Law and Famous Trials

Al Capone

Who was tried at Nuremberg?

Following World War II (1939–45), 22 leaders of Nazi Germany were put on trial at Nuremberg’s Palace of Justice. The International Military Tribunal began the proceedings on November 25, 1945, and they were not concluded until September 30 of the following year; the verdicts were announced on October 1. The site was deliberately selected by the Allies; the now bombed-out city of Nuremberg was considered a seat of Nazi power.

Though many, including Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (1979–1953) thought that Hitler’s henchmen ought only to be tried as a show of justice before they were executed, others, notably U.S. chief prosecutor Robert Jackson (1892–1954), believed due process of law must be observed. The American view prevailed.

The tribunal indicted 23 Nazi leaders on four counts: conspiracy, crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. One of the defendants, Robert Ley (1890–1945), committed suicide in prison before the trial began. The case against the Nazis was based on a mountain of written evidence, such as orders, reports, manifests, logs, letters, and diaries; the Germans had scrupulously recorded their evil deeds. The presentation of the documents was punctuated with live testimony of a German civilian contractor who, out of curiosity, had followed a Nazi detachment to an embankment where several thousand Jewish men, women, and children were shot and buried in a pit; and of a French woman, a survivor of the horrors of Auschwitz, recollecting a night when “children had been hurled into furnaces alive,” since the Nazis had run out of fuel. The atrocities were rendered unimaginably horrific by the sheer number of Nazi victims, which included 3.7 million (of the 5.7 million captured) Soviet troops who died in prison, 4 million Jews who died in extermination camps, and the murder of at least 2 million more Jews elsewhere. The defense was prohibited from employing a “you did it, too” argument, which would have been an attempt to justify their actions by claiming it was all part of war. The Allies were determined to bring the Nazis to justice for their appalling and diabolical acts.

Among those tried at Nuremberg were Hitler’s chief deputy Hermann Goering (1893–1946, whom a New Yorker correspondent covering the trials described as “a brain without a conscience”), foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop (1893–1946), and armaments minister Albert Speer (1905–1981). Goering and Ribbentrop were among the five men found guilty on all four counts against them; they were sentenced to hang. Six others were found guilty of crimes against humanity and were all sentenced to hang. (A seventh man, Martin Bormann, 1900–45, who had been tried in absentia, was also sentenced to hang—if he were found to be alive.) Seven others were also found guilty on one or two counts and were sentenced to prison terms, ranging from 10 years to life. Three were acquitted on all four counts. Goering escaped his hanging: Though he was to be closely monitored by his jailers, he managed to secure a vial of cyanide, which he swallowed a few hours before his scheduled execution. Since Bormann was at large, 10 Nazis died in the three gallows that had been constructed in the prison gym of the Palace of Justice.

The trials at Nuremberg cemented the principle that wartime leaders are accountable under international law for their crimes and immoralities.


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