When the Allies sought justice against the most prominent members of the Nazi regime in the wake of World War II, there could only be one venue – Nuremberg. This Bavarian city had been a Nazi stronghold, and the location of almost-annual Nazi Party rallies throughout the 1920s and 1930s. It was here, in 1935 – two years after Hitler assumed total power over the Reichstag – that the Nazis announced the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws, signalling the start of nationwide Jewish persecution.
They removed German citizenship from Jews, and forbade marriage or sexual relations between Jews and “citizens of German or kindred blood”. Post-war, Nuremburg was a symbolic choice. The military tribunals to come would be in the aptly named Palace of Justice, one of the few places that had escaped bombing.
Judges and prosecutors from the UK, the US, France and the Soviet Union presided over the hearings, with the first – involving some of the most important and notorious Nazi leaders – taking place between November 1945 and October 1946. They were indicted on four counts: conspiracy to commit crimes alleged in other courts, crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The sentences were read out on 1 October 1946. Twelve would hang, including foreign affairs minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and German Armed Forces chief of operations Alfred Jodl. There was little emotion shown in the court, with Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess refusing to wear his headphones to hear the verdict.
In the end, only ten were sent to the gallows – Luftwaffe chief Herman Göring committed suicide the night before his execution, while Martin Bormann – head of the Party Chancellery, who had been tried in absentia – was discovered to have already died.
Another 12 were indicted in the same trial. Seven of those were imprisoned, among them Hess, a decision seen as controversial by many. Three were completely acquitted – however, two of those, Franz von Papen and Hans Fritzsche, were both later found guilty by a German court and sent to prison. No decision was reached in the cases of Robert Ley, who was indicted but committed suicide less than a month before proceedings began, and Gustav Krupp, who was deemed medically unfit. More Nazis were put on trial over the next few years, among them racial purity judges and doctors involved in mass involuntary euthanasia.
This article was first published in the Christmas 2018 issue of BBC History Revealed