Summary of the Nuremberg Trials
Legal arguments over the Nuremberg Trials and the rulings which emerged from them began even as the trials were being conducted. The trials declared organizations to be illegal and members of them guilty crimes despite the membership having preceded it being declared criminal. They did not offer the opportunity to renounce membership to exonerate. Thus all defendants who appeared before the court as former members of the SS, SA, Gestapo, and other Nazi organizations were automatically guilty of at least one charge on their indictments, the guilt being decided by another court at an earlier time. There was no opportunity nor mechanism for appeal.
By the mid-1950s, all of the convicted Nuremberg defendants in American custody were released, and some pardoned. The French and British gradually released most of the defendants in their custody as well. Many of the individuals which should have been treated as war criminals were instead absorbed into the governments and industries of the allies. German scientists and engineers who developed the Vengeance weapons were spirited into the United States and the Soviet Union to work on those country’s missile and other weapons programs. At the same time the bureaucrats, military, and industrialists who supported the German rockets were convicted of war crimes.
Werner von Braun was both a member of the SS and advocated the use of slave labor building his rockets at Peenemunde. The same was true of Arthur Rudolph. Both became instrumental in the success of the United States space program and the development of intercontinental missiles. In 1984, evidence of Rudolph’s war crimes committed during the Second World War became so overwhelming that he was returned to West Germany and renounced his American citizenship. He was later granted German citizenship, never being tried for the war crimes committed during the building of the V-2.
On the other hand, Rudolph Hess remained imprisoned for the rest of his life. At Nuremberg Hess was found guilty of crimes against peace and conspiracy, but he was found not guilty of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. Nonetheless, Hess remained in Spandau Prison – other than during hospital visits over the years – until he died by suicide in 1987 at the age of 93. Numerous efforts to release him on humanitarian grounds were initiated over the years only to be thwarted by the Soviets, who refused to consider his early release. The British too, opposed releasing Hess during his long incarceration.
While the Nuremberg Trials were being conducted, and ever since, controversy surrounded them. They were far from impartial. In many instances, Germans were tried and convicted for committing actions which were identical to those of the Allies, which were disregarded. These included the planning and execution of the invasion of Poland (in which the Soviets participated) and the execution of unrestricted submarine warfare (as did the United States in the Pacific). In the end the German admirals were not convicted of the latter, but the charge remained on the indictment, and added to the belief that in many instances the Nuremberg Trials were not solely about international justice.
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