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The Nuremberg Trials are a series of trials most notable for the prosecution of prominent members of the political, military and economic leadership of Nazi Germany. The trials were held in the city of Nuremberg, Germany, from 1945 to 1949, at the Nuremberg 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 24 of the most important captured leaders of Nazi Germany. It was 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 U.S. Nuremberg Military Tribunals (NMT), including the Doctors' Trial. This article primarily deals with the IMT; see the separate article on the NMT for details on those trials.
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 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. Not realizing that Stalin was serious, U.S. 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." 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."
U.S. Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau Jr., suggested a plan for the total denazification of Germany; this was known as the Morgenthau Plan. The plan advocated the forced deindustralization of Germany, along with forced labor and other draconian measures similar to those that the Nazis themselves had planned for Eastern Europe. Both Churchill and Roosevelt supported this plan, and went as far as attempting its authorization at the Quebec Conference in September 1944. However, the Soviet Union announced its preference for a judicial process. Later, details were leaked to the public, generating widespread protest. Roosevelt, seeing strong public disapproval, abandoned the plan, but did not proceed to adopt support for another 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. Roosevelt died in April 1945. The new president, Harry S Truman, gave strong approval for a judicial process.
After a series of negotiations between the U.S., Britain, the Soviet Union, and France, details of the trial were worked out. The trials were set to commence on November 20, 1945, in the city of Nuremberg.
Creation of the courts
At the meetings in Tehran (1943), Yalta (1945) and Potsdam (1945), the three major wartime powers, the United States, Soviet Union and the United Kingdom, agreed on the format of punishment to 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 1, 1939.
The restriction of trial and punishment by the international tribunal to personnel of the Axis countries has led to accusations of victor's justice and that Allied war crimes could not be tried. It is, however, usual that the armed forces of a civilised country issue their forces with detailed guidance on what is and is not permitted under their military code. These are drafted to include any international treaty obligations and the customary laws of war. For example at the trial of Otto Skorzeny his defense was in part based on the Field Manual published by the War Department of the United States Army, on 1 October 1940, and the American Soldiers' Handbook. If a member of the armed forces breaks their own military code then they can expect to face a court martial. When members of the Allied armed forces broke their military codes, they could be and were tried, as, for example, at the Biscari Massacre trials. The unconditional surrender of the Axis powers was unusual and led directly to the formation of the international tribunals. Usually international wars end conditionally and the treatment of suspected war criminals makes up part of the peace treaty. In most cases those who are not prisoners of war are tried under their own judicial system if they are suspected of committing war crimes - as happened the end of the concurrent Continuation War and led to the war-responsibility trials in Finland. In restricting the international tribunal to trying suspected Axis war crimes, the Allies were acting within normal international law.
The Soviet Union had wanted the trials to take place in Berlin, but Nuremberg was chosen as the site for the trials for specific reasons:
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 Nuremberg. Because of the Cold War, there were no subsequent trials. Also, these trials were in Nuremberg since it was easily accessible.
Each of the four countries provided one judge and an alternate, as well as the prosecutors. The judges were:
The chief prosecutors were Robert H. Jackson for the United States, Sir Hartley Shawcross for the UK, Lieutenant-General R. A. Rudenko for the Soviet Union, and François de Menthon and Auguste Champetier de Ribes for France. Assisting Jackson was the lawyer Telford Taylor and assisting Shawcross were Major Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe and Sir John Wheeler-Bennett. 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. Robert Falco was an experienced judge who had tried many in court in France.
The main trial
The International Military Tribunal was opened on October 18, 1945, in the Supreme Court Building in Berlin. The first session was presided over by the Soviet judge, Nikitchenko. The prosecution entered indictments against 24 major war criminals and six criminal organizations - the leadership of the Nazi party, the Schutzstaffel (SS) and Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the Gestapo, the Sturmabteilung (SA) and the High Command of the German army (OKW).
The indictments were for:
The 24 accused were:
"I" indicted "G" indicted and found guilty "º" Not Charged
"I" indicted "G" indicted and found guilty "º" Not Charged
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 personality of the defendants survive. The death sentences were carried out Oct 16th 1946 by hanging using the standard drop method instead of long drop. 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. These argued that the military officers had violated their military ethos and were not worthy of the firing squad, which was considered to be more dignified. The prisoners sentenced to incarceration were transferred to Spandau Prison in 1947.
The definition of what constitutes a war crime is described by the Nuremberg Principles, a document which was created as a result of the trial. The medical experiments conducted by German doctors led to the creation of the Nuremberg Code to control future trials involving human subjects, including the so-called Doctors' Trial.
Of the organizations the following were found not to be criminal:
Subsidiary and related trials
Influence on the development of international criminal law
The Nuremberg trials had a great influence on the development of international criminal law. 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 Judgment of the Tribunal (Yearbook of the International Law Commission, 1950, vol. III). 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.
Part of the defence 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 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 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.
Validity of the court
The validity of the court has been questioned by some for a variety of reasons:
US Supreme Court Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone called the Nuremberg trials a fraud. "[Chief US 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." ['Harlan Fiske Stone: Pillar of the Law', Alpheus T. Mason, (New York: Viking, 1956)]
Associate Supreme Court Justice William 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." ['Dönitz at Nuremberg: A Reappraisal', H. K. Thompson, Jr. and Henry Strutz, (Torrance, Calif.: 1983)]
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