the nuremberg trials

Written by Abrish Nayyar 7:30 pm Articles, Current Affairs, International Relations, Published Content

The Nuremberg Trials: Reliving Haunting Memories

Post-Hitler Germany was no safe space for those who had sided with him; the Nuremberg Trials were conducted against the Nazi Party leaders, military representatives, the German elite, lawyers, and even physicians who had been accused of atrocities against humanity and peace. Since Hitler himself had committed suicide, he could not be forced to undergo a legal prosecution. These trials are also credited for setting a precedent for handling subsequent cases of genocide and other similar crimes against humanity. Today, the Nuremberg trials are viewed as a building block for the foundation of a permanent international court to oversee legal proceedings which addressed matters of international security.
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Ms Abrish Nayyar is a student of BS Mass Communications at the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST). Her subjects of interest are the history of the subcontinent, sociology, and mass media.


The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum states that in December 1942, the leaders of the Allies—Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union— published the first joint declaration which officially acknowledged and condemned the mass murder of European Jews. The declaration also resolved to prosecute those who were responsible for the violence against innocent civilians.

Joseph Stalin, the infamous Soviet leader, originally recommended that the 50,000–100,000 German staff officers, who in his eyes were deemed responsible for the crimes, be executed. American leaders, trying a more rational approach, convinced British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that a criminal trial was the effective way to go, as opposed to summary execution (death without a trial) of high-ranking Nazis.

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A criminal trial would require accusers and defendants to produce evidence of the offences that the latter were alleged to have committed. Also, it would diminish claims that the accused had been handed a death sentence on little to no basis. The preparation for these trials in itself was a long and arduous process, as the legal team had many challenges to overcome – both administrative and law-related.

To begin with, this trial was the first of its kind, both in terms of scope, and reason. International war criminals had never before been produced before a court. The closest examples from history were of instances where trials of war criminals were prosecuted as per the laws of a single country. In the case of the Nuremberg trials, four different countries (France, Britain, the Soviet Union, United States) were involved.

With the London Agreement of the International Military Tribunal (IMT), which was published on August 8, 1945, the Allies had formulated and clearly defined the rules and limitations for the procedure of the Nuremberg trials. Furthermore, this charter outlined the three categories of crimes: those against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

For reference, crimes against peace entail not just waging wars or the breach of international treaties but also any steps taken in this direction, such as by planning, organizing, starting, and conducting such wars (these include, but are not limited to, murder, enslavement, deportation of civilians or persecution on political, religious, or racial bases). It was also agreed upon that both civilian and military officers could be charged with war crimes if seen as appropriate.

The Major War Criminals’ Trial: 1945-46

The Trial of Major War Criminals is undoubtedly the most well-known of all Nuremberg trials. It took place over the course of about a year, from November 20th, 1945, to October 1st 1946. The structure of the trial was a combination of multiple legal customs, as is to be expected when four different legal frameworks are involved.

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Following British and American law, prosecution and defense counsel were present, but rather than a single judge and jury, a tribunal (panel of judges) decided upon the verdicts and punishments. Two judges were provided by each of the four Allied powers—one main judge and one as an alternate.

Six Nazi organizations (including “Gestapo,” also referred to as the secret state police), together with 24 people, were all convicted. One individual was declared to be medically unfit for trial, whereas another committed suicide right before the trial started.

Similarly, before they could be put to trial, Hitler and two of his closest allies, Heinrich Himmler and Joseph Goebbels, had all committed suicide in the spring of 1945. The defendants were given the liberty to select their own attorneys, and the most popular defense was that the offenses listed in the London Charter were examples of ex-post-facto legislation or laws that punished acts that had already occurred when the laws had not yet been written.

Another commonly heard argument was that the trial was simply a show of power, or the victor’s justice, where the Allies continued to punish the crimes committed by Germans harshly while overlooking those committed by their own soldiers. Ultimately, the international tribunal declared all defendants guilty, except for three.

Twelve were awarded death sentences, of which one was in absentia, and the remaining defendants received jail terms ranging from 10 years to life behind bars. Ten people were hanged on the same day, 16th October 1946. Hitler’s successor, Hermann Göring, also committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide capsule he had concealed in a jar of skin cream. This was the night before he was supposed to be put to death.

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12 Subsequent Nuremberg Trials: 1946-49

Although the Trial of Major War Criminals garnered the most attention and had the most lasting impact in history textbooks, there were twelve trials that succeeded it. They are collectively referred to as the Subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings, since none were considered significant enough to be titled and discussed separately. These took place between December 1946 and April 1949.

The US military tribunals presided over these proceedings, rather than the international tribunal that had decided the fate of the top Nazi commanders. This is the key difference to set them apart from the first trial. This modification was deemed necessary as the procedures of the previous trial had been rendered impractical due to growing tensions between the four Allied nations. 


Although it is needless to say that everyone wanted to see these criminals pay for their crimes, the Nuremberg trials were divisive. The then-Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, Harlan Stone, referred to the trials as a “high-grade lynching party” and a “puritanical deception.” The United States Supreme Court associate judge William O. Douglas stated that the Allies “substituted power for principle” at Nuremberg.

However, most observers view the trials as the foundation for the development of international law. The 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention, 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and 1948 Geneva Convention on the Laws and Customs of War were all strongly influenced by the Nuremberg trials. 

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