The Nuremberg Trials

In late 1945 and 1946 (and through 1949), post-war justice was in the news due to the Nuremberg Trials, a series of two sets of trials of Nazis involved in the Holocaust and World War II. The first, and most famous, which tried the 21 most significant leaders of Nazi Germany, began on November 20, 1945. It was entitled the “Trial of the Major War Criminals” and it was argued before the International Military Tribunal.

On October 1, 1946, the verdicts of the tribunal for the defendants in the first set of trials were read. In all, 18 defendants were convicted on one or more counts of war crimes and three were found not guilty. Eleven were sentenced to death by hanging. Three were acquitted, and others were given prison sentences of 10 to 15 years, or life imprisonment. Ten men were hanged in November 1946. One of those, sentenced to death, Herman Goering, commander-in-chief of the German air force, committed suicide just hours before his scheduled execution.

Notable personages who were tried and convicted at Nuremburg are listed here. They are selected to show the wide variety of offenses. (

  • Karl Doenitz

He was head of the German submarine force; given 10 years imprisonment at Spandau

  • Hans Frank

Appointed Minister and Reich Commissioner for Justice in 1933. Frank served as Governor of the general government of Poland from 1939 to the end of the war. Under his administration, the approximately 2.5 million Jews in the occupied territories of Poland were exploited in slave labor. Also during his administration, the extermination camps in eastern Poland were constructed and operated. He was sentenced to death by hanging.

  • Walter Funk

Director of the Reichsbank, an entity that was responsible for the conversion of untold amounts of property stolen from the German Jews. The bank was assigned the role of economic planning for the war effort. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. He was released from Spandau Prison in 1957 and died in 1960.

  • Rudolf Hess

This man was involved in Nazi genocide experimentation. Hess took a plane and flew it to Scotland, where he was captured by the British, interrogated and put in an institution. Hess was sentenced to life imprisonment. He served over 40 years of that sentence at Spandau Prison and committed suicide in 1987 at age 93. His role is described in the following quote from Laska, ed., Women in the Resistance and in the Holocaust: The Voices of Eyewitnesses:

These preparatory schools for murder [euthanasia centers, BSA] offered the training course for the roughnecks who learned by killing thousands of Christian German and Austrian individual victims and, thus insensitized, graduated to the main task, which was to be the genocide of millions of Jews, and eventually of Gypsies, Poles, Russians, Czechs and other less worthy Slavs. The program was administered under Rudolf Hess and, after his departure, under Martin Bormann. Medical supervision was under Werner Heyde, M.D., professor at the University of Wurzburg; 100,000 people were dispatched this way. They experimented with various gasses and injections; they photographed the effect, clocked the speed of death by a stopwatch, filmed it in slow motion and then dissected the brain—all as an undergraduate course preparatory for genocide.

  • Ernst Kaltenbrunner

He went on trial at Nuremberg on April 11, 1946, because he had replaced Reinhard Heydrich as leader of the SD and the Gestapo. Like most other security positions, Kaltenbrunner came under the direct authority of Heinrich Himmler. His position placed him in direct contact with the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units). As a higher SS and police leader in Austria after the Anschluss, he supervised and had knowledge of the activities of the Gestapo and the SD in Austria. He had much to do with developing Mauthausen concentration camp and visited it frequently. On at least one occasion he observed the gas chamber in action. With this knowledge and background he accepted, in January 1943, appointment as chief of the very agencies which sent such victims to their deaths. He was the highest-ranking member of the SS to face trial at the first Nuremberg Trials. He was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity and executed.

  • Wilhelm Keitel

Keitel had extensive involvement in the Nazi organization. He served as Hitler’s military chief of staff and, consequently, was directly involved in the planning of the war at the highest level. He developed and implemented the “terror fliers” policy, which resulted in the summary execution of captured British and American pilots and the “Night and Fog” decrees of 1941 which led to the summary execution of military prisoners-of-war. Keitel was sentenced to death by hanging.

  • Fritz Sauckel

Sauckel was the plenipotentiary general for the Allocation of Labor. It was Sauckel’s responsibility to provide laborers for the industrial component of the German war machine. Under Saukel’s leadership nearly five million laborers were imported involuntarily from various European countries occupied by Germany. He was charged with the solicitation of slave labor in violation of the Geneva Convention of 1930. He was sentenced to death by hanging.

  • Albert Speer

Speer was a youthful architect who rose in the Nazi heirarchy to run Germany’s armaments effort during the war. Unlike the other defendants at Nuremberg, he accepted the collective responsibility of the defendants for the crimes of which they were accused. For that reason, the prosecution presented Speer as someone different from the rest of the defendants. When Speer was cross-examined he got off more lightly than others. At the end of the trial, even though he had been responsible for the mass exploitation of forced foreign labor, he was given a 20-year sentence. The man who supplied the labor, Fritz Sauckel, was executed. Speer was released from Spandau Prison on September 30, 1966, he died in 1981.

 Among those indicted Nazi war criminals who were not tried at Nuremburg because they committed suicide either before capture or during incarceration were Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels.

The second set of twelve trials, for lesser war criminals, was conducted under Control Council Law No. 10, at the U.S. Nuremberg Military Tribunals. These trials lasted from 1945 until 1949. The secondary trials included The Doctors Trial, for all medical doctors accused of having been involved in the horrors of Nazi human experimentation, The Judges Trial, for those jurists who were held responsible for implementing and furthering the Nazi “racial purity” program through the eugenic and racial laws, and The Einsatzgruppen Trial, which related to Nazi death squads operating behind the front lines in eastern Europe that killed Jews and other civilians in large numbers.

Other subsequent trials dealt with German industrialists accused of using slave labor and plundering occupied countries. Of the 185 people indicted in the subsequent Nuremberg trials, 12 defendants received death sentences, eight others were given life in prison and an additional 77 people received prison terms of varying lengths.