10 Lesser Known Facts About the Nuremberg Trials

10 Lesser Known Facts About the Nuremberg Trials

Larry Holzwarth - June 19, 2018

Before Allied troops were on the continent of Europe, before the Russians began their drive to the west, before the bombing campaign wrecked the German capability of making war, the Allied leaders were discussing German war crimes and what to do about them. Churchill and Roosevelt both had knowledge of the German concentration camps and what was happening in them, reports of other atrocities were in the hands of the Allies. At the Tehran Conference Stalin suggested the execution of between 50,000 and 100,000 German officers and political leaders. Churchill, aghast at the idea of shooting soldiers who had served honorably, had earlier suggested the summary execution of leading Nazis.

The idea of trying a defeated enemy for crimes committed during the prosecution of war was not unprecedented. Following World War I, German officers accused of committing atrocities were tried in the German courts. The trials were largely a sham. The Allied Big Three discussed the format of the trials and the categories for which charges would be levied at Tehran in 1943, and Yalta and Potsdam in 1945. Although several of the leading Nazis escaped capture and execution by committing suicide (some while in custody) there were still about 200 trials held at Nuremberg, and over 1,600 in other jurisdictions. How many Nazi collaborationists were tried and executed by kangaroo courts is unknown.

10 Lesser Known Facts About the Nuremberg Trials
The most senior surviving Nazis were tried before the International Military Tribunal. Herman Goering, leaning on his elbow, committed suicide the night before he was to be hanged. National Archives

Here are ten facts about the war crime trials which followed World War II in Europe, collectively known as the Nuremberg Trials.

10 Lesser Known Facts About the Nuremberg Trials
Albert Speer in a Nuremberg jail cell awaiting trial. He was one of the few of the Nazi prisoners to offer regrets and accept responsibility for the activities of the Third Reich. Wikimedia

Establishing the Tribunals

When representatives of what remained of the German government signed the Instrument of Surrender they recognized the authority of the Allies to charge individuals with violations of International Law and the Laws of War as defined by the Geneva Convention, Hague Convention, and others. This authority resided in the Allied Control Council, which established legal and governmental jurisdiction over all of Germany. In August 1945, the British, Americans, Soviets, and French created the legal basis for the trials, which were to focus on “…punishment of the major war criminals” whose crimes were committed after the outbreak of the war in 1939.

As the Germans who were to be tried in the first of the Nuremberg Trials were rounded up they were for the most part sent to the Palace Hotel in Luxembourg’s Mondorf-les-Bains, a spa town. They were not held in luxury. Hotel furniture was replaced with army cots and the remaining furnishings were spartan. The place was brightly lighted at night by klieg lamps, surrounded by coils of barbed wire, and patrolled by guards and guard dogs. The prisoners were allowed contact with attorneys who would represent them at trial, though they were not guaranteed an attorney being present when interrogated by military personnel. It was called Camp Ashcan.

The British operated a similar facility, even more spartan, in their sector. It was called Camp Dustbin. Dustbin was located in Castle Kransberg, a 12th century structure which had been rebuilt and modified under the direction of Albert Speer early in the war to serve as Hitler’s Western Front headquarters. When Hitler expressed his dislike of the facility, Speer modified it further for Luftwaffe use. Towards the end of the war Goering suggested Hitler seek a truce through Swiss contacts at Kransberg. The British used Camp Dustbin to hold senior Nazis who were from industry including Wernher von Braun, Ferdinand Porsche, and somewhat ironically, Albert Speer.

In August, the first group of prisoners to be tried before the tribunal were transferred to Nuremberg. Nuremberg was selected as the site for the trial after Leipzig, Berlin, and Luxembourg were rejected. The city had been a symbol of the Nazi Party and, more importantly, both a functional prison facility and the Palace of Justice were relatively intact, having survived the Allied bombing campaign. The tribunal was comprised of eight judges, a primary and an alternate, two each from the Soviet Union, United States, Great Britain, and France. Each also supplied a Chief Prosecutor to present the case based on the indictments through which the prisoners were charged.

As in civilian criminal trials, many of the witnesses called to present the cases against the accused were admitted participants in crimes, and worked with the prosecution in order to escape harsh sentences of their own. One of these witnesses was Rudolf Hoss, former commandant of the Auschwitz complex. Hitler’s former deputy, to whom he had dictated much of Mein Kampf while in prison in the 1920s, was the similarly named Rudolph Hess. Hess was brought from his imprisonment in England to stand trial before the first tribunal. He and Herman Goering were the most senior Nazi Party members to be tried at Nuremberg.

10 Lesser Known Facts About the Nuremberg Trials
Admiral Karl Doenitz was indicted for, among other things, initiating unrestricted submarine warfare, which the US Navy practiced against Japan. Wikimedia

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.

10 Lesser Known Facts About the Nuremberg Trials
The Chief Justice of the United States, Harlan Fiske Stone, called the trials a “high grade lynching party”. Library of Congress

Reactions to the first Nuremberg Trials

Francis Biddle, former United States Attorney General, was the most well-known member of the tribunal during the first Nuremberg trials. During the war Biddle had initially opposed prosecution for any crimes committed prior to the war’s beginning, on legal grounds. After Yalta, and the increasing weight of evidence against the Nazis, his views shifted. When the tribunal found the SS and Gestapo (as well as other Nazi organizations) to be criminal, it established any member of the organizations to be war criminals. Biddle argued that those conscripted into the criminal organizations should not be so considered, and prevailed in his argument.

Harlan Fiske Stone, the Chief Justice of the United States, found the Nuremberg trials to be an example of victor’s vengeance, rather than international justice, and opined they were fraught with inconsistencies. The German High Command which planned and executed the invasion of Poland in 1939 were found guilty of crimes against humanity, for example. The Soviet generals who did the same, conspiring with the Germans, were not, nor were they charged with any crimes. “This is a little too sanctimonious a fraud to meet my old-fashioned ideas,” wrote Stone, while calling the procedures “a high grade lynching party”.

The Chief Prosecutor for the United States was Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson. During and following the trial Jackson expressed his doubts over proprieties to colleagues and to President Harry Truman. Jackson informed the President that the French were so abusing German prisoners of war that the British and American occupying troops were in the process of removing them from French custody, even as French prosecutors were charging the Germans with war crimes based on less harsh treatment of prisoners. Jackson wrote Truman in October 1945 to warn the President of the fact that some of the Allies were committing some of the same crimes for which they were prosecuting the Germans.

“We are prosecuting plunder and our Allies are practicing it,” Jackson wrote to the President. “We say aggressive war is a crime and one of our Allies asserts sovereignty over the Baltic States based on no title except conquest,” referring to the Soviet occupation of the formerly sovereign states. His fellow Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas agreed that the trials were flawed, calling them a creation of law and prosecution under it for acts committed several years before the fact. Douglas later wrote, in a critique of the trials, that they were conducted, “to suit the passion and clamor of the time.” He called the trials and the tribunal “unprincipled”.

Most of the criticism of the trials were based on legal technicalities and procedures. The tribunal, for example, decided for itself that it would “…not be bound by the technical rules of evidence.” The tribunal thus claimed to themselves the decision whether to admit evidence without any requirements establishing its validity. It was the tribunal which decided to exempt the Soviets from being charged with conspiring with the Germans to partition Poland after their mutual agreement to invade, despite German Generals Jodl and Keitel, along with Joachim Ribbentrop, being charged with crimes against humanity for being part of the same conspiracy.

10 Lesser Known Facts About the Nuremberg Trials
Karl Brandt listens to an interpreter as his sentence of death by hanging is pronounced by the tribunal. Wikimedia

Additional Nuremberg Trials

Following the initial Nuremberg Trials a series of following trials occurred, both in Nuremberg and in other locations throughout Europe. Each of the four occupying powers, the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union, was granted the authority to prosecute war criminals within their respective zones of occupation by the Allied Control Council in December 1945. Nuremberg fell within the American zone, and after the trials of the major war criminals was completed, the Americans used the Palace of Justice for a series of trials which lasted until 1949. Similar trials took place in the other zones.

The Americans conducted twelve trials within the Palace of Justice at Nuremberg, the first being the Doctors Trials beginning in December 1946. Several of the trials ran concurrently with each other. In the subsequent Nuremberg trials the Tribunals and prosecutors were all Americans, the defense attorneys could be American or German (or other nationalities in some cases). In all, after initiating nearly 4,000 cases, the Americans brought 489 to trial, prosecuting over 1,600 defendants. Of these just over 1,400 were convicted, and nearly 200 were sentenced to death and executed. Almost 300 more were incarcerated for a period of time.

Officially the trials were known as the Nuremberg Military Tribunals (NMT) and many classed in groups (such as the Doctors Trials) were in themselves a series of trials. In the Doctors Trials, 23 German officials, 20 of them doctors of medicine, were tried for the crimes of human experimentation and murder. The other three were members of the Nazi bureaucracy who supported the experimentation. Had Josef Mengele not eluded custody he would likely have been tried in this group, as were some of his colleagues and correspondents. Several of the doctors were also charged with being members of the SS, declared a criminal organization by the International Military Tribunal.

Most of the doctors had been involved, in varying degrees, with the Nazi research programs involving genetics research and euthanasia. The standard practice after creating or attempting to create abnormalities in children was to execute the victims. One of the doctors tried was Karl Brandt, one time personal physician to Adolf Hitler and co-leader of the Nazi T-4 Euthanasia Program. Brandt had already been under the death penalty for the crime of fleeing crumbling Berlin in 1945, with his family, in an attempt to surrender to the British or Americans rather than be taken by the Russians. Taken to Kiel by the Gestapo, he was spared execution on the order of Admiral Doenitz.

At his trial, Brandt explained his support of the mass killings of disabled and maimed victims as a necessity of total war, which the Reich was engaged in for its life. Brandt, and six other Nazi doctors were convicted and sentenced to death, seven others were acquitted, and the remaining nine were imprisoned for sentences ranging from ten years to life. Nearly all of the prison sentences were later commuted. Brandt and the other six sentenced to death were executed by hanging in Landsberg Prison, Bavaria, on June 2, 1948. Brandt continue to shout justification for his acts and Nazi philosophy on the gallows even after the hood was placed over his head.

10 Lesser Known Facts About the Nuremberg Trials
Johannes Blaskowitz committed suicide while in custody rather than face trial for war crimes. Wikimedia

The High Command Trial

As time has distanced the Third Reich and its crimes from the present day, apologists for the Germans have grown in number, minimizing the atrocities committed before and during the war. These apologists range from the outright deniers of the Holocaust to those who limit German war crimes to the Gestapo, SS, and other fanatical Nazi organizations. They argue that the German Wehrmacht, the military including the Heer (army) and the Luftwaffe (air force) was a professional military organization which performed admirably on all its fronts, and committed few, if any, war crimes. Some went as far as commenting that the Americans and other Allies were worse.

In November 1947, 14 high ranking German officers, including a former Field Marshal and a former Admiral of the Kriegsmarine, were indicted for war crimes committed during the war by themselves or by the troops under their command. The indictments included four charges, including conspiring to make war; war crimes against prisoners of war; war crimes against civilians; and conspiracy to commit the already mentioned crimes. One of the defendants charged was Johannes Blaskowitz, who had commanded the German Army during the invasion of southern France and had initiated harsh reprisals against allied commandos and agents of the OSS and SOE. Blaskowitz committed suicide during the trial.

The trial began in December 1947 and lasted until the following October. During the trial, the fourth charge in the indictment was dropped, after it was pointed out by defense lawyers that it was already included in the first three charges. Shortly after the first charge was dropped when the court found that none of the accused had participated directly in pre-war planning (on which the charge was based) and that there was a difference between starting a war and following orders after the onset of a war, which was the duty of soldiers and especially senior commissioned officers of all nations.

Two of the defendants were acquitted of all charges by the court. Charges against Blaskowitz were not pursued following his suicide. The remaining defendants were found guilty on one or both of the remaining two charges. Former Field Marshal Wihelm von Leeb was convicted of one count and released following the trial. Several of the accusations were based on support of the einsatzgruppen (special purpose groups which conducted mass executions of civilians and Jews on the Eastern Front) and drew long prison sentences. Others were more lightly punished, but other than the two acquittals all were found guilty of war crimes.

Following the trial and the incarceration of those sentenced to longer terms, pressure from the West German government led to intense lobbying for the commutation of the sentences. In 1950, six of the defendants were still in prison, and after a review of the cases and the sentences there were released, the other three remained incarcerated under life sentences. Subsequent review and continued pressure from Chancellor Konrad Adenauer led to their sentences being commuted in 1953.

10 Lesser Known Facts About the Nuremberg Trials
Erhard Milch (left) confers with his brother and counsel Werner Milch during his trial. Wikimedia

The Milch Trial

Field Marshal Erhard Milch was a primary associate of Herman Goering, instrumental in building the German Luftwaffe during the 1930s as part of Germany’s secret rearming in the decade before World War II. During the war years, Milch was responsible for aircraft production. As the war progressed, his incompetence in that role became increasingly evident, the Luftwaffe could not re-equip itself following losses of aircraft on all fronts. In the spring of 1944, Milch became involved with Albert Speer, overseeing a group dedicated to moving aircraft production underground to escape Allied bombing, using slave labor.

Later in the war, Milch attempted to have Herman Goering fired as the commander of the Luftwaffe, and Goering retaliated by having Milch dismissed from the German Air Force. Milch then attempted to flee Germany to Spain, but was apprehended by the British near the Baltic in May 1945, just days before the German surrender. Milch was imprisoned and eventually indicted for war crimes by the Americans, on three charges, including the use of slave labor and participating in medical experiments, including on German citizens and citizens of other countries. Milch pleaded not guilty, and his trial began on January 2, 1947.

One of his defense lawyers was his brother, Werner. The defense was successful in winning an acquittal of the charge of participating in and supporting medical experiments, including experiments in which the results were fatal to the victim. On the other counts, the use of slave labor and the deportation of civilians to be used as slaves, as well as enslaving German nationals, he was convicted. He was also charged with and found guilty of using prisoners of war as slave labor in contravention of the Geneva Convention. Milch was sentenced to life imprisonment, to be served at Rebdorf Prison, though he was later transferred to Landsberg.

Milch’s case drew some interest in legal circles because it reinforced the fact that there was no route of appeal for those convicted of war crimes by the NMTs. The tribunals had written their own procedural rules, and following an indictment and the entry of a plea by the accused, there was no supervising authority to which the accused could turn in the event of procedural error or misinterpretation of the law on the part of the tribunal. Tribunals were reviewed by outside monitors, but only for the purposes of evaluation which did not apply to a decision to overturn findings or schedule new trials.

Milch’s counsel attempted to redress this lack of judicial oversight by filing a writ of habeas corpus with the United States Supreme Court, since he had been incarcerated under the authority of the United States government. The Supreme Court considered his argument, with Justice Jackson recusing himself based on his involvement with the first of the Nuremberg Trials. The remaining justices declined to hear arguments on Milch’s behalf, citing a lack of jurisdictional authority over the matter in a four to four split. Milch’s sentence was later reduced to fifteen years, and he was released on parole in the spring of 1954.

10 Lesser Known Facts About the Nuremberg Trials
Special Courts were stocked with blank forms ordering the death penalty, filled in as the “trial” was conducted. Wikimedia

The Judges’ Trial

The 1961 motion picture Judgment at Nuremberg was loosely based on the Judges’ Trial, in which 16 Nazi lawyers and judges were tried for crimes against humanity by abusing the legal process and the rule of law. Nine of the jurists indicted and tried were former officials of the Reich Ministry of Law, the remaining seven were former justices (if that is the word) and prosecutors of the Special Courts and People’s courts, both set up by order of Adolf Hitler to intimidate resistance to the Nazi regime within Germany. Both operated outside of the law, eliminating the rights which the legal system afforded a defendant.

Accused found guilty before the Special Courts and People’s Courts in Nazi Germany had no recourse to appeal, and the sentence imposed by the judges was usually carried out immediately, or if not, as quickly as possible. The Special Courts, which were also established in the countries occupied by the Germans, were responsible for the execution of 12,000 people in Germany alone, for the crime of opposing the Nazis. In many ways they were similar to the tribunals of the Reign of Terror which sent denounced opponents to the guillotine during the French Revolution. Trials were little more than a formality before sentencing was handed down.

The People’s Courts were even more of a sham in regards to rule of law. Established in 1934, the People’s Courts heard charges against individuals ranging from black market activities to the crime of defeatism. An individual overheard making statements that Germany was losing the war could be brought before the court for committing a crime, and the judges’ had sentencing guidelines which were completely at his discretion. The judge was usually both prosecutor and presiding officer, who would announce the crime, find the accused guilty, and pass sentence without comment from the defense counsel, who ran the risk of being denounced if he objected.

The most senior officials of the German extrajudicial system were not tried by the NMT, having died before or shortly after the end of the war. Those which did appear were charged in a four count indictment, with the first count of conspiring to commit war crimes dropped during the trial. Those jurists, who had been members of the SS or other organizations, deemed to be criminal by the International Tribunal were so charged, which applied to seven of the accused. All sixteen of the defendants pleaded not guilty to all charges, claiming that they were upholding German law as properly established by the government.

The trial ran from January to December 1947. One of the defendants committed suicide prior to the trial beginning, another was released after his case was declared a mistrial. Of the remaining fourteen, ten were convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from five years to life in prison. By the mid 1950s, all except those who died in prison had been released. The reaction to the Judges’ Trial was for the most part critical of the relative lenience of the sentences handed down. The People’s Courts and Special Courts remain a little known part of the Nazi killing machine which terrorized Europe during the Third Reich, giving a pretense of legality to what was wholesale murder.

10 Lesser Known Facts About the Nuremberg Trials
The IG Farben works at Auschwitz was built using slave labor from the camp, and used slave labor to manufacture its products, one of which was Zyklon-B. Wikimedia

The Industrialist Trials

The Nuremberg Military Tribunal indicted and tried three leading German industrialists and their company officers and aides for war crimes, including conspiring before the war with military and political officials to wage a war of aggression. Among these was the IG Farben Trial, in which the company’s directors were indicted for crimes which included the manufacture and sale of nitrate (used to manufacture explosives) and the manufacture of Zyklon B. Twenty-four of the directors of IG Farben were tried under a four count indictment, and thirteen were convicted and handed down prison sentences. Ten were acquitted, and one had his case continued due to health reasons.

Friedrich Flick was a leading German industrialist before and during the war, having built a conglomerate of companies and a fortune in coal, steel, and other industries. Flick and five of his most senior directors were brought before the NMT, indicted on several charges, including in some cases membership in organizations which were declared criminal by the International Military Tribunal. Flick was also charged for his financial support of the SS and Heinrich Himmler personally, with it being found that he had donated more than one million Reichmarks to the Nazis and Himmler annually. Flick was convicted and sentenced to seven years, two of his directors also received prison sentences. The rest were acquitted.

The third trial of German industrialists was the Krupp Trial, in which Alfred Krupp and eleven former directors of the Krupp Companies were accused of supporting the rearmament of Germany and conspiring with leading Nazis and other industrialists to prepare for and wage a war of aggression (Krupp’s father Gustav had been a defendant in the first Nuremberg trial, but charges were dropped due to his failing mental health). The seven month trial resulted in all but one defendant being found guilty and sentenced to prison, and Alfred Krupp was ordered to sell all of his holding and personal possessions. He avoided doing so by claiming no buyer could be found.

In all of the industrialists’ trials, a leading focus of the prosecution was the use of slave labor, which the defendants argued was forced upon them by the Nazi regime, and in some cases was supposedly unknown to the businesses. IG Farben was found to have built a production facility near the Auschwitz complex for the expressed purpose of availing itself of the slave labor there. Both IG Farben and Krupp’s employed slave labor, including prisoners of war, in their factories. Both industries prospered during the pre-war years and during the early years of combat. In the case of IG Farben it was found that, “Disregard of basic human rights did not deter these defendants.”

Krupp’s used more than 100,000 slave laborers in its plants and warehouses, and an additional 20,000 prisoners of war, mostly Poles, French, and Russians. All of the industrialists sentenced to prison terms were released early when their sentences were commuted as post-war West Germany recovered. Friedrich Flick was by the 1950s one of the wealthiest individuals in West Germany and the largest shareholder of Daimler-Benz stock in the world. In 1952 Alfred Krupp was pardoned after serving three years of a twelve year sentence and the following year he regained control of the Krupp companies.

10 Lesser Known Facts About the Nuremberg Trials
During the Hostages Trial Walter Warlimont was convicted for the murder of civilians as a reprisal for partisan activities. US Army

The Hostages Trial

As part of the German Army’s efforts to suppress the activities of partisans and guerrilla warfare it became a practice to take hostages from among the civilian population. Hostages were executed as reprisal for partisan attacks, particularly in the Balkan countries. The Hostages Trial is also known as the Southeast Trial, because all of the accused were senior German army officers commanding units in the Balkans. During the Hostages Trial, the tribunal found that the partisans in the region were not “lawful belligerents” meaning that the protections afforded prisoners of war did not apply to them, and they could be tried and executed as criminals.

The ten accused German officers in the Hostages Trial used the defense of acting under orders from higher authority, which they were obligated to do as officers. They also pointed out that the field manuals of the British and American Army both authorized the seizure of hostages as a legitimate defense against partisan and guerrilla activity, including the execution of the hostages in reprisal for the attacks (the British manual did not specify killing the hostages, but the US Army Field Manual Rule of Land Warfare did). Despite these defenses, of the twelve accused German officers eight were found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to prison terms, one committed suicide before the trial, one was removed for health reasons, and two were acquitted.

Regarding the defense of simply following orders, the tribunal ruled that the more senior officers were in a position to recognize the illegitimacy of orders to violate basic human rights and the rules of warfare, and were thus obligated to prevent them from being carried out. The subject of the treatment of hostages in response to partisan activity as discussed in the American Field Manual was not addressed by the court, which found the execution of hostages by the Germans to be a war crime against the civilian population. The tribunal ruled that the German killing of hostages exceeded that which was considered lawful under the rule of war.

The Hostages Trial formalized the guerrilla fighters and partisans as irregulars who operated outside of the rules and laws of warfare. Since the Resistance fighters in France and elsewhere were also in this category, it made them equally subject to instant execution when captured, but French courts disagreed with this assessment and declared them to be protected by the laws of war and the Geneva convention, declaring them if captured to be prisoners of war. The French courts had an interest in protecting (and avenging) their citizens which had fought the Germans and in many cases been caught and executed for doing so.

None of the German officers convicted in the Hostages Trial served their entire sentence, and by 1953 all had been released from custody. Following the Hostages Trial the Geneva Convention was amended to extend protections to captured partisan fighters as legitimate prisoners of war. The convention required of such partisans that they have an established chain of command, carry their weapons openly, and have a distinctive and readily visible symbol of their unit. They also must carry out military activities in accordance with the conventions of warfare, rather than covert assassinations, bombings, and other criminal acts.

10 Lesser Known Facts About the Nuremberg Trials
The V-2 program at Peenemunde used slave labor and many of these scientists were members of the SS but their value to the Allies precluded them being charged with war crimes. NASA

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.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Victor’s Justice? The Nuremberg Tribunal”, by Michael Biddiss, History Today, 1995, pdf online

“The Nuremberg Trial: Fifty Years After”, by Michael R. Marrus, The American Scholar, 1997, online

“The Nazi Doctors and Nuremberg: Some Moral Lessons Revisited”, by E. Pellegrino, American College of Physicians, August 15, 1997

“Hitler’s Generals on Trial: The Last War Crimes Tribunal at Nuremberg”, by Valerie Hebert, 2010

“Milch Case Overview”, by the Harvard Law School Nuremberg Trials Project, 2003, online

“A Commentary on the Justice Case”, by Doug Linder, University of Missouri KC Law, 2000, online

“The law relating to hostages and reprisals”, Law Reports of Trials of War Criminals, United Nations War Crimes Commission, 1949

“Nuremberg: Evil on Trial”, by James Owen, 2006