Seventy Years Since Nuremberg

20 November 2015

Area Studies | War and Conflict


The privilege of opening the first trial in history for crimes against the peace of the world imposes a grave responsibility. The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated. That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason.


Richard H. Jackson: Opening Address to the International Military Tribunal at the Nuremberg Trials (November 10, 1945).



But there was no earthly need for all this fuss anyway because I think they are all guilty anyway. Just think what the Germans would have done is [sic] they had caught Churchill and all our guys, well they would never have behaved like we are doing now, would they? Why must we always be so chicken hearted about these things? If I could choose I would shoot the lot of them.


M. 45. C. From the Mass Observation Archive. 

Before the close of the Nuremberg trials in October 1946, the Mass Observation team sent out a number of directives asking the public’s opinion on the trials of the Nazi war criminals. The primary response was that they were a waste of time, a waste of tax payer’s money and the verdict a foregone conclusion. The thought process was that these men were guilty, and would be found so, and that the simplest, and cheapest option, would have been to shoot them on the spot (though some had some more brutal ideas).

NOTE ON NUREMBERG, September 1946, © Mass Observation Archive. University of Sussex Special Collections. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. 

To see this document in the collection, click here.

From some of the early stages of the war, discussion had circulated around what to do with the German leaders if (when) the Allies won. Initially, the Allies were reluctant to condemn German actions beyond the normal war reparations. By 1943, however, the attitude was that the Nazi leaders must be punished. At the Tehran Conference, in the Tripartite Dinner Meeting, Stalin suggested that 50,000-100,000 German Staff Officers should be executed. Roosevelt joked in a similar vein and Churchill protested vehemently that he would not support cold blooded execution. After seeing the ravages of war by 1945, Roosevelt was feeling more bloodthirsty, indicating he would welcome a second such toast from Stalin. 

With the end of the war in sight, and realising that this war was different to others, a plan was formulated to deal with the Nazi party and begin the denazification of Germany. The USA created the “Trial of European War Criminals” and the site of Nuremberg was decided upon. The four main Allied countries, Great Britain, the United States of America, the Soviet Union and France, provided one judge each, and the Nazi officials that had been captured, and one who was tried in absentia (Martin Bormann), were gathered to begin their trials. It began on 20th November 1945, seventy years ago today. 


Defendants in their dock; Goering, Hess, von Ribbentrop, and Keitel in front row. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The defendants were accused of committing four major crimes; crimes against peace, waging wars of aggression, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Among the men who were tried was Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and friend, and Herman Goering, the most senior Nazi official in the dock. Evidence was presented by the Allies using films of concentration camps, testimony from Holocaust survivors and witnesses from both the Nazi party and the Allied armies. Those in the stand admitted to murdering millions, though only Albert Speer took personal responsibility for his actions. After nearly a year of arguments and deliberating, twelve of the accused were sentenced to death and seven were given prison sentences. Three were acquitted and two were not charged. Herman Goering, the most senior official to be arrested and tried, committed suicide the night before his execution.

Whilst members of the British population saw the trials as a pointless exercise, the Allied leaders and their counterparts saw them as an important step in condemning the Nazis and recording their crimes in the historical record. In the years following the war, however, the general public were still uncertain and the fate of the Nazis continued to be divisive. A Mass Observation report from 1948 discussing good and evil shows the uncertainty of post-war justice and what it meant in the new Europe following the Second World War.

GOOD MEN AND BAD MEN, November 1948, © Mass Observation Archive. University of Sussex Special Collections. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

To see this document in the collection, click here.


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About the Author

Jo Perdicchia

Jo Perdicchia

I joined the Adam Matthew team in April 2014 as an Editorial Assistant. Since I began I've worked on a variety of different projects, including American History, 1493-1945, and have enjoyed rummaging through the materials (both electronically and physically) of all of the projects I’m involved with.