What is the Nuremberg trial of the Nazi leaders and how it took place

The Nuremberg trials was the best known of numerous processes celebrated after the Second World War against those who had committed war crimes and atrocities, which took place between 20 November 1945 and 1 October 1946 in the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg. It was organized jointly by the victorious countries, who set up a special international military tribunal, and received widespread media coverage, also due to the trials of the 24 members of the Nazi regime accused, among other things, of crimes linked to the Shoah. The judges sentenced nineteen defendants to death or prison terms and acquitted five others.

The trial had a great importance both in the legal fieldbecause it established principles that later became an integral part of international law, both on a historical levelbecause it contributed to making citizens all over the world aware of the crimes committed by Nazism.

The trials after the Second World War

At the end of the Second World War, numerous political and military leaders who had committed atrocities were put on trial. The trials were organised, depending on the case, by the victorious countries, by the states in which the atrocities had been committed or by the countries of origin of the perpetrators of the crimes themselves. Among the accused were mainly representatives of the Nazi Germanythe country that had committed the most serious atrocities.

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The most famous trial, celebrated in Nuremberg between 1945 and 1946, was organized jointly by the four victorious powers: United States, United Kingdom, Soviet Union and France.

US military officials with evidence files
US military officials with files on Nazi crimes

The origins of the Nuremberg trials

The idea that those responsible for atrocities during World War II should be tried emerged during the summits between the leaders of the allied powers took place when the conflict was still ongoing. After the defeat of Germany, the powers agreed to carry out the main process a Nuremberg, both because it was one of the symbolic cities of Nazism (it was the place where the Nazi party rallies had taken place), and because the courthouse had not been damaged by the bombings. Each of the four victorious countries provided judges and prosecutors to set up the court.

The defendants

They were accused in the trial twenty-four peopleamong which were some of the highest Nazi exponents: Herman Goering, head of the air force and, de facto, number two of the regime for some years; the foreign minister Ribbentropthe generals Keitel And Jodlwho had led the supreme command together with Hitler, the hierarch of the SS Kaltenbrunner. All of the defendants had been captured at the end of the war, with one exception Rudolf Hessformer secretary of the Nazi party, who had been a prisoner of the British since 1941. Another defendant, Martin Bormannwas tried in absentia, because he had not been captured and his death had not been confirmed.

Goering during the trial
Goering during the trial

Among the accused, some of the main perpetrators of Nazi crimes were missing, who had committed suicide at the end of the war: primarily Hitlerbut also some of his close collaborators, such as the minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels and the head of the SS Heinrich Himmlermain organizer of the extermination camp system.

The charges and the legitimacy of the trial

The defendants had to answer for four charges:

  • war crimes
  • crimes against humanity
  • crimes against peace
  • unleashing a war of aggression

In essence, what was at issue was not only the atrocities committed during the war, but the very fact of having provoked the conflict.

The legitimacy of the trial was contested by some jurists and the lawyers of the defendants. The law, in fact, Not can be retroactive, that is, a person cannot be tried for having carried out actions not foreseen as a crime at the time they were carried out. In short, from the point of view of legal formality, the defendants had not violated the laws of any state. This is the difficulty that is always encountered in defining crimes committed by political leaders in the exercise of their functions as criminal offences.

However, Nazism had committed crimes so serious that according to common opinion they did not require laws to be condemned. For example, send millions of people to the gas chamberseven without being explicitly foreseen by law as a crime, it is obviously a crime.

The trial, moreover, was organized according to principles of legalityguaranteeing full freedom of defense to the accused, unlike the revenges and summary executions that often take place at the end of wars.

The judges' bench
The judges' bench

How the Nuremberg trials took place

The trial opened on November 20, 1945 and finished the September 30, 1946. The defendants adopted defensive strategies heterogeneous: depending on the case, they declared that they were unaware of the crimes committed by Nazism, they stated that other states had committed the same crimes, they tried to shift the blame onto Hitler and other hierarchs. The prosecution, for its part, was able to produce a large amount of evidence and witnesses, documenting in detail the atrocities and the responsibility of many of the accused in starting the war.

A moment of work
A moment of work

The sentence and death sentences

The court handed down the sentence on September 30, 1946. There were twelve defendants sentenced to death and executed the next day (except Goering, who committed suicide in his cell, and Bormann, who was in absentia); seven were sentenced to prison sentences and imprisoned in Spandau prison, Berlin; there were three acquitted; the positions of two others were deleted (one was dead and the other was suffering from serious health problems).

The news of the sentence in the German press (credits Bundesarchiv)
The news of the sentence in the German press (credits Bundesarchiv)

The consequences of the Nuremberg trials

Nuremberg was the only trial of Nazi leaders organized by a court composed of the four Allied powers. Due to the start of the Cold War, the other trials were held by tribunals set up by individual countries. The Nuremberg Trials had great importance for the development of international law, because the principles applied in the trial have been implemented by other national and international courts. Furthermore, the process had the merit of leading to theattention of public opinion around the world the atrocities committed by the Nazis.


Process documentation in English