The Nuremberg Trials:

The Nuremberg Trials were a series of highly publicized trials against the major "war criminals" of Europe, namely twenty-four high-ranking German officials, who were charged on four counts: conspiracy in common, crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Among the defendants were Fritzsche (propagandist), Dönitz (Grand Admiral), Göring (Field Marshal of the Luftwaffe), and Speer (Minister of Armaments). The Trials opened in 20 November 1945 and the final verdicts were read on 1 October 1946.

The Trials from its outset was controversial and its nature and legacy is heatedly debated to this day. Originating from the victorious Allied Powers after their victory over Nazi Germany and Japan in 1945, it was conducted by the International Military Tribunal and it had the London Charter of 8 August 1945 as its constitution. The four main judges of the Trials were: Iona Nikitchenko (Soviet Union), Sir Geoffrey Lawrence (United Kingdom), Francis Biddle (United States of America), and Henri Donnedieu de Vabres (France). The three main prosecutors were: Robert H. Jackson (US), Sir Hartley Shawcross (UK), and R. A. Rudenko (USSR).


Support and Criticism for the Trials:

From the start of the Trials, concern was raised over its fundamental legality. Legal issues varying from objectivity/bias to the process of the Trials were much debated upon by the critics and advocates of the Nuremberg Trials.

Ex Post Facto Law/ Retroactive Law: One of the fundamental concerns over the Nuremberg Trials was that the charter upon which the trial was based was written after the events which it was made to apply to, and therefore was called by critics as ex post facto law, meaning retroactive law. In simpler words, the Nuremberg Trials were judging whether the indicted broke laws that existed only after the events, not before. So the legal paradox was voiced by many lawyers and judges, who pointed out that the Trials were judging with laws that were written after the events and that therefore the legal basis of the Trials was ex post facto law. As one US judge writes, “virtually every constitutional government has some prohibition of ex post facto legislation… It rests on the political truth that if a law can be created after an offense, then power is to that extent absolute and arbitrary. To allow retroactive legislation is to disparage the principle of constitutional limitation. It is to abandon what is usually regarded as one of the essential values at the core of our democratic faith”[[#_edn1|[i]]].
However, the supporters stated that the sheer magnitude of the wrongs that were perpetrated during the course of the war deserved justice, and that this special necessity of this special series of wrongs should negate or make unnecessary the qualms that would be considered for normal cases. They also made the point that although there were no specific written laws that existed before the “offences”, the wrongs that the Nazis had done transcended above the normal petty crimes that were subject to petty laws but broke some sort of universal moral code. Therefore they justified the ex post facto nature of the London Charter (the charter of the International Military Tribunal who conducted the Nuremberg Trials) by saying that the London Charter simply put manifest moral laws into writing so that a trial of fairness and justice could be conducted.
At the opening stages of the Trials the full extent of Nazi horrors were not known – during the course of the Trials would the world first realize the horror of Nazi atrocities – but even then, virtually supporters and critics alike recognized the necessity of punishing the evil of the Nazis. Concerns over the Nuremberg Trials regarding ex post facto law were raised by politicians, judges, and lawyers, but regardless the London Charter was passed and the Trials were conducted.

Bias: Perhaps the most attacked aspect of the Trials, the victorious Powers - who conducted the Trials - were accused of bias from its conception. The origin of the Trials was the Potsdam Conference, where it was decided and agreed upon to hold trials for Nazi criminals. One of the three main authors of the charter of the Trials, the London Charter, was Robert H. Jackson, the Chief Prosecutor for the United States. The conduct of the Trials also raised concerns over bias of the Court. The four judges were composed of the victorious Powers, the defendants limited in their means of defence. Efforts to maintain objectivity was not entirely lacking: "the Trials were conducted with great decorum and circumspection... by extending every courtesy to the defence" (Davies, 1053), but with the judges and prosecutors coming from the same side, some were doubtful of the existence of objectivity of the court at the outset, or even at its conception. During the course of the Trials, direct comparison between the Nazis and the Allied Powers were not allowed, "The defence could not raise the failings of the Versailles settlement or of the Allied bombing offensive, nor the subject of Soviet atrocities... Attempts to discuss conditions in Allied internment camps or the forcible expulsion of Germans... were cut short". Also, the prevailing mood of the Trials was that the Court was specifying exactly what crimes the indicted were guilty of, not whether or not the indicted were guilty of the suspected crimes. Many papers labelled the 24 indicted as “criminals” before the sentences were ever read.

With such conception and proceeding, criticisms and doubts on the Trials’ objectivity are understandable. Its chief critics claimed that the Trials were merely “a continuation of policy by other means” to borrow Clausewitz’s words. Decided upon at Potsdam and conducted solely by themselves, the Trials were looked upon by them as a travesty of justice. Worse, some feared that the Nuremberg Trials would set a precedent to future arbitrary actions or that it would critically damage the integrity of the participating nations. There were also the simply moral revulsion and disgust with what some considered to be a blatant bias of the Trials.

The supporters of the Trials again reverted to the argument that sheer magnitude and evil of the indicted made their guilt manifest to all, that the Trials were a process in fully exposing the guilt of these men and the futility in defending their crimes. Therefore, by limiting the means of defence the Court successfully avoided needless delay tactics by the defence and justice could be as swiftly administered as possible.

[[#_ednref1|[i]]] Wyzanski Jr, (

Effect and Legacy:

The most manifest effect of the Nuremberg Trials was that it disclosed the Nazi horrors to the world in high publicity and great detail. During the war effort, although it is debatable how oblivious the Allied war leaders were to the Holocaust and Aryanization of the Nazis, the public was undeniably ignorant of these horrors. The Nuremberg Trials brought them up to light with reliable documentation and evidence. The great publicity in which Nazi crimes were disclosed and the horridness of the crimes themselves prevented any Nazi sympathy or revival in post-war Germany.

But there was a more subtle effect of the Nuremberg Trials. By persecuting only Nazi war-criminals it "created the lasting impression in public opinion that such crimes could not by definition be committed by agents of the Allied Powers" (Davies 1055). This was illustrated when the Soviet Union tried to blame the Nazis for the Katyn massacres, but when the defendants started showing evidence that it was not just the Nazis that were responsible but that the Soviet Union also had a hand in it, the persecution dropped the charges and moved on to another attack.

This episode was in fact a microcosm of the Trials. The defendants could not raise parallels between their actions and the actions of the persecuting powers. References to the American treatment of Aboriginals, Allied strategic bombing campaign, or the even Soviet Union's signature in the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact were not allowed. Such restrictions harmed the objectivity of the court. From here was the impression formed, that by preventing the disclosure of all Allied crimes it made the impression that there were no such crimes to be disclosed at all. Obviously this is false. It should be a general knowledge common to all familiar with history that never is there such a one-sidedness of morality in any conflict. The Katyn massacres, the Allied bombing of civilians in a mass scale, and the man-made famine imposed upon Ukraine all show that the Allies were not as innocent as it were made to appear.

The Effect of the Nuremberg Trials upon Contemporary Perception of Nazi Germany:

The Nuremberg Trials, more than any event in history, influenced the perception of Nazi Germany by later generations. By comprehensively and accurately detailing the Nazi crimes, the world understood the horrors of concentration camps, euthanasia, and war crimes. But "by isolating the German factor from all others, they were bound to construct a biased and... an untenable analysis" (Davis 1055). The analysis was that Nazi Germany was single-handedly responsible for the Second World War and that Nazi Germany was simply an "evil force" and nothing more, that Hitler bewitched all Germans and that Nazism was an aberration of history, a spontaneous evil flashed out of nowhere and never to return. The thesis that Nazism was a natural extension of German nationalism was quietly ignored. By isolating the German factor from everything else, it almost served as an exaggeration, a clear contrast between "black Nazism" and "white every other country". The Munich Betrayal was blamed upon the incompence of a single politician when in truth national sentiment echoed it, somehow only Nazi Germany was antagonized for the partition of eastern europe in 1939, and the Holocaust was made a unique phenomenon. This was the effect of the Nuremberg Trials upon later perception of Nazi Germany, that Nazi Germany was simply a black sun emanating evil. Efforts for true, rational analysis of Nazi Germany would be hindered by the Nuremberg Trials' monopoly of public and political opinion.


Davies, Norman. Europe A History. Plimco: London, 1997.
Woetzel, R. K. The Nuremberg Trials in International Law. New York, 1962.