As World War II came to a close, the Allies were left with the complicated question of what to do with the defeated Nazi leadership. Even though each country had a different opinion on what should be done, initially, there was great international support for summary execution.
For the United States, the debate shifted several months before Germany’s surrender when President Roosevelt passed away and Harry Truman took the oath of office. As a former judge, Truman firmly sided with those whom argued for a trial.
In June 1945, a group of delegates representing each of the Allied powers met in London to consider the problem and discuss the focus, parameters and procedures of whatever action they may take. Truman sent Robert Jackson, an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, who was a strong proponent of trying the surviving Nazi leadership.
By July 1945, the United States was winning the argument for a trial, but pulling the Allies together under a single framework proved difficult. Each of the countries had different laws and procedures when it came to criminal prosecution. Furthermore, the Soviet representative, General I.T. Nikitchenko, was adamant that a trial was not needed to ascertain guilt, only to decide on the appropriate punishment.
It was Jackson who managed to convince the other delegates that a full trial was in fact necessary. He was also instrumental in establishing the charges that would be used and worked with representatives from the other three countries in drafting the Charter of the International Military Tribunal, which provided the guidelines and scope for conducting the hearings.
The International Military Tribunal (IMT) began in 1945 in Nuremberg, Germany. It was composed of eight judges, one primary and one alternate, from the four major Allied Powers: France, Great Britain, Russia, and the United States. In addition, each of the nations supplied a prosecution team, with Chief Justice Robert H. Jackson (US) acting as "Chief of Counsel."
The indictment listed twenty-four people, including Martin Bormann who was missing (and would eventually be tried in absentia); Gustav Krupp who was found medically unfit to stand trial; and Robert Ley who committed suicide shortly after being indicted. The four charges used were:
Not all of the defendants were charged with each of these counts, but each of them was charged with at least one count.
The most controversial of these charges was Count One (Conspiracy), which Justice Jackson fought for in order to provide a precedent – that conspiring to wage aggressive war was illegal and should be treated as such within international law. Even though the other Allied nations had a difficult time seeing the justification for this, Jackson eventually convinced them of its importance, and it became a primary tool in the prosecution’s case.
The twelve trials that followed the International Military Tribunal are often referred to collectively as the American Nuremberg Trials. Unlike the IMT, they were not composed of an international body of judges and prosecutors, but instead fell under the authority of the American Office of Military Government.
For these subsequent trials, Justice Jackson was replaced by General Telford Taylor as lead prosecutor, and the court was presided over by a panel of three judges. In all, these trials saw the indictment of 185 defendants – 12 of these received death penalties, 8 received life sentences, and 77 received some duration of imprisonment.
These were but one small group of the large number of proceedings that took place following World War II. All of the Allied countries were involved in conducting trials of the so called “minor” perpetrators, which took place in almost every part of occupied Germany, with hearings stretching into the present day.