Nuremberg Trials: Sentencing, Trivia, Criminals, And Aftermath

By Jacob Shelton

The Nuremberg trials of 1946 were some of the most controversial and difficult legal proceedings of the 20th century. Over the course of five years, 13 trials were carried out in Nuremberg, Germany, putting Nazi leaders and high-ranking military officers on the stand as well as German citizens who profited off the war while committing crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler committed suicide before he could be brought to justice, meaning that one of the worst war criminals who ever existed never stood trial.

Conducted by an international group of representatives from the United States, the Soviet Union, France, and Great Britain, the Nuremberg trials levied charges against nearly 200 defendants, lasted 10 months, and took more more than 200 court sessions to settle. 

The road to Nuremberg

Source: Tablet

The Allied Forces may have been on the same page during World War II, but following the end of combat, just about everyone disagreed about how to treat war criminals. In 1942, while the war was still raging, Winston Churchill floated the idea of simply capturing high-ranking Nazi officials and putting them to death via firing squad. That didn't jibe with America's belief in due process, so the idea was nixed. Instead, the Allies worked out an unprecedented means of trying international war criminals.

In order to move forward, each country's legal traditions and practices had to be recognized and followed accordingly. On August 8, 1945, the London Charter of the International Military Tribunal (IMT) was established, defining three categories of crime: crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Crimes against peace essentially involve starting a war, while war crimes are what happen when someone violates the rules of engagement in a war. Finally, crimes against humanity include murder, enslavement, or deportation of civilians based on political, religious, or racial grounds. 

Why Nuremberg?

Source: CNN

The trials could have taken place anywhere, so why set them in Nuremberg, Germany? The Allies had a few reasons for their decision to set this monumental trial in the heart of the formerly Nazi-held territory. Logistically, it just made sense. The Palace of Justice within the city holds the courts and has a large prison area where violators could be held for long periods of time. The Palace was also one of the few structures in the area that had taken on little damage. On top of the necessity of its existence, the Palace of Justice also offered a kind of irony that the Allies simply couldn't pass up. Previously, the city was the site of Nazi rallies and speeches, which made the trials hosted there all the more symbolic. 

Francisco Boix survived a concentration camp and helped convict Nazis at the trials

Source: Reddit

One of the many people who came out of the woodwork during the Nuremberg trials to help put away the surviving Nazis  was Francisco Boix, a member of the French Foreign Legion who was captured by the German army in 1940. He was placed in the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, which held between 100,000 and 300,000 inmates of mostly Polish and Soviet descent. The camp's exact death toll is impossible to calculate, but Boix managed to survive the ordeal while working in the Erkennungsdienst, the photography department of the camp administration. There, he took ID photos of the inmates and documented events within the camp.

During his time at the Mauthausen camp, he secreted away nearly 20,000 negatives that would end up playing a major role in Nuremberg. During the trial, these photographs were shown to prove the detestable conditions that the prisoners were forced to endure and the leaders of the Third Reich's knowledge of them.

Nazi Deputy Fuhrer Rudolf Hess described mind control methods used in camps during the trial

Source: Reddit

Out of every Nazi in the Third Reich, Rudolph Hess was the most openly infatuated with Hitler. He was the first to fall in line with the leader of the Nazi party, and he was so sycophantic that he was made Deputy Fuhrer and given the power to increase prisoners' sentences as he saw fit. Believe it or not, Hess was not a stable guy. He was a major hypochondriac, believed in the occult, and believed in mind control experiments being carried out in Nazi concentration camps.

When he took the stand during the Nuremberg trials, he spoke for 20 minutes straight after he was introduced, touching on topics ranging from the "rather mysterious" mind control methods that made inmates "act and speak according to the orders given them" to rumors about British concentration camps that he seemed to be pulling out of thin air. He ended his statement by affirming that he had no regrets about what he did during the war, but rather than sentence him to death with the rest of the high-ranking officials, he was sentenced to life in prison. When Dr. Henry Dicks described Hess, he said:

He was pathetic and pitiful rather than menacing or unpleasant. We who surrounded him always felt that this was a very insecure man who had been greatly damaged somehow in his earlier life and if only better means had existed, if only he hadn't had been such an important prisoner of state, we might have done more for him.

Hess wasn't the only person involved in horrific medical experiments to face trial. Sixteen of the 23 doctors who maimed and experimented on inmates without their consent were found guilty, and seven of those guilty were sentenced to death and executed on June 2, 1948.

The war criminals all had similar defenses

Source: Reddit

One of the most well-known defenses of abhorrent behavior in the 20th century was the claim that one was simply "following orders." It's been used throughout history, but it's more closely associated with the Nuremberg trials than anything else, and while some people may think that this helped the defendants get off with a lenient sentence, it actually hindered their defense.

Everyone on trial was allowed to choose their own lawyer and come up with their own defense strategy, but the defendants worked from a bag of similar tricks. Initially, the defendants claimed that the London Charter was a prime example of ex post facto law, or laws that were made after their crimes were committed. Other defendants argued that the trials were nothing more than the Allies carrying out a final, brutal assault on their enemies. However, the most well-used defense was the assertion "I was only following orders."

Many defendants at Nuremberg claimed that, while they knew what Hitler was doing was unlawful, they followed through because they had no other choice. The Führerprinzip (leader principle) governed the Nazi regime, they said, and under that system, stepping out of line was a major no-no. Rather than let the defendants off with a slap on the wrist, the tribunal agreed that obedience was no excuse for genocide.

Most high-ranking German officials were sentenced to death

Source: Reddit

It can't be easy to sentence someone to death, regardless of their crimes, but on October 1, 1946, 12 high-ranking Nazi policymakers were handed that fate. Seven other lesser members of the party were given 10 years to life in prison, and three of them walked. Not all of the Nazis who were sentenced to death by hanging received it, however. Rather than meet the hangman, Robert Ley and Hermann Goering committed suicide following the trial, and Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach was found to be mentally and physically incompetent to stand trial.

They were hung with an especially short rope to ensure a long, painful death

Source: Pinterest

The executions were carried out on October 28, 1946, and after each man went to the gallows, they suffered an unspeakable amount of pain. The ropes from which they were hanged in a brightly colored gymnasium in front of officers, official witnesses, and correspondents were unusually short, causing a long, painful death due to the insufficient amount of force available to snap the prisoner's necks. Many of the Nazis died from strangulation over the course of 14--28 minutes. Robert E. Conot, author of Justice at Nuremberg, wrote:

It was a grim, pitiless scene. But for those who had sat through the horrors and tortures of the trial, who had learned of men dangled from butcher hooks, of women mutilated and children jammed into gas chambers, of mankind subjected to degradation, destruction, and terror, the scene conjured a vision of stark, almost biblical justice.

The executioner was a diagnosed psychopath

Source: Reddit

Who do you get to hang upwards of 10 criminals in one day? Is there anyone who's comfortable with having that on their conscience? Apparently, former Navy man John C. Woods was all about it. According to the U.S. military, Woods was dishonorably discharged with a diagnosis of psychopathic inferiority without psychosis, meaning that he was an antisocial and violent person. When World War II broke out, he reenlisted, and because it was harder to check records in the 1940s, he sailed through the process. When the Army put out a call for executioners, he mentioned that he had hanged people before.

There are no records that he ever carried out any official executions until he entered the military, but an article from a 1946 edition of The New York Times claims that during his second enlistment, he took part in 347 hangings. Once his job was done, he told The Times:

I hanged those ten Nazis … and I am proud of it. … I wasn't nervous. … A fellow can't afford to have nerves in this business. … I want to put in a good word for those G.I.s who helped me … they all did swell. … I am trying to get [them] a promotion. … The way I look at this hanging job, somebody has to do it. I got into it kind of by accident, years ago in the States.

Telford Taylor wanted to continue prosecuting soldiers as war criminals into Vietnam

Source: USHMM

Telford Taylor, the chief prosecutor during the trials, didn't think that the Nuremberg trials had the best ending possible, but he did hope they would set a legal precedent for prosecuting crimes against humanity. He helped draft the Nuremberg Principals, which he wanted to use against soldiers and military higher-ups who committed acts as egregious as those as the Nazis.

During the 1960s and '70s, he was a vocal critic of the U.S. military actions during the Vietnam War, especially during the Hanoi bombing campaign of 1972. He urged policymakers and politicians to seek justice against the U.S. military under the Nuremberg Principals, but his calls to action were largely ignored. In 1970, he released the book Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy, which argued that the U.S. military's actions in Vietnam and Cambodia were parallel to those of the Nazis during World War II and should be similarly prosecuted.

Nuremberg casts a long shadow

Source: Reddit

Following the executions at the end of the Nuremberg trials, a series of minor trials were held to try soldiers, government officials, and business owners who were complicit in Nazi war crimes. By 1949, German authorities had regained the strength to handle the crimes themselves and took over prosecution from the Allies, a job that they took very seriously. At least 5,000 defendants were convicted into the 1950s, and another 800 were put to death.

The Nuremberg trials were the first to hold government leaders accountable for their actions during wartime, and this was the first time that the horrors of the Holocaust were discussed in public on a major platform. The trials changed the way that war crimes were handled following World War II, and they created the rubric that all future international criminal cases would follow. 

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.