How do you punish the perpetrators of the biggest genocide in human history? Do they deserve a fair trial, which their millions of victims never got? These are some of the questions the Allies debated during and after WWII. They were eventually resolved by the Nuremberg Trial, which Ann and John Tusa describe in vivid detail in their book by the same name (The Nuremberg Trial, New York: Atheneum, 1986). Several options were suggested, even before the war was over and the Ally victory secured.
Documents released in 2006 from the British War Cabinet indicate that in December 1944 the Cabinet considered a swift and severe punishment of the Nazi leaders involved in crimes against humanity. Winston Churchill suggested summary execution of the top Nazi leaders. A year earlier, at the Tehran Conference, Joseph Stalin proposed executing 50,000-100,000 Nazi officers. Roosevelt appeared prepared to go on board with this idea, but at the time Churchill vehemently objected, stating that most of them were fighting for their country.
Roosevelt later considered a plan proposed by US Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau. Morgenthau called for the de-industrialization of Germany and the execution of the major Nazi war criminals. This proposed retribution, once publicized by the media, caused massive protests in the US, which dissuaded Roosevelt from pursuing it. The plan eventually adopted by President Harry S. Truman after Roosevelt’s death continues to serve as a precedent for prosecuting war crimes today in its fairness and legality. The trial that took place in 1945 and 1946 in the city of Nuremberg distinguishes itself from how the totalitarian regimes had administered “justice” by leveling false accusations against millions of innocent people and murdering them.
The Allies chose Nurermberg for the trial of the top Nazi leaders for several reasons:
1) its Palace of Justice was one of the few public buildings in major cities in Germany that had withstood the Ally bombings and remained relatively intact
2) the building included a large prison
3) Nuremberg was the ceremonial place where the Nazis held rallies and issued their infamous anti-Semitic legislature.
The International Military Tribunal tried 24 Nazi perpetrators for crimes against peace (planning and waging wars of aggression), war crimes (violations of internationally agreed upon rules of waging war), and crimes against humanity (murder, extermination, enslavement, rape and deportation of civilians).
Of course, not all of the leading perpetrators of Nazi atrocities were caught and punished. Hitler along with Goebbels and his family had committed suicide. Many Nazi war criminals, including Adolf Eichmann, scattered throughout the world and lived, for many years, in hiding. Others, including Heinrich Himmler, disguised themselves as ordinary soldiers in the many camps throughout Europe. As the Tusas point out, it was very difficult to catch these mass murderers:
“Given the vast number of such camps, not just in the Four Zones of Germany but in Austria and the liberated countries, all of which were constantly receiving new inmates, chacking them was time consuming and frustrating. There was too little communication between the searchers and the authorities who might hold their prey; up-to-date intelligence circulated haphazardly if at all. Under these circumstances it is hardly surprising that the roundup of many leading Nazi war criminals took months” (The Nuremberg Trial, 37).
Remarkably, given the post-war mass migrations and chaos, 24 of the leading Nazi war criminals stood trial in Nuremberg, including Hermann Goering (Hitler’s heir), Joachim von Ribbentrop (Nazi Foreign Minister), Rudolf Hess (Hitler’s deputy), Hans Frank (the ruthless Governo-General of occupied Poland), Wilhelm Keitel (Army Head), Wilhelm Frick (Minister of Interior), Erns Kaltenbrunner (Security Chief), Konstantin von Neurath (Governor of Moravia and Bohemia), Erich Raeder (Navy Chief), Karl Doenitz (Raeder’s successor), Alfred Jodl (Commander of Armed Forces), Alfred Rosenberg (the blood-thristy Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories), Baldur von Fritz Sauckel (Chief of Forced Labor), Albert Speer (Armaments Minister), Baldur von Schirach (Hitler Youth Leader), Julius Streicher (leading writer of anti-Semitic propaganda), Alfred Seyss-Inquart (the ingratiating Comminissioner for the Occuped Netherlands), and Martin Bormann (Hitler’s Adjuct, who was tried in his absence). (See https://www.ushmm.org/)
Despite their positions of leadership and direct communications with Hitler and Himmler, most of the accused claimed ignorance of the Holocaust. In the cases when, faced with irrefutable evidence, they were obliged to admit their involvement, they argued that they were merely following orders and serving their country. Most adopted an obsequious tone and seemed non-descript despite their previous prominence in the Nazi regime. The Tusas note two exceptions: Goering and Speer. Hermann Goering behaved in his usually flashy and bombastic manner. During the trial, he acted in control of the situation. When he was sentenced to death, he committed suicide in his cell rather than relinquish his power. Albert Speer, the Minister of Defense, put up an impressively argued defense and was sentenced to twenty years in prison. Robert H. Jackson, the United States prosecutor, shone throughout the trial in his eloquence, precision and passion.
On October 1, 1946, the International Military Tribunal issued the verdicts. Twelve of the most notorious war criminals, inluding Goering, Ribbentrop, Rosenberg, Frank and SeyssInquart, received the death penalty. Three of the accused (Hess, Funk and Raeder) were sentenced to life in prison. Four men (Doenitz, Schirach, Speer and Neurath) received jail terms ranging from 10 to 20 years.
The Nuremberg trial is rightly described as “the greatest trial in history.” In this trial, the Allies showed incredible restraint, given the magnitude of suffering the Nazis caused. The trial could have offered a farce of justice, giving the war criminals a taste of their own medicine. But it didn’t. The Allies took the high road instead, which is why the Nuremberg trial continues to serve as a role model for how to deal with war crimes and crimes against humanity in as fair a fashion as possible, despite the understandable temptation for revenge and retribution.
Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon