Blast from the Past: The story of Nuremberg Trials

Post the horrors of the Second World War, the Nazi officers responsible for the death of millions were tried in the first of its kind international trials held in Nuremberg. This article delves into the genesis, principles, and aftermath of the Nuremberg trials.

What are Nuremberg trials?

The German city of Nuremberg (also known as Nürnberg) was permanently etched into history for its mark on modern justice system this very day, in 1946. The Nuremberg trials began post World War II to indict the Nazi soldiers and civilian officers who caused the mass genocide commonly known as the Holocaust. The first set of trials concluded in the evening of October 1, 1946. Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Nazi regime responsible for the Holocaust causing the death of around 10-12 million Europeans including 6 million Jews, committed suicide before his capture. 

Among the victors of the War, the Soviet Union led by Stalin wanted a ‘show trial’, the British led by Churchill favored ‘summary executions’ of those involved.  However, it was America whose leaders pushed for a fair trial with proper evidence which ultimately resulted in these international set of trials which laid the foundation for an international justice dialogue which still is in effect today.  The city of Nuremberg was chosen as the place of trial for two reasons. First, the Palace of Justice located in the city was undamaged by the destruction caused by War and could hold a large number of prisoners. Second, the city was home to many Nazi propaganda rallies and the trials marked the end of the Nazi regime. 

Conduction of the trials

These were the first of its kind trials of international nature, so, there were many procedural difficulties when it came to the application of laws. The United Kingdom, United States, Soviet Union and the provisional government of France joined the table to decide on how to conduct the trial as there existed no international precedent for international criminal trials up until then. 

The London Charter of International Military Tribunal was established as the governing law by the allies. A system involving a judge from each of the four allied powers was agreed upon to conduct the trials as a panel, without juries. The Charter recognised three kinds of crimes: crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The last of which included various grave crimes like murder, genocide, enslavement, etc. based on race or religion. The Chief American Prosecutor was Robert Jackson of the US Supreme Court along with his British counterparts Sir Hartley Shawcross and David Maxwell Fyfe, who went on to become eminent personalities after the conclusion of the trials. 

The Major War Criminal Trials (1945-46) saw twenty-four top officials of the Nazi regime prosecuted. It also included the trials on Nazi organisations (such as the secret police Gestapo) which aided in the war crimes. Hitler, as mentioned above, committed suicide along with his two top men: Heinrich Himmler and Joseph Goebbels before the trials. The verdict on October 1, 1946, found 21 out of the 24 indicted guilty for one of the three counts of crimes. Twelve were sentenced to death, the others received imprisonment ranging from 10 years to life imprisonment. Hermann Göring, the original head of Gestapo and the designated successor to Hitler, who was also the Commander of the Luftwaffe (German Air Force), was the highest-ranking official tried in the trials and was awarded capital punishment. However, he committed suicide the night before his execution date consuming cyanide. 

Did you know? Because of the multiplicity of languages, there was a requirement of translators. IBM was hired to provide for instant translations which were communicated through headphones. This was the first time such technology was used.

The aftermath of the trials

Although subsequent trials were conducted in Nuremberg, the ’45-46 trials remain the most landmark as well as controversial. Many critics dubbed the trials as ‘victor’s privilege’ and ‘high-grade lynching party’.  However, the trials brought about various principles collectively referred to as the Seven principles of Nuremberg. The principles included individual responsibility, heads of states/governments to be responsible in international law, an order of superior is no defense along with the list of crimes recognised in the international law. The London Charter clearly laid down the categorisation of war crimes which, in essence, are still relevant today. 

Major principles laid down during the trials led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Genocide Convention which helped in many international war trials in Tokyo, Yugoslavia, and Rwanda. Post the adoption of the Genocide Convention, deliberations started to establish an International Criminal Court which was ultimately established in 1998.


The Nuremberg trials were the first of many international trials conducted till date. The trials of 1945-46, which concluded with the verdict on October 1, 1946, 72 years ago, have a clear mark in the international crimes related to war and bringing to justice, the perpetrators, making this day a landmark in legal history. The Laws and Courts that were developed for these trials used in various other international trials which were conducted afterward.  The trials were the first to define crimes against humanity and set an international precedent for indicting war criminals. The same principles led to the creation of the International Criminal Court, the first international court for crimes.

The first person to be indicted by the International Criminal Court was Thomas Lubanga of Democratic Republic of Congo who was found to be guilty by the Court in 2006. Other big cases taken up by the court were the indictments of Omar Hassan Ahmad Al Bashir (the President of Sudan), Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, and many other trials for wars in Kenya, Libya and the Central African Republic. Hence, this day, north of seven decades ago can be considered a foundation stone of international criminal jurisprudence.

DISCLAIMER: The information provided in this article is for educational purposes only. The same cannot be construed as legal advice.

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