The International Military Tribunal
The first of the Nuremberg Trials began on November 19, 1945, before the International Military Tribunal. The four presiding judges over the proceedings alternated each session. Twenty-four individuals were presented indictments for “major war crimes” and several organizations were prosecuted as being illegal. Finding the organizations guilty of planning war crimes rendered them criminal. Among these were the Gestapo, the SA, the SS, the SD, and the High Command, including several officers who were also named in separate indictments. Industrialists, financiers, and diplomats as well as military officers and Nazi leaders were among the charged.
The prosecutors presented a wide net in which to entrap those labeled as war criminals. Planning a military assault before the declaration of war was considered a crime against humanity and as disruptive of the common peace. Specific war crimes such as the murder of prisoners or civilians were another category, and a goal of the prosecution was to establish such as core Nazi policies. The same was attempted with crimes against humanity, such as the development of weapons of war used against civilian populations, or the development and production of Zyklon B, or the building of the chambers in which it was used.
There was a level of hypocrisy in some of the charges, which proved troubling to the prosecutors, judges, and the correspondents covering the trial. German Admiral Karl Doenitz, whom had commanded the German U-Boat fleet during most of the war and whom was designated the last leader of Nazi Germany by Hitler, was charged with, among other crimes, the execution of unrestricted submarine warfare in violation of the rules of war. In December 1941, in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the order went out to American submarines to execute unrestricted submarine warfare against the Empire of Japan.
Similarly the Vengeance weapons developed by the Germans, the V-1 and later V-2, were considered to be violations of the laws of war and their development a crime against humanity by prosecutors, because they were deployed against civilian populations. The massive firebombing raids against Dresden, Cologne, and Hamburg and the other bombing of civilian populations, especially in the city of Berlin, were cited by German defense attorneys in support of their clients. One Nazi leader, Martin Bormann, was tried in absentia, and thus was unable to present any defense against the charges (it was later determined he had died trying to escape Berlin).
Some of the accused were openly defiant during the first trials before the tribunal, notably Herman Goering, who questioned its authority and its methods. The issue of the tribunal’s legal authority was raised by several of the defendants through their attorneys. Of the 24 defendants in the first Nuremberg Trials, twelve were convicted and sentenced to death. Only three were acquitted. Two saw the prosecution decline to pursue charges (though in the case of Robert Ley it was because he had already committed suicide). The charges against Admiral Doenitz were modified after US Admiral Chester Nimitz provided written testimony that the US Navy had committed the same “crime”. Doenitz was sentenced to ten years in prison, convicted of other charges.