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

Published February 7, 2019
Updated July 10, 2019

Nuremberg Trials: The Major War Criminals’ Trial

Nazi Defendants At Nuremberg Trials

Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty ImagesAt the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg. Front left to right: Goering, 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. 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.

Nuremberg Trials Defendant Table

According to HISTORY, the defendants were allowed to pick their own attorney and most of them employed two 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.

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.

Sentences For Major War Criminals

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

12 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 and one man, Martin Bormann, was sentenced to death in absentia. Bormann was missing for the duration of the trial and it wasn’t until later that 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 of the men were hanged to death, 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.

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