Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. He began the Nazi party which took over every aspect of German life. He wanted to conquer all the countries of Europe. He wanted his country to contain only what he called the Master Race. Jews and other non-acceptable people were to be rounded up and killed or sent to death camps. As World War II began in 1939, the attempts to seize these people grew more intense. By the end of the war, six million Jews and four-six million non-Jews had been killed by the German Nazi state.
In December 1942, the leaders of Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed that the Germans who were carrying out these killings should be prosecuted. The British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, wanted to capture and execute leading German military leaders. American leaders persuaded the others that it would be better to arrest them for war crimes and try them in a criminal court. In that way, evidence would be brought out to prove their guilt. No one later could say that the defendants had been convicted unfairly.
There were legal hurdles to overcome. No international court had ever prosecuted people for war crimes. The nations of France, Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union were joining in this trial as prosecutors. Therefore, on August 8, 1945, the London Charter of the IMT, International Military Tribunal, was set up to write the laws and procedures for the trial.
The Allies chose the city of Nuremberg as the site for the trials. It had a large enough prison. The Palace of Justice had not been badly damaged in the war. The War ended in September 1945, and the Trial of Major War Criminals was held from November 20, 1945 until October 1, 1946. Each of the accused had a defense attorney. The decision as to guilt or innocence was not determined by a jury but by a tribunal of four judges, one from each of the Allied countries. Each judge had an alternate also. The chief American prosecutor was Robert Jackson, one of the Supreme Court Justices of the United States.
The IMT indicted twenty-four individuals as well as six Nazi organizations, such as the German secret police or Gestapo. Each of the accused could choose his own defense lawyer. Two arguments were put forward by the defense. First, they said that the IMT laws were ex post facto. They were made after the crimes were committed, and the defendants could not be tried for these offenses. Secondly, the defense attorneys said that these trials were unfair because they were only concentrating on crimes by the Germans and not by the Allies.
New technology provided by IBM was used during these trials. The defendants, judges and attorneys spoke four different languages. Headphones were set up and translators used to provide immediate translation of the proceedings through the headphones.
Twenty-one of the accused were found guilty. Twelve were given a death sentence and the rest prison sentences of various lengths. Hermann Goring, successor to Hitler and head of the German Air Force, committed suicide the night before his execution.
Twelve other trials were held at Nuremberg from 1946-1949. These were prosecuted by the United States, as the Allies had disagreements about them. 185 people were indicted in these courts. These included doctors, lawyers, high-ranking German officers and those running the death camps. Twelve received the death sentence. The Nuremberg Trials were controversial but brought about progress in international law.
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