With Adolf Hitler’s rise to power as Chancellor of Germany in 1933, new policies were implemented by Hitler’s Nazi government, persecuting German-Jewish people and other minorities seen as threats to the Nazi state. As their time in power went on and grew stronger, these policies became exceedingly violent. After WWII ended in 1945, some of those responsible for these crimes during the Holocaust were brought to trial in Nuremberg, Germany. This case was significant as it established the principle that wartime leaders are accountable under international law for illegal and immoral actions, meaning they are responsible for the wars they start.
Key Legal Issues
As there was no precedent for an international trial of war criminals, the Nuremberg Trials had many legal and procedural issues that had to be overcome. As the Allies (a group of 4 powers that won the war against Germany, consisting of Britain, France, the Soviet Union and America) were all prosecuting these international war criminals, the trial proceedings had to be conducted according to the laws of these 4 powers. Laws were eventually composed and the legal basis for the trial was drawn up in the London Charter, which identified crime into 3 major categories: crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The trials were held with a mix of legal traditions. Prosecutors and defense attorneys were held to the standards of British and American law, but decisions and sentences were made by a tribunal. However, as only the winners of the war, the Allies, were prosecuting, all their crimes during the war were left without a trial. As only Nazi Germany was tried, the trial, though morally right, was legally wrong.
The best known of the Nuremberg Trials, and a trial regarded as the ‘trial of the century’, was the Trial of Major War Criminals, held from November 20th, 1945 until October 1st, 1945. Prosecuting the war criminals were representatives of the USA, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and France, with Chief Judge Geoffrey Lawrence of Great Britain and 7 associates serving as the tribunal. All members of the prosecution and tribunal were also members of the Allies. 24 men were indicted, and were allowed to choose their own representation. All were charged with crimes of conspiracy, crimes against peace, humanity or war crimes. 1 man was not deemed fit to stand for trial, and another killed himself before the trials began. Hitler and 2 of his close associates were not brought to trial, as each had committed suicide in the spring of 1945. The most common defense strategies, used by defense lawyers Otto Stahmer, Fritz Sauter and Alfred Seitel, were that the London Charter criminalized actions that were committed before the charter was introduced (ex post facto), and that the trial was a form of victor’s justice. On October 1st, 1945, the International Military Tribunal announced its verdict, sentencing 12 men to death, 3 to life imprisonment, 4 to prison terms ranging from 10-20 years, and three were acquitted.