On November 20, 1945, the Nuremberg war crimes trial begins. Following Germany's defeat in World War II, Winston Churchill planned to shoot top German and Nazi military leaders without a trial, but Henry Stimson, the U.S. Secretary of War, pushed President Roosevelt to consider holding an international court trial. Since the trial did not begin until after the death of President Roosevelt, President Harry S. Truman appointed Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson to head the prosecution team. The four countries pressing charges were Great Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and France.
In his opening statement, Robert Jackson summarized the significance of the trial. "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 law," said Jackson, "is one of the significant tributes that power has ever paid to reason."
The trials attempted to hold Nazi and German military officials accountable for atrocities including the massacre of 30,000 Russians during the German invasion and the massacre of thousands of others in the Warsaw Ghetto. Twenty-four defendants were tried, including Hermann Goering, the designated successor to Hitler, and Rudolf Hess, Hitler's personal secretary. All defendants pleaded not guilty to the charges. When one of the defendants demanded that an anti-Semitic lawyer represent him, an ex-Nazi was assigned to his defense. Because of the mountains of evidence and language barriers, the trial was beset with logistical problems. Nineteen defendants were convicted: 12 were sentenced to hang, and the rest were sent to prison. Herman Goering escaped hanging by committing suicide. On October 16, 1946, 10 former Nazi officials were hanged.
Michael Thomas Barry is a columnist for CrimeMagazine.com and is the author of Murder and Mayhem 52 Crimes that Shocked Early California1849-1949. The book can be purchased from Amazon through the following link: