More than 35 million people--most of them civilians--were killed in Europe during World War II. What treatment should be meted out to the Nazi leaders who had unleashed genocidal violence? The Allies weighed these questions at Nuremberg, Germany, the site of a series of war-crimes trials.
On November 20, 1945, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson began the prosecution at Nuremberg. "The most savage and numerous crimes planned and committed by the Nazis," he emphasized, "were those against the Jews." Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and other major Nazi figures did not hear his words. They had escaped trial by committing suicide. Twenty-two other Nazis were in the dock, however, when the International Military Tribunal (IMT), consisting of judges from the Allied powers--Great Britain, France, the USSR, and the United States--began its work.
The Nazi defendants included Martin Bormann, Nazi Party secretary and chief aide to Hitler, who was tried in absentia (he had not been found and was believed to be dead); Hermann Göring (pictured, left), who had authorized Reinhard Heydrich to prepare the "Final Solution"; Ernst Kaltenbrunner, head of the Security Police; Hans Frank, the Nazi governor of Occupied Poland; and Julius Streicher, a leading antisemitic propagandist.
Jackson's opening statement notwithstanding, the indictments against these men did not refer explicitly to crimes against Jewry. Instead, each of the Nuremberg defendants was tried on one or more of the following charges: (1) crimes against peace, (2) war crimes, (3) crimes against humanity, and (4) conspiracy to commit any of these crimes.
The IMT acquitted three of the defendants. Twelve others--including Bormann, Göring, Kaltenbrunner, Frank, and Streicher--were sentenced to death by hanging. Seven more, including Albert Speer and others who had used concentration-camp prisoners as slave laborers, received prison terms.
Under U.S. jurisdiction, 12 more trials were held at Nuremberg from October 1946 to April 1949. Indictments against Nazi war criminals led to trials in a variety of other courts, too. Nevertheless, only a fraction of the thousands directly involved in war crimes and the Holocaust were brought to justice.
That shortcoming, however, does not diminish the essential contributions that those postwar trials made. They documented much that had happened, and their proceedings became a public record that continues to bear witness to the Holocaust. In addition, the trials established important principles: Leaders can be held legally responsible for crimes committed in carrying out their government's policies, and individuals cannot defend themselves by simply claiming that they had only obeyed orders.
In the aftermath of the trials, the United Nations adopted a Convention for the Prevention of Crimes of Genocide as well as a Universal Declaration of Human Rights.