The Nuremberg Trials: Definition, Purpose, Facts & Results

Instructor: Matthew Hill
The Nuremberg Trials were set up to prosecute the leading Nazi war criminals. These trials set a precedent for international law and regulating the conduct of war. Find out more about one of these trials, the Trial of the Major War Criminals.

Background and Purpose

The Second World War witnessed an unprecedented amount of suffering on civilian populations. The revelations of the Holocaust, especially, called for a special response to crimes of this magnitude. The Nuremberg Trials were composed of twelve different trials that took place from 1945-1949. The reason for the variation was to differentiate between the types of offenses and persons responsible. For example, the second most famous was the Doctors Trial, which focused on the medical personnel.

The best known, and the focus of this lesson, is the Trial of the Major War Criminals, which ran from November 1945 to October 1946 and tried the core military and political leaders of Germany for crimes against humanity.

Nuremberg Trials, with Herman Goering front left
Photo of the Nuremberg Trails. Herman Goering on the Far Left

During the allied meetings at the Moscow Conference of 1943 and the Potsdam Conference of 1945, the four-party coalition of the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union agreed to convene a series of trials to prosecute war crimes. They argued that the crimes committed by Nazi Germany, underscored by the national policy of the mass killing of civilians, were so grievous that the core leadership had to be put on trial and punished. There was little precedent for this process as international tribunals were very weak at this time.

Rules of the Trial

The rules of the trial were established during a conference in London and were put forth in the Charter of the International Military Tribunal of August 8, 1945. The charter defined four categories by which each defendant would be judged. These basically included conspiracy or planning to commit crimes against peace or humanity; committing crimes against peace; war crimes, which included the murder, abuse, or enslavement of civilian populations, prisoners, or the deliberate destruction of property, and 'crimes against humanity', which meant the extermination and murder of civilians based on their political, racial, or religious affiliation. The trial was held in the Palace of Justice in the city of Nuremberg, in the province of Bavaria, Germany. This ironically, was the same place where the Nazis passed their harsh racial codes.

Palace of Justice Courthouse, site of the Nuremberg Trials
Palace of Justice Courthouse

The Trial of the Major War Criminals

The trial was governed by four nations: the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. Each nation in turn appointed one judge and one alternate judge to preside over the trial. The American prosecutor Robert H. Jackson gave the famous opening address that noted that the crimes in question were unprecedented in scale and scope.

Robert H. Jackson, chief American prosecutor
Robert H. Jackson

The key question was who to prosecute. Naturally, the entire military was too large a target, so it was decided that only the senior military and political command who either orchestrated the war or who were directly involved in the mass killing of civilians would be tried. Three of the top leaders - Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Joseph Goebbels - had all committed suicide before the trials. Adolf Eichmann, the head of the Gestapo and organizer of the Final Solution, had escaped, and his whereabouts were unknown. Specifically, 22 people in all were indicted, though only 21 actually stood trial. Martin Bormann, Hitler's private secretary, had fled and was not found until 1972, but he was still tried and convicted in absentia. The remaining 21 were tried in court between November 1945 and October 1946.

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