Judgment Day for Nazis at Nuremberg Trials
The courtroom in the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Germany, was packed on Oct. 1, 1946. All 545 seats were filled a half hour before the court opened, for a very significant event was about to occur: after a trial lasting over ten months, the International Military Tribunal was passing judgment on 22 of Nazi Germany’s “Major War Criminals.” The eight justices began reading the 240+ pages they had carefully prepared. After almost eight hours they had gotten through 177 pages, and the rest would have to wait until tomorrow. But enough had been said to make it clear: Adolf Hitler’s top-ranking men were being held accountable, and many would die.
During the eight-hour reading, the defendants present in the courtroom reacted in different ways, as detailed in the following newspaper article. (Two of the 24 original defendants were not put on trial—one was declared medically unfit for trial, and one committed suicide on Oct. 25, 1945, before the trial began. Another defendant, Martin Bormann, was being tried in absentia; it wasn’t discovered until 1972 that he had committed suicide in 1945.) As the judges went on and on, the most powerful Nazi on trial—Hermann Goering—leaned over to his counsel and smirked “I did not expect they would go through all this to kill us.”
The Nazi regime, which ruled Germany and eventually terrorized the world—from the day Hitler was appointed chancellor on Jan. 30, 1933, until he committed suicide in his bunker on April 30, 1945—was one of the cruelest in the history of humankind. From the horrors of the Holocaust and the concentration camps to the evil of despicable medical experiments, from deliberate warfare against civilian targets to inhuman treatment of prisoners of war, the Nazis committed crimes on a scale that shocked the modern world. When the European Theater of WWII ended, it was not enough to declare Germany defeated and demand reparations. Someone had to be held accountable. The surviving Nazi leaders were rounded up and put on trial during the Nuremberg Trials, with the first one—the Trial of the Major War Criminals—commencing on Nov. 20, 1945, and ending with the dramatic judgment reading on Oct. 1, 1946.
The Nazis had done much more than start a world war. They had forever scarred humanity. The Tribunal had to wrestle with the monumental task of holding such evil accountable. Where to start? What crimes to charge? Can entire organizations be charged? Who ultimately is responsible, especially if the leader, Adolf Hitler, is gone?
Perhaps the most difficult question being addressed was: Can soldiers be charged with crimes if they are just following orders? As the following newspaper article notes: “The prosecution of German military leaders has been watched closely by professional soldiers throughout the world. Many American soldiers have opposed the group prosecution of German soldiers.”
The Tribunal tackled this thorny issue head-on with this historic ruling: “Individuals have international duties which transcend national obligations of obedience.” The judgment went on to declare: “That a soldier was ordered to kill or torture in violation of the international law of war has never been recognized as a defense to such acts of brutality.”
The four victorious allies comprising the Tribunal (Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States) faced a vexing problem at the Nuremburg Trials. If they had fought WWII with right on their side—if their cause was just and freedom and justice were their ideals—then raw vengeance would not suffice: the rule of law had to be upheld. Part of the problem (and a major source of criticism for the Nuremburg Trials), was that in many cases the Nazis were being tried for crimes that had not been defined as such when they were committed.
Nonetheless, the Tribunal tried the Nazi leaders for four crimes:
• Crimes against peace
• War crimes
• Crimes against humanity
• Waging wars of aggression
After the judgment was read sentences were passed. Twelve men were sentenced to death, seven sentenced to imprisonment ranging from ten years to life, and three acquitted. Of the 12 sentenced for hanging, Goering committed suicide the night before the execution, and Bormann was in absentia. The other ten were hung on Oct. 16, 1946.
Additional trials were held for lesser officials during the Nuremberg Trials. In all, about 200 German defendants were tried for war crimes at Nuremberg, while another 1,600 Germans were tried in military courts.
The Nuremberg Trials had a profound impact on international law. Its legacy led to the creation of the International Criminal Court, seated in The Hague, Netherlands, on July 1, 2002.
This copyrighted newspaper article about the Nuremberg Trials was published by the Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas) on the front page of its Oct. 1, 1946, issue:
Goering, Hess, Ribbentrop Held Guilty of War Crimes
Nuernberg [sic], Germany, Oct. 1 (AP).—The International Military Tribunal convicted Hermann Goering Tuesday of all four counts in the indictments against him.
Rudolf Hess was convicted on counts one and two and Joachim von Ribbentrop on all four counts. Marshal Wilhelm von Keitel was found guilty on all four counts also.
Ernst Kaltenbrunner was found guilty of counts three and four and innocent of count one.
Alfred Rosenberg was found guilty on all four counts.
Hans Frank was convicted on count three and found innocent of count one.
Wilhelm Frick was found guilty of counts two, three and four and innocent of count one.
Julius Streicher was convicted on count four and found innocent on count one.
Hjalmar Schacht was found innocent of all four counts.
Two [correction: 3—ed.] other of the Nazi defendants were acquitted by the tribunal. They were Franz von Papen and Hans Fritsche [and Hjalmar Schacht].
Ruled Supreme Crime
The tribunal, in a history-making judgment foreshadowing death or imprisonment for Adolf Hitler’s top-ranking henchmen, ruled Monday that the waging of aggressive warfare is the supreme crime.
Monday’s session lasted almost eight hours, adjourning at 6:40 p.m. At that time 177 pages of the judgment had been read, leaving about 70 to be disposed of Tuesday before individual sentences are pronounced.
In Berlin, the Allied Control Council said two newspaper correspondents from each of the four occupying powers would be allowed to witness any executions. Only official photographers appointed by the court will be admitted to film the executions.
The charges are: a common plan to wage aggressive war, crimes against the peace of the world, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
No declarations of criminality were returned against four Nazi organizations—the General Staff, the High Command, the Reich Cabinet and Hitler’s brown-shirted Stormtroopers (SA).
Individuals Can Be Tried
The tribunal emphasized, however, that members of the organizations against which no declarations of criminality were returned could be tried as individuals.
In the case of the General Staff and High Command, the court ruled that the organizations did not come within the framework of the tribunal’s charter because they were not, strictly speaking, units.
The prosecution of German military leaders has been watched closely by professional soldiers throughout the world. Many American soldiers have opposed the group prosecution of German soldiers.
However, the judges referred to Germany’s “ruthless military caste” and declared in biting language that the Nazi Generals were a “disgrace to the honorable profession of arms.”
“The tribunal believes that no declaration of criminality should be made with respect to the General Staff and the High Command—neither an organization nor a group within the meaning of those terms as used in the charter,” the document said.
About 130 Officers
“These groups constitute approximately 130 officers living and dead. Their operational technique was much the same as that of the armies, navies, and air forces of all other countries.”
The SA bullies, who pushed around non-Nazis in Hitler’s early days, lost their potency after the 1934 purge, the judgment said, and were unimportant in making decisions.
“After the purge, the SA was reduced to the status of a group of unimportant Nazi hangers-on,” the judgment declared.
The Reich Cabinet, likewise, was termed a very minor factor in shaping Hitler’s terror-striking military regime.
“Not a single meeting of the Reich Cabinet was held after 1937,” the document said. “The Cabinet was not consulted. Nothing would be accomplished by declaring the Reich Cabinet to be a criminal organization. Those members who have been guilty of crimes should be brought to trial. It is estimated that there are forty-eight members of the group, that eight of these are dead and seventeen are now on trial.”
The Leadership Corps was composed of minor fuehrers, block leaders and other kingpins in the Nazi setup.
“The Leadership Corps was used for purposes which were criminal under the charter and involved the Germanization of the incorporated territory, the persecution of Jews, the administration of the slave labor program and the mistreatment of prisoners of war,” the judgment said.
“The defendants, Bormann and (Fritz) Saukel, who were members of this organization, were among those who used it for these purposes. The gauleiters, the kreisleiters and the orsgruppenleiters participated to one degree or another in these criminal programs.”
All defendants except Rudolf Hess listened intently as the eight Justices took turns reading the judgment. Hess, Hitler’s unpredictable shadow from the days of the 1923 Munich putsch until he parachuted to Scotland, did not use his earphones, over which the judgment was translated into German.
In the middle of the afternoon session, the former Deputy Fuehrer was doubled up with what apparently was an attack of stomach cramps and was returned to his little cell in the jail behind the courthouse.
Mentioned by Name
The judgment mentioned almost all of the defendants by name.
Goering, whose blustering personality has dominated the other prisoners, was referred to as the builder of the Luftwaffe and one of the instigators of the master plan to gobble up and loot small nations.
The court mentioned orders issued by Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel for the brutal treatment of prisoners; double-dealings by Diplomat Franz von Papen to ease Hitler into power and then to further the Fuehrer’s foreign policy; the racial theories of Alfred Rosenberg and his statements about the elimination of non-German races.
As the judges droned on, Goering turned to his counsel and said:
“I did not expect they would go through all this to kill us.”
Keitel, convinced he will be found guilty, asked his attorney to request he be shot instead of hanged or beheaded. Counsel for Rosenberg said if his client were sentenced to death he would first appeal to the Allied Control Council and then request the firing squad.
The only defendant who expressed belief he would be freed was von Papen.
The 545 seats of the courtroom were filled to capacity a full half hour before court opened Monday morning. The defendants, dressed with more care than usual, grinned as they were led to the dock.
However, they became deadly serious as soon as Chief Justice Sir Geoffrey Lawrence started to read the judgment.
Contentions Brushed Aside
The court brushed aside most of the contentions the defendants had made while testifying in their own behalf.
It was not enough, the justices ruled, for the prisoners to say they were forced to obey Hitler.
“Crimes against international law are committed by men—not by abstract entities—and only by punishing individuals who commit such crimes can provisions of international law be enforced,” Justice Francis Biddle read from the judgment.
“Individuals have international duties which transcend national obligations of obedience.”
In this connection, the court lashed out at a frequent contention of German militarists—that they were only soldiers doing their duty.
“That a soldier was ordered to kill or torture in violation of the international law of war has never been recognized as a defense to such acts of brutality,” the judgment said. “The true test is not the existence of an order, but whether a moral choice was in fact possible.”
As these words were read, Field Marshals Alfred Jodl and Keitel hung their heads. Grand Admirals Erich Raeder and Karl Doenitz stared stonily.
As Justice John J. Parker read of gas chamber atrocities and wanton murder of helpless people, the aging von Papen covered his face with his hands.
Fritz Sauckel, who was responsible for the Nazi’s forced labor program, dropped the usually amused look from his face and appeared worried.
Wilhelm Frick, who helped Hitler from the first days of the Nazi party, leaned forward as though he were afraid to miss a word.
Raeder and Rosenberg were blamed directly for instigating the Norwegian invasion. Austrian-born Arthur Seyss Inquart was accused of handing over his homeland to the Reich.
The court ruled formally that the annexation of Austria was “an aggressive war” started by Germany. Also listed as concrete acts of aggression were the absorption of Czechoslovakia, the Polish campaign, and the invasion of Russia, Denmark, Norway, Holland and Belgium.
Ignorance Claims Hit
The Justices made repeated references to Hitler’s book, “Mein Kampf,” saying this book was sold to 6,500,000 persons and informed the world of Hitler’s aims. Consequently, the judgment added, the Nazi leaders could not claim ignorance of Hitler’s intentions.
Meanwhile, Dr. Wilhelm Hoegner, Minister-President of Bavaria, hailed the International Military Tribunal’s judgment of Nazidom’s leaders as a “book of history,” while in the Nuernberg courthouse officials of all four powers appeared satisfied that the trial had been eminently fair.
Dr. Hoegner told a conference of German newsmen he regretted the Germans themselves were unable to try Goering for high treason, but he said the decisions of the court would show the German people that the Allies “were not only victorious nations, but really judges.”
At the court, a member of the United States staff said Justice Robert H. Jackson, chief American prosecutor, was greatly impressed by the judgment.
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