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In the name of the people: The Nuremberg trials

Volker Wagener
October 1, 2016

Seventy years ago, a tribunal ruled against Nazi leaders. It was the first step toward a new order of international law.

Black and white photo of the defendants at the trial
Image: picture alliance/akg-images

The judgments were handed down on October 1, 1946: 22 of the man who had been found guilty were condemned to death by hanging, seven were sent to Spandau Prison for war crimes, and three were released. It was not only the climax of an unprecedented legal process in which 2,630 documents were examined and 270 witnesses provided evidence, which was recorded on 27,000 meters (89,000 feet) of audiotape and 7,000 vinyl records - but it was the first time that a country's crimes were tried by an international military tribunal.

In Nuremberg, of all places, home of the Nazi conventions and large-scale propaganda shows, Hitler's inner circle and leading members of the party were brought to account under international law. And it was not because they had lost the war, but because they had started it. It was a ground-breaking trial. Nuremberg would not have been possible without an agreement between the victorious allies on how to reconcile their differing legal systems.

On August 8, 1945, the allies signed the London Charter. It was a decree that set out the procedures and laws that would make the Nuremberg Trials possible. Participants have described as chaotic the six-week-long deliberations that led to the creation of the London Charter. There were also important formalities that had to be observed: they had to have a square table so that each of the four allied powers could have an equally strong place for its delegation.

It was the Americans' idea to bring leading Nazis to trial. They were the driving force behind the plan. By midway through the war, they had gathered intelligence on crimes committed by the Germans and their allies against civilians in Eastern Europe. Robert Kempner, one of the prosecutors for the trial, had already raised the question, well in advance, of how it would be possible to prove all these crimes. But in Nuremberg it turned out that providing proof was not a problem at all, since the Nazis had meticulously documented their atrocities. So was a trial even necessary? In 1943 at the allies' conference in Tehran, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had apparently voted for a finding a quick solution. He suggested that the 50,000 most important Nazis should be herded together and shot.

The legal principles

In the end the goal was to have a big trial rather than a small one. The main charges were agreed on in London: the planning and execution of a war of aggression, violation of the laws of war (war crimes) and crimes against humanity. The last category, which was created in London, was an entirely new legal concept. In this way, the four victorious allies created an international legal system that replaced the principles of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia that had ended the Thirty Years' War.

Until then, sovereign states had been allowed to do what they liked with their citizens. And they could continue wars for as long as they were strong enough to do so. The London Charter and the Nuremberg Trials brought an end to this legal approach. Robert Jackson, the chief prosecutor in Nuremberg, was sure of the backing of his president, Harry Truman, and had big plans: "To create order in the world according to the principles of law."

It was an undertaking without any guarantee of success. Even under interrogation, Hermann Göring, commander-in-chief of the German air force and the most prominent Nazi in the dock at Nuremberg, believed himself to be legally untouchable. "What went on in our country," he sneered, "is absolutely none of your business." He pleaded not guilty as charged and the court refused him any further submissions. Hans Frank, who had been governor general in Poland, brought the legal dilemma to head: It was apparently not possible legally to challenge the phenomenon of "Hitlerism." "In any case, Hitler had placed himself outside any legal system" he confidently said on record. These sorts of assessments caused even Winston Churchill to have doubts about the Nuremberg project. His recommendation: Nazis who could be seized should be shot "without any reference to a higher authority."

But the accused didn't just feel legally sure of their position. Johann Schätzler, who was the assistant to the legal defense of Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess, later described a recurring theme that ran through the statements. It was the attempt to qualify any personal guilt, or rather simply to deny responsibility and hide behind Hitler. But this initial strategy lost any traction in the course of the trial as survivors testified about the enormity of the Nazi extermination machinery.

Albert Speer, Hitler's armaments' minister, decided to cooperate and wrote chief prosecutor Jackson a letter. Hans Frank, who had been on a rampage in Poland, turned to religion in his cell and had himself baptized. Hess claimed to have lost his memory. Only Hermann Göring consistently played his roll to the end: boastful, stubborn, vain. He was even cowardly in his final moments, avoiding his execution by committing suicide.

Deutschland Nürnberger Prozesse
In the dock: Göring (left), Hess (rear) and Reich Foreign Affairs Minister Jaoachim von Ribbentrop (front)Image: picture-alliance/dpa

From Nuremberg to The Hague

After reading out the sentences on October 1, 1946, British Lord Justice Geoffrey Lawrence concluded the trial of the century without any further remarks. Criminal and international lawyers held enormous hope that the world would now be legally prepared to face international crimes in the future. But these expectations were not fulfilled. Not least because of the start of the Cold War. The situation didn't change until 1989-91.

The crimes against civilians in Yugoslavia and Rwanda led once again to the idea of prosecuting international mass crimes. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda were established in The Hague, as well as the convention governing the International Criminal Court. But the reinvigoration of an international criminal court has been severely watered-down. Firstly, it is lacking the support of many states, and further, the US, China and Israel have refused to ratify the statute of the ICC.

For these reasons it is not entirely clear whether the judgments handed down by the ICC will ever be as positively received as the judgments handed down in Nuremberg. But aside from legal reflections, as the historian Karl Dietrich Erdmann put it, there is an international consensus that, in Nuremberg, "justice was served."

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