Library special The Nuremberg Trials Legacy

Picture: the archives of the International Military Tribunal on their way to the International Court of Justice, arriving at the Peace Palace, 14 March 1950.

Picture: the archives of the International Military Tribunal on their way to the International Court of Justice, arriving at the Peace Palace, 14 March 1950.

This year we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials against the principal perpetrators of the Hitler regime. The Nuremberg Trials mark an important moment in the history of international law. Individual war criminals, prominent members of the political, military, and economic leadership of Nazi-Germany, were held responsible and indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity and brought to justice before an international tribunal. The Nuremberg Trials provided a legal framework on which thereafter prosecution of international crimes was built and thus laid the foundation for international criminal law to emerge as a modern discipline.

History has generally designated the International Military Tribunal (IMT) Trial as the Nuremberg Trial, and representations are often accompanied with the now-familiar image: Courtroom 600 in the Nuremberg Palace of Justice, with the chief Nazi defendants, most prominently Hermann Göring, in the dock. Held between 20 November 1945 and 1 October 1946, the Tribunal was given the task of trying 23 of the most important political and military leaders of the Third Reich, though one of the defendants, Martin Bormann, was tried in absentia, while another, Robert Ley, committed suicide within a week of the trial's commencement. Not included were Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Joseph Goebbels, all of whom had committed suicide in the spring of 1945, well before the indictment was signed. In his opening statement on 21 November, 1945, Robert H. Jackson, the American chief prosecuror, pronounced the high ambition for this trial,

"that the record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our lips as well. We must summon such detachment and intellectual integrity to our task that this trial will commend itself to posterity as fulfilling humanity's aspirations to do justice."

The second set of trials of lesser war criminals was conducted from 1946 to 1949 under Control Council Law No. 10 at the U.S. Nuremberg Military Tribunals (NMT), which included the 'Doctors Trial' and the 'Judges' Trial'. Unlike the IMT, these trials - also called the 'subsequent Nuremberg trials' - have suffered from historiographical neglect. But these trials went beyond their famous, more glamorous predecessor, the IMT, with its cast of high ranking Nazis. The NMT, or rather their instigators, aspired to nothing less than indicting the entire Nazi State and analyzing its workings in an authoritative way. Structures rather than individuals, and institutions rather than easily identifiable villains, were to be publicly prosecuted.

From Nuremberg to The Hague

The 'promise of Nuremberg' to punish State crimes, remained unfulfilled for a long time. The first progress came in the 1990s, when the UN Security Security Council established international tribunals to deal with the war crimes committed during the wars in the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. In addition to these tribunals, so-called 'internationalized' or 'hybrid' tribunals have been established in some countries to take action against crimes, such as the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the Special Panels of the Dili District Court. Their legal basis is a mix of national and international law, and they compromise both domestic and foreign prosecutors and judges. In the following decade, on 1 July 2002, the International Criminal Court in The Hague began functioning, the date that the Rome Statute entered into force. The Statute has, however, not been ratified by important major powers, such as the United States of America, Russia, India, China and Israel. And finally, the definition of agressive war, established in 2010, completed the last gap in a development stretching back to the Nuremberg Trials.

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