The Nuremberg Trials: When The World Tried To Bring The Nazis To Justice — And Failed

Published February 7, 2019
Updated February 28, 2019
Published February 7, 2019
Updated February 28, 2019

The International Military Tribunal

London Conference

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.”

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. According to the BBC, 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.”

Hitler Goring

German Federal ArchivesAdolf Hitler with Herman 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 or not, those on trial were going to be judged for their actions.

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