Held directly after World War II, the Nuremberg Trials were a series of 13 military tribunals in which nearly 200 German government, military, medical and business leaders were tried for war crimes. In the first and most famous of these trials—the Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal—24 high-ranking Nazi Party officials including Rudolf Hess, Hermann Göring and Wilhelm Frick were tried for crimes against humanity during the Holocaust. (Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and two of his top associates committed suicide at the war's end; many other party leaders escaped prosecution.)
In addition to bringing some of Nazi Germany's most monstrous figures to justice, the Nuremberg Trials broke new ground in international law and helped lead to 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). Read on for more surprising facts about what has been called the greatest trial in history.
1. Nuremberg was chosen as the location for the trials because of its symbolic value.
The Bavarian city that spawned the rise of the Third Reich by hosting massive Nazi Party propaganda rallies in the 1920s and 1930s was deemed by the victorious Allies to be a fitting place to stage its symbolic death. Although World War II had left much of the city in rubble, the Palace of Justice—which included a sizable prison capable of holding 1,200 detainees—remained largely undamaged and was chosen to host the trials once German prisoners completed the work of enlarging its courtroom.
2. It was the first trial of its kind with judges from four countries.
The Nuremberg Trials marked a milestone in the establishment of international law. While there had been prior prosecutions of war crimes in history, such as that of Confederate army officer Henry Wirz, those had been conducted according to the laws of a single country. Until the Nuremberg Trials, there had been no precedent for an international trial of war criminals. Rather than use a single judge and jury, the trial of high-ranking Nazi leaders was conducted by a panel of four judges. The United States, Soviet Union, France and Great Britain each supplied a main judge and an alternate, and Britain’s Lord Justice Geoffrey Lawrence presided.
The Nuremberg Trials served as a precedent for the subsequent prosecution of war crimes in Japan and led to the establishment of the United Nations Genocide Convention and Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 as well as the Geneva Convention on the Laws and Customs of War in 1949.
3. The Nuremberg Trials marked the first prosecutions for crimes against humanity.
The London Charter of the International Military Tribunal, which set the laws and procedures for the conduct of the Nuremberg Trials, defined three categories of crimes: crimes against the peace, war crimes and, for the first time, crimes against humanity, which included murder, enslavement or deportation of civilians or persecution on political, religious or racial grounds.
4. The trials marked the introduction of simultaneous translation.
With the defendants, judges and lawyers speaking a mix of German, French, English and Russian, a language barrier threatened to bog down the proceedings. However, the development of a new instantaneous translation system by IBM allowed every trial participant to listen via headsets to real-time translations of the proceedings. Yellow lights at microphones warned speakers to slow down for the benefit of the translators, while red lights signaled the need to stop and repeat statements. The simultaneous translation system allowed the trial to be conducted four times faster than if consecutive translation was used.
5. A Supreme Court justice led the American team of prosecutors.
President Harry Truman asked Robert Jackson, an associate justice of the Supreme Court, to serve as the chief American prosecutor at the international tribunal. Jackson accepted the offer but was adamant that the proceedings not be a show trial. “If we want to shoot Germans as a matter of policy, let it be done as such, but don’t hide the deed behind a court,” he wrote. Jackson’s colleague, Chief Justice Harlan Stone, did not think highly of the proceedings. “Jackson is away conducting his high-grade lynching party in Nuremberg,” he wrote privately to a friend in 1945. “I don’t mind what he does to the Nazis, but I hate to see the pretense that he is running a court and proceeding according to common law. This is a little too sanctimonious a fraud to meet my old-fashioned ideas.”
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6. A prosecutorial advisor originated the term “genocide.”
Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-born lawyer who served as an advisor to Jackson, is credited with coining the term “genocide” in 1944 to describe the Nazis’ planned extermination of Jews. The word is an amalgam of “genos,” the Greek word for “tribe” or “race,” and “-cide,” Latin for “killings.” Lemkin, who lost nearly 50 relatives in the Holocaust, defined genocide as “a coordinated plan of different actions aimed at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.” The Nuremberg Trials marked the first-ever prosecutions for genocide.
7. Not all the defendants were found guilty.
Of the 24 high-ranking Nazis who stood trial for war crimes before the international tribunal, 12 were sentenced to death by hanging, including Martin Bormann, the personal secretary to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler who is now believed to have committed suicide in May 1945, in absentia. Seven others, including Hitler’s former deputy Rudolf Hess, received prison sentences ranging from 10 years to life, but three were acquitted.
8. Hermann Goering committed suicide on the eve of his scheduled execution.
The highest-ranking Nazi to survive the war, Gestapo founder and Luftwaffe commander-in-chief Hermann Goering took his own life on the night of October 15, 1946, just hours before his scheduled execution. Dressed in silk pajamas, the man instrumental in ordering the Holocaust cheated the noose by ingesting a small glass capsule of potassium cyanide that he had smuggled into prison. In a suicide note to his wife, Hitler’s heir apparent wrote that he would be willing to die by firing squad but not in such an undignified manner as hanging. “I have decided to take my own life, lest I be executed in so terrible a fashion by my enemies,” Goering wrote.
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9. The executioner reportedly botched the hangings.
After Goering’s suicide, the Allies immediately ordered the remaining 10 condemned men to be handcuffed to guards and dispatched clergymen to administer last rites. In the early morning hours of October 16, 1946, the Nazi war criminals were hanged one-by-one from a scaffolding erected in a prison gymnasium. “I hope that this execution will be the last act of the tragedy of the Second World War,” said Arthur Seyss-Inquart, the last of the 10 men to be hanged, as he was led to the gallows.
The executions, which took nearly two hours to complete, were administered by the U.S. Army’s official hangman, Master Sergeant John C. Woods. “I wasn’t nervous,” the chief executioner told Time magazine. “A fellow can’t afford to have nerves in this business.” The magazine reported, however, that witnesses said “the executions had been cruelly bungled” with the ropes too short and the trap doors too small, resulting in deaths of slow strangulation. The U.S. Army denied the report.
10. A dozen subsequent trials of Nazi war criminals were held at Nuremberg.
While the trial of the 24 high-ranking Nazi leaders before the international tribunal was the most notable of the judicial proceedings held at Nuremberg, 12 additional trials occurred there between 1946 and 1949. Among the nearly 200 other Nazis tried at Nuremberg were doctors accused of conducting medical experiments on prisoners of war, lawyers and judges charged with implementing the Nazis’ “racial purity” program through eugenic and racial laws, military officers accused of atrocities against prisoners of war and concentration camp inmates and industrialists who profited from slave labor and plundered occupied countries. Growing differences among the Allies as the Cold War began caused the subsequent trials to be conducted before U.S. military tribunals instead of once again before a panel of international judges.