The Nuremberg Trials were a series of military tribunals, held by the Allied forces of World War II, 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, The first and best known of these trials, described as “[t]he greatest trial in history” by Norman Birkett, one of the British judges who presided over it, was the Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal (IMT). Held between 20 November 1945 and 1 October 1946, the Tribunal was given the task of trying 23 of the most important political and military leaders of the Third Reich, though one of the defendants, Martin Bormann, was tried in absentia, while another, Robert Ley, committed suicide within a week of the trial’s commencement. Not included were Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Joseph Goebbels, all of whom had committed suicide several months before the indictment was signed. The second set of trials of lesser war criminals was conducted under Control Council Law No. 10 at the US Nuremberg Military Tribunals (NMT); among them included theDoctors’ Trial and the Judges’ Trial. This article primarily deals with the IMT; see the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials for details on those trials.
A precedent for trying those accused of war crimes had been set at the end of World War I in the Leipzig War Crimes Trials held in May to July 1921 before the Reichsgericht (German Supreme Court) in Leipzig, although these had been on a very limited scale and largely regarded as ineffectual. At the beginning of 1940, the Polish government-in-exile asked the British and French governments to condemn the German invasion of their country. The British initially declined to do so; however, in April 1940, a joint British-French-Polish declaration was issued. Relatively bland because of Anglo-French reservations, it proclaimed the trio’s “desire to make a formal and public protest to the conscience of the world against the action of the German government whom they must hold responsible for these crimes which cannot remain unpunished.”
Three-and-a-half years later, the stated intention to punish the Germans was much more trenchant. On 1 November 1943, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States published their “Declaration on German Atrocities in Occupied Europe”, which gave a “full warning” that, when the Nazis were defeated, the Allies would “pursue them to the uttermost ends of the earth … in order that justice may be done. … The above declaration is without prejudice to the case of the major war criminals whose offences have no particular geographical location and who will be punished by a joint decision of the Government of the Allies.” This Allied intention to dispense justice was reiterated at the Yalta Conference and at Berlin in 1945.
British War Cabinet documents, released on 2 January 2006, showed that as early as December 1944, 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 in some circumstances, with the use of an Act of Attainder to circumvent legal obstacles, being dissuaded from this only by talks with US leaders 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. US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, joked that perhaps 49,000 would do. Churchill, believing them to be serious, denounced the idea of “the cold blooded execution of soldiers who fought for their country” and that he’d rather be “taken out in the courtyard and shot” himself than partake in any such action. However, he also stated that war criminals must pay for their crimes and that in accordance with theMoscow 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.” According to the minutes of a Roosevelt-Stalin meeting at Yalta, on 4 February 1945, at the Livadia Palace, President Roosevelt “said that he had been very much struck by the extent of German destruction in the Crimea and therefore he was more bloodthirsty in regard to the Germans than he had been a year ago, and he hoped that Marshal Stalin would again propose a toast to the execution of 50,000 officers of the German Army.”
US Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., suggested a plan for the total denazification of Germany; this was known as the Morgenthau Plan. The plan advocated the forced de-industrialisation of Germany and the summary execution of so-called “arch-criminals”, i.e. the major war criminals. Roosevelt initially supported this plan, and managed to convince Churchill to support it in a less drastic form. Later, details were leaked to the public, generating widespread protest.[clarification needed] Roosevelt, aware of strong public disapproval, abandoned the plan, but did not adopt an alternate 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. Following Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, the new president, Harry S. Truman, gave strong approval for a judicial process. After a series of negotiations between Britain, the US, Soviet Union and France, details of the trial were worked out. The trials were to commence on 20 November 1945, in the Bavarian city of Nuremberg.
Creation of the courts
On 14 January 1942, representatives from the nine occupying countries met in London to draft the Inter-Allied Resolution on German War Crimes. At the meetings in Tehran (1943), Yalta (1945) and Potsdam (1945), the three major wartime powers, the United Kingdom, United States, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics agreed on the format of punishment for 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, which was agreed upon by the four so-called Great Powers on 8 August 1945,  and 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 1 September 1939.
Leipzig and Luxembourg were briefly considered as the location for the trial. The Soviet Union had wanted the trials to take place in Berlin, as the capital city of the ‘fascist conspirators’, butNuremberg was chosen as the site for two reasons, with the first one having been the decisive factor:
- The Palace of Justice was spacious and largely undamaged (one of the few buildings that had remained largely intact through extensive Allied bombing of Germany), and a large prison was also part of the complex.
- Nuremberg was considered the ceremonial birthplace of the Nazi Party, hosted annual propaganda rallies and was the city of the Nuremberg Laws. It was thus considered a fitting place to mark its symbolic demise.
As a compromise with the Soviets, it was agreed that while the location of the trial would be Nuremberg, Berlin would be the official home of the Tribunal authorities. 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.