The Nuremberg trials is a legal action brought by the Allies, after World War II, against leading German war criminals. It took place from 1945 to 1946 in Nuremberg, a symbolic city of the Nazi regime, before an international military tribunal and American military tribunals. One of the main war objectives of the Allies (USSR, USA, France and Great Britain) was to punish the crimes of Hitler's Germany which, by their extent and the manner in which they were perpetrated, were unparalleled . The trial, which will reveal to the world the extermination of six million Jews, leads to the death sentence by hanging of twelve of the defendants including Goering, Ribbentrop and Keitel. The others will be sentenced to prison terms, three will be found not guilty.
Towards an international criminal tribunal
The Nuremberg trials or trials are the culmination of the process of maturing the concept of an international criminal tribunal, the origins of which can be traced back to the Enlightenment (if not earlier). However, it was in the twentieth century, and especially following the First World War, that this concept became popular with Western politicians and public opinion. Thus, two articles of the Treaty of Versailles (27 and 28) provide for the trial of German war criminals (including the ex-Emperor William II) by a tribunal composed of French, British, American and Italian judges.
In practice, these provisions will find no application because of the will of the victorious powers not to further destabilize a fragile Weimar Republic tempted by revanchism. If the 1920s saw the development of the concept of international law with organizations such as the League of Nations or the Permanent Court of International Justice, the latter quickly proved ineffective. Deprived of independent means of coercion, they remain subject to the goodwill of states, many of which yield to nationalist sirens.
The Second World War, marked from the outset by acts of politico-military terror (notably during the Polish campaign of 1939) gave new vigor to the concept of an international criminal tribunal. The allies will regard the Third Reich (and Imperial Japan to a lesser extent) as a criminal regime by nature. It is then clear in the minds of leaders like Roosevelt, Churchill and even Stalin that Germany's National Socialist officials will have to be tried by an international court once the war is over. This will involve laying the groundwork for a total condemnation of German imperialism and Nazi ideology through law. This desire found its first concrete manifestation, with the creation on October 30, 1943, of a United Nations War Crimes Commission.
This commission, which brings together seventeen nations, is only a tentative first step. Lacking its own resources, it is on the other hand a victim of tensions between Westerners and Soviets (who, moreover, do not participate). Nevertheless, the work of the jurists who lead it will lay the foundations for the investigations and procedures that will be used for the Nuremberg trials. The latter only becomes possible with the end of the war in Europe. After much hesitation and controversy, it was in the summer of 1945 that the major Allied Powers reached agreement on the form and substance of what was to constitute an exemplary trial.
The Nuremberg trials
The london agreements of 8 August 1945 allow the creation of an international military tribunal. He must try four types of crimes: conspiracy to wage an offensive war, war crimes, crimes against peace and especially crimes against humanity. New developments in law, crime against peace and especially crime against humanity (defined as a "willful and ignominious violation of the fundamental rights of an individual or a group of individuals inspired by political, philosophical, racial or religious motives. ") Respond to the need to judge acts considered unheard of in history. The chosen criminal procedure is inspired by continental European law, it is an adversarial procedure with a court made up of judges (and not a jury).
The prosecution is made up of representatives of the USSR, the United States, the United Kingdom and France (assisted by an army of collaborators and civilians). Within these, the representative Robert jackson, Roosevelt's former justice minister, stands out for his strong personality. He means by a fair trial, magnifying the moral victory of the allies over the Nazis. In addition to their representatives of the prosecution, the 4 main powers each provide 2 judges to the tribunal (a principal and a deputy), all experienced jurists, with the notable but revealing exception of the general Nikitchenko. Thus this revolutionary, veteran of military justice of the Red Army is a supporter of expeditious methods and intends to protect the reputation of the USSR, undermined by the revelation of crimes like those of Katyn. The defense is provided by a group of quality German lawyers.
It was agreed that the tribunal would sit (after an inaugural session with the delivery of indictments in Berlin) in Nuremberg. This is one of the few German cities that still have the necessary infrastructure to host the trial and its logistics. On the other hand, it is a highly symbolic choice that this Bavarian town, the site of the great annual gatherings of the Nazi Party, which will henceforth be associated with the universal condemnation of the latter.
The tribunal's mission is to try 6 organizations (NSDAP, SS, SD, Gestapo, SA and High Command of the army) and 24 senior officials of the Third Reich. Among the most famous and important defendants are Martin Bormann (Hitler’s secretary and 2e party character) tried in absentia, Karl Dönitz successor to Hitler at the head of the 3e Reich and emblematic leader of the German submarine weapon, Hans Frank Governor General of Poland, Hermann Goering the inescapable head of the Luftwaffe and long dolphin of the Führer, Rudolf Hess the first secretary of Hitler and who will play of his supposed madness, Ernst Kaltenbrunner head of SS intelligence, Joachim Von Ribbentrop the head of the diplomacy of the Reich, Alfred Rosenberg l ideologue of the regime and Albert Speer the architect and technocrat in charge of German war production since 1942.
Trial for history or justice of the victors?
An unprecedented criminal procedure, the Nuremberg trial imposes some with its carefully staged dramaturgy. The twenty or so defendants present, placed in two rows, are flanked by American guards in white helmets and neat uniforms. Along the sides of the large courtroom of the courthouse are the prosecution and the prosecution. The debates and exchanges are slow and stiff, in particular due to simultaneous translation still in childhood. Stunned by the heat of the powerful lights of the place, the defendants find it difficult to put their face to the many journalists present. Only Hermann Goering, transfigured by his morphine detoxification, has the luxury of bragging about.
Attorney Jackson's opening speech immediately places the trial on a singular ethical level: "The wrongs we seek to condemn and punish have been so premeditated, so heinous and so devastating that civilization cannot ignore the commission, for it could not survive their repetition. " It is about doing work for the generations to come. Nevertheless, the judges as well as the defendants know that Nuremberg is also the justice of the victors. Winners, who on both the Western and Soviet sides are not exempt from reproach. Thus, the British and Americans cannot ignore the effects of the terror bombings to which they have subjected Germany for years, and the scars of which are still clearly visible, even in Nuremberg. As for the Soviets, they represent a totalitarian regime linked to Germany by a pact until June 22, 41 and whose troops participated in a massive ethnic cleansing of the East German populations.
Either way, there is no denying the prosecution for not having meticulously done its job. The sum of documents presented and the quality of the investigations which were carried out, still represent today an essential source in the study of the Third Reich and the crimes which were committed in its name. The structures, the balance of power and the ambiguities of Hitler’s empire are displayed in impressive detail. Highly publicized (and filmed by John Ford), the trial allows international public opinion to discover the full extent of the persecutions, massacres and genocides attributed to Nazi Germany.
The prosecution approaches all issues in an orderly chronological procedure, which often complicates the work of the defense. Initially, and under pressure from Goering, the defendants agreed to make the trial a platform to defend Nazism and its Führer. In particular, they insist on the existence of the Jewish conspiracy, of which the trial they are undergoing would be the ultimate incarnation. But, as the totalitarian mechanics of the Third Reich are relentlessly dissected by the accusation, this defensive front cracks. The jealousies, rivalries and hatreds that Hitler knowingly cultivated in order to dominate his subordinates resurface in the most blunt manner. The revelation, with much testimony to the atrocities committed in the East and in the name of racist ideology, is the straw that breaks the camel's back.
Albert Speer is the first to openly distance himself from the Nazi dictator and his policies. Although heavily involved in the exploitation of forced labor (especially from concentration camps), the architect no longer hesitates to present Hitler as a madman whose orders he had ended up ignoring. He leads in his wake several accused including Hans Frank and Baldur von Shirach (the leader of the Hitler Youth) who will regularly oppose the followers of Hitler that Goering thinks lead to the baton. Despite a two-hour standstill on May 13, 1946, the former Luftwaffe chief failed in his attempt to exonerate the Nazi leader (and his person at the same time).
The end of the Nuremberg trials
In the fall of 1946, after nearly 10 months of proceedings, the tribunal, despite all its ambiguities, managed to shed light on the essence of the Nazi crimes. While the charge of conspiring to wage an offensive war proved difficult to sustain (and this in part because of what the Nazis knew about Stalinist plans), a crucial precedent for the future has been set. Crimes against peace, war crimes and against humanity are irrefutable and amply documented in the records of the trial. All that remains is to rule on the sentences of the accused. On this point, the intransigence of the Soviets is opposed to a relative leniency of the Western allies, in the more general context of the process of denazification. However, it is clear that on both sides there is already an intention to separate the wheat from the chaff in anticipation of the establishment of a future German state. The demands of justice are opposed by political and administrative necessities ...
In the end, on October 1, 1946, four Nazi organizations were condemned: NSDAP, Gestapo, SS and SD (the fact that the Army High Command was spared is not innocent and will contribute to the legend of a German army. "Correct."). Will be condemned to death, in particular Hermann Göring (who will commit suicide in murky circumstances just before his execution), Alfred Jodl, Wilhelm Keitel, Kaltenbrunner, Rosenberg, and Bormann (in reality died during the battle of Berlin). Hess gets life imprisonment (he will end up committing suicide, alone in his prison in 1987), Speer of twenty years, Dönitz of ten (can be helped by the testimony of the American admiral Nimitz, who admitted that the United States also waged an all-out submarine warfare against the Japanese).
A fragile but fundamental heritage
The Nuremberg Tribunal, in addition to having made the trial of the Third Reich in history, laid the foundations for the concept of international criminal jurisdiction. This legal heritage recognized by the United Nations, will end up being embodied, after many errors, in the The Hague International Criminal Court, in 1998. As for the definitions of crimes against peace and crimes against humanity, they will have imposed a new standard in terms of ethics in international relations. We can of course deplore their lack of substance when it comes to the reality of international power relations.
Since 1945, other genocides have indeed bloodied the whole world, but the fact remains that the institutional apparatus necessary for the judgment of their perpetrators exists. And more importantly, the values that would underpin such a judgment today have universal (at least hopefully) value.
- The Nuremberg Trial by Jean-Marc Varaut. Perrin, 2003.
- Last Judgments: the Petain, Nuremberg and Eichman trials of Joseph Kessel. Text, 2007.
- The Nuremberg talks by Leon Goldensohn. Flammarion, 2005.