The Nuremberg Trials

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

Holocaust. The very word conjures up unimaginable horrors. “The Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. Holocaust is a word of Greek origin meaning “sacrifice by fire.” The Nazis, who came to power in Germany in January 1933, believed that Germans were “racially superior” and that the Jews, deemed “inferior,” were an alien threat to the so-called German racial community.”

To control this threat, the Germans herded Jews into ghettos—enclosed districts that were isolated from the general populace as well as from other Jewish communities.  Once isolated, it became easier to implement the “final solution” of eradicating anyone considered inferior.  Between mass shootings and gas chambers at concentration camps like Dachau, Auschwitz, Treblinka, and others, the final death toll was staggering.

With Allied victories in Europe and Japan in 1945, thoughts turned (although the issue had been discussed earlier in the war) to consideration of how to seek justice for Nazi atrocities. “In December 1942, the Allied leaders of Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union “issued the first joint declaration officially noting the mass murder of European Jewry and resolving to prosecute those responsible for violence against civilian populations,” according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), the Soviet leader, initially proposed the execution of 50,000 to 100,000 German staff officers. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965) discussed the possibility of summary execution (execution without a trial) of high-ranking Nazis, but was persuaded by American leaders that a criminal trial would be more effective. Among other advantages, criminal proceedings would require documentation of the crimes charged against the defendants and prevent later accusations that the defendants had been condemned without evidence.”

Much of Nuremberg was in ruins after the war, n.d. Source:

Much of Nuremberg was in ruins after the war, n.d. Source:

Setting up the trials was beset with difficulties.  There was no precedent for international justice on this scope–war crimes trials in the past had been held by single nations.  Now four sovereign nations (France, Britain, the Soviet Union, and the U.S.) were going to have to agree on a single set of laws and procedures while coming from different legal frameworks, traditions, and ideals.  The Allies wanted the trials held in Germany but selecting a location in a defeated and destroyed country was no easy feat.  The city of Nuremberg was chosen for several reasons—its Palace of Justice was still standing (see below), large enough to host the attendant crowd, and had a large prison area.  There were also important symbolic reasons to choose Nuremberg.  Nuremberg was the site of many of Hitler’s populist rallies and well as where the laws that stripped Jews of everything had been enacted.  It was thus fitting that Nuremberg should be the site where Hitler’s Third Reich came to an end.

Nuremberg Trial

Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, n.d. Source:

Defendants at Nuremberg

Defendants Hermann Göring, Karl Dönitz, and Rudolf Hess confer, while examining a document, in the dock at the courtroom at the Nuremberg Trials. Two military policemen stand behind them, n.d. Source:,_D%C3%B6nitz,_and_Hess_conferring_Nuremberg_Trials.jpeg

There were two sets of Nuremberg trials, although the first, which indicted 21 major war criminals, was best known. Each Allied nation supplied two judges, a main and an alternate. The main American prosecutor was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson. Indictments were based on “three categories of crimes: crimes against peace (including planning, preparing, starting or waging wars of aggression or wars in violation of international agreements), war crimes (including violations of customs or laws of war, including improper treatment of civilians and prisoners of war) and crimes against humanity (including murder, enslavement or deportation of civilians or persecution on political, religious or racial grounds).”  Hitler and his top henchmen Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler were not available to be placed on trial, having already committed suicide.  Among the 21 indicted were Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, and Martin Bormann (tried in absentia).  “As the accused men and judges spoke four different languages, the trial saw the introduction of a technological innovation taken for granted today: instantaneous translation. IBM provided the technology and recruited men and women from international telephone exchanges to provide on-the-spot translations through headphones in English, French, German and Russian.  In the end, the international tribunal found all but three of the defendants guilty.  Twelve were sentenced to death, one in absentia, and the rest were given prison sentences ranging from 10 years to life behind bars. Ten of the condemned were executed by hanging on October 16, 1946. Hermann Göring (1893-1946), Hitler’s designated successor and head of the “Luftwaffe” (German air force), committed suicide the night before his execution with a cyanide capsule he had hidden in a jar of skin medication.”

After the main trial, 12 more were held from 1946-1949.  Because of differences between the Allies a joint trial was no longer possible, so the later trials were U.S. military tribunals.  One of these was the doctors’ trial for those accused of crimes against humanity, including the medical experiments conducted on prisoners of war.  Other trials dealt with industrialists, SS officers, and high-ranking army officers.  The judges (or jurists) trial charged 16 lawyers and judges with implementing eugenics laws to preserve racial purity.

This latter trial involves some local interest.  Deputy chief of counsel was Charles LaFollette.  Charles Marion LaFollette (1898-1974) “moved with his parents to Evansville, Ind., in 1901; attended the public schools and entered Wabash College at Crawfordsville, Ind., in September 1916; during the First World War enlisted in the United States Army and served with the One Hundred and Fifty-first Infantry, Thirty-eighth Division, 1917-1919, with four months overseas; attended Wabash College until June 1921; studied law at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn., in 1921 and also in law offices in Dayton, Ohio, and Evansville, Ind.; was admitted to the bar in 1925 and commenced practice in Evansville, Ind.; member of the State house of representatives 1927-1929; elected as a Republican to the Seventy-eighth and to the Seventy-ninth Congresses (January 3, 1943-January 3, 1947); was not a candidate for reelection in 1946 but was an unsuccessful candidate for the Republican nomination for United States Senator; deputy chief of counsel for war crimes, Nuremberg, Germany, from January 4, 1947, to December 15, 1947; director of the Office of Military Government for Wurttemberg-Baden, Germany, from December 15, 1947, to January 16, 1949; appointed a director of Americans for Democratic Action on July 1, 1949, serving until May 1, 1950; member of first Subversive Activities Contol Board, 1950-1951; died in Trenton, N.J., June 27, 1974; cremated; ashes interred at Locust Hill Cemetery.”

LaFollette’s prosecution led to 10 convictions, with imprisonment for life in four of these.  Transcripts for the case, as well as his closing argument for the prosecution, made October 13, 1947, is available here through Digital Commons at Georgia Law, a  project of the School of Law at the University of Georgia.  Special Collections/University Archives has a collection of LaFollette’s speeches, correspondence, photographs, etc.  Within that collection is a copy of a speech he delivered on June 3, 1948 entitled “The Case Against Nazi Jurists.”  Made in his capacity as director of the Office of Military Government for Wurttemberg-Baden, it was presented to the interzonal conference of lawyers and justice officials in Munich.  There had been criticism of the Nuremberg trials on several grounds by many, even by U.S. Supreme Court justices.  In his speech, LaFollette passionately and at great length (44 single-spaced, typewritten pages) defended the trials.  On the accusation that like crimes were committed in other places by other individuals who were not charged, he wrote, “Such an argument chooses to ignore the sound rule that two wrongs do not make a right. … Would a court of Bavaria permit a murder to defend on the ground that a man had committed a murder in Thuringia and not been brought to trial?…Again, would any Protestant bishop anywhere in Germany refuse to discipline a pastor of his church who had stolen from his parishioners, merely because the pastor alleged as a defense that the bishops of [other church denominations] did not discipline their priests or ministers for the same act?” (p. 7) He concluded by cautioning, “these defendants have injured you, the German people, by their crimes.  They are not your martyred heroes, they are your betrayers.” (p. 43)

U.S. Deputy Chief of Counsel Charles M. LaFollette at the podium during the Justice Case. Behind him is the prosecution team., n.d. Source:

U.S. Deputy Chief of Counsel Charles M. LaFollette at the podium during the Justice Case. Behind him is the prosecution team., n.d. Source:

Troubled and contentious as they were, the Nuremberg Trials are nevertheless credited with progress towards establishing international laws, such as those of the Geneva Convention.  And a local man had a part in it!

Resources Consulted:

Biographical Directory of the United States Congress 1994-Present.

“Introduction to the Holocaust.”  The Holocaust Encyclopedia. Washington, D.C.: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

MSS 005 Charles LaFollette Collection (Special Collections/University Archives)

“The Nuremberg Trials.”  The Holocaust Encyclopedia. Washington, D.C.: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Nuremberg trials.  History Channel online, 2010, updated 2018.

Nuremberg Trials Project.  Harvard Law School Library, 2016.

Trial 3—The Judges Case. (Nuremberg trials).  Digital Commons @ Georgia Law, a project of the School of Law at the University of Georgia.

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