Nuremberg trials: penalties, curiosities, criminals and consequences

The Nuremberg trials of 1946 were some of the most controversial and difficult legal proceedings of the 20th century. Over the course of five years, 13 trials were conducted in Nuremberg, Germany, putting Nazi leaders and high-ranking military officials on the stand, as well as German citizens who had profited from the war while committing crimes against humanity. Sadly, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler committed suicide before he could be brought to justice, meaning that one of the worst war criminals to ever live was never put on trial.

Conducted by an international group of representatives from the United States, Soviet Union, France and Great Britain, the Nuremberg trials charged indictments against nearly 200 defendants, lasted 10 months and took more than 200 court sessions to resolve. 

The road to nuremberg

The Allied Forces may have been on the same page during World War II, but after the end of the fighting almost everyone disagreed on how to treat war criminals. In 1942, while the war was still raging, Winston Churchill floated the idea of ​​simply capturing high-ranking Nazi officials and sentencing them to death by firing squad. This did not jibe with America’s belief in due process, so the idea was rejected. Instead, the Allies developed an unprecedented means of prosecuting international war criminals.

To move forward, each country’s legal traditions and practices had to be recognized and followed accordingly. On 8 August 1945, the London Charter of the International Military Tribunal (IMT) was established, defining three categories of crimes: crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Crimes against peace essentially involve starting a war, while war crimes are what happens when someone violates the rules of engagement in a war. Finally, crimes against humanity include murder, enslavement or deportation of civilians on political, religious or racial grounds. 

Why Nuremberg?

The trials could have taken place anywhere, so why place them in Nuremberg, Germany? The Allies had a few reasons for their decision to set this monumental trial in the heart of formerly Nazi-controlled territory. Logistically, it just made sense. The city’s Palace of Justice houses the courts and has a large prison area where offenders can be held for long periods of time. The palace was also one of the few structures in the area that sustained little damage. In addition to the necessity of its existence, the Palace of Justice also offered a kind of irony that the Allies simply could not ignore. Previously, the city was the scene of Nazi rallies and speeches, which made the trials hosted there even more symbolic. 

Francisco Boix survived a concentration camp and helped convict Nazis in trials

One of the many people who came out of the woodwork during the Nuremberg trials to help round up the surviving Nazis was Francisco Boix, a member of the French Foreign Legion who was captured by the German army in 1940. He was placed in the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, which held between 100,000 and 300,000 inmates, most of Polish and Soviet descent. The exact death toll at the camp is impossible to calculate, but Boix managed to survive the ordeal while working at  the Erkennungsdienst  , the photography department of the camp administration. There, he took identifying photos of inmates and documented events within the camp.

During his time at the Mauthausen camp, he hid nearly 20,000 negatives that would eventually play an important role at Nuremberg. During the trial these photos were shown to prove the detestable conditions the prisoners were forced to endure and the leaders of the Third Reich knew about them.

Nazi Deputy Fuhrer Rudolf Hess described the mind control methods used in camps during the trial

Of all the Nazis in the Third Reich, Rudolph Hess was the most openly in love with Hitler. He was the first to align himself with the leader of the Nazi party and was so sycophantic that he was appointed Deputy Fuhrer and given the power to increase prisoners’ sentences as he saw fit. Believe it or not, Hess was not a stable guy. He was a huge hypochondriac, believed in the occult and believed in the mind control experiments carried out in Nazi concentration camps.

When he testified during the Nuremberg trials, he spoke for 20 minutes shortly after being introduced, covering topics ranging from the “somewhat mysterious” methods of mind control that made prisoners “act and speak in accordance with orders given to them” to rumors about the British concentration camps he seemed to be pulling out of nowhere. He ended his statement by stating that he did not regret what he had done during the war, but instead of sentencing him to death with the other high ranking officials, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. When Dr. Henry Dicks described Hess, he said: He was pathetic and pitiful rather than menacing or unpleasant.

Hess wasn’t the only person involved in horrific medical experiments to face trial. Sixteen of the 23 doctors who maimed and experimented on inmates without her consent were found guilty, and seven of the culprits were sentenced to death and executed on June 2, 1948.

All war criminals had similar defenses

One of the most well-known defenses of heinous behavior in the 20th century was the claim that someone was simply “following orders”. It’s been used throughout history, but it’s more closely associated with the Nuremberg trials than anything else, and while some people might think that it helped the defendants get off with a lenient sentence, it actually hurt their defense.

All defendants were able to choose their own lawyer and come up with their own defense strategy, but the defendants worked with a similar series of tricks. Initially, the defendants claimed that the London Charter was an excellent example of  ex post facto law  , or laws that were made after their crimes were committed. Other defendants argued that the trials were nothing more than the Allies carrying out a final, brutal assault on their enemies. However, the most used defense was the statement “I was just following orders”.

Many of the defendants at Nuremberg claimed that even though they knew what Hitler was doing was illegal, they went along with it because they had no other choice. The  Führerprinzip  (leader principle) governed the Nazi regime, they said, and under that system, stepping out of line was a big no-no. Instead of releasing the defendants with a slap in the hand, the court agreed that obedience was no excuse for genocide.

Most high-ranking German officers were sentenced to death

It can’t be easy to sentence someone to death, regardless of their crimes, but on October 1, 1946, 12 high-ranking Nazi lawmakers met that fate. Seven other minor party members received 10 years to life in prison and three of them walked away. However, not all Nazis who were sentenced to death by hanging received it. Instead of finding the executioner, Robert Ley and Hermann Goering committed suicide after the trial, and Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach was found mentally and physically incompetent to stand trial.

They were hung with an especially short rope to ensure a long and painful death.

The executions were carried out on October 28, 1946, and after each man went to the gallows, they suffered indescribable pain. The ropes with which they were hung in a brightly colored gymnasium in front of officers, official witnesses and correspondents were exceptionally short, causing a long and painful death due to the insufficient amount of force available to break the prisoner’s neck. Many of the Nazis died of strangulation over the course of 14-28 minutes. Robert E. Conot, author of  Justice at Nuremberg , wrote: It was a cruel and merciless scene. But to those who went through the horrors and tortures of the trial, who learned of men hanging from butcher’s hooks, of maimed women and children trapped in gas chambers, of humanity subjected to degradation, destruction and terror, the scene conjured a vision of justice. absolute, almost biblical.

The executioner was a diagnosed psychopath

Who can you get to hang more than 10 criminals in one day? Is there anyone who is comfortable with that on their conscience? Apparently, former Navy man John C. Woods was all about that. According to the US military, Woods was dishonorably discharged with a diagnosis of psychopathic inferiority without psychosis, meaning that he was an antisocial and violent person. When World War II broke out, he re-enlisted, and since it was more difficult to verify records in the 1940s, he followed suit. When the Army called for executioners, he mentioned that he had hanged people before.

There are no records that he performed any official executions before entering the army, but an article in a 1946 issue of The New York Times states that during his second enlistment, he participated in 347 hangings. Once his job was done, he told  The Times  :
I hanged those ten Nazis… and I’m proud of it. … I wasn’t nervous. (…) A guy can’t afford to be nervous in this business. … I want to say a good word to the soldiers who helped me… they all grew up. … I’m trying to get [them] a promotion. … The way I see this work on hold, someone has to do it. I got into this by chance, years ago in the United States.

Telford Taylor wanted to continue prosecuting soldiers as war criminals in Vietnam

Telford Taylor, the chief prosecutor during the trials, did not think the Nuremberg trials had the best possible ending, but he hoped they would set a legal precedent for prosecuting crimes against humanity. He helped draft the Nuremberg directors, which he wanted to use against soldiers and warlords who had committed acts as egregious as the Nazis.

During the 1960s and 70s, he was a vehement critic of US military actions during the Vietnam War, especially during the 1972 Hanoi bombing campaign. He urged lawmakers and politicians to seek justice against the US military under the Nuremberg directors, but their calls to action were largely ignored. In 1970, he released the book  Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy  , which argued that US military actions in Vietnam and Cambodia paralleled those of the Nazis during World War II and should be processed in the same way.

Nuremberg casts a long shadow

After the executions at the end of the Nuremberg trials, a series of smaller trials were held to try soldiers, government officials and businessmen who were complicit in Nazi war crimes. In 1949, the German authorities regained the strength to deal with the crimes on their own and took over the prosecution of the Allies, a job they took very seriously. At least 5,000 defendants were convicted in the 1950s and another 800 were sentenced to death.

The Nuremberg trials were the first to hold government leaders accountable for their wartime actions, and this was the first time that the  horrors of the Holocaust  were discussed in public on a major platform. The trials changed the way war crimes were handled after World War II and created the rubric that all future international criminal prosecutions would follow.