Beginning in the winter of 1942, the governments of the Allied powers announced their determination to punish Nazi war criminals.
On December 17, 1942, the leaders of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union issued the first joint declaration officially noting the mass murder of European Jewry and resolving to prosecute those responsible for violence against civilian populations. Though some political leaders advocated summary executions instead of trials, eventually the Allies decided to hold an International Military Tribunal. In the words of Secretary of State Cordell Hull, “a condemnation after such a proceeding will meet the judgment of history, so that the Germans will not be able to claim that an admission of war guilt was extracted from them under duress.”
The October 1943 Moscow Declaration, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British prime minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Josef Stalin, stated that at the time of an armistice persons deemed responsible for war crimes would be sent back to those countries in which the crimes had been committed and adjudged according to the laws of the nation concerned. Major war criminals, whose crimes could be assigned no particular geographic location, would be punished by joint decisions of the Allied governments.
The trials of leading German officials before the International Military Tribunal (IMT), the best known of the postwar war crimes trials, formally opened in Nuremberg, Germany, on November 20, 1945, only six and a half months after Germany surrendered. Each of the four Allied nations—the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and France—supplied a judge and a prosecution team. Lord Justice Geoffrey Lawrence of Great Britain served as the court’s presiding judge. The trial’s rules were the result of delicate reconciliations of the Continental and Anglo-American judicial systems. A team of translators provided simultaneous translations of all proceedings in four languages: English, French, German, and Russian.
After much debate, 24 defendants were selected to represent a cross-section of Nazi diplomatic, economic, political, and military leadership. Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Joseph Goebbels never stood trial, having committed suicide before the end of the war. The IMT decided not to try them posthumously so as not to create the impression that they might still be alive. In fact, only 21 defendants appeared in court. German industrialist Gustav Krupp was included in the original indictment, but he was elderly and in failing health. It was decided in preliminary hearings to exclude him from the proceedings. Nazi party secretary Martin Bormann was tried and convicted in absentia. Robert Ley committed suicide on the eve of the trial.
The IMT indicted the defendants on charges of crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The IMT defined crimes against humanity as “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation…or persecutions on political, racial, or religious grounds.” A fourth charge of conspiracy was added both to cover crimes committed under domestic Nazi law before the start of World War II and so that subsequent tribunals would have jurisdiction to prosecute any individual belonging to a proven criminal organization. Therefore the IMT also indicted several Nazi organizations deemed to be criminal, namely: the Reich Cabinet, the Leadership Corps of the Nazi Party, the Elite Guard (SS), the Security Service (SD), the Secret State Police (Gestapo), the Stormtroopers (SA), and the General Staff and High Command of the German Armed Forces.
The defendants were entitled to a legal counsel of their choosing. Over 400 visitors attended the proceedings each day, as well as 325 correspondents representing 23 different countries.
American chief prosecutor Robert Jackson decided to argue his case primarily on the basis of mounds of documents written by the Nazis themselves rather than eyewitness testimony so that the trial could not be accused of relying on biased or tainted testimony. Testimony presented at Nuremberg presented to the world some of the first public revelations about the Holocaust including the details of the Auschwitz death machinery, the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto, and the estimate of six million Jewish victims.
The judges delivered their verdict on October 1, 1946. Three of four judges were needed for conviction. Twelve defendants were sentenced to death, among them Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hans Frank, Alfred Rosenberg, and Julius Streicher. They were hanged, cremated in Dachau, and their ashes dropped in the Isar River. Hermann Goering escaped the hangman’s noose by committing suicide the night before. The IMT sentenced three defendants to life imprisonment and four to prison terms ranging from 10 to 20 years. It acquitted three of the defendants.
The IMT trial at Nuremberg was just one of the earliest and most famous of several subsequent war crimes trials. The overwhelming majority of post-1945 war crimes trials involved lower-level officials and officers. They included concentration camp guards and commandants, police officers, members of the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units), and doctors who participated in medical experiments. These war criminals were tried by military courts in the British, American, French, and Soviet zones of occupied Germany and Austria, and also in Italy in the immediate postwar years.
On October 17, 1946, only one day after the IMT defendants were executed, President Harry Truman appointed Telford Taylor to be the new American chief war crimes prosecutor. He went on to prosecute 183 high-ranking German officials in 12 separate trials. These American military tribunals are often referred to collectively as the Subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings. Gestapo and SS members, as well as German industrialists, were tried for their roles in implementing the Nuremberg Laws, “Aryanization,” mass shootings of Jews in concentration camps, shootings by Einsatzgruppen, and deportations.
Other war criminals were tried by the courts of those countries where they had committed their crimes. In 1947, a court in Poland sentenced Auschwitz camp commandant Rudolf Hoess to death. In the courts of West Germany, many former Nazis did not receive severe sentences, with the claim of following orders from superiors often ruled a mitigating circumstance. A number of Nazi criminals therefore returned to normal lives in German society, especially in the business world.
The efforts of Nazi hunters (such as Simon Wiesenthal and Beate Klarsfeld) led to the capture, extradition, and trial of a number of Nazis who had escaped from Germany after the war. The trial of Adolf Eichmann, held in Jerusalem in 1961, captured worldwide attention.
Many war criminals, however, were never brought to trial or punished.