WAR CRIMES TRIALS
In 1943 the Allies--including Russia, Great Britain,
France, the United States, and representatives of the occupied countries--promised
that when the war was over Nazi war criminals would be brought to trial. The
promised trials were held in Nuremberg, Germany, beginning on November 20, 1945.
They went on for 403 court sessions. Over one hundred thousand captured German
documents were studied as the lawyers prepared for the trials. The record of the
trials fills forty-two large volumes. The Nuremberg trials were the largest war
crimes trials in history, but not the first.
Earlier War Crimes Trials
The first famous war crimes trial of modern times was
that of Captain Henry Wirts, a Confederate officer who had been in charge of a
prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia, in the United States. This camp, operated
during the United States Civil War, had a reputation for starvation and cruelty
that was not equaled until Hitler's time. Wirts was accused of the deaths of
several thousand Yankee prisoners of war. He was tried by a military court,
convicted, and hanged.
There were also war crimes trials following World War I.
Most nations had agreed to certain "laws of warfare" drawn up in 1899
and in 1907. And the Geneva Conventions of 1864 and 1906 had laid down
international laws regarding the conduct of war. The treaty that ended the First
World War stated that the Germans had broken some of these laws and must stand
trial for their crimes. The Allies drew up a list of nearly 900 names, but only
thirteen Germans were actually brought to trial, and the German court that tried
them set six of them free.
Defining War Crimes
Preparing for the trials to follow World War II was a
large job. Thousands of documents were placed before the Nuremberg court, naming
people who should be brought to trial. The international tribunal chose to bring
to trial only the top leadership of the Nazi party. Each occupying power was to
conduct additional trials within its own zone. The tribunal's first job was to
define "war crimes." The court declared that war crimes included
"crimes against peace," including "aggressive warfare," and
"crimes against humanity," such as, "murder, ill-treatment or
deportation to slave labor or for any other purpose, of civilian populations of
or in occupied territory..."
The top Nazis were clearly involved in such crimes. It
was the first time in history that government leaders were tried by an
The Nuremberg Trial
A group of leading lawyers was hired by the court to
defend the Nazi officers who could choose among them or request any other
lawyer. These lawyers were faced by prosecuting attorneys from the Allied
The prosecution tried to prove that the Nazis on trial
had planned the war. They claimed that Nazis like Herman Goering, Joachim von
Ribbentrop, Hans Frank (who had been in charge of mass murders in Poland),
Julius Streicher (an early Nazi leader and anti-Semite), and Albert Speer, had
planned to conquer the world if they could. As a minor part of its case, the
prosecution presented witnesses and documents that told the story of the
Holocaust. The defense lawyers could not say that the Holocaust had not
happened, so they concentrated on other issues.
First they said the court had no legal authority. The
defense claimed that the court was just a way of taking revenge; it was a "show"
to justify executing the Nazis. But the judges of the court declared that "laws
of war" and "laws of humanity" had existed before the war began.
The Nazis were being tried fairly for laws they had broken.
The defense then said that the individual Nazis were
only obeying the laws of the German nation. They were performing their duty. But
the judges advanced a new idea--that some laws are "international moral
laws." They pointed out that all people are aware of certain basic laws
such as the law against murder, the law against enslavement, the law against
extermination. Duty to these human laws comes before duty to any state or
The defense next claimed that the Nazis on trial were
"following orders." They were high-ranking military officers, and the
first rule of all armies is that an order must be obeyed no matter what it is.
On this issue the judges of the court declared that the higher a person is in
military or governmental authority the greater his or her accountability.
The defense had one more argument. In Nazi Germany, they
said, one man--Adolf Hitler--had given all the orders. Hitler was der
Fuhrer, the Leader, and to disobey Hitler's order meant death. This was
called the Fuhrer-prinzip, the leadership principle. In other words, the
defense lawyers were saying, everyone in Germany had been forced either to
follow Hitler's orders or suffer death. They were all innocent; only Hitler was
The tribunal did not accept this argument. They asked,
How could any one man, even Hitler, have given every order? They had the
document that proved, for example, that Goering had given the direct orders for
the "Final Solution." And they further stated, as they had before,
that it is in itself a crime to obey an order "which is clearly a crime
against peace"--no matter who has given the order, or how great the
pressure to obey.
When the verdicts were handed down, three men were set
free. Although they had been part of the leadership, the court did not think
they were guilty of crimes against humanity. Nineteen men were found guilty.
Twelve were sentenced to hanging, including several who were pointed out as
having had a hand in the murder of Jews: Goering, Streicher, Frank, Alfred
Rosenberg (who had been in charge of Jews in the eastern territories), and
Arthur Seyss-Inquart (an Austrian in charge of Jews in the occupied
Netherlands). The court had toiled to be fair. And the Nuremberg trials became a
landmark in moral history, affirming that individuals are always to be
considered responsible for their actions--in time of war as in time of peace.
Perhaps most important, the Nuremberg court had defined
"crimes against humanity":
extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed
against any civilian population, before or during the war, or persecutions on
political, racial, or religious grounds...
These are defined as crimes, whether committed by one
individual or a group of persons.
The Aftermath of the Nuremberg Trials
The Nuremberg trials were long; they lasted nearly a
year. Following them there were dozens of smaller trials of other Germans who
had been important to the Nazis and who were accused of war crimes and crimes
against humanity. Some had been in charge of concentration camps, death camps,
or ghettos. There were trials of Nazi doctors who had used Jews as guinea pigs
in unspeakable experiments. And there were trials of officers and leaders of the
Lawyers, judges, and statesmen knew that the trials were
important--indeed, history-making--but most people in America and in Europe were
busy returning to normal life. They soon lost interest in the trials and tried
to put the war behind them. Even more disappointing, the Holocaust itself had
played only a small part in the case against the Nazis, so it received little
Thus for many more years, the world was hardly aware of
the "Final Solution"--the murder of six million Jews, and the plan to
kill all the Jews. To this day, there are many who do not know that Hitler
proposed the same end for millions of non-Jews. He set out to destroy the Gypsy
people entirely. He was responsible for the murder of Russian, Polish, and Slav
civilians. His "Euthanasia" programs systematically took the lives of
the old, the sick, the lame, the homosexual, the physically deformed, and the
mentally handicapped. Yet even after Nuremberg, many people remained unaware of
what the Nazis had done within the borders of Germany and the occupied lands. It
was the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1960 that finally captured public attention.
In the confusion following the war, some high-ranking
Nazis escaped from Germany and Europe. Many of them went into hiding in the
Americas, both North and South. After the State of Israel was established in
1948, a special section of its secret service set out to find these Nazis and
bring them to justice. When Nazis were located in Germany or in other European
countries, their names were brought to the attention of the local police and
courts. Some of them were then brought to trial in Europe.
But in many places, especially in South American
countries, the Nazis were welcomed. Bringing the names of ex-Nazis to the
attention of the government served no real purpose, since these governments
refused to arrest them, or put them on trial. Therefore, when the Israeli secret
service located Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi who had overall responsibility for the
"Final Solution," they did not contact the government of Argentina
where he was found. Instead, in a controversial move, they kidnapped Eichmann
and flew him to Israel.
On May 23, 1960, the prime minister of Israel, David
Ben-Gurion, told the Israeli parliament that Eichmann had been captured, was in
Israel, and would face trial under the Israeli "Law of Judging Nazi
Criminals and Their Helpers." Suddenly all eyes were on Jerusalem. It was
as if the imagination of the world had been captured along with Eichmann.
The Man in the Glass Booth
Eichmann's trial was world news. Because of it, the
whole story of the Holocaust and the "Final Solution" came into focus
for the people of the world. Eichmann chose his own lawyer, a German attorney
who was paid by the Israeli government. For his own protection, Eichmann
appeared in court inside a bulletproof glass booth. In front of television
cameras, newspaper reporters, international observers, and world opinion, the
story of the death camps and ghettos was finally told to the world, and the
world was ready to hear it. Eichmann was found guilty, sentenced to die, and
hanged. His ashes were scattered over the Mediterranean Sea outside Israeli
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“Seymour Rossel, a
long-experienced and gifted educator, here gives yet another important
contribution for readers of every age and background. This book is a rare
and valuable overview of an enormously challenging subject. Every chapter
is accessible, intelligent, and compelling.” — David
Altshuler, PhD, Founding Director, Museum
of Jewish Heritage, New York