The Nuremberg trials were a series of military tribunals held after World War II by the Allied Forces (The Allies or the Allied Forces of World War II, were called so, by the United Nations, in their January 1 1942 declaration.) They were the countries that together opposed the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis powers during the Second World War (1939-1945). The Allies promoted the alliance as a means to control German, Japanese and the Italian aggression under international law and the laws of the war. The trials were most notable for the prosecution of prominent members of the political, military, judicial, and economic leadership of Nazi Germany. Nazi Germany was the common English name for Germany between 1933 and 1945, when Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party (NSDAP) ruled the country through dictatorship.

    Under Hitler’s rule, Germany became a totalitarian state when nearly all aspects of life were controlled by the government who planned, supervised, and horrendously carried out the holocaust. The holocaust, also known as the Shoah, was World War II’s genocide of the European Jews, between 1941 and 1945 across German-occupied Europe when, Nazi Germany and its collaborators systematically murdered some six million Jews, around two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population and committed other war crimes.

    War Crime is an act that constitutes a serious violation of the laws of war that gives rise to individual criminal responsibility. Examples of war crimes include intentionally killing civilians or prisoners, torturing, destroying civilian property, taking hostages, performing perfidy, raping, using child soldiers and pillaging. The trials were held in Nuremberg. Nuremberg is the second-largest city of the German federal state of Bavaria after its capital Munich. The trials marked a turning point between classical and contemporary international law.

    The first and the best known trials was that of the major war criminals before the International Military Tribunal (IMT). It was described as “the greatest trial in history” by Sir Norman Birkett, a British barrister, judge, politician and preacher who served as the alternate British judge during the Nuremberg trials, and one of the British judges present throughout. The trial was held between 20 November 1945 and 1 October 1946.

    The Tribunal was given the task of trying 24 of the most important political and military leaders of the Third Reich. Reich is a German word analogous to the English word meaning ‘realm of a king.’ Some important names that were put to trial were as follows:

    Let me begin with Martin Bormann who had died in May 1945 but the fact was not known to the allies and he was tried in absentia. Martin Ludwig Bormann was a German Nazi Party official and head of the Nazi Party Chancellery. He gained immense power by using his position as Adolf Hitler’s private secretary to control the flow of information and access to Hitler. After Hitler’s suicide on 30 April 1945, another defendant, Robert Ley, committed suicide within a week of his trial’s commencement.

    Adolf Hitler killed himself by a gunshot on 30 April 1945 in his Fuhrerbunker in Berlin. Eva Braun, his wife too committed suicide along with him by taking cyanide. In accordance with Hitler’s prior written and verbal instructions that afternoon, their remains were carried up the stairs through the bunker’s emergency exit, doused in petrol, and set alight in the Reich Chancellery garden outside the bunker. Records in the Soviet archives show that their burned remains were recovered and interred in successive locations until 1946. They were exhumed again and cremated in 1970, and the ashes were scattered. 

    Hitler had retreated to his bunker on January 16, after deciding to remain in Berlin for the last great siege of the war. Fifty-five feet under the chancellery (Hitler’s headquarters as chancellor), the shelter contained 18 small rooms and was fully self-sufficient, with its own water and electricity supply. He went out very rarely (once to decorate a squadron of Hitler Youth) and spent most of his time micromanaging what was left of German defenses and entertaining guests such as Hermann Goering, Heinrich Himmler, and Joachim von Ribbentrop. At his side was Eva Braun, whom he married only two days before their double suicide, and his dog, an Alsatian named Blondi.

    Warned by officers that the Russians were only a day or so away from overtaking the chancellery and urged him to escape to Berchtesgarden, a small town in the Bavarian Alps where Hitler owned a home, but the dictator instead chose suicide. It is believed that both he and his wife swallowed cyanide capsules which had been tested for its efficacy on his “beloved” dog and her pups. And for good measure, he even shot himself with his service pistol.

    The bodies of Hitler and Eva were cremated in the chancellery garden by the bunker survivors as per Der Fuhrer’s orders, and reportedly later recovered in parts by Russian troops. A German court finally officially declared Hitler dead, but not until 1956.

    Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels a German Nazi politician and a Reich Minister for Propoganda of the Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945, had both committed suicide in the spring of 1945 to avoid capture. Heinrich Himmler another leader of the Nazi Party, attempted to commit suicide, but was captured before he could succeed. He committed suicide one day after being arrested by British forces. On the other hand Heinrich Muller better known as Gestapo Muller the SS Gestapo chief of Hitler, who was central in planning the holocaust disappeared the day after Hitler’s suicide. He was the most senior figure of the Nazi regime whose fate remains unknown. He was neither captured nor confirmed to have died.

     Further Reinhard Heydrich a high-ranking German SS and police official of the Nazi era and the main architect of the holocaust was assassinated by Czech partisans in 1942. Josef Terboven another Nazi leader killed himself with dynamite in Norway in 1945. Adolf Eichmann fled to Argentina to avoid capture but was apprehended by Israel’s intelligence service (Mossad) and hanged after a trial in Jerusalem in 1962. Hermann Goring was sentenced to death but he committed suicide by swallowing cyanide the night before his execution.

    Primarily conducted in Nuremberg were the first initial trials, adjudicated by the International Military Tribunal. Further trials of lesser war criminals were conducted under Control Council Law No. 10 at the U.S. Nuremberg Military Tribunal (NMT), which included Doctors’ and Judges’ trial who too were part of war crimes.

    The categorization of the crimes and the constitution of the court represented a juridical advance that was to be followed afterward by the United Nations for the development of an international jurisprudence in matters of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and wars of aggression, and led to the creation of the International Criminal Court. For the first time in international law, the Nuremberg indictments also mentioned genocide (count three, war crimes: “the extermination of racial and national groups, against the civilian populations of certain occupied territories in order to destroy particular races and classes of people and national, racial, or religious groups, particularly Jews, Poles, Gypsies and others”).

    A precedent for trying those accused, of war crimes, had also been set up, at the end of World War I, in the Leipzig War Crimes Trials. The Leipzig War Crimes Trials were a series of trials held in 1921 to try alleged German war criminals of the First World War before the German Reichsgericht (the Supreme Court) in Leipzig, as part of the penalties imposed on the German government under the Treaty of Versailles. Only twelve individuals were brought to trial with mixed results, and the proceedings were widely regarded at the time as a failure. In the longer term, however, the trials were seen as a significant step towards the introduction of a comprehensive system for the prosecution of violations of international law.

 By Kamlesh Tripathi




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