The Holocaust and the Nuremberg Trials

By Ferencz, Benjamin | UN Chronicle, December 2005 | Go to article overview

The Holocaust and the Nuremberg Trials

Ferencz, Benjamin, UN Chronicle

The greatest tribute we can pay to the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust and similar tragedies is never to stop trying to make this a more humane and peaceful world.


The United Nations Charter of June 1945 expressed the determination "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war". Its Preamble spoke of the equality of nations, large and small, and called for enhanced social justice, tolerance and respect for international law. In August 1945, the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and France signed another Charter, creating the International Military Tribunal (IMT), to bring to justice some of the German leaders responsible for aggression, crimes against humanity and related atrocities. How far have we come and what more must be done before these noble goals can be achieved?

Germany had surrendered unconditionally and each of the four occupying Powers assigned leading jurists to serve as judges and prosecutors for the IMT. It was agreed that the proceedings had to be absolutely fair; the situs would be in Nuremberg, the home of Nazi party rallies. Robert H. Jackson, a leading architect for the trials, took leave from the United States Supreme Court to serve as America's Chief Prosecutor. In his opening statement, he set the standard: "We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow."

Adolf Hitler and some of his top aides committed suicide, as did Field-Marshal Hermann Goering after he was sentenced to death by the Tribunal. Of the 24 defendants, 3 were acquitted, 9 were imprisoned and 12 were sentenced to hang--the world was put on notice that those who held the reins of power would be accountable for their crimes. The learned IMT jurists confirmed the legal jurisdiction of the court and the validity of the charges under existing law. All proceedings were open to the public. The accused were presumed innocent, given humane treatment and guaranteed rights that they, in the days of their pomp and power, never gave to any man.

After the widely adopted Kellogg Pact of 1928 outlawed the use of force, it should have come as no ex-post facto surprise to Nazi leaders that their blitzkrieg against other States would no longer be tolerated. Justice Jackson noted that international law did not stand still, but gradually evolved to meet changing needs. In 1946, the Nuremberg judgment and principles were unanimously affirmed by the first General Assembly of the United Nations. The law had taken a step forward. Aggressive war, which had previously been accepted as an international right, was confirmed as a punishable international crime.

Subsequent trials at Nuremberg, in Tokyo and elsewhere built on the IMT foundation. The Allied Powers were unable to agree on another joint international trial, but each could try their own captives. Since the Tribunal could provide only a snapshot of Nazi criminality, the United States decided to conduct a dozen "subsequent proceedings", to be directed by General Telford Taylor, a key player on Justice Jackson's staff. Indictments were filed against doctors who performed forced medical experiments, judges who perverted the law, and industrialists, military leaders and ministers who supported illegal Nazi policies. Of the 185 tried in the "subsequent proceedings", 142 were convicted.

In April 1946, I was recruited by the Pentagon to return to Germany to assist with the "subsequent proceedings". I had worked as a research assistant to a Harvard University professor, writing a book on war crimes, before I joined the army as a private in the artillery in 1943. When American troops advanced into Germany, I was transferred to General Patton's headquarters to help set up a war-crimes programme; as an investigator, I dug up bodies of captured Allied flyers beaten to death by enraged German mobs. I entered many concentration camps with the liberating army and witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust firsthand; I assembled documents and data to prove the full extent of Nazi criminality.

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