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The Holocaust History Project.
The Holocaust History Project.

The Trial at Nuremberg

During World War II the Allies were determined that both Hitler and the men around him should be punished for starting World War II and the crimes they had committed while they were waging it. These crimes included the extermination of the Jewish people of Europe known as the Holocaust or the Shoah. After some debate it was decided that the fairest way to proceed was the public trial of the men and organizations who committed the crimes.

At the most famous of these, the Nuremberg Trial, 22 individual Nazi officials, and seven groups that had been organized to carry out the Nazi programs, were placed on trial for their crimes. Martin Bormann was tried in absentia. Additionally Robert Ley was charged as a defendant but committed suicide before the trial, and Gustav Krupp, who was named in the indictments, was found to be medically unfit to stand trial. Many of the leading Nazis, such as Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels, were not present at the Nuremberg Trial because they has committed suicide at the end of the war.

The first step was to agree upon the rules for the trial. They adopted a combined procedure of the four Allies (the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union). The defendants were given the right to be represented by counsel, call witnesses, and present evidence in their own behalf. They were not given the right to a jury trial which was part of the law only in Great Britain and the United States. Finally, after all the evidence was presented, the defendants were permitted to make statements to the court without being sworn or cross-examined.

The next step was the indictment, a statement of the charges against each defendant. The Allies charged the defendants with four types of crimes: conspiracy against peace, crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The Allies stated that the Nazis, when they started the war, had deliberately broken the treaties that Germany had signed. The Holocaust was included as part of the crimes against humanity. Not all of the defendants were charged under all counts of the indictment. Doenitz, Raeder, and Schacht were not accused of participating in the Holocaust.

The trial was held before a panel of judges selected by the Allies called the Tribunal and presided over by a British judge named Lord Lawrence. The Allies presented their evidence which consisted almost entirely of the words and documents of the Nazis themselves. During the investigation that led up to the trial, the U.S. and British investigators had discovered literally tons of documents which proved the charges against the defendants. The decision was made, therefore, to rely on the words of the defendants themselves in the trial. Certain witnesses were presented to flesh out the evidence. This is especially true in the case against the concentration camps where witnesses ranging from a member of the French parliament -- who had been imprisoned as a slave laborer at Auschwitz -- to an American army officer who had been imprisoned at Buchenwald testified. Several Nazi officers also testified about how the Holocaust occurred.

Although the French and the Soviets were originally supposed to present the case on the crimes against humanity, the Americans and British had presented a lot of evidence about the Holocaust when they presented evidence. In fact, by the time the Soviets started to present their case one of the judges, Lord Birkett of Great Britain, was restless because he thought the testimony was unnecessary -- the case had been proven over and over again.

The final phase of the trial was the defendants' cases. The defendants actually took more time in the court than the prosecutors. Although the defenses varied most either stated that they not involved in the Holocaust or did not know it was happening. All of the defendants testified at length and presented witnesses. One of the most important witnesses about the Holocaust, Rudolf Höß (or "Hoess"), the commandant of Auschwitz, was actually called as a witness for the defense.

The judges had a hard time deliberating about whether the defendants were guilty and what punishments should be meted out to those who were guilty. The French judge, DeVabres, was not convinced that any of the defendants should be found guilty on the charge of conspiracy because that concept was not found in French or German law.

In the final Judgment, three defendants, Von Papen, Schacht, and Fritzche, were acquitted entirely. Eleven others were acquitted of some of the charges against them and Hess was acquitted of the charges of participating in the Holocaust and other war crimes. Twelve of the defendants were sentenced to death. Bormann was never found and Goering committed suicide. The others were hung on October 16, 1946.

The Nuremberg Trial was the only trial of Nazi war criminals that was conducted by an international tribunal. Later, other Nazi war criminals were placed on trial, many in the same court-room where the Nuremberg Trial had occurred. Each of these trials, however, was conducted by a single country. The Americans, for example, tried the defendants who had performed cruel medical experiments on prisoners; the British tried the men who had run Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

The trials continued for several years until the American, British, and French turned the work over to German courts. As late as 1965, defendants were still being tried in Germany for the crimes they committed during the Holocaust.

The Nuremberg trials were more controversial when they happened then they are today. It was a new idea and new procedures had to be established. Some were uncomfortable with the idea of trying men for starting the war when there had never been a trial like this before. Others have been bothered by the death sentence given to Julius Streicher and the light sentence given to Albert Speer. Today there are very few legal scholars who accept the technical arguments about whether the trial should have been held. Even those reputable scholars who disagree base their objections on their legal philosophy. All agree that the Tribunal took its job seriously and gave the defendants a fair trial.

Where to Start Your Research:

I. General Works

There are a number of books available that describe this Trial in great detail and in a manner that can make the event understandable to all. We recommend any of the following books. While each was written from a slightly different perspective and each has its own strengths and weaknesses, any one of these books will give you a good understanding of the trial at Nuremberg.

  • Robert E. Conot, Justice at Nuremberg, Harper & Row (1983)

  • Whitney Harris, Tyranny on Trial, Southern Methodist University Press (1954)

  • Joseph Persico, Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial, Viking Press (1994)

  • Bradley F. Smith, Reaching Judgment at Nuremberg, Basic Books (1977)

  • Bradley F. Smith, The Road to Nuremberg, Basic Books (1981)

  • Telford Taylor, The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials, Little Brown (1992)

We highly recommend Justice at Nuremberg by Conot as the best place for a student to start researching. If that is not available we suggest The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials as a second choice.

Please note that Bradley F. Smith, the respected historian of the Second World War, is not related to Bradley R. Smith, the Holocaust-denier who co-founded CODOH.

II. Some Further Reading

  • G. M. Gilbert, Nuremberg Diaries, DeCapo Press (1995)

    Dr. Gilbert was the psychologist assigned to evaluate and counsel the defendants at Nuremberg. The book tells how each reacted to the evidence as it was presented at the trial. The text of the 1995 (third) paperback edition is complete and unabridged, and includes photographs that were not in the first edition. The second edition (1961) also had these photographs.

  • Hillary Gaskin, Eyewitnesses at Nuremberg, Arms and Armor Press (1990)

    This is an "oral history." It is stories of the people who were at Nuremberg from lawyers to observers sitting in the gallery in their own words. It will give you a good idea of what it was like to be at the trial.

III. The Primary Sources

A conscientious and serious historian doing research on the Nuremberg Trial would consult the primary record -- the record of the Trial itself. That record, however, can be tedious reading especially if one is searching for information on a specific point. The record of the Nuremberg Trial, like that of any trial, is long and disorganized because the information consists only of the evidence and is often presented in a piecemeal fashion. An understanding of its nature and significance is left to the reader's imagination. It is, however, the place where the real story of the Nuremberg Trial is found.

If you wish to research the Nuremberg Trial with primary material, the best roadmap is the Judgment of the Tribunal which states what was proved and what was not proved. The Judgment of the Tribunal can be found in any law library. It is at 6 F.R.D. 139 and most law librarians would be willing to spend a minute to help you find it.

The record of the trial itself is contained in two sets of books known as the "Red Series" and the "Blue Series" due to the color of the bindings. They present all the testimony and documents offered at the trial. The final set of books is the "Green Series." These are the records of the subsequent trials held by the Americans. Although the testimony is not complete all of the documents that the various courts used is included. The sets can usually be found in larger libraries and university libraries.

The Holocaust History Project is working to transcribe free copies of these books on the web. As of this writing, the first volumes of the blue series are available, including the Judgment.

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Last modified: October 12, 1999
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