The Nuremberg trial, held in 1946, was unique at the time. It persecuted 24 of the most important and high-profile figures of the Third Reich. It was also the first international tribunal to be used as a post-war mechanism for bringing national leaders to justice via imprisonment or capital punishment.
It set the groundwork for the International Court of Justice, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and two Geneva Conventions, amongst countless other legacies. Subsequent trials of Nazi war criminals have since taken place, so how unique was Nuremberg?
Nuremberg Military Tribunals
The initial Nuremberg trial is well-known amongst both historians and the public, mainly due to the wide media attention, both then and now. However, few are aware of the twelve subsequent trials that took place at Nuremberg – they were not tried by an international court, but by an American military court. The trials are outlined below.
Doctors’ Trial: 23 leading physicians were tried for war crimes, and crimes against humanity, based upon their participation in Aktion T4, the Nazis euthanasia programme. The verdict was announced on 20 August 1947. Sixteen doctors were found guilty; seven sentenced to death. This trial became particularly important as precedents to post-war national legislations concerning concepts like ‘informed consent’ for medical research upon human subjects.
Milch Trial: This case focused solely on former Field Marshal Erhard Milch, who chiefly oversaw the development of the German air force and exploited slave labour to achieve its economic outputs. He was indicted on three counts; all pertaining to war crimes and treatment of POWs. He pleaded not guilty. On 16th April 1947, he was found guilty on one count but not of the others. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, which was later commuted to 15 years.
Justice Trial (Judges’ Trial): Sixteen defendants were tried for their roles in genocide and enacting racial laws. Ten of those on trial were found guilty and sentenced to various prison terms.
Pohl Trial: Department Head, Oswald Pohl, and seventeen other members of the SS Economic and Administration Main Office were persecuted. Fifteen of the defendants were found guilty and four were sentenced to death (one sentence was later reduced to life imprisonment). Pohl was found guilty and executed on 8 June 1951.
Flick Trial: The trial tried six defendants including Friedrich Flick, a leading industrialist who had made his fortunes from steel and coal companies during the Weimar Republic, and had benefitted from slave labour during the Third Reich. They were arraigned on counts of using slave labour, being involved in the ‘Aryanization’ of Jewish businesses, and plunder. Three of the defendants were acquitted. The others were sentenced to imprisonment, all sentences were under 7 years.
IG Farben Trial: 24 defendants who had been a part of the IG Farben company were tried for their role in the Holocaust by creating Zyklon B (the toxic chemical used in the gas chambers), and using slave labour, amongst other counts. Thirteen defendants were found guilty and received prison sentences under 8 years.
Hostages’ Trial: 12 defendants were indicted in war crimes against civilians and POWs of occupied countries. Only 10 defendants were put on trial, eight of those were found guilty and they received various prison sentences.
RuSHA Trial: The Main Race and Resettlement Office (RuSHA) was integral to carrying out the racial policies of the Third Reich. All eight defendants were found guilty on counts relating to the kidnapping of ‘Aryan’ children, the persecution and extermination of Jews, and the theft of homes and property.
Einsatzgruppen Trial: 24 leaders of the mobile killing squads, the Einsatzgruppen, were put on trial. Their defence was that they were following orders. 22 were tried and 20 were found guilty, 14 death sentences were given but only four were ever carried out. All the remaining defendants were released from prison by 1958.
Krupp Trial: The 12 defendants were all industrialists from Krupp, either from the managing board or other high-ranking positions. Krupp’s factories during the Holocaust were often manned by slave labour to build ammunition for the German war effort. Nine of the ten were given guilty verdicts and they received prison sentences, however all were commuted to time served.
Ministers’ Trial: Also known as the Wilhelmstrasse Trial (recognising the location of the Reich Chancellery and German Foreign Office), 12 defendants were state ministers and secretaries of the Nazi party. Ten of the defendants were found guilty of at least one charge holding them responsible for atrocities during the Holocaust.
High Command Trial: The trial was against 14 members of higher ranks of the German army. Only 13 defendants were tried, as one committed suicide before the trial. All were found guilty on various charges.
Following these Nuremberg Trials, various trials in Poland and Germany took place concerning individual camps, such as the Auschwitz Trial, Ravensbrück Trial and the Belsen Trial. Despite these ongoing trials, public awareness and interest remained relatively limited, as Europe rebuilt and faced new threats during the Cold War.
A Renewed Interest
In the years following, there has been a renewed interest in the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, (especially given the popularity of the televised trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel in 1961). The critical importance of witness testimony as a source of evidence also renewed interest in the experiences of Holocaust survivors.
Recent, high-profile trials of two war criminals, John Demjanjuk and Oskar Gröning, has largely been introduced to younger viewers through Netflix documentaries. ‘The Devil Next Door’ and the ‘Accountant of Auschwitz’ brought the real life stories to the public with Hollywood drama, engaging new audiences with history and bringing justice once more to the forefront of Holocaust intrigue.
Despite it being over 70 years since the end of the war, the legal persecution of Nazi war criminals continues. In 2019, Bruno Dey was charged with being complicit in the murders of 5,230 people at Dachau Concentration Camp. In 2020, he was found guilty and given a two-years suspended sentence. Currently, a Irmgard Furchner, 96, is standing trial in Stutthof, Germany, for her role in the murder of 11,000 people. Although she fled and a warrant was issued for her arrest, she was soon captured; a verdict is expected in the early 2022.
While the ethics of persecuting elderly people (especially those in ill health) for crimes committed decades earlier has been questioned, the need to persecute former Nazis is largely supported. But given their advanced years, it is only a matter of time until there will no longer be any former Nazis criminals left to convict.
Hannah May Randall