10 Lesser Known Facts About the Nuremberg Trials
10 Lesser Known Facts About the Nuremberg Trials

10 Lesser Known Facts About the Nuremberg Trials

Larry Holzwarth - June 19, 2018

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