Today marks 70 years since the opening day of the Nuremberg Trial where senior Nazis figures were charged with crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Our Education Officer, Martin Winstone, has blogged on the trial's importance and legacy.
‘Trial of the century’ is an absurdly over-used term, a piece of hyperbole lazily applied to soon to be forgotten cases. Yet it may legitimately be considered appropriate for the proceedings which formally opened 70 years ago today in Nuremberg, the city which was in some senses the spiritual capital of the Third Reich.
The trial of major war criminals before the International Military Tribunal (IMT) was not, as is sometimes thought, the first attempt to bring perpetrators of the Holocaust to justice; the Soviet Union had carried out trials of its own citizens as early as July 1943, whilst German camp personnel from Majdanek and Bergen-Belsen had been tried respectively by the Soviets in November 1944 and by the British in September 1945. Nonetheless, the Nuremberg Trial (rather than ‘Trials’, the latter term also encompassing subsequent cases brought before American tribunals in the city) stood out. This was partly due to the prominence of the defendants, even if suicide and flight had left Göring as the only truly front-rank Nazi. However, Nuremberg’s status also lay in its significance for the development of international law and for its symbolism. As the British president of the IMT, Sir Geoffrey Lawrence explained in his opening remarks, “The Trial which is now about to begin is unique in the history of the jurisprudence of the world and it is of supreme importance to millions of people all over the globe... [It] is a public Trial in the fullest sense of those words”.
Of course, the proceedings were not without flaws. The chief charge at the time was that Nuremberg represented ‘victors’ justice’, which in a sense it naturally did although such concerns were partially allayed by the judges’ apparent commitment to uphold both the appearance and reality of fairness. It is harder to ignore the fact that the Soviet judges and prosecutors represented a regime which was guilty of crimes similar to many of those with which the Nazis were charged. Indeed, the lead Soviet judge Iona Nikitchenko had presided over some of the most notorious trials during the Great Terror.
Furthermore, it has been justly argued that Nuremberg in some senses helped to distort understanding of the Holocaust. There was a general, if not complete, failure to recognise what was distinctive about the murder of the Jews compared to other Nazi crimes and to understand the centrality of antisemitism to the Nazi worldview. The trial helped to cement the wholly misleading Western focus on the concentration camps liberated by the British and Americans, which had been marginal to the genocide until the last weeks of the war, and ignored the extermination camps and mass shootings of eastern Europe in which the overwhelming majority of victims had perished.
In addition, by focussing on the criminality of high-profile leaders, the Allies arguably made it easier for the physical perpetrators to be overlooked, especially after the Cold War and diminishing political commitment led to responsibility for prosecutions being delegated to German authorities. Although there were many prominent cases in subsequent decades, most of the hundreds of thousands of perpetrators of the Holocaust were never tried, and a troublingly high proportion of those who were escaped conviction. This was not only true in Germany. Indeed, during the debates over what would become the War Crimes Act in the late 1980s, Nuremberg was often invoked as a reason not to take action against alleged war criminals living in the UK, both because it was argued that it and the other immediate post-war trials had drawn a line under the issue and because of the incorrect assumption that the killers were merely the unwilling executors of orders in which they had no choice.
Yet for all its shortcomings, the Nuremberg Trial deserves to be recognised as the watershed implied by Justice Lawrence in his opening remarks. It established important precedents: that crimes committed by state entities are also crimes committed by individuals and that these individuals, even leaders of states, are therefore not above the law. It broadened and entrenched the scope of international law by establishing and defining the concept of crimes against humanity and by significantly developing the existing concept of war crimes. The Nuremberg indictment also featured the first use in law of the related, but distinct, crime of genocide: although the term did not feature in the judgement in September 1946, the trial was nonetheless an important moment in advancing global understanding and eventual acceptance of the existence of ‘the crime of crimes’, a process which culminated in the adoption of the Genocide Convention by the United Nations in 1948.
The Genocide Convention represents only one manifestation of the numerous international attempts in the aftermath of Nuremberg to prevent repetition of crimes of the type perpetrated by the Nazis and their collaborators and, where necessary, to prosecute offenders. For example, the chief architect of the European Convention on Human Rights of 1950 was the Conservative MP Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, who had been the deputy British prosecutor at Nuremberg. Much later developments, such as the Rome Statute (adopted in 1998) establishing the International Criminal Court or the international tribunals created to deal with the crimes committed in Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s, clearly had their roots in Nuremberg. Of course, the creation of these latter institutions illustrates that crimes against humanity did not cease in 1945. Even so, the IMT was a decisive step in encouraging the international community to at least begin to try, however imperfectly, to take action.
One further, and lesser known, consequence of Nuremberg was its impact on the historical record itself. The immense corpus of documentation compiled by the Allied prosecutors remains the single most important collection of sources on the Holocaust, and the Nazi era generally, even if not all of its contents were properly understood at the trial. Thus, whilst the trial may have propagated certain misconceptions about the Holocaust, it also provided the essential information which would enable subsequent generations of historians to dispel them. These accurate later reconstructions of the history of the Holocaust, which have transformed understanding of the identity and motivation of the killers, have in turn led to renewed efforts in the last decade or so to prosecute surviving perpetrators, illustrating that the quest for justice for victims of the Holocaust remains as important today as it did when Justice Lawrence first rose to speak 70 years ago.