuting nations would normally wish to sponsor. It is, however, a completely adequate case to the judgment we shall ask you to render, and its full development we shall be obliged to leave to historians... At the very outset, let us dispose of the contention that to put these men to trial is to do them an injustice, entitling them to some special consideration. These defendants may be hard pressed but they are not ill used... If these men are the first war leaders of a defeated nation to be prosecuted in the name of the law, they are also the first to be given the chance to plead for their lives in the name of the law.
One criticism that was made of the IMT was that some treaties were not binding on the Axis powers because they were not signatories. This was addressed in the judgment relating to war crimes and crimes against humanity, which contains an expansion of customary law: "the Convention Hague 1907 expressly stated that it was an attempt 'to revise the general laws and customs of war,' which it thus recognised to be then existing, but by 1939 these rules laid down in the Convention were recognised by all civilised nations, and were regarded as being declaratory of the laws and customs of war which are referred to in Article 6 (b) of the [London] Charter." The implication under international law is that if enough countries have signed up to a treaty, and that treaty has been in effect for a reasonable period of time, then it can be interpreted as binding on all nations, not just those who signed the original treaty. This is a highly controversial aspect of international law, one that is still actively debated in international legal journals.
The Nuremberg Trials employed four official languages: English, German, French, and Russian. In order to address the complex linguistic issues that clouded over the proceedings, interpretation and translation departments had to be established. However, it was feared that consecutive interpretation would slow down the proceedings significantly. What is therefore unique in both the Nuremberg tribunals and history of the interpretation profession was the introduction of an entirely new technique, extempore simultaneous interpretation. This technique of interpretation requires the interpreter to listen to a speaker in a source (or passive) language and orally translate that speech into another language in real time, that is, simultaneously, through headsets and microphones. Interpreters were split into four sections, one for each official language, with three interpreters per section working from the other three languages into the fourth (their mother tongue). For instance, the English booth consisted of three interpreters, one working from German into English, one working from French, and one from Russian, etc. Defendants who did not speak any of the four official languages were provided with consecutive court interpreters. Some of the languages heard over the course of the proceedings included Yiddish, Hungarian, Czech, Ukrainian, and Polish.
The equipment used to establish this system was provided by IBM, and included an elaborate setup of cables which were hooked up to headsets and single earphones directly from the four interpreting booths (often referred to as "the aquarium"). Four channels existed for each working language, as well as a root channel for the proceedings without interpretation. Switching of channels was controlled by a setup at each table in which the listener merely had to turn a dial in order to switch between languages. People tripping over the floor-laid cables often led to the headsets getting disconnected, with several hours at a time sometimes being taken in order to repair the problem and continue on with the trials.
Interpreters were recruited and examined by the respective countries in which the official languages were spoken: US, UK, France, the Soviet Union, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, as well as in special cases Belgium and the Netherlands. Many were former translators, army personnel, and linguists, some were experienced consecutive interpreters, others were ordinary individuals and even recent secondary school-graduates who led international lives in multilingual environments. It was, and still is believed, that the qualities that made the best interpreters were not just a perfect understanding of two or more languages, but more importantly a broad sense of culture, encyclopædic knowledge, inquisitiveness, as well as a naturally calm disposition.
With the simultaneous technique being extremely new, interpreters practically trained themselves, but many could not handle the pressure or the psychological strain. Many often had to be replaced, many returned to the translation department, and many left. Serious doubts were given as to whether interpretation provided a fair trial for the defendants, particularly because of fears of mistranslation and errors made on transcripts. The translation department had to also deal with the overwhelming problem of being understaffed and overburdened with an influx of documents that could not be kept up with. More often than not, interpreters were stuck in a session without having proper documents in front of them and were relied upon to do sight translation or double translation of texts, causing further problems and extensive criticism. Other problems that arose included complaints from lawyers and other legal professionals with regard to questioning and cross-examination. Legal professionals were most often appalled at the slower speed at which they had to conduct their task because of the extended time required for interpreters to do an interpretation properly. Also, a number of interpreters were noted for protesting the idea of using vulgar language reflected in the proceeds, especially if it referenced Jews or the conditions of the concentration camps. Bilingual/trilingual members who attended the trials picked up quickly on this aspect of character and were equally quick to file complaints.
Yet, despite the extensive trial and error, without the interpretation system the trials would not have been possible and in turn revolutionized the way multilingual issues were addressed in tribunals and conferences. A number of the interpreters following the trials were immediately recruited into the newly formed United Nations, while others returned to their ordinary lives, pursued other careers, or worked freelance. Outside the boundaries of the trials, many interpreters continued their positions on weekends interpreting for dinners, private meetings between judges, and excursions between delegates. Others worked as investigators or editors, or aided the translation department when they could, often using it as an opportunity to sharpen their skills and to correct poor interpretations on transcripts before they were available for public record.
For further reference, a book titled The Origins of Simultaneous Interpretation: The Nuremberg Trial, written by interpreter Francesca Gaiba, was published by the University of Ottawa Press in 1998.
Today, all major international organizations, as well as any conference or government that uses more than one official language, uses extempore simultaneous interpretation. Notable bodies include the Parliament of Kosovo with three official languages, the Parliament of Canada with two official languages, the Parliament of South Africa with eleven official languages, the European Union with twenty-three official languages, and the United Nations with six official working languages.
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