The Nuremberg Tribunal was authorized to try and punish the persons who were guilty of war crimes during the Second World War. Discuss
A precedent for trying those accused of war crimes had been set at the end of World War I in the Leipzig War Crimes Trials held in May to July 1921 before the Reichsgericht (German Supreme Court) in Leipzig, although these had been on a very limited scale and largely regarded as ineffectual. At the beginning of 1940, the Polish government-in-exile asked the British and French governments to condemn the German invasion of their country. The British initially declined to do so; however, in April 1940, a joint British-French-Polish declaration was issued. Relatively bland because of Anglo-French reservations, it proclaimed the trio’s “desire to make a formal and public protest to the conscience of the world against the action of the German government whom they must hold responsible for these crimes which cannot remain unpunished”.
Three-and-a-half years later, the stated intention to punish the Germans was much more trenchant. On 1 November 1943, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States published their “Declaration on German Atrocities in Occupied Europe”, which gave a “full warning” that, when the Nazis were defeated, the Allies would pursue them to the uttermost ends of the earth … in order that justice may be done. The above declaration is without prejudice to the case of the major war criminals whose offences have no particular geographical location and who will be punished by a joint decision of the Government of the Allies. This Allied intention to dispense justice was reiterated at the Yalta conference and at Berlin in 1945.
British War cabinet documents, released on 2 January 2006, showed that as early as December 1944, the Cabinet had discussed their policy for the punishment of the leading Nazis if captured. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had then advocated a policy of summary execution in some circumstances, with the use of an Act of Attainder to circumvent legal obstacles, being dissuaded from this only by talks with US leaders later in the war .
In late 1943, during the Tripartite Dinner Meeting at the Tehran Conference, the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, proposed executing 50,000–100,000 German staff officers. US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, joked that perhaps 49,000 would do. Churchill, believing them to be serious, denounced the idea of the cold blooded execution of soldiers who fought for their country and that he’d rather be taken out in the courtyard and shot himself than partake in any such action. However, he also stated that war criminals must pay for their crimes and that in accordance with the Moscow Document which he himself had written; they should be tried at the places where the crimes were committed. Churchill was vigorously opposed to executions for political purposes. According to the minutes of a Roosevelt-Stalin meeting at Yalta, on 4 February 1945, at the Livadia Palace, President Roosevelt said that he had been very much struck by the extent of German destruction in the Crimea and therefore he was more bloodthirsty in regard to the Germans than he had been a year ago, and he hoped that Marshal Stalin would again propose a toast to the execution of 50,000 officers of the German Army.
US Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., suggested a plan for the total denazification of Germany, this was known as the Morgenthau Plan. The plan advocated the forced de-industrialization of Germany and the summary execution of so-called “arch-criminals”, i.e. the major war criminals. Roosevelt initially supported this plan, and managed to convince Churchill to support it in a less drastic form. Later, details were leaked to the public, generating widespread protest. Roosevelt, aware of strong public disapproval, abandoned the plan, but did not adopt an alternate position on the matter. The demise of the Morgenthau Plan created the need for an alternative method of dealing with the Nazi leadership. The plan for the “Trial of European War Criminals” was drafted by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and the War Department. Following Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, the new president, Harry S. Truman, gave strong approval for a judicial process. After a series of negotiations between Britain, the US, Soviet Union and France, details of the trial were worked out. The trials were to commence on 20 November 1945, in the Bavarian city of Nuremberg
Creation of court:
On 14 January 1942, representatives from the nine occupying countries met in London to draft the Inter-Allied Resolution on German War Crimes. At the meetings in Tehran (1943), Yalta (1945) and Potsdam (1945), the three major wartime powers, the United Kingdom, United States, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics agreed on the format of punishment for those responsible for war crimes during World War II. France was also awarded a place on the tribunal. The legal basis for the trial was established by the London Charter, which was agreed upon by the four so-called Great Powers on 8 August 1945, and which restricted the trial to “punishment of the major war criminals of the European Axis countries”.
Some 200 German war crimes defendants were tried at Nuremberg, and 1,600 others were tried under the traditional channels of military justice. The legal basis for the jurisdiction of the court was that defined by the Instrument of Surrender of Germany. Political authority for Germany had been transferred to the Allied Control Council which, having sovereign power over Germany could choose to punish violations of international law and the laws of war. Because the court was limited to violations of the laws of war, it did not have jurisdiction over crimes that took place before the outbreak of war on 1 September 1939.
Leipzig and Luxembourg were briefly considered as the location for the trial. The Soviet Union had wanted the trials to take place in Berlin, as the capital city of the ‘fascist conspirators’ but Nuremberg was chosen as the site for two reasons, with the first one having been the decisive factor.
- The Palace of Justice was spacious and largely undamaged (one of the few buildings that had remained largely intact through extensive Allied bombing of Germany), and a large prison was also part of the complex.
- Nuremberg was considered the ceremonial birthplace of the Nazi Party, hosted annual propaganda ralliesand was the city of Nuremberg Laws . It was thus considered a fitting place to mark its symbolic demise.
As a compromise with the Soviets, it was agreed that while the location of the trial would be Nuremberg, Berlin would be the official home of the Tribunal authorities. It was also agreed that France would become the permanent seat of the IMT and that the first trial (several were planned) would take place in Nuremberg .
Each of the four countries provided one judge and an alternate, as well as a prosecutor.
- Major General Iona Nikitchenko (Soviet main)
- Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Volchkov (Soviet alternate)
- Colonel Sir Geoffrey Lawrence (British main), President of the Tribunal
· Sir Norman Birkett (British alternate)
- Francis Biddle (American main) John J. Parker (American alternate)
- Professor Henri Donnedieu de Vabres (French main)
- Robert Falco (French alternate )
- Attorney General Sir Hartley Shawcross (United Kingdom)
- Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson (United States)
- Lieutenant-General Roman Andreyevich Rudenko (Soviet Union)
- François de Menthon, later replaced by Auguste Champetier de Ribes (France)
The majority of defense attorneys were German lawyers. These included Georg Fröschmann, Heinz Fritz (Hans Fritzsche), Otto Pannenbecker (Wilhelm Frick), Alfred Thoma (Alfred Rosenberg), Kurt Kauffmann (Ernst Kaltenbrunner), Hans Laternser (general staff and high command), Franz Exner (Alfred Jodl), Alfred Seidl (Hans Frank), Otto Stahmer (Hermann Göring), Walter Ballas (Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach), Hans Flächsner (Albert Speer), Günther von Rohrscheidt (Rudolf Heß), Egon Kubuschok (Franz von Papen), Robert Servatius (Fritz Sauckel), Fritz Sauter (Joachim von Ribbentrop), Walther Funk (Baldur von Schirach), Hanns Marx (Julius Streicher), Otto Nelte and Herbert Kraus. The main counsels were supported by a total of 70 assistants, clerks and lawyers. The defense council included several men who took part in the war crimes during World War II. The men testifying for the defense hoped to receive more lenient sentences, but that did not happen often. In fact, all of the men testifying on behalf of the defense were found guilty on several counts.
The International Military Tribunal was opened on October 20, 1945, in the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg. The first session was presided over by the Soviet judge, Nikitchenko . The prosecution entered indictments against 24 major war criminals and seven organizations – the leadership of the Nazi party, the Reich Cabinet, the Schutzstaffel (SS), Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the Gestapo, the Sturmabteilung (SA) and the “General Staff and High Command”, comprising several categories of senior military officers . These organizations were to be declared “criminal” if found guilty.
The indictments were for:
- Participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of a crime against peace
- Planning, initiating and waging wars of aggression and other crimes against peace
- War crimes
- Crimes against humanity
American’s role in the trial:
While Sir Geoffrey Lawrence of Britain was the judge chosen as president of the court, the most prominent of the judges at trial arguably was his American counterpart, Francis Biddle. Prior to the trial, Biddle had been Attorney General of the United States but had been asked to resign by Truman earlier in 1945.
Some accounts argue that Truman had appointed Biddle as the main American judge for the trial as an apology for asking for his resignation. Ironically, Biddle was known during his time as Attorney General for opposing the idea of prosecuting Nazi leaders for crimes committed before the beginning of the war, even sending out a memorandum on January 5, 1945 on the subject. The note also expressed Biddle’s opinion that instead of proceeding with the original plan for prosecuting entire organizations, there should simply be more trials that would prosecute specific offenders.
Biddle soon changed his mind, as he approved a modified version of the plan on January 21, 1945, likely due to time constraints, since the trial would be one of the main issues discussed at Yalta. At trial, the Nuremberg tribunal ruled that any member of an organization convicted of war crimes, such as the SS or Gestapo, who had joined after 1939 would be considered a war criminal. Biddle managed to convince the other judges to make an exemption for any member who was drafted or had no knowledge of the crimes being committed by these organizations.
The Tribunal is celebrated for establishing that “Crimes against international law” are committed by men, not by abstract entities, and only by punishing individuals who commit such crimes can the provisions of international law be enforced. The creation of the IMT was followed by trials of lesser Nazi officials and the trials of Nazi doctors, who performed experiments on people in prison camps. It served as the model for the International Military Tribunal for the Far East which tried Japanese officials for crimes against peace and against humanity. It also served as the model for the Eichmann trial and for present-day courts at The Hague, for trying crimes committed during the Balkan wars of the early 1990s, and at Arusha, for trying the people responsible for the genocide in Rwanda.
The Nuremberg trials had a great influence on the development of international criminal law. The Conclusions of the Nuremberg trials served as models for:
- The Genocide Convention, 1948.
- The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.
- The Nuremberg Principles, 1950.
- The Convention on the Abolition of the Statute of Limitations on War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity, 1968.
- The Geneva Convention on the Laws and Customs of War, 1949; its supplementary protocols.
Finally, we can say that Nuremberg trial was authorized to try and punish the persons who were guilty of war crimes during the Second World War. Despite it has some criticism also. Critics of the Nuremberg trials argued that the charges against the defendants were only defined as “crimes” after they were committed and that therefore the trial was invalid as a form of “victors’ justice“. As Biddiss observed, “the Nuremberg Trial continues to haunt us. … It is a question also of the weaknesses and strengths of the proceedings themselves. The undoubted flaws rightly continue to trouble the thoughtful.”
1.Crossland, John (1 January 2006). “Churchill: execute Hitler without trial”. The Sunday Times. Archived from the original on 11 March 2007. http://web.archive.org/web/20070311090356/http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article784041.ece. Retrieved 23 November 2011.
2.Heller, Kevin Jon (2011). The Nuremberg Military Tribunals and the Origins of International Criminal Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
3. Lawrence, Geoffrey (1947). “The Nuremberg Trial”. International Affairs 23 (2): 151–159.
4. Neave, Airey (1978). Nuremberg: A Personal Record of the Trial of the Major Nazi War Criminals. Grafton Books.
5. Kochavi, Arieh J. (1998). Prelude to Nuremberg: Allied War Crimes Policy and the Question of Punishment. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
6. Luban, David (1994). Legal Modernism: Law, Meaning, and Violence. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press .