Nazis, seated in the prisoners boxes, on trial at the International Military Tribunal
in Nuremberg, Germany, 1945-46.
Those who resort to force, real or imaginary, and violence to subjugate other nations have failed to learn well the lessons of history. Be it the bombings of former Yugoslavia, the wars in Iraq and Libya, the neo-Nazi regime coming to power in Ukraine or nurturing terrorist groups in Syria — there are always specific people who initiate, finance and carry out the crimes against peace and humanity. They should remember the lessons of Nuremberg war crimes trials held 70 years ago.
The idea of the trials was put forward almost simultaneously by all parties to the anti-Hitler coalition. As far back as June 22, 1941, the Soviet Union said the Nazi leadership had to stand trial for unleashing the war.
The need for an international trial over the criminals was first indicated on Oct. 14, 1942, in the Soviet Government’s statement “Of the responsibility of the Hitlerite aggressors and their accomplices for crimes committed in the occupied countries of Europe.” The statement said, “The Soviet Government considers it essential to hand over without delay to the courts of the special international tribunal, and to punish according to all the severity of the criminal code, any of the leaders of Fascist Germany who in the course of the war have fallen into the hands of States fighting against Hitlerite Germany.”
In their turn, the governments of the United States and Great Britain made the statements on the responsibility of Hitlerites for heinous crimes committed against humanity in October 1941. The decision to set up an international tribunal was taken at the Potsdam conference of the allied powers. The agreement stated, ” War criminals and those who have participated in planning or carrying out Nazi enterprises involving or resulting in atrocities or war crimes shall be arrested and brought to judgment. Nazi leaders, influential Nazi supporters and high officials of Nazi organizations and institutions and any other persons dangerous to the occupation or its objectives shall be arrested and interned.”
The Agreement by the Governments of the United Kingdom, the United States, the Provisional Government of the French Republic, and the USSR for the Prosecution and Punishment of the Major War Criminals of the European Axis, and Charter of the International Military Tribunal (August 8, 1945) was signed in London (19 more states joined the agreement later). The Tribunal’s composition included the following members with equal rights: Major General Iona T. Nikiotchenko, Deputy Chairman of the USSR Supreme Court; Francis Biddle, Attorney General of the United States during World War II; Geoffrey Lawrence, Lord Justice of Appeal, representing the United Kingdom; and professor Henri Donnedieu de Vabres, member for the French Republic.
The British President of the tribunal, Justice Geoffrey Lawrence, opened the trial, calling it “unique in the history of the jurisprudence of the world and of supreme importance to millions of people all over the globe.”
It was unique, indeed. For the first time in history, the United Nations, not just one nation, were ready to punish those who acted in violation of commonly recognized international law and committed heinous crimes against the world and humanity. The goal was to prevent it from happening ever again.
The charges were brought against 24 political and military leaders. Almost all top leaders of Nazi Germany were indicted, excluding Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, Chief of German Police, the head of the Nazi Party’s “SS” (Protection Squadron) and the head of Reich Main Security Office, and Paul Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945 — they all had committed suicide before the trials. Martin Bormann, a prominent official in Nazi Germany as head of the Nazi Party Chancellery, was tried in absentia as his whereabouts were not known.
The indicted were charged with unleashing the war to gain global dominance, that is the crimes against peace; murder, ill-treatment or deportation to slave labor or for any other purpose of civilian population or in occupied territory, murder or ill-treatment of prisoners-of-war or persons on the seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages or devastation not justified by military necessity — the war crimes; murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population before or during the war, or persecutions on political, racial, or religious grounds — the crimes against humanity. The USSR’s chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, Roman Rudenko, the prosecutor of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic at the time, had each and every reason to state that the criminals “seized an entire state and made this state an instrument of their monstrous crimes.”
A copy of the Indictment in the German language was served upon each defendant in custody at least 30 days before the Trial opened and they had each and every chance to prepare their defense. All the defendants had German lawyers. With the consent of prosecutors, they received all the documents to produce evidence written in German. The defense was aided in its effort to find and receive documents and summon witnesses. These facts refute the accusations put forward then and later, that the International Tribunal’s rulings were based on the sword law making the strong one always right and the weak one always to blame. The rights of the defendants were strictly observed to hand down fair rulings.
The law was observed to a letter. That’s what the trials stood out for. The court listened to 116 witnesses summoned by the prosecutors and defense. Four thousand documents were studied to produce evidence. Official documents produced by defendants themselves before the trials were given a priority.
The defendants tried to shift the blame and make Hitler responsible for each and everything. They also put the blame on Himmler and the security agencies he headed that became real death instruments. Not a single defendant admitted guilt. Irrefutable evidence was produced during the trials that Himmler-headed structures were not the only ones to blame for mass murders and other crimes. Other agencies, including top Wehrmacht command, were also involved. Besides, the International Military Tribunal consistently implemented principle IV: “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.”
The Tribunal recognized SS, SD, Gestapo as well as the top leadership of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, as criminal organizations. It allowed making actual culprits face the responsibility for their misdeeds. It was based on the founding legal principle — a legal person is criminally responsible for a criminal offense. If an organization was recognized as criminal by the International Military Tribunal, the verdict could not be reviewed by courts of individual states. This should be remembered by the leadership of the Baltic States, Ukraine and some other countries where they try to portray their collaborationists, who have served in the ranks of SS, as fighters for national independence. According to the verdict, 12 culprits, including Hermann Goering, Joachim Von Ribbentrop, Wilhelm Keitel, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Alfred Rosenberg, and Martin Bormann (in absentia), were sentenced to death by hanging. Seven received different imprisonment sentences. Three were found not guilty. The Nuremberg executions took place on October 16, 1946, after the appeals to mercy were rejected by Control Council.
For the first time in history an aggression was recognized as a grave crime. The notions of international conspiracy, war propaganda and planning, preparation and unleashing an aggressive war were introduced into international law. The involvement in such activities was recognized as crimes with perpetrators to be punished by law.
It’s sad that today in some countries, including those who together with the USSR were parties to the coalition, there are forces calling for revision of the Nuremberg Tribunal. They try to review the norms of international law established during the trial held by victorious nations. These attempts threaten to undermine the entire international legal system. They may lead to aggressive wars with the use of barbarian means of annihilation.
(Strategic Culture Foundation, November 23, 2015)