Infamy Under the Microscope:
The Nuremberg War Crimes Trial
Western Civ

Research Report
Web Resources

Nuremberg Palace Courtroom
Following the horrors of WWII, the surviving Holocaust victims, few in number amidst the millions murdered, raised their bony fingers and attempted to point out their guilty accusers.  For the first time ever, four allied nations, all still feeling the sting of death and casualties, came together to form an International Military Tribunal in attempt to bring justice to those suffering after the war. In 1945, 22 top Germany Nazi Socialist Party members were accused of conspiracy, crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.  The United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union convened in Nuremberg, Germany and carried out one of the most infamous, historically significant trials in history, leaving the world stunned, eyes wet and hearts burning, in reaction to the unimaginable atrocities surfaced during investigation.  Here is an in-depth look at that courtroom where war monsters broke down, witnesses poured their hearts out, and infamy was examined under the unforgiving microscope of justice.
Historical Background

On May 7th, 1945, the German Axis forces of WWII unconditionally surrendered to the Allied forces marking the end of one of the most devastating, inhumane, and disastrous wars of all time.  The man responsible for the ingenious military attacks and unspeakable atrocities, Adolph Hitler, was dead.  A sick, stubborn man in his final days, Hitler committed suicide on April 30th, 1945, just two months after the Yalta Conference (Barry 26). Having an inkling of his post-capitulation fate, Hitler took his own life to avoid receiving the vengeance of his innumerable victims and the shattered families they left behind. German forces under the command of Hitler had systematically killed over six million Jews alone, enormous numbers of Gypsies, Slavs, and dissidents with a total number of war casualties at an estimated 50 million (Meltzer 4). Although a brilliant man capable of incredible things, Hitler could never have successfully accomplished this horrifying feat alone. A dutiful chain of command was responsible for executing these brutal acts. Consequently, following German surrender, all major surviving military and political German leaders were rounded up by the Allied forces.  The question then was who is to blame for these horrifying crimes, and what sort of punishment is appropriate?

Various methods of vengeance from the Allied Forces were proposed.  The British, lead by Winston Churchill, suggested shooting 25 to 100 top German leaders in a mass execution.  The Soviets, having suffered huge numbers of casualties, raised that number to 50,000.  Ultimately, it was the United States that influenced the decision to have a civil trial of 22 German leaders to be decided by a collaboration of Soviets, French, British, and Americans judges.  A decision explained by United States Chief Prosecutor, Robert H. Jackson, in his eloquent opening statement:

That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason.
Never before in history had such an important international tribunal been attempted, therefore, specialized rules had to be established.  Leaders of all four nations met in London on June 26th, 1945 to draw up a charter that would establish the basis for a just and efficient trial and punishment of primary German leaders (Barry 35).
The Charter outlined four different charges including Conspiracy, Crimes Against Peace, War Crimes, and Crimes Against Humanity.  It also listed accused German crimes including pre-war Nazi assaults on Jews, churches, labor unions and dissidents; aggressive war movements against Poland, Czechoslovakia, the United States, USSR and other portions of Europe; centrally organized pillaging, plundering, devastation and deportation of slaves; and the murder of millions of Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, and dissidents (Meltzer 4).

The Allied nations then decided on details of the International Military Tribunal.  The setting of the Nuremberg Palace of Justice was chosen in part because it was one of the few courts left undamaged, but more largely due to its historical significance.  Nuremberg, Germany had served as Nazi Party headquarters for the first portion of the war and was also where the1935 Anti-Semitic Laws were created (Meltzer 2). Special court proceedings were evoked including hearsay evidence, elimination of appeals, freedom of attorney for all defendants, and the ability of defendants to cross-examine all witnesses.  Two judges represented each country with British Judge Sir Geoffrey Lawrence serving as Tribunal President.  The selecting of a British judge was an attempt to downplay the obvious United States dominance of the trial.  The Americans had over 50 lawyers and paralegals working on the trial and appeared almost comical sitting next to the few prosecutors from the other three nations (Marrus 18).  Nevertheless, President Lawrence proved a very impartial, even-handed judge and a central figure in the trial.  Another influential figure was the senior French Judge, Henri Donnedieu de Vabres, who was a professor at a Paris institution specializing in German Law (Marrus 76). His expertise on Nazi legal proceedings was extremely valuable throughout the trial.  Once the official rules were agreed upon and the presiding judges selected, the prosecuting lawyers worked tirelessly for weeks collecting amazing amounts of documental, audiovisual and testimonial evidence.  Meanwhile, the 22 accused men prepared their defenses and awaited their fate.

Herman Goering

Just who were these 22 German war criminals accused of these atrocities?  In the years prior to and during the war they had been politicians, bankers, philosophers, military leaders, aristocratic diplomats, and religious leaders.  Though every defendant was extensively questioned during the trial, the man who continually stole the show was Herman Goering.  Goering was Hitler’s second in command and president of the infamous Reichstag. He had directed the Aryanization Movement and had placed public blame on the Jewish people for the events of Kristalnacht.  What ultimately set Goering apart from his fellow defendants, was his constant sense of unrepentant German pride.  Goering never apologized for acts committed by the Nazis or denied his loyalty to the Nazi party.  He proudly told the court of a meeting that occurred with Hitler before the Nazis came to power, saying, “I gave him my hand and said:  ‘I unite my fate with yours for better or for worse: I dedicate myself to you in good times and in bad, even unto the death.’ I really meant it--and still do” (Marrus 179).

 Another key defendant in the trial was Rudolph Hess, who had served as Hitler’s Deputy Minister behind Goering.  Hess had run the euthanasia centers responsible for killing over 100,000 Christian Germans and Austrians early in the war movement.  Known as the “undergraduate course on genocide” (Greenport), Hess and other SS members had experimented with different types of gasses, injections, and torture to desensitize soldiers for mass Jewish slaughters.  The Russians particularly hated Hess due to his large Anti-Bolshevik efforts during the war.

 Other major figures in the trial included Hans Frank, Minister and Reich Commissioner for Justice responsible for enslaving over 2.5 million Jews, Karl Donitz, Grand admiral of the German navy and head of state after Hitler’s death, Willhelm Frick, Nazi Minister of the Interior and one of Hitler’s closest advisors, and Joachim von Ribbentrob, Nazi Foreign Minister. The prisoners were all held under high security in the Nuremberg Palace Prison, near to the Palace itself.  Each day they were escorted to and from the trial which was held on the second floor of the Palace of Justice.

Research Report

The courtroom was a long, wood-paneled rectangular room usually packed with several hundred people.  On one side sat the eight judges, each in front of their nation’s flag, with the secretaries and court recorders below them.  On the other side sat the 22 defendants in two parallel rows flanked by U.S. Military soldiers.  In front of the defendants sat the Defense Counsel Tables and on the adjacent side sat the Prosecutors’ Tables.   Behind them were dozens of reporters and spectators that filled the stands daily.  On the remaining side was what made the International Tribunal case possible, the translator box.  The state of the art IBM glass translation box contained a team of translators busily converting all spoken information into English, French, Russian and German.  Aside from the guards, everyone in the room wore a set of IBM headphones that were fed through a cord from the translation box.  Onlookers claim the hundreds of cords running everywhere caused the Palace to look more like a telephone exchange than a courtroom (Marrus 71).

The trial itself opened on October 29th ,1945 and consisted of 403 sessions in 216 days.  The proceedings included 94 witness testimonies, 22 accused organization (Gestapo, Reich Cabinet, SS., etc.) refutations, and thousands of documents.  The trial process consisted of three major components: the presented evidence of Nazi Crimes from the Prosecution, the connection of each defendant to the four crimes, and the defendants’ refutation of these claims (Meltzer, 11).  The trial began on a strong note with a powerful opening statement by United States Chief Prosecutor, Robert H. Jackson.  Jackson was a strong minded Democratic member of the Supreme Court who had also served as President Roosevelt’s Attorney General.  Although a great orator, Jackson had only attended a year of formal law school and had instead become certified through internships and his countless Washington connections.  This lack of education made Jackson somewhat insecure and caused erratic anger spurts and surges of frustration during the trial.  The British opening statements were made several days later and were followed nearly two months later by the French and Soviet addresses (Marzus, 99).

The first portion of evidence presentation was given by the United States and focused mainly on the Nazis rise to power.  Their evidence consisted mainly of incriminating documents but also included Allied troop videos of liberated concentration camps and two totenbuchs, (deathbooks), with the recorded names of over 300 prisoners in the Mauthausen Concentration Camp.  The totenbuchs recorded heart disease as the cause for all 300 deaths and produced an eerie hush on the courtroom upon presentation (Meltzer, 13).  The British Prosecutors focused more on German treaty violations and pre-meditated attacks in order to prove the crime of conspiracy.  They singled out how individual defendants contributed/caused major attacks of the war.  The French used testimonial witnesses to present their case.  Of their witnesses one of the most influential was Marie Claude Valliant-Courteurier, a 33 year old French Resistance fighter who had survived over three years in the Nazi internment camp, Auschwitz.  She presented to the tribunal horrifying accounts of atrocities including gas chambers, medical experiments, and massacres.  Taken from her testimony Valliant-Courteurier speaks of one specific instance in Auschwitz:

“One night we were awakened by terrifying cries.  And we discovered, on the following day, from the men working in the Sonderkommando-the “Gas Kommando”-that on the preceding day, the gas supply having run out, they had thrown the children into the furnaces alive.”
This method used by the French proved to be extremely effective on the trial and caused even the defendants to bow their heads in shame.  Foolishly, the German defense counsel attempted to cross examine Marie.  They claimed that her casualty figures were incorrect and that she had no documental proof of her claims.  British Prosecutor, Sir Hartly Shawcross vindicated the critique on exact death tolls, saying,
The mere number of victims is not the real criterion of the criminality of an act….Nonetheless, somehow, numbers are relevant.  For we are not dealing here with the occasional atrocities which are perhaps an incident in any war…We are dealing here with something entirely different; with systematic, wholesale, consistent action, taken as a matter of deliberate calculation-calculation at the highest level” (Marrus, 159).
Following the powerful French Prosecution witness testimonies the Soviets sealed the German’s fate with their evidence of over three million Russians killed in German concentration camps.  Death tolls combined with Warsaw Ghetto footage and graphic visual accounts of the camps built up in horrifying masses of evidence.  As Judge Norman Bickett stated after Marie’s testimony,
From the point of view of this trial it is a complete waste of valuable time.  The case has been proved over and over again. Neither does the world need it any more, for all over the world the evidence has been published…but it seems impossible to stop it, or to check the volume of it.
Marie’s testimony was a high point for the prosecution team, however, the interrogation of the defendants was not.
Under the pressure of the International Prosecution Team most of the war criminals broke down and begged for forgiveness.  Hans Frank, for example, initially denied all knowledge of the Auschwitz and Maidnek concentration camps despite them being located a mere thirty miles from his war-time office.  Gradually, Frank admitted to knowing of the camps but denied all responsibility for what had occurred there. By the end of the trial Frank accepted the charge, condemned Hitler and begged the court to take mercy on him (  It seemed there was always someone else to blame, and the defendants anxiously laid guilt upon the Gestapo, the SS, and especially the irresistible power Hitler.  As Joachim von Ribbentrop put it, “Do you know, even with all I know, if Hitler should come to me in this cell now, and say, ‘Do this!’- I would still do it.-Isn’t it amazing? Can’t you really feel the terrific magnetism of his personality?”(Marrus).

Not all defendants, however, became so spineless.  Herman Goering, who had been highly dependent on drugs during his war days, existed at the trial as a leaner, more invigorated version of himself.  He testified on March 13th, 1946 for three straight days with cunning eloquence and diabolical display.  He attempted to claim that no actions by the Germans, including the persecution of the Jews, were premeditated.

It was never the case that from the beginning, as has often been represented here, we got together and, conspiring, laid down every point of our plans for decades to come.  Rather, everything arose out of the play of political forces and interests, as has always been everywhere the case, the whole world over in matters of state policy (Goering through Marrus 128).
Prosecutor Jackson's Goering
cross examination

Goering rallied his fellow countrymen to fight harder against the prosecution.  He changed the entire style of the proceedings with his infamous face off against Prosecutor Jackson in his cross examination.  Though Jackson was a good orator, his intellect was no where near the brilliance of Goering.  Jackson grew frustrated and began cutting off the defendant, receiving admonishment from the Jury.  Confidence shaken, Jackson passionately declared, “…this witness, it seems to me, is adopting, and has adopted, in the witness box, and in the dock, an arrogant and contemptuous attitude toward the Tribunal which is giving him the trial which he never gave a living soul, nor a dead ones either” (Jackson through Marrus 109).  After this strong point for the defense, the other criminals mimicked Goering’s strategy, answering questions with long, drawn out answers.  The trial that should have taken only a few months began to drag out to over a year.  As Judge Norman Birkett put it,

The trial is regarded as a spectacle, a kind of gladiatorial show, with the prominent Nazis like Goering taking the place of the wild beasts and the prosecuting counsel as the gladiators and baiters…the fact remains that much more serious work ought to be going on in almost every field, and notably in connection with the final judgement. When I consider the utter uselessness of acres of paper, and thousands of words and that life is slipping away, I moan for this shocking waste of time (Bickett’s Diary through Marrus 117).
 Despite this high point for Goering, the defendants gained little from the prosecution’s failure.  Towards the end of the trial resentment grew between prisoners with very different political, ideological, social and personal opinions.  Some defendants openly hated each other, while others maintained the socially conscious Nazi mentality and refused to talk to or associate with those considered below them in rank (Smith 276).  One of the few highpoints for the defense was the testimony of Admiral Karl Donitz.
Donitz had an extremely high soldierly conception of duty, something every nation present could relate to.  When prompted by his attorney during his testimony if he would have considered disobeying or not following through on an order from Hitler he stated:
The idea never entered my head. Nor do I believe that there is a soldier who, when he receives a military command, would entertain such thoughts or be conscious of such considerations….Anything else would have been desertion or disobedience (Donitz through Marrus 172).
This sense of duty struck a chord with the military personnel present at the trial and would have carried much weight, had Jackson not stepped in and redeemed himself in a refutation of Donitz’s statement. “These men had access to Hitler and often could control the information that reached him and on which he must base his policy and his orders.  They were the Praetorian Guard, and while they were under Caesar’s orders, Caesar was always in their hands” ( Jackson through Marrus 184).  Jackson also went on to outline the “Nacht und Nebel Decree” which is still known today at the “most horrible and extensive slaving operation in history” (Smith, 305).  The horrifying evidence against the defendants continued to pile up as the trial slowly drew to a much welcomed end.

On August 31st, 1946 after 216 days of trial, the last day of court was held.  Each defendant was allowed a few minutes to restate their case and send out last minute pleas.  Surprisingly, the speeches were mostly anticlimactic with defendants wavering in between arrogant self-righteousness and quiet, dignified restraint (Marrus 225).  Most continued vainly to deny responsibility, but the general attitude of most was that their fate had already been sealed.

Goering and Hess's reaction to the verdict

The judges adjourned for about a month to prepare the final judgments.  The verdict, read on September 30th, 1946, was about 50,000 words in length and took about two days to read.  The judgment outlined the crimes committed by the Germans and how these violated the London Charter.  The climax came on October 1st, when the judges read the defendants convictions.  Of the twenty-two defendants facing the four charges of conspiracy, war crimes, crimes against peace, and crimes against humanity, all but three were convicted.  Rudolph Hess was convicted of two accounts and sentenced to life imprisonment.  Hess served out his sentence until he committed suicide in Spandau Prison in 1987.  William Frick, Hans Frank, and Joachim von Ribbentrop were all hung, and Donitz was sentenced only a ten year imprisonment.  Hermann Goering, the smug ring-leader of the war criminals was sentenced to hang, but followed in his leader’s footsteps by drinking poison three hours before his scheduled death (Marrus, 259).

Historical Significance

Gradually, the buzz from the trial fizzled out.  Though there were follow up trials of additional criminals and organizations, the Nuremberg Trial remains the most famous and historically significant.  The trial, though criticized on some accounts for being hypocritical and biased, helped bring closure and vindication to WWII survivors.  It offered reassurance to victims and surviving families that casualties were not being forgotten or ignored.  The trial unearthed astronomical amounts of evidence that proved, without a doubt, that the events of the Holocaust did in fact occur.  By punishing certain members of the German population the trial offered a shifted blame from all German citizens and helped them gradually reintegrate with the rest of Europe.  Full of shame and remorse, Germans slowly began to rebuild their country in absence of the Reich.

A primary goal of the Nuremberg Trials was to prevent aggressive wars in the future.  The hope was by refusing to let criminals go unpunished for their brutality future violent battles could be prevented.  Unfortunately, this goal is a bit idealistic and large wars in Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, and currently Afghanistan have still broken out.  However, the punishment of criminals at Nuremberg was a definite step in the positive direction.  There is no way of telling how many more wars would have occurred had the trials not been carried out.  The Nuremberg Trials represent a world reacting with justice and reason to the largest display of inhumanity in this century.

Hopefully this information has provided a more in-depth look at the trial's significance and has increased your knowledge on how Holocaust war criminals were dealt with. Please continue to read more about this subject at any of the links listed below and encourage others to do the same. Hopefully, through continued knowledge, neither the events of the Holocaust nor the justice that was obtained at Nuremberg will be forgotten.


Marrus, Michael.The Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, 1945-46. Toronto: Bedford books, 1997
Masser, Werner. Nuremberg: A Nation on Trial. New York: Charles Schribner's Sons, 1977.
Meltzer, Robert A. Remembering Nuremberg. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1995.
Perisco, Joseph E.Infamy on Trial: The Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. New York: Viking Penguin, 1995.
Smith, Bradley F.Reaching Judgment at Nuremberg. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1977.

Web Resources   This is a good site for an overview of defendant and prosecutor's back round information.    If you have access to this site, it provides in-depth chronological details of the trial proceedings and a couple good pictures.    An excellent photo gallery where most of the pictures on this page are from the Nuremberg Trial.    A site full of quotes in reaction to the Nuremberg Trial.    A very resourceful site with details on many famous war trials and also backround Nazi information.

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