In November 1945, the first international war crimes trial began in the German city of Nuremberg. For much of the western public who intently followed the proceedings between 21 November 1945 and 1 October 1946, the 22 defendants who stood in the dock were seen as the living embodiments of a repressive and warmongering system which had propelled the world into six years of war, causing the deaths of fifty million people. The location was chosen for both practical and symbolic reasons. Firstly, the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg and its adjoining prison had emerged intact from the Allied bombing of Germany. Secondly, Nuremberg was considered the spiritual birthplace of the Nazi state, and had hosted the party’s elaborate annual rallies.
The defendants had widely varying levels of seniority within the Nazi party and responsibility for war crimes. While the involvement and complicity of some, such as Hitler’s second-in-command, Hermann Göring, was clear, some defendants were deputies or juniors of senior men like SS leader Heinrich Himmler, or head of propaganda Joseph Goebbels. These men substituted their superiors, who had committed suicide in order to escape being captured and brought to justice.
The defendants were charged with an array of crimes: crimes against peace, which included conspiring to, planning and waging a war of aggression, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. This last was newly-defined to include "Murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war.”
The defendants’ attitudes to the trial also varied widely. Robert Ley, former head of the ‘Strength through Joy’ movement, hanged himself in his prison cell just weeks before the trial began. While Hermann Göring was prepared to defend the honour of the deceased Fuhrer and the Nazi party, irritating the American prosecutor with his sharp comebacks and defence of German patriotism, official Nazi architect Albert Speer meekly accepted the defendants’ collective responsibility from the beginning. Hitler's deputy and head of the party chancellery Rudolf Hess, faced with the enormity of the situation, appeared to suffer (or feign) almost total memory loss.
When the final verdicts were announced, only three were acquitted while the rest were found guilty and sentenced either to death or significant terms in prison. Göring was found guilty of all the charges brought against him and condemned to death. The night before his supposed execution, he managed to commit suicide in his cell. Albert Speer succeeded to some extent in his attempt to distance himself from Hitler, portraying himself as a harmless technocrat, willing to supply the prosecution with information and statistics, while also admitting to his share of collective responsibility for Nazi crimes. Speer escaped the death sentence, receiving instead a twenty year prison sentence for his role in the exploitation of forced foreign slave labour. Rudolf Hess, who spent the entire trial in a state of paranoid delirium, was sentenced to life imprisonment. He killed himself in prison in Berlin in 1987.
The trials at Nuremberg were not the first or the last hearings of Nazi war criminals. Nearly 200 other prominent Nazis were tried at Nuremberg before US Military Tribunals from 1946 until 1949. Other prominent Nazis stood trial elsewhere in Europe, particularly in Austria and Poland; Rudolf Hoss, the camp commandant of Auschwitz, was tried in Warsaw and hanged in Auschwitz in 1947. Indeed, the quest for redemption continued for decades, as evidenced by the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel in 1961