Nuremberg Trials

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

Page 285

The Nuremberg trials were a series of trials held between 1945 and 1949 in which the Allies prosecuted German military leaders, political officials, industrialists, and financiers for crimes they had committed during WORLD WAR II.

The first trial took place in Nuremberg, Germany, and involved twenty-four top-ranking survivors of the National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nazi Party). The subsequent trials were held throughout Germany and involved approximately two hundred additional defendants, including Nazi physicians who performed vile experiments on human subjects, concentration camp commandants who ordered the extermination of their prisoners, and judges who upheld Nazi practices.

World War II began in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. Over the next few years, the European Axis powers (Germany, Italy, Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania) successfully invaded and occupied France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway, Greece, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Finland, and the Netherlands. But when ADOLF HITLER's troops invaded the Soviet Union, the Nazi war machine stalled. By the end of the war, the Axis powers were battered and beleaguered, and in 1945 they unconditionally surrendered to the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France (the four Allied powers).

Although the surrender of the Axis powers brought the war to its formal conclusion, the Third Reich had left an indelible imprint on the world. During Germany's attempted conquest and occupation of Europe and Asia, the Nazis slaughtered, tortured, starved, and tormented over six million Jews and countless others?including Catholics, prisoners of war, dissenters, intelligentsia, nobility, and other innocent civilians. As part of their systematic effort to extinguish persons they deemed subversive, dangerous, or impure, the Nazis constructed

Page 286

concentration camps around Europe where they murdered their victims in gas chambers and incinerated their bodies in crematories. Persons who escaped this fate were deported to Nazi labor camps where they were compelled upon threat of death to work for the Third Reich.

The Allies had been discussing the idea of punishing war criminals since 1943 when U.S. president FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT, British prime minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet premier JOSEPH STALIN signed the Moscow Declaration promising to hold the Axis powers, particularly Germany, Italy, and Japan, responsible for any atrocities they committed during World War II. In 1944 Roosevelt and Churchill briefly entertained the idea of summarily executing the highest-ranking members of the Third Reich without a trial or legal proceeding of any kind.

However, by June of 1945, when delegations from the four Allied powers gathered in London at the International Conference of Military Trials, the U.S. representatives firmly believed that the Nazi leaders could not be executed without first being afforded the opportunity to defend themselves in a judicial proceeding. Principles of justice, fairness, and DUE PROCESS, delegates from the United States argued, required no less. U.S. leaders also feared that the Allies would be perceived as hypocritical for denying the vanquished powers the same basic legal rights that were denied to those persons summarily executed by Germany, Italy, and Japan during the war.

On August 8, 1945, the four Allied powers signed a convention called the Agreement for the Prosecution and Punishment of the Major War Criminals of the European Axis Powers, which set forth the parameters by which the accused would be tried. Under this convention, which is sometimes referred to as the London Agreement or Nuremberg Charter, the Allies would conduct the trials of leaders of the European Axis powers in Nuremberg, and would subsequently prosecute lower-ranking officials and less important figures in the four occupied zones of Germany. American military tribunals in the South Pacific, under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, tried accused Japanese war criminals.

The London Agreement also established the International Military Tribunal (IMT), which was a panel of eight judges, two named by each of the four Allied powers. One judge from each country actively presided at trial, and the other four sat on the panel as alternates. The four Allied powers also selected the prosecutors, who agreed to pursue a conviction against the defendants on behalf of the newly formed UNITED NATIONS.

Under the Nuremberg Charter, each defendant accused of a war crime was afforded the right to be represented by an attorney of his choice. The accused war criminals were presumed innocent by the tribunal and could not be convicted until their guilt was proven BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT. In addition, the defendants were guaranteed the right to challenge incriminating evidence, cross-examine adverse witnesses, and introduce exculpatory evidence of their own.

The court appointed interpreters to translate the proceedings into four languages: French, German, Russian, and English. Written evidence submitted by the prosecution was translated into the native language of each defendant. When considering the admissibility of particular documents or testimony, the IMT was not bound by technical RULES OF EVIDENCE common to Anglo-American systems of justice. The tribunal retained discretion to evaluate HEARSAY and other forms of evidence that are normally considered unreliable in the United States and Great Britain.

The IMT made all of its decisions by a majority vote of the four judges. On issues that divided the judges equally, the president of the court, Lord Justice Geoffrey Lawrence from Great Britain, was endowed with the deciding vote. In all other situations, a vote cast by Lawrence carried no greater weight than a vote cast by Soviet judge Ion Nikitchenko, French judge Henri Donnedieu de Vabres, American judge FRANCIS BIDDLE, or any of the alternates. The IMT's decisions, including any rulings, judgments, or sentences, were final and could not be appealed.

Neither the defense nor the prosecution was permitted to challenge the legal, political, or military authority of the court. The IMT said that its jurisdiction stemmed from the London Agreement that was promulgated by the Allies pursuant to their inherent legislative powers over the conquered...

To continue reading