Nuremberg War Crimes Trials


Seventy-five years after the world brought charges against individuals for their actions in World War II, crimes against humanity are still part of the fabric of the world in which we live. Join Active Minds as we look back at the Nuremberg Trials and trace their impact on the world, including the creation of the International Criminal Court. We will discuss how this legacy applies to events in the modern world as well as the current challenges of implementing this area of international law.

Key Lecture Points

  • As early as 1943 the Allies began discussions as to the post-war treatment of Nazi leaders once Germany was defeated.  Within weeks after the German surrender, the International Military Tribunal was established and plans were undertaken to prosecute the highest ranking Nazi political and military leaders in Nuremberg.  The tribunal consisted of 8 judges, two each from the US, Great Britain, France and the USSR.  Twenty-one defendants stood trial on charges of conspiracy, crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity.  The trials began on November 20, 1945.
  • On October 1, 1946, verdicts were handed down in the Major War Criminals trial.  Eleven of the defendants were sentenced to death.  Ten were hanged but the most prominent, Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, killed himself just a few hours before his execution.  Three were acquitted.   The rest received prison sentences from life to 10 years.
  • Thereafter, twelve more trials were held at Nuremberg.  These Subsequent Trials were held from 1946-1949 and targeted war criminals from specific sectors of German society, such as the Doctors’ Trial and the Justice Trial.  In addition, the Allies in each of their occupation zones in Germany put war criminals on trial.  The nations that had been occupied by Germany also held war crimes trials.
  • The Nuremberg trials were the first time political and military leaders were held accountable for crimes against humanity during wartime.  The trials were also a milestone toward  the establishment of a body of international law dealing with human rights.  The Geneva Convention on the Laws and Customs of War, the UN Convention on Genocide, and the UN Declaration of Human Rights are significant outgrowths of the Nuremberg trials.  Further, the creation of the International Criminal Court in 2003 has its roots in the Nuremberg process.

Exploration Questions

  • What was the International Military Tribunal?  How did it work and what was the outcome?
  • Why are the Nuremberg Trials important?  What impact did they have on international criminal law? 

Reflective Questions

  • Do you think the Nuremberg trials were conducted in a fair manner? Why? Why not?
  • Do you think the US should join the International Criminal Court? Why? Why not?

More to Explore

  • On the Nuremberg Trials Click here
  • Cases currently before the ICC Click here
  • Photos/documents from Nuremberg International Military Tribunal Click here

Books for Further Reading

  • Taylor, Telford.  The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials: A Personal Memoir.  Skyhorse Publishing, 2013. 703 pages.  Told by one of the  prosecutors at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, this  insider’s account of the trial is the “definitive work on the subject” according to Publisher’s Weekly.
    Click here to order
  • Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Penguin Books, 2006. 312 pages.  The influential political theorist and journalist, Hannah Arendt,  covered the Eichmann trial.  In addition to describing the trial, this book analyses the mentality that fostered the Holocaust.
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  • MacDonald, Alexander.  The Nuremberg Trials.  Arcturus Publishing, 2016. 240 pages.  This books recounts the story of the Nuremberg Trials and its defendants.
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  • Douglas, Lawrence.  The Right Wrong Man: John Demjanjuk and the Last Great Nazi War Crimes Trial.  Princeton University Press, 2016.  352 pages.  The author gives an eye-witness account of the Munich trial of Demjanjuk.   Demjanjuk is the longest-running case of prosecution of a war criminal.   The case began in 1975 when charges were first brought against Demjanjuk while he was living in Cleveland as a US naturalized citizen.  He was put on trial in Jersusalem for his role in the Holocaust and cleared of the charges.  While he was in his late 80s, he was tried again in Munich and convicted.
    Click here to order