Part 4: The Nuremberg Trials

Okay, I know what you must be thinking, "Hannah, you took a long break after Part 3 and now you're talking about an event that has to do with WWII. Are you lost?" Trust me when I say that it's important and now seems like the perfect time to talk about it.


For those like myself who may need a refresh on some of the dates and details leading up to and following WWII, I'll quickly go over some highlights.


After the end of WWI, the Leipzig War Crimes Trails took place from May - July of 1921. This was a very important historical moment because this set a sort of standard of holding people accountable for their actions in war.

In 1933, Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany.

On September 1, 1939 World War II began.

The Holocaust began in 1941.

The attack on Pearl Harbor took place on December 7, 1941. This led to the United States formally joining WWII.

The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was founded on June 13, 1942. This was an intelligence agency of the United States that worked during WWII.

By December of 1942, the allies Great Britain, United States, and Soviet Union together issued a joint declaration noting the mass murder of European Jewish.

On November 1, 1943, Great Britain, United States, and Soviet Union jointly issued the "Declaration on German Atrocities and Occupied Europe." This was a statement that was essentially promising to take all of the Nazis to trial once the horrors of this war was over and have them properly punished.

The Tehran Conference took place from November 28 - December 1, 1943. This was when the United States, United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union would come together and discuss their strategy going up against the Nazis. During these talks, it is reported that Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin suggested the execution of 50,000 - 100,000 German staff officers.

On July 20, 1944 there was an attempt to kill Hitler.

From February 4 - 11, 1945, the allied United States, United Kingdom, and Soviet Union gathered at the Yalta Conference, also known as the Crimea Conference. During this conference, the leaders discussed how to reorganize Germany after the war would come to an end.

On April 12, 1945, United States president Franklin D. Roosevelt died, making Harry Truman the new president of the United States.

Adolf Hitler killed himself on April 30, 1945.

Joseph Goebbels, one of Hitler's closest associates, killed himself on May 1, 1945.

On May 8, 1945, Germany officially surrenders to the allies. This day becomes known as Victory in Europe Day.

Henrich Himmler, another close associate with Hitler, killed himself on May 34, 1945.

The allies met once again from July 17 - August 2, 1945 at the Potsdam Conference. The allies discuss what to do with Germany now that they have surrendered.


While there are more that I could touch on, I think this is a good jumping in point. Going through these points, I want to draw attention to the fact that the allies had met on a number of occasions to touch base, discuss strategy, and make sure they were all roughly in agreement. They all had a shared goal: stop the Nazis and bring them to justice for their actions. So on August 8, 1945, they created the London Agreement. This was an agreement on how to handle the Nuremberg Trials. What laws and procedures would be put into place, who would be the judges and attorneys, and so forth.


As I briefly mentioned above, there was also discussion as to how to handle bringing that justice about. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Windston Churchill, initially suggested that the Nazis would be executed with the use of an Act of Attainder. This essentially means that all as a group would be found guilty without any trial and would all be brought to the exact same fate. The US and the Soviet Union were not on board with that plan and they agreed to look at other options.

As mentioned, Joseph Stalin suggested a punishment during the Tehran Conference. He proposed the execution of 50,000 - 100,000 German staff officers. Now I personally struggle with numbers and understanding the scale of that amount. So to me, that feels like a very big number, and it is. But as a point of reference, the Holocaust alone killed roughly 17 million people. Of that 17 million, roughly 6 million were killed for being Jewish. So while 50,000 - 100,000 people is a lot, it's peanuts compared to what the the Nazis had done. However, that suggestion was ultimately shot down.


That leads us to what was decided. There would be a number of trails that would take place. France joined the US, UK, and Soviet Union in taking those to trail. In the end, a total of about 1,800 people were taken to trial. I can't help but question what happened to the thousands of others that were suggested to be executed.

Another important part of the discussions had to do with the location of the trials. It was decided that the trials should take place in the location where the crimes were committed. Berlin was initially discussed as a location for the trial as it had been the capital city, however they settled on Nuremberg. In addition to having such a large place to hold the trails, it was also considered the "birthplace" of the Nazi party. There had been rallies that took place, laws that been passed, there, and so it was decided to be the best place to hold the trials.


There were a number of thing that happened before the trails began. To start, a renowned psychologist named Dr. Donald Ewen Cameron who was living and working in Canada at the time, was brought to Germany in November of 1945 to evaluate defendant Rudolf Hess to see if he was fit to stand trial. From Cameron's evaluation, he confirmed that Hess was in fact mentally fit to stand trial.


In addition, Robert Ley, who was the head of the "Deutche Arbeitsfront" (German Labor Front), killed himself on October 25, 1945. While he had been indicted, his death meant that they were unable to acquit him, nor find him guilty.


The Trial of Major War Criminals began on November 20, 1945. Throughout the trial, various defendants, including Rudolf Hess, also testified as defense witnesses. This choice was done in an attempt to receive a lesser sentence. In the end, everyone that testified as a witness were all found guilty on numerous counts.


Just shy of a year later, after 216 sessions in court, the Trial of Major War Criminals came to an end on October 1, 1946. Of all that were tried, twelve men were found guilty and sentenced to death, seven were found guilty and received prison sentences ranging from 10 years to life, three were acquitted, and two were not charged.


The two men that were not charged were Robert Ley and Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach. As mentioned before, Ley had killed himself before the trial began. Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, however, was found to be medically unfit to stand trial after being partially paralyzed.

The three acquitted were Dr. Hjalmar Schacht who was a banker and economist who had actually been imprisoned in a concentration camp toward the end of the war, Franz von Papen who was the Chancellor of Germany in 1932 and Vice Chancellor under Hitler, and Hans Fritzche who was a radio commentator and head of the news division of the Nazi Propaganda Ministry.


The execution of the twelve men sentenced to death was scheduled for October 16, 1946. Martin Bormann had been found to have killed himself while trying to flee from Berlin after the war. While he was not present for the trial, the courts found him guilty. It wouldn't be until much later that they found his body and realized he had in fact died months before the trial began. Hermann Göring, Hitler's designated successor and second in command, was also sentenced to death. On October 15, 1945, the night before his scheduled execution, Göring killed himself. The next day, the other ten men sentenced to death were taken to the gymnasium in the court building where they were all hung.


Following the Trial of Major War Criminals, it was decided that the United Stated, Soviet Union, United Kingdom, and France would not all have a hand in on the trails. There had been too many differences in opinion as to how they would go. So going forward, the United States would be the ones handling all future trials. A couple of these trials were the Doctors' Trial (December 9, 1946 - August 20, 1947), the Judges' Trial (March 5, 1947 - December 4, 1947).


While there had been a number of trials to bring justice to the many people involved with the horrific actions of WWII, not everyone had been tried. Droves of people fled Germany and went into hiding. Hundreds went to the United States.


Francis Biddle was the main American judge for the Trial of Major War Criminals. Before this trial came about, he had held the position of Attorney General of the United States. However, President Truman asked that Biddle resigns earlier in 1945. Since he was later selected to be the main judge for the Trial of Major War Criminals, some speculate that this was Truman's way of apologizing to Biddle for asking him to resign. Support for this theory includes Biddle's open objection to prosecuting Nazi leaders for crimes they committed prior to the war. He also objected to how the trials were set up to play out, however he later came around to it.


While these trials brought many people who committed horrific crimes to justice, these trials have also been widely criticized. For starters, the way the trial come to be and played out was not following any sort of established rules. It was more so as though they made the rules up on the fly.

More than that, there were individuals that viewed these trials as more of a lynching party than trials to bring justice. Even the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court Harlan Fiske Stone spoke out about his concerns with the trial. He explained that while he was grateful that the Nazis were getting the punishment that they deserved, he was concerned about the precedent this would set going forward.


While many chose to turn a blind eye to it, others had no qualms about pointing out that the actions of these trials were the same as what some were being tried for. For example, there were violations of the Geneva code which were clear rules about the treatment of those that are sick as well as those that are imprisoned. And while specific individuals were charged on conspiracy to commit aggression against Poland in 1939, the Soviet Union was also guilty of this crime. And yet, the Soviets were not charged for this.


In the end, regardless of the legitimacy of these trials, they also served to help form proper laws and regulations around these actions. It helped them to form a proper guide on how to handle these trials going forward, both from the praise and the criticism of how these trials played out.


Sources:

https://www.britannica.com/event/Nurnberg-trials

https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/the-nuremberg-trials

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuremberg_trials


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