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The 1st Nuremberg Trial

Nurnberg International Military Tribunal



The "Palace of Justice" at Nürnberg

Prelude to Nürnberg

In 1944, when eventual victory over the Axis powers seemed likely, President Franklin Roosevelt asked the War Department to devise a plan for bringing war criminals to justice. Roosevelt would never live to see the end of the war.


Papers released on January 2, 2006 from the British War Cabinet in London have shown that as early as December 1942, 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 with the use of an Act of Attainder to circumvent legal obstacles, and was only dissuaded from this by pressure from the U.S. later in the war.


In April, 1945, two weeks after the sudden death of President Roosevelt, Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson received Samuel Rosenman at his Washington home. Rosenman asked Jackson, on behalf of President Truman, to become the chief prosecutor for the United States at a war-crimes trial to be held in Europe soon after the war ended.


Truman wanted a respected figure, a man of unquestioned integrity, and a first-rate public speaker, to represent the United States. Justice Jackson, Rosenman said, was that person. Three days later, Jackson accepted. On May 2, Harry Truman formally appointed him chief prosecutor. But prosecutor of whom, and under what authority? Many questions remained unanswered.

Several Nazi leaders would escape trial and punishment. Two days before Jackson's appointment, in a bunker twenty feet below the Berlin sewer system, Adolf Hitler shot himself. Soon thereafter, Heinrich Himmler--perhaps the most terrifying figure in the Nazi regime--took a cyanide crystal while being examined by a British doctor and died within minutes. Also unavailable for trial were Joseph Goebbels (dead) and Martin Bormann (missing).

Still, many important Axis leaders had fell into Allied hands, either through surrender or capture. Deputy Fuhrer Rudolph Hess had been held in England since 1941, when he had parachuted into the English sky in a solo effort to convince British leaders to make peace with the Nazi government. Reischsmarschall Hermann Goering surrendered to Americans on May 6, 1945.


He spent his first evening in captivity happily drinking and singing with American officers--officers who later were reprimanded by General Eisenhower for the special treatment they conferred. Hans Frank, "the Jew Butcher of Cracow," received less hospitable treatment from American soldiers in Bavaria, who forced him to run through a seventy-foot line of soldiers, getting kicked and punched the whole way.


Other suspected war criminals were rounded up on May 23 by British forces in Flensburg, site of the last Nazi government. The Flensburg group included Karl Doenitz (Hitler's successor as Fuhrer), Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel, Nazi Party philosopher Alfred Rosenberg, General Alfred Jodl, and Armaments Minister Albert Speer. Eventually, twenty-two of these captured major Nazi figures would be indicted.

Robert Jackson

On June 26, Robert Jackson flew to London to meet with delegates from the other three Allied powers for a discussion of what to do with the captured Nazi leaders. Every nation had its own criminal statutes and its own views as to how the trials should proceed. Jackson devoting considerable time to explaining why the criminal statutes relating to wars of aggression and crimes against humanity that he proposed drafting would not be ex post facto laws.


Jackson told negotiators from the other nations, "What we propose is to punish acts which have been regarded as criminal since the time of Cain and have been so written in every civilized code."


The delegates also debated whether to proceed using the Anglo-American adversarial system with defense lawyers for the defendants, or whether instead to use the judge-centered inquisitive system favored by the French and Soviets.

After ten days of discussion, the shape of the proceedings to come became clearer. The trying court would be called the International Military Tribunal, and it would consist of one primary and one alternate judge from each country. The adversarial system preferred by the Americans and British would be used. 


The indictments against the defendants would prohibit defenses based on superior orders, as well as tu quoque (the "so-did-you" defense). Delegates were determined not to let the defendants and their German lawyers turn the trial into one that would expose questionable war conduct by Allied forces.




The Soviet Union had wanted the trials to take place in Berlin, but Nürnberg was chosen as the site for the trials for specific reasons:

  • It was located in the American zone (at this time, Germany was divided into four zones).

  • The Palace of Justice was spacious and largely undamaged (one of the few that had remained largely intact through extensive Allied bombing of Germany). A large prison was also part of the complex.

  • Because Nürnberg had been appointed "City of the party rallies", there was symbolic value in making it the place of the Nazi party's demise.

  • It was also agreed that France would become the permanent seat of the IMT and that the first trial (several were planned) would take place in Nürnberg.

The jail at Nürnberg

The city was 91% destroyed, but in addition to the Palace of Justice, the best hotel in town--the Grand Hotel--was miraculously spared and would serve as an operating base for court officers and the world press. Over the objection of the Soviets (who preferred Berlin), Allied representatives decided to conduct the trial in Nürnberg.

On August 6, the representatives signed the Charter of the International Military Tribunal, establishing the laws and procedures that would govern the Nürnberg trials. Six days later, a cargo plane carrying most of major war trial defendants landed in Nürnberg. Allied military personnel loaded the prisoners into ambulances and took them to a secure cell block of the Palace of Justice, where they spent the next fourteen months.

Judges for the IMT met for the first time on October 13. The American judge was Francis Biddle, who was appointed to the job by Harry Truman--perhaps out of a feeling of guilt after the President dismissed him as Attorney General. Robert Jackson pressured Biddle, who desperately wanted the position of chief judge, to support instead the British judge, Sir Geoffrey Lawrence. Jackson thought the selection of a British as president of the IMT would ease criticism that the Americans were playing too large a role in the trials. Votes from the Americans, British, and French elected Lawrence chief judge.


With a November 20 opening trial date approaching, Nürnberg began to fill with visitors. A prosecutorial staff of over 600 Americans plus additional hundreds from the other three powers assembled and began interviewing potential witnesses and identifying documents from among the 100,000 captured for the prosecution case. German lawyers, some of whom were themselves Nazis, arrived to interview their clients and began trial preparation. Members of the world press moved into the Grand Hotel and whatever other quarters they could find and began writing background features on the upcoming trial. Nearly a thousand workers rushed to complete restoration of the Palace of Justice.


The Indictment


The United States of America, The French Republic, The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics against:


Hermann Wilhelm Goering, Rudolf Hess, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Robert Ley, Wilhelm Keitel, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Alfred Rosenberg, Hans Frank, Wilhelm Frick, Julius Streicher, Walter Funk, Hjalmar Schact, Gustav Krupp von Bolhlem und Halback, Karl Doenitz, Erich Raeder, Baldur von Shirach, Fritz Sauckel, Alfred Jodl, Martin Bormann, Franz von Papen, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, Albert Speer, Constantin von Neurath, and Hans Fritzsche, individually and as Members of Any of the Following Groups or Organizations to which They Respectively Belonged, Namely:


NS Fritzsche, Die Reichs Regierung (Reich cabinet); Das Korps der Politischen Leiter der National Sozialisticshen Deutschen Artbeiterpartei ( Leadershp Corps of the Nazi Party); Die Schutzstaffen Der National Sozialisticshen Deutschen Artbeiterpartei (commonly known as the "SS") and including Der Sicherheitsdienst (commonly known as the "SD") Die Geheime Staatspolizei (Secret State Police, commonly known as the "Gestapo"); Die Sturm Abeteilungen der NSDAP (commonly known as the "SA"); and the General Staff and High Command of the German Armed Forces.


The defendants

The Tribunal established by the Agreement referred to in Article 1 hereof for the trial and punishment of the major war criminals of the European Axis countries shall have the power to try and punish persons who, acting in the interests of the European Axis countries, whether as individuals or as members of organizations, committed any of the following crimes.

The following acts, or any of them, are crimes coming within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal for which there shall be individual responsibility:

(a) 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;
(b) 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 population of or in occupied territory, murder or ill-treatment of 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;
(c) Crimes against Humanity: namely, murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war,14 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 domestic law of the country where perpetrated.

Leaders, organizers, instigators, and accomplices participating in the formulation or execution of a Common Plan or Conspiracy to commit any of the foregoing crimes are responsible for all acts performed by any persons in execution of such plan.



The Defendants


  • Hermann Wilhelm Goering

  • Rudolf Hess

  • Martin Bormann (tried in absentia)

  • Joachim von Ribbentrop

  • Robert Ley

  • Wilhelm Keitel

  • Ernst Kaltenbrunner

  • Alfred Rosenberg

  • Hans Frank

  • Julius Streicher

  • Walter Funk

  • Hjalmar Schact

  • Karl Doenitz

  • Erich Raeder

  • Baldur von Shirach

  • Constantin von Neurath

  • Hans Fritzsche

  • Fritz Sauckel

  • Alfred Jodl

  • Franz von Papen

  • Arthur Seyss-Inquart

  • Albert Speer

  • Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach

  • Wilhelm Frick

The Trial

The trial began on November 20, 1945, and concluded on October 1, 1946. Thirty-three witnesses testified for the prosecution. Eighty witnesses testified for the defense, including nineteen of the defendants. An additional 140 witnesses provided evidence for the defense through written interrogatories. The prosecution introduced written evidence of its own, including original military, diplomatic, and government files of the Nazi regime that fell into the hands of the Allies after the collapse of the Third Reich.

Jackson commenced the trial with an opening statement that is considered one of the most eloquent in the annals of jurisprudence. "The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish," Jackson said, "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 judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that power has ever paid to reason."

The prosecution case was divided into two main phases. The first phase focused on establishing the criminality of various components of the Nazi regime, while the second sought to establish the guilt of individual defendants. The first prosecutorial phase was divided into parts.

The prosecution presented the case that the Austrian invasion constituted an aggressive war, then proceeded over the course of two weeks to show the same for invasions of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Greece, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union. Prosecution proof on the counts of conspiring to wage and then waging an aggressive war consisted mainly of documentary evidence.

Witnesses waiting to give testimony

A second part of the prosecution case concerned the Nazi's use of slave labor and concentration camps. Evidence introduced during this part of the prosecution case brought home the true horror of the Nazi regime. For example, on December 13, 1945, U. S. prosecutor Thomas Todd introduced USA Exhibit #253: tanned human tattooed skin from concentration camp victims, preserved for Isle Koch, the wife of the Commandant of Buchenwald, who liked to have the flesh fashioned into lampshades and other household objects for her home. Then Todd introduced USA Exhibit #254: the fist-shaped shrunken head of an executed Pole, used by Koch as a paperweight.

On December 18, the prosecution began introducing evidence to establish the criminality of the Nazi party leadership, the Reich Cabinet, the SS, the Gestapo, the SD, the SA, and the German High Command. Some of the evidence brought cries and gasps from spectators. A British prosecutor, seeking to establish the criminality of the SS, read an affidavit from Dr. Sigmund Rascher, a professor of medicine who performed experiments on inmates at Dashau concentration camp.



The affidavit described an experiment conducted to determine what method to use to save German fliers pulled out of freezing North Sea waters. Rascher ordered inmates stripped naked and then thrown into tanks of freezing water. Chunks of ice were added, as workers repeatedly thrust thermometers into the rectums of unconscious inmates to see if they were sufficiently chilled. Then the inmates were pulled out of the tanks to see which of four methods of warming might work best. Most inmates were dropped into either tanks of hot water, warm water, or tepid water. One quarter of the inmates were placed next to the bodies of naked female inmates. (Rapid warming with hot water was determined to be most effective.) Rascher stated in his affidavit that most of the inmates used in the experiment went into convulsions and died.

In January, a series of concentration camp victims testified about their experiences. Marie Claude Vallant-Couturier, a 33-year-old French woman, provided particularly powerful testimony about what she saw at Auschwitz in 1942.


Vallant-Couturier described how a Nazi orchestra played happy tunes as soldiers separated those destined for slave labor from those that would be gassed. She told of a night she was "awakened by horrible cries. The next day we learned that the Nazis had run out of gas and the children had been hurled into the furnaces alive."

On February 18, 1946, Soviet prosecutors introduced a film entitled Documentary Evidence of the German Fascist Invaders. The film, which consisted mostly of captured German footage, showed Nazi atrocities accompanied by Russian narration. In one scene a boy is shown--shot because he refused to give his pet dove to an SS man. In another scene, naked women are forced into a ditch, then made to lie down as German soldiers--smiling for the camera--shoot them.

It was stated by observers at the trial that there were generally three types of reactions to the trial amongst the defendants - the unrepentant, the repentant and the confused.

  • The unrepentant (Hermann Goering is probably the best example) were the ones who refused to admit that they'd done any wrong, and who challenged the validity of the trial, claiming that it was "victors' justice", or saying, famously, that they were only obeying orders.

  • The repentant were the few who actually realized the enormity of their crimes and attempted to atone (in as much as that was possible) by renouncing Hitler and all his ideas (a bit late for that, you might think, but it certainly impressed the judges - Albert Speer, the armaments minister was the most prominent repentant).

  • The confused were the ones who were in denial about everything, desperately scrabbling around for any ray of hope, but generally incapable of defending themselves beyond claiming that they were not important enough to have influenced state policy, that they hadn't known about the holocaust, and that it had all been Himmler's fault anyway. Foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop is the classic example of this type of defendant.

Siegfried Ramler was an interpreter at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. Here is his impression of Hermann Goering:


If one can speak of a dominant personality in the dock, Hermann Goering definitely fits that description as the leading defendant. Prison diet and discipline seem to have improved his health, since he was forced to wean himself from a drug dependency. He lost weight and he was mentally alert, as demonstrated by his ability to spar effectively with Chief Prosecutor Robert Jackson during his cross examination.


Goering in the dock at Nuremberg

From the very beginning of the trial he took it on himself to direct the strategy of his codefendants by sending notes from the dock to various defense lawyers with suggestions of issues to be raised, questions to be asked, and witnesses to be called. This manipulative behavior became an irritant to the court and he was ordered to limit his communications to his own defense counsel and to issues pertaining to his own defense. During a period of time during the trial one of my duties was to check his notes to counsel before they were passed on and to ascertain that they were related to his own defense. Goering wanted the German leaders in the dock to present a united front, an aim in which he could not succeed. The disparity among the defendants in their backgrounds and in their roles in relation to Hitler was too great.


For example, such individuals as the banker Hjalmar Schacht or the diplomat Constantin Von Neurath would not even deign to speak to such defendants as Gauleiter Julius Streicher or SS Chief Ernst Kaltenbrunner. Goering's personal vanity was evident throughout the trial. When testimony was presented about his penchant for luxury or his looting of art works from occupied countries, he became visibly angry - more so than when the larger issues of his involvement with aggressive war and war crimes were the subject during his examination on the stand. He escaped hanging by swallowing a concealed cyanide pill in his cell shortly before the scheduled execution.


It is likely that the pill was passed to him by an American officer of the guard detail whom he had befriended. I recall him sitting in the first seat in the front row of the dock, often with a supercilious smile, perhaps knowing that he would cheat the hangman."

Hans Frank who had converted to Roman Catholicism after his arrest, made the following declaration at Nuremberg:

"A thousand years will pass and the guilt of Germany will not be erased."


The prosecution rested on March 6. After the thirty-three witnesses and hundreds of exhibits that had been produced, no one could deny that crimes against humanity had been committed in Europe.


The Verdicts

Name Position Found Guilty of Counts Sentenced Action Taken
Martin Bormann
(in absentia)
Deputy Führer III and IV Death Was missing at time of trial. Later it was discovered Bormann had died in 1945.
Karl Dönitz Supreme Commander of the Navy (1943) and German Chancellor II and III 10 Years in Prison Served time. Died in 1980.
Hans Frank Governor-General of Occupied Poland III and IV Death Hanged on October 16, 1946.
Wilhelm Frick Foreign Minister of the Interior II, III, and IV Death Hanged on October 16, 1946.
Hans Fritzsche Head of the Radio Division of the Propaganda Ministry Not Guilty Acquitted In 1947 sentenced to 9 years in work camp; released after 3 years. Died in 1953.
Walther Funk President of the Reichsbank (1939) II, III, and IV Life in Prison Early release in 1957. Died in 1960.
Hermann Göring Reich Marshal All Four Death Committed suicide on October 15, 1946 (three hours before he was to be executed).
Rudolf Hess Deputy to the Führer I and II Life in Prison Died in prison on August 17, 1987.
Alfred Jodl Chief of the Operations Staff of the Armed Forces All Four Death Hanged on October 16, 1946. In 1953, a German appeals court posthumously found Jodl not guilty of breaking international law.
Ernst Kaltenbrunner Chief of the Security Police, SD, and RSHA III and IV Death Hanged on October 16, 1946.
Wilhelm Keitel Chief of the High Command of the Armed Forces All Four Death Requested to be shot as a soldier. Request denied. Hanged on October 16, 1946.
Konstantin von Neurath Minister of Foreign Affairs and Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia All Four 15 Years in Prison Early release in 1954. Died in 1956.
Franz von Papen Chancellor (1932) Not Guilty Acquitted In 1949, a German court sentenced Papen to 8 years in work camp; time was considered already served. Died in 1969.
Erich Raeder Supreme Commander of the Navy (1928-1943) II, III, and IV Life in Prison Early release in 1955. Died in 1960.
Joachim von Ribbentrop Reich Foreign Minister All Four Death Hanged on October 16, 1946.
Alfred Rosenberg Party Philosopher and Reich Minister for the Eastern Occupied Area All Four Death Hanged on October 16, 1946.
Fritz Sauckel Plenipotentiary for Labor Allocation II and IV Death Hanged on October 16, 1946.
Hjalmar Schacht Minister of Economics and President of the Reichsbank (1933-1939) Not Guilty Acquitted De-nazification court sentenced Schacht to 8 years in a work camp; released in 1948. Died in 1970.
Baldur von Schirach Führer of the Hitler Youth IV 20 Years in Prison Served his time. Died in 1974.
Arthur Seyss-Inquart Minister of the Interior and Reich Gouvernor of Austria II, III, and IV Death Hanged on October 16, 1946.
Albert Speer Minister of Armaments and War Production III and IV 20 Years in Prison Served his time. Died in 1981.
Julius Streicher Founder of Der Stürmer IV Death Hanged on October 16, 1946.


Legacy of the Trials

The Nürnberg trials made three important contributions to international law. First, they established a precedent that all persons, regardless of their station or occupation in life, can be held individually accountable for their behavior during times of war. Defendants cannot insulate themselves from personal responsibility by blaming the country, government, or military branch for which they committed the particular war crime.

Second, the Nürnberg trials established that individuals cannot shield themselves from liability for war crimes by asserting that they were simply following orders issued by a superior in the chain of command. Subordinates in the military or government are now bound by their obligations under international law, obligations that transcend their duty to obey an order issued by a superior. Orders to initiate aggressive (as opposed to defensive) warfare, to violate recognized rules and customs of warfare, or to persecute civilians and prisoners are considered illegal under the Nürnberg principles.

Third, the Nürnberg trials clearly established three discrete substantive war crimes that are punishable under international law: crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, and crimes in violation of transnational obligations embodied in treaties and other agreements. Before the Nürnberg trials, these crimes were not well defined, and persons who committed such crimes had never been punished by a multinational tribunal. For these reasons the Nürnberg convictions have sometimes been criticized as ex post facto justice.


The Truman Library

The Holocaust Chronicle Publications International LTD

The Nürnberg Trial  Ana & John Tusa  Mcgraw-Hill; Reprint edition (September 1985)

Harvard Law School "Nürnberg Trials Project" http://Nürnberg.law.harvard.edu/php/docs_swi.php?DI=1&text=overview

Trial of the Major War Criminals Before the International Military Tribunal, Nürnberg, 14 November 1945-1 October 1946. Buffalo: William S. Hein, 1995. (JX 5437.3 .I58 1995)




Copyright. Carmelo Lisciotto H.E.A.R.T 2007



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