Seventy years ago – on October 1, 1946 – the Nuremberg trial, one of the most prominent trials of the last century, concluded when the International Military Tribunal (IMT) issued the verdicts for the main war criminals of the Second World War. The IMT sentenced twelve of the defendants to death, seven to terms of imprisonment ranging from ten years to life, and acquitted three.
The IMT was established on August 8, 1945 by the United Kingdom (UK), the United States of America, the French Republic, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) for the trial of war criminals whose offenses had no particular geographical location. The defendants were indicted for (1) crimes against peace, (2) war crimes, (3) crimes against humanity, and of (4) a common plan or conspiracy to commit those aforementioned crimes. The trial began on November 20, 1945 and a total of 403 open sessions were held. The prosecution called thirty-three witnesses, whereas the defense questioned sixty-one witnesses, in addition to 143 witnesses who gave evidence for the defense by means of written answers to interrogatories. The hearing of evidence and the closing statements were concluded on August 31, 1946.
The individuals named as defendants in the trial were Hermann Wilhelm Göring, Rudolf Hess, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Robert Ley, Wilhelm Keitel, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Alfred Rosenberg, Hans Frank, Wilhelm Frick, Julius Streicher, Walter Funk, Hjalmar Schacht, Karl Dönitz, Erich Raeder, Baldur von Schirach, Fritz Sauckel, Alfred Jodl, Martin Bormann, Franz von Papen, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, Albert Speer, Constantin von Neurath, Hans Fritzsche, and Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach. All individual defendants appeared before the IMT, except for Robert Ley, who committed suicide in prison on October 25, 1945; Gustav Krupp von Bolden und Halbach, who was seriously ill; and Martin Borman, who was not in custody and whom the IMT decided to try in absentia. Pleas of “not guilty” were entered by all the defendants.
Influence of the Nuremberg Trials on International Law
The establishment of the IMT served as a model for other international tribunals and the principles developed and recognized in the IMT Charter and in the judgement of the IMT had a major impact on the development of international criminal law. After the verdict was announced, the United Nations (UN) Secretary General stated that
[i]n the interests of peace and in order to protect mankind against future wars, it will be of decisive significance to have the principles which were employed in the Nuremberg trials and according to which the German war-criminals were sentenced, made a permanent part of the body of international law as quickly as possible.
As a result, the United Nations General Assembly affirmed the “Nuremberg Principles” in its resolution 95 (I) and directed the International Law Commission (ILC) to codify them.
The ILC formulated the following seven Nuremberg principles:
- Any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible therefor and liable to punishment.
- The fact that internal law does not impose a penalty for an act which constitutes a crime under international law does not relieve the person who committed the act from responsibility under international law.
- The fact that a person who committed an act which constitutes a crime under international law acted as Head of State or responsible Government official does not relieve him from responsibility under international law.
- The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.
- Any person charged with a crime under international law has the right to a fair trial on the facts and law.
- The crimes hereinafter set out are punishable as crimes under international law:
a. Crimes against peace:
(i) Planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances;
(ii) Participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the acts mentioned under (i).
b. War crimes:
Violations of the laws or customs of war which include, but are not limited to, murder, ill-treatment or deportation to slave-labour or for any other purpose of civilian population of or in occupied territory, murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war, of persons on the seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity.
c. Crimes against humanity:
Murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation and other inhuman acts done against any civilian population, or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds, when such acts are done or such persecutions are carried on in execution of or in connexion with any crime against peace or any war crime.
- Complicity in the commission of a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity as set forth in Principle VI is a crime under international law.
The UN General Assembly never formally adopted or rejected the Nuremberg principles after the codification by the ILC, but the principles have been reaffirmed and further developed in the statutes of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), and the International Criminal Court (ICC) and in international and national case law. The Nuremberg principles are today widely considered to represent customary international law. Some principles are even regarded as peremptory norms of international law (jus cogens).
Law Library of Congress Resources
For more on the subject, we invite you to review the resources of the Law Library of Congress, which include, among others, the official records of the trial of the major war criminals before the IMT (“The Blue Series”). In addition to primary sources, the Law Library of Congress holds numerous secondary source materials on the Nuremberg trial of the major war criminals and subsequent trials, and the general subject of international criminal law. A small selection of primary sources and recent secondary English-language titles includes:
- Trial of the major war criminals before the International Military Tribunal, Nuremberg, 14 November 1945 – 1 October 1946 [electronic resource]. The 42-volume series contains the official record of the trial of the major civilian and military leaders of Nazi Germany who were accused of war crimes.
- The trial of German major war criminals by the International Military Tribunal sitting at Nuremberg, Germany. Buffalo, N.Y., 2001. Contains the opening speeches of the chief prosecutors, the closing speeches of the prosecutors for the case against the indicted organizations and for the case against the individual defendants, and the judgment of the IMT.
- Bartlomiej Krzan (ed.), Prosecuting International Crimes: a Multidisciplinary Approach. Leiden; Boston: Brill Nijhoff, 2016.
- Priemel, Kim Christian, The Betrayal: The Nuremberg Trials and German Divergence. 1st edition. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2016.
- Kamuli, Raphael. Modern International Criminal Justice: The Jurisprudence of the International Criminal Court. Cambridge, England; Antwerp; Portland, Oregon: Intersentia, 2014.
- Crowe, David. War Crimes, Genocide, and Justice : A Global History. 1st edition. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
- Margaret Wood, War Crimes Resources – A Research Guide, In Custodia Legis, June 27, 2013.
- Kim C. Priemel/Alexa Stiller (eds.), Reassessing the Nuremberg Military Tribunals: Transitional Justice, Trial Narratives, and Historiography. New York: Berghahn Books, 2012.
- Heller, Kevin Jon, The Nuremberg Military Tribunals and the Origins of International Criminal Law. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.