The Nuremberg Trials

Picture of defendants at the Nuremberg Trial in 1945.
Defendants in the dock in Room 600 at the Palace of Justice, during proceedings against leading Nazi figures for war crimes at the Nuremberg Trials. Front row: Goering, Hess, Ribbentrop and Keitel. Back row: Donitz, Raeder, Schirach, Sauckel and Jodl. (Photo by Raymond D'Addario/Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)

The Nuremberg Trials were a series of trials that occurred in post-World War II Germany to provide a platform for justice against accused Nazi war criminals. The first attempt to punish the perpetrators was conducted by the International Military Tribunal (IMT) in the German city of Nuremberg, beginning on November 20, 1945.

On trial were 24 of Nazi Germany’s major war criminals, including Hermann Goering, Martin Bormann, Julius Streicher, and Albert Speer. Of the 22 that were ultimately tried, 12 were sentenced to death.

The term “Nuremberg Trials” would eventually include this original trial of Nazi leaders as well as 12 subsequent trials that lasted until 1948. 

The Holocaust & Other War Crimes

During World War II, the Nazis perpetrated an unprecedented reign of hatred against Jews and others deemed undesirable by the Nazi state. This time period, known as the Holocaust, resulted in the deaths of six million Jews and five million others, including Roma and Sinti (Gypsies), the handicapped, Poles, Russian POWs, Jehovah’s witnesses, and political dissidents. 

Victims were interned in concentration camps and also killed in death camps or by other means, such as mobile killing squads. A small number of individuals survived these horrors but their lives were changed forever by the horrors inflicted upon them by the Nazi State.

Crimes against individuals deemed undesirable were not the only charges being levied against the Germans in the post-war era. World War II saw an additional 50 million civilians killed throughout the war and many countries blamed the German military for their deaths. Some of these deaths were part of the new “total war tactics,” yet others were specifically targeted, such as the massacre of Czech civilians in Lidice and the death of Russian POWs at the Katyn Forest Massacre.  

Should There Be a Trial or Just Hang Them?

In the months following liberation, many military officers and Nazi officials were held in prisoner of war camps throughout the four Allied zones of Germany.  The countries that administrated those zones (Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States) began to discuss the best way to handle the post-war treatment of those who were suspected of war crimes.   

Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of England, initially felt that all those who were alleged to have committed war crimes should be hanged. The Americans, French, and Soviets felt that trials were necessary and worked to convince Churchill of the importance of these proceedings. 

Once Churchill assented, a decision was made to move forward with the establishment of the International Military Tribunal that would be convened in the city of Nuremberg in the fall of 1945.

The Major Players of the Nuremberg Trial

The Nuremberg Trials officially began with the first proceedings, which opened on November 20, 1945. The trial was held in the Palace of Justice in the German city of Nuremberg, which had played host to major Nazi Party rallies during the Third Reich. The city was also the namesake of the infamous 1935 Nuremberg race laws levied against Jews.

The International Military Tribunal was composed of a judge and an alternate judge from each of the four main Allied Powers. The judges and alternates were as follows:

  • United States – Frances Biddle (Main) and John Parker (Alternate)
  • Britain – Sir Geoffrey Lawrence (Main) (President Judge) and Sir Norman Birkett (Alternate)
  • France – Henri Donnedieu de Vabres (Main) and Robert Falco (Alternate)
  • Soviet Union –Major General Iona Nikitchenko (Main) and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Volchkov (Alternate)

The prosecution was led by U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Robert Jackson. He was joined by Britain’s Sir Hartley Shawcross, France’s Francois de Menthon (eventually replaced by Frenchman Auguste Champetier de Ribes), and the Soviet Union’s Roman Rudenko, a Soviet Lieutenant-General. 

Jackson’s opening statement set the somber yet progressive tone for the trial and its unprecedented nature. His brief opening address spoke of the importance of the trial, not only for the restoration of Europe but also for its lasting impact on the future of justice in the world. He also mentioned the need to educate the world about the horrors perpetrated during the war and felt that the trial would provide a platform to accomplish this task.

Each defendant was permitted to have representation, either from a group of court-appointed defense attorneys or a defense attorney of the defendant’s choosing. 

Evidence vs. The Defense

This first trial lasted a total of ten months. The prosecution built its case largely around evidence compiled by the Nazis themselves, as they had carefully documented many of their misdeeds. Witnesses to the atrocities were also brought to the stand, as were the accused. 

The defense cases were primarily centered around the concept of the “Fuhrerprinzip” (Fuhrer principle). According to this concept, the accused were following orders issued by Adolf Hitler, and the penalty for not following those orders was death. Since Hitler, himself, was no longer alive to invalidate these claims, the defense was hoping that it would carry weight with the judicial panel. 

Some of the defendants also claimed that the tribunal itself had no legal standing due to its unprecedented nature.

The Charges

As the Allied Powers worked to gather evidence, they also had to determine who should be included in the first round of proceedings.  It was ultimately determined that 24 defendants would be charged and put on trial beginning in November 1945; these were some of the most notorious of Nazi’s war criminals.

The accused would be indicted on one or more of the following counts:
1. Crimes of Conspiracy: The accused was alleged to have participated in the creation and/or implementation of a joint plan or conspired to assist those in charge of executing a joint plan whose goal involved crimes against the peace.

2. Crimes Against the Peace: The accused was alleged to have committed acts that including planning for, preparation of, or initiation of aggressive warfare.

3. War Crimes: The accused allegedly violated previously established rules of warfare, including the killing of civilians, POWs, or malicious destruction of civilian property.

4. Crimes Against Humanity: The accused was alleged to have committed acts of deportation, enslavement, torture, murder, or other inhumane acts against civilians before or during the war.

Defendants on Trial and Their Sentences

A total of 24 defendants were originally slated to be put on trial during this initial Nuremberg trial, but only 22 were actually tried (Robert Ley had committed suicide and Gustav Krupp von Bohlen was deemed unfit to stand trial). Of the 22, one wasn’t in custody; Martin Bormann (Nazi Party Secretary) was charged in absentia. (It was later discovered that Bormann had died in May 1945.)

Although the list of defendants was long, two key individuals were missing. Both Adolf Hitler and his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, had committed suicide as the war was coming to an end. It was decided that there was enough evidence regarding their deaths, unlike Bormann’s, that they were not placed on trial.

The trial resulted in a total of 12 death sentences, all of which were administered on October 16, 1946, with one exception -- Herman Goering committed suicide by cyanide the night before the hangings were to take place. Three of the accused were sentenced to life in prison. Four individuals were sentenced to jail terms ranging from ten to twenty years. An additional three individuals were acquitted of all charges.

Name Position Found Guilty of Counts Sentenced Action Taken
Martin Bormann (in absentia) Deputy Führer 3,4 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 2,3 10 Years in Prison Served time. Died in 1980.
Hans Frank Governor-General of Occupied Poland 3,4 Death Hanged on October 16, 1946.
Wilhelm Frick Foreign Minister of the Interior 2,3,4 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) 2,3,4 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 1,2 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 3,4 Death Chief of the Security Police, SD, and RSHA.
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) 2,3,4 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 Party Philosopher and Reich Minister for the Eastern Occupied Area
Fritz Sauckel Plenipotentiary for Labor Allocation 2,4 Death Hanged on October 16, 1946.
Hjalmar Schacht Minister of Economics and President of the Reichsbank (1933-1939) Not Guilty Acquitted Denazification court sentenced Schacht to 8 years in a work camp; released in 1948. Died in 1970.
Baldur von Schirach Führer of the Hitler Youth 4 20 Years in Prison Served his time. Died in 1974.
Arthur Seyss-Inquart Minister of the Interior and Reich Governor of Austria 2,3,4 Death Minister of the Interior and Reich Governor of Austria
Albert Speer Minister of Armaments and War Production 3,4 20 Years Served his time. Died in 1981.
Julius Streicher Founder of Der Stürmer 4 Death Hanged on October 16, 1946.

Subsequent Trials at Nuremberg

Although the initial trial held at Nuremberg is the most famous, it was not the only trial held there. The Nuremberg Trials also included a series of twelve trials held in the Palace of Justice following the conclusion of the initial trial.  

The judges in the subsequent trials were all American, as the other Allied powers wished to focus on the massive task of rebuilding needed after World War II.

Additional trials in the series included:

  • The Doctor’s Trial
  • The Milch Trial
  • The Judge’s Trial
  • The Pohl Trial
  • The Flick Trial
  • The IG Farben Trial
  • The Hostages Trial
  • The RuSHA Trial
  • The Einsatzgruppen Trial
  • The Krupp Trial
  • The Ministries Trial
  • The High Command Trial

The Legacy of Nuremberg

The Nuremberg Trials were unprecedented in many ways. They were the first to attempt to hold government leaders responsible for crimes committed while implementing their policies. They were the first to share the horrors of the Holocaust with the world on a large scale. The Nuremberg Trials also established the principal that one could not escape justice by merely claiming to have been following orders of a government entity.

In relation to war crimes and crimes against humanity, the Nuremberg Trials would have a profound impact on the future of justice. They set the standards for judging the actions of other nations in future wars and genocides, ultimately paving the way for the foundation of the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court, which are based at The Hague, Netherlands.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Goss, Jennifer L. "The Nuremberg Trials." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Goss, Jennifer L. (2021, July 31). The Nuremberg Trials. Retrieved from Goss, Jennifer L. "The Nuremberg Trials." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).