The Nuremberg Trials Attempted To Punish The Most Powerful Surviving Nazis — And Failed Miserably

Published February 7, 2019
Updated November 9, 2020

Starting in November 1945, Allied forces presided over a series of Nuremberg trials intended to bring high-ranking Nazis to justice, but millions of Nazis evaded their grasp.

Nuremberg Trials

Getty ImagesAdolf Hitler’s right-hand-man Hermann Göring at the Nuremberg trials.

Following the atrocities carried out by the Nazis during World War II, the Allied powers sought to hold high-ranking officials responsible for the planning and execution of the Holocaust. As a result, the Nuremberg trials brought hundreds of Nazi war criminals to court.

However, the Allies had originally hoped to bring many more Nazis to justice. At the close of the war, they identified some 13 million people who had contributed to the violent horrors of Nazi Germany. However, millions slipped through their fingers and only about 300 were ever tried.

And even setting up trials for the few who were caught was a tall order. An international trial of this scale had never been attempted and there was no precedent upon which the Allies could build a framework or foundation for this method of justice.

After months of negotiations and planning, the Nuremberg trials did eventually accomplish their goal of punishing Nazis — though only partially.

Many top Nazi officials escaped capture and countless others killed themselves before they could stand trial. The validity and the intentionality of the trials were in constant question and ultimately, though the trials set a valuable precedent for the future, their legacy is tainted by controversy.

Nazi War Crimes Create A Need For Justice

Hitler In 1933

Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesNewly-elected chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler, is welcomed by supporters at Nuremberg in 1933.

When Adolf Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany in 1933, his Nazi government began to make their anti-Semitic beliefs the law of the land, implementing legislation and restrictions against Jews.

These new policies were designed specifically to isolate German-Jews. For the first few years of Hitler’s regime, the persecution of Jews remained non-violent. But that all changed in the fall of 1938, with Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass.”

This night in November marked one of the first instances where Nazi policies against Jews became violent. It is also the event that many people indicate as the start of the Holocaust. However, it wasn’t until the Wannsee Conference that Hitler’s plan to exterminate European Jews during the war was solidified.

Held in January 1942, the Wannsee Conference saw 15 high-ranking Nazi officials gather to discuss and coordinate a “total solution of the Jewish question.” They resolved to deport Jews to the East, but this language is today widely known to have been a euphemism for the total extermination of the Jewish people that was being ordered.

Kids In Auschwitz

Wikimedia CommonsChild survivors of Auschwitz, photographed by the Soviet army.

From then until the end of World War II in 1945, Hitler and the Nazis executed a systematic genocide of European Jews via a series of death camps throughout eastern Europe. In the end, the Nazi regime was responsible for the ruthless murder of approximately 6 million Jews.

The Nazis constructed 20 main concentration camps in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Poland, Estonia, and Lithuania. Some of these camps, such as Treblinka, were death camps, intended to kill every prisoner that passed through their gates. Others subjected inmates to horrific experiments and torture.

Thousands of people worked at each of these camps as guards, executioners, and administrators. At Auschwitz alone, 8,400 men and women worked as guards — and 1.1 million people were murdered under their watch.

While World War II raged on, the leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and France, convened in December 1942. They publicly declared that the Nazis were responsible for the mass murder of Jews and resolved “to prosecute those responsible for violence against civilian populations.”

Hitler Saluting

Heinrich Hoffmann/Archive Photos/Getty ImagesAdolf Hitler in Munich in the spring of 1932.

That declaration set the basis for the Nuremberg trials. When the Allied powers emerged victoriously from World War II, they rounded up German war criminals in an effort to make them pay for their horrendous acts.

Hitler committed suicide in the final days of the war and many other Nazis fled the country to escape justice. Meanwhile, the Allied powers had to consider how they would proceed with those war criminals they could get their hands on.

The world had never faced an international crisis like the Holocaust before and as a result, there was no precedent for what should be done next.

How The Allies Agreed To Try The Nazis

When the Allies met in 1942, Winston Churchill, Britain’s Prime Minister, favored the idea of executing high-ranking Nazi party members without a trial. The plan was simple: have senior officers identify war criminals in the field and then once a positive identification was given, kill them via firing squad.

Though an exhaustive list of criminals was put together, no one bothered to indicate their specific crimes. This was because, as Britain’s foreign secretary at the time Anthony Eden explained, “The guilt of such individuals is so black that they fall outside…any judicial process.”

Big Three At Yalta Conference

National Museum of the U.S. NavyL-R: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Soviet Union leader Josef Stalin at the Yalta Conference in February 1945.

It seemed that many of the leaders in Britain felt no punishment was too cruel to bring the Nazi defendants to justice. But the Soviets and the Americans were not on board with this plan.

They both felt that formal proceedings should be established to legitimize the trial. The Soviet Union wanted the defendants to be proven guilty on a world stage and the United States didn’t want to show the world that a Democratic state could just kill their enemies without some sort of due process first.

With a criminal trial that firmly documented the crimes committed and the individuals who committed them, proper evidence could be brought against the defendants and they would, in turn, be unable to counter their charges.

When U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt died and former judge Harry Truman took his place, he strongly argued for a formal trial to take place to punish Nazi war criminals. Eventually, Truman won the other Allied powers over to his side and they decided to establish a military tribunal.

With the end of the war, Allied powers were tasked with wrangling the criminals they wished to put on trial. Many Nazi officials were already in custody but Allies weren’t quite sure who to try as a major war criminal.

Additionally, the Allies hadn’t completely identified the Nazi government’s hierarchy, so the first lists of those who were going to be tried left many major names off. For example, preliminary lists left off Heinrich Müller and Adolf Eichmann, the head of the Gestapo and the head of the Gestapo Jewish Affairs office respectively, and both pivotal players in enacting the Nazi’s “Final Solution.”

Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Joseph Goebbels all committed suicide before they could be caught, which meant that some of the biggest architects of the Holocaust were out of reach of the Allies’ justice.

In the end, the Allies gathered the names of 24 people who they wished to try as major war criminals, though two of those were deemed unable to stand trial. Next, they would have to establish an entirely new branch of international law and formally charge 22 Nazis with major crimes.

Establishing The International Military Tribunal

London Conference In 1945

Charles Alexander, Office of the United States Chief of Counsel, Harry S. Truman Library & MuseumRepresentatives from the U.S., Soviet Union, U.K., and France work on the charter for the International Military Tribunal at the London Conference in the summer of 1945.

On Aug. 8, 1945, the Allies announced the establishment of the International Military Tribunal (IMT) at the London Conference. They detailed how those put on trial were going to be judged for the crimes and who was going to be judging.

The charter stated that Nazi officials were going to be indicted and put on trial in Nuremberg, Germany. The defendants could be accused of four different crimes:

  1. Conspiracy to commit charges 2, 3, and 4, which are listed below;
  2. Crimes against peace- defined as participation in the planning and waging of a war of aggression in violation of numerous international treaties;
  3. War crimes- defined as violations of the internationally agreed upon rules for waging war;
  4. Crimes against humanity- “namely, murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war; or persecution on political, racial, or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of domestic law of the country where perpetrated.”

The Nuremberg trials would mark the first time defendants anywhere were tried for crimes against humanity. Additionally, the word genocide was coined during the preparation for the trials. Polish-born lawyer Raphael Lemkin combined “genos,” Greek for people, with “-cide,” Latin for killing, to create a new word to describe the horrors of the Holocaust.

Judges from the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union would preside over the trials.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, who was appointed by President Truman to serve as the U.S.’s main judge, gives his opening statement at the Nuremberg trials.

The establishment of the IMT was hard-fought and required many compromises. The conspiracy condition only had a basis in American law and was an odd concept to the other countries. The Soviet Union did not care for the western legal tradition of innocent until proven guilty generally but went along with it for the sake of the trial.

The Soviet Union insisted that only the crimes of the Axis powers be put on trial. This meant that the western Allies had to turn a blind eye to the crimes against humanity that Stalin’s regime committed against Germans. The Allied Powers also had to exclude the Soviet Union’s attacks on Finland and Poland from the trials.

This decision did benefit the western Allies as well, though, because their own war crimes such as massive bombing campaigns, were also exempt from punishment.

Still, there were many amongst even the Allied Powers who thought that the Nuremberg trials were illegal and unjust. When Hermann Göring was handed the paper notifying him of his indictment for his crimes, he wrote on it: “The victor will always be the judge and the vanquished that accused.”

Adolf Hitler And Hermann Göring

German Federal ArchivesAdolf Hitler with Hermann Göring in Berlin, Germany in March 1938.

Despite the controversy and the pushback, by the fall of 1945, the Nuremberg trials were set. On Oct. 6 of that year, Nazi officials were indicted for their crimes and, whether they agreed with the legality of it or not, those on trial were going to be judged for their actions.

The Major War Criminals’ Trial Starts In 1945

Nazi Defendants At Nuremberg Trials

Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty ImagesAt the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg. Front left to right: Göring, Hess, Ribbentrop, Keitel, and Kaltenbrunne. Second row: Doentiz, Raeder, Shirach, and Sauckel.

The Nuremberg trials opened on Nov. 20, 1945, with the Major War Criminals’ trial. This trial ended up dragging on for nearly a full year.

Each of the Allied powers provided a main judge and an alternate, and Britain’s Lord Justice Geoffrey Lawrence presided. There were defense attorneys and prosecutors, but instead of one judge and jury handing down a decision, the tribunal was responsible for passing the final judgments.

Additionally, trials that required officials from four different countries to collaborate presented a logistical challenge. IBM stepped up to the plate and offered instantaneous translation services for the first time ever, recruiting men and women who could translate English, Russian, French, and German on the spot.

Attendees to the trials wore headphones to hear the instant translations, and red and yellow lights at the microphones warned speakers when they needed to stop or slow down to give translators time to catch up. It’s estimated that without this service, the trials would have lasted four times as long as they did.

Nuremberg Trials Defendant Table

The defendants were allowed to pick their own attorneys and most of them employed similar defense strategies. First, they claimed that the IMT charter was ex post facto law, which is a law that retroactively criminalizes conduct that was legal when it was first performed — in essence, the Nazis claimed that because their crimes were committed before this body of government was even established, the new laws did not apply to their actions.

The second defense was what Göring first alluded to: that the trials were a form of “victor’s justice,” which means the Allies conveniently overlooked their own crimes so as to more harshly judge the actions of the losing side.

Additionally, the Nazi’s attorneys argued that only a country could be accused of war crimes and said there was no precedent to try individuals. However, the tribunal rejected this defense, saying that the Nazis committed these crimes as individuals and must be individually tried and punished.

But most famously, many Nazis defended their actions by saying that they were simply following orders. This became known as the Nuremberg defense

Still, the defense caused the trial to drag on and on, as there were continuous arguments about the hierarchical organization of the Nazi government, and who was really to blame and who was simply being a good soldier and following their leader’s orders.

After 216 court sessions over 11 months, the panel of judges handed down their decisions on Oct. 1, 1946.

Major War Criminals Are Sentenced In 1946

The defendants are sentenced at Nuremberg during the major war criminals trial.

Twelve men were sentenced to death, three sentenced to life in prison, four were given prison sentences ranging from 10 to 20 years, and three were cleared of all charges. Of the 12 sentenced to death, only ten were executed.

Göring killed himself with a cyanide pill the night before he was scheduled to be executed. In a suicide note addressed to his wife he wrote that he wouldn’t mind being executed by a firing squad but said that he found hanging undignified. He wrote, “I have decided to take my own life, lest I be executed in so terrible a fashion by my enemies.”

Martin Bormann, who served as Adolf Hitler’s personal secretary, was sentenced to death in absentia. Bormann was missing for the duration of the trial and later the Allies found out he had already died while trying to escape Berlin in the last few days of the war.

The death sentences were carried out roughly two weeks after the decisions were announced. On Oct. 16, 1946, ten men were hanged to death on scaffolding that was put up in a prison gymnasium. Some witnesses claimed the executions were botched, with too-short ropes causing prisoners to die slowly and painfully. The U.S. Army denied these reports.

Their bodies were then cremated and thrown into the Iser River. Those who were given prison sentences were sent to Spandau Prison in Berlin.

Arthur Seyss Inquart Dead

Bettmann/Getty ImagesThe body of Nazi war criminal Arthur Seyss-Inquart, hanged on October 16, 1946.

The IMT had served the major war criminals what they deemed to be fair justice. Now, the rest of the Nazi officials were poised to be punished.

Subsequent Trials At Nuremberg Continue Through 1949

The Control Council for Germany enacted Law No. 10 on Dec. 20, 1945, which created a “uniform legal basis in Germany for the prosecution of war criminals and other similar offenders other than those dealt with by the International Military Tribunal.”

After the conclusion of the Major War Criminals’ Trial at Nuremberg, what would be known as the subsequent Nuremberg trials began. The trials were conducted in front of a U.S. military tribunal because of rising tensions and growing differences between the Allied powers which made working together for the rest of the trials impossible.

General Telford Taylor was named the chief prosecutor at the trials and the goal was “to try to punish persons charged with offenses recognized as crimes in Article II of the Control Council Law No. 10.”

Leo Alexander Testifies At Nuremberg Trials

United States Holocaust Memorial MuseumDuring testimony at the Doctors Trial on December 22, 1946, American medical expert Dr. Leo Alexander points to scars on Jadwiga Dzido’s leg. Dzido, a member of the Polish underground, was a victim of medical experiments at the Ravensbrüeck concentration camp.

The subsequent trials used the same three types of crimes established by the International Military Tribunal in the Major War Criminals’ trial to judge what were thought of as second-tier Nazi officials.

One of the most notable trials of this time at Nuremberg was the Doctors Trial, which began on Dec. 9, 1946. The American-led military tribunal tried 23 German doctors who were accused of various war crimes and crimes against humanity.

During the Holocaust, Nazi physicians created and implemented a euthanasia program that targeted and systematically killed those who the Nazis deemed “unworthy of life,” including people with disabilities.

Additionally, throughout World War II, German doctors conducted experiments on people in concentration camps without their consent. Many of their victims were permanently maimed or died as a result of these abhorrent procedures.

85 witnesses took the stand against the doctors and 1,500 documents were submitted, and on August 20, 1947, the American judges announced their verdict. Of the 23 doctors put on trial, 16 were found guilty and seven of those guilty were sentenced to death and executed on June 2, 1948.

Ministers Trial At Nuremberg

National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MDUS Brigadier General Telford Taylor, chief counsel for war crimes, opens The Ministers Trial.

Other subsequent trials were conducted against a wide range of Nazi war criminals, from lawyers and judges to SS officers and German industrialists.

All in all, 185 people were tried during 12 subsequent Nuremberg trials, which resulted in 12 death sentences, eight life in prison sentences, and 77 prison sentences of various lengths. In the years that followed, several sentences were shortened or the criminal was released altogether because of the time they had already spent behind bars.

The Legacy Of The Nuremberg Trials

Nazi War Criminals Acquitted

Imagno/Getty ImagesThree Nazis were acquitted: Franz von Papen (left); Hjalmar Schacht (middle), and Hans Fritzsche (right).

One of the overarching themes surrounding the legacy of the Nuremberg trials is controversy. Many people thought adequate justice had not been served to the men and women responsible for the Holocaust.

While a number of leading and second-tier Nazi officials were put on trial, many of them were acquitted of their charges, received unfairly relaxed sentences, or were not even tried at all. Countless Nazis fled Germany to evade justice and many more like Hitler and those closest to him killed themselves before they could be caught.

Further, others still were against the very foundation of the trials themselves. Harlan Stone, the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court at the time of the Nuremberg trials, thought the proceedings were a “sanctimonious fraud” and a “high-grade lynching party.”

An associate U.S. Supreme Court justice at the time, William O. Douglas, believed that during the Nuremberg trials the Allies “substituted power for principle.”

Karl Dönitz, a Nazi leader who was tried and sentenced to 10 years in prison during the Nuremberg Trials, is released in 1956.

Despite the glaring flaws of the Nuremberg trials, they still served as a pivotal first step in the establishment of a new international law. The leader of the American prosecution team, Justice Robert Jackson, believed that the trials were an opportunity to establish the guidelines of how a government can treat its people.

The Nuremberg trials led to various important milestones in international law, especially in regards to human rights. These include the United Nations Genocide Convention (1948), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), and the Geneva Convention on the Laws and Customs of War (1949).

The International Military Tribunal was the first of its kind and thus created a precedent for many similar trials such as those against Japanese war criminals in Tokyo (1946-48), the trial of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann in 1961, and for war crimes committed in 1993 in former Yugoslavia and in 1994 in Rwanda.

While the Nuremberg trials were not a complete success in punishing Nazi war criminals, the resounding impact that the trials have left on international law cannot be overlooked. Indeed, the trials and the International Military Tribunal helped to create a legal framework that could be used to assess the behavior of modern states and is still used to this very day.


After this look at the Nuremberg trials, read about Irma Grese, “the beautiful beast” and one of the Nazis’ most feared guards. Then discover the story of Ilse Koch, also known as “the bitch of Buchenwald,” who was one of the Holocaust’s biggest monsters.

Caroline Redmond
Caroline is a writer and Florida-transplant currently living in New York City.