The year was 1945 and the Second World War was over. On November 20, the Nuremberg Trials began. The trials were the first attempt to punish those responsible for the inhuman crimes committed by the German Nazi regime. The 70th anniversary year of the trials in 2015 was commemorated with numerous programs and in those seventy years historians and legal scholars have continued to examine their legacy. They are considered a landmark in international law, praised for setting out moral principles against aggressive warfare and giving rise to a modern international law of human rights. The trials have also been criticized as having frustrated efforts to establish an international framework for prosecuting crimes against humanity. There is general agreement today that the promise of the trials has been only imperfectly realized.
Millions of civilians were murdered by the Nazi regime. The chief victims were Jews, but the Nazis also targeted Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals and the disabled. In the aftermath of the war the enormity of the crimes and the number of individuals involved raised questions about how to punish Nazi criminals. Some in the United States agreed with those in Great Britain who favored summary execution of major criminals; others argued against summary execution. In the end, the Allies adopted the framework set out in the concepts of the Bernays Plan, which provided for trials before an International Military Tribunal. (The plan was named after Lt. Colonel Murray Bernays of the U.S. War Department.). See the 1945 Yalta Memorandum to President Roosevelt and the report of Robert H. Jackson for details of negotiations behind the Allies agreement to convene the International Military Tribunal (IMT).
The Tribunal opened at Nuremberg with a trial conducted by the four major allied powers representing the governments of the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain and France. In his 1949 appraisal of the trials published in volume 23 of the Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science, Telford Taylor, Chief of Counsel for War Crimes, Office of Military Government for the U. S., identified these principles embodied in the London Charter of August 8, 1945 and later confirmed by the judgment of the Tribunal:
- Certain standards of conduct are a matter of international law;
- Men who violate these international standards are criminals and may be convicted and punished under international law before tribunals established to enforce the law; and
- These standards proscribe and make criminal under international law the deliberate planning and launching of an aggressive war, as defined in Article 6 (a) of the Charter (Crimes Against Peace); violations of the laws and customs of war (War Crimes – Article 6 (b)); and other certain categories of inhumane acts against civilian populations and persecutions on political, racial or religious groups… (Crimes against Humanity – Article 6(c)).
Indictments of defendants focused on four counts: crimes against peace, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and conspiracy to commit such crimes. Under both sets of laws superior orders were not a defense, but could be a mitigating factor if no moral choice was possible. Defendants generally did not deny the atrocities, but rather sought to shift responsibility to others. In addition to the first trial, twelve more trials took place with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson serving as chief prosecutor. Jackson summarized the trials in a statement which declared that Nuremberg will "commend itself to posterity as fulfilling humanity's aspirations to do justice."
Visitors to Nuremberg today can visit the Memorium Nuremberg Trials at the Regional Court Nürnberg-Fürth, and see Court Room 600, where the trials were held. The museum's online exhibit provides a short overview of the trials and their repercussions.
A subject search of the Duke University Libraries catalog retrieves books about the trial proceedings, books about individual prosecutors and defendants, and many books about the influence of the IMT on later trials. The World Trials Library in HeinOnline includes the 42 volumes of the trials, as well as historical treatises considering the trials from the perspectives of the major allies and Germany.
The Avalon Project at Yale Law School provides online access to a tremendous volume of materials about the IMT including The Blue Set (trial proceeding volumes); the rules of procedure, the text of trial motions, and the Judgment of the Tribunal (recognized today as the basis for the rules of international law adopted by International Law Commission of the United Nations in 1950, and known as the Nuremberg Principles). Other texts include documents cited in the proceedings.
Harvard Law Library's ongoing Nuremberg Trials Project contains over 1 million pages of documents relating to the trials including transcripts, briefs, evidence files and other primary materials of interest to researchers in history, ethics, genocide, and war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
Students interesting in learning more about the trials might begin by reviewing two symposiums held twenty years apart. In 1995 Duke Law School co-sponsored Nuremberg and the Rule of Law: A Fifty-Year Verdict. Presentations from the Conference, which was held at the Judge Advocates General's School in Charlottesville, are available in volume 149 of the Military Law Review. In April 2015 a conference at the Berkeley School of Law School provided an opportunity for scholars worldwide to gather and reflect on the trials. Reflections on the Legacy of Nuremberg: The 70th Anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials are available on YouTube.
Stop by the "Nuremberg Legacy" display in the window of the Goodson Law Library's Riddick Room to see a few of many law library books about the trials and a few items from the library's J. Marshall Doswell Nuremberg Trials Collection.
--Marguerite Most, Reference Librarian & Senior Lecturing Fellow