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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > November 2015 > Revealed: the Nuremberg Trials

Revealed: the Nuremberg Trials

World War II was over, the ird Reich had fallen and many of its leaders captured. What followed was the trial of the century, which saw war criminals take the stand, and the darkest details of the Nazi regime uncovered. Nige Tassell has the story…

1,200 The total number of prisoners that Nuremberg’s Palace of Justice was capable of holding

UNDER LOCK AND KEY 21 Nazis accused of war crimes are watched by 21 guards, at Nuremberg jail in 1946
GETTY X2

On 7 May 1945, a week after Adolf Hitler’s suicide, Germany’s Chief of Operations Alfred Jodl signed his country’s unconditional surrender, putting his faith in Allied clemency. “ The German people and the German armed forces are, for better or worse, delivered into the hands of the victors. In this hour, I can only hope that the victors will treat them with generosity,” he said.

In 1936, Hitler’s Storm Troopers (the SA) march through Nuremberg

Winston Churchill wasn’t of such a mind. The British Prime Minister sought the speedy revenge that came from a firing squad’s bullets, but consensus over the method of justice needed to be found across the Allies. As early as October 1943, they had published the Moscow Declaration on Germany Atrocities in Occupied Europe, serving notice on the Nazis that, once defeated, they would be pursued “to the uttermost ends of the Earth”. is determination for justice to be metered out was reconfirmed at both Yalta and Berlin in 1945. “Public opinion in Allied countries favoured putting the Nazis on trial,” explains Richard J Evans, author of The ird Reich in History and Memory. “Churchill and Stalin initially just wanted the Nazi leaders shot, but were persuaded that trials would have a good educational and publicity effect.”

In the thirties, Nuremberg featured on much Nazi propaganda

The problem was that the high-ranking Nazis facing the sanctions of the Allies hadn’t physically committed the crimes themselves. As historian Joseph E Persico later noted, “none of them shot the bank guard, blew the safe or drove the getaway car. eir hands were clean.” What’s more, Persico continued, the legal framework for prosecuting a government and its military leaders in an international court didn’t exist. “ The instruments for trying a drunk driver in any county of the United States were more complete than the instruments for trying mass murderers in Europe at the end of World War II. They started from scratch.”

A ROOM WITHOUT A VIEW Each defendant was kept alone, in a small, dank prison cell

After the German surrender, lengthy discussions were held between the Allied countries as they tussled with philosophical conundrums. Who should go on trial? How should they be tried? And what would be the charges? The International Military Tribunal, set up in August 1945, outlined that the leading Nazis should face charges of conspiracy in the first trial, with subsequent trials putting judges, doctors, civil servants and the like in the dock for more specific crimes. (Notably, mass bombing wasn’t defined as a war crime, presumably so that the Allies could avoid accusations of hypocrisy.)

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