Nuremberg Trials After WW2 and Their Significance in International Criminal Law

Subject: Warfare
Pages: 9
Words: 2392
Reading time:
9 min
Study level: College


The Nuremberg trials were carried out between 1945 and 1946 in Nuremberg, Germany. It was conducted on the war criminals of Nazi Germany after World War II. It was conducted under the parameters of IMT or the International Military Tribunal. The prosecution included important associates of the Nazi government and featured notable economic, military, and political Nazi leadership. The major trial was carried out on 22 Nazi members or supporters captured after the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Legal aspects of the Nuremberg Trials

The fundamental laws that were incorporated were laws of war and international law and the jurisdiction of these laws were limited to the amount of war code violence and it was not implemented on crimes and violations during the time before September 1939, the commencement of the Second World War. The US, British, Soviet, and France provided one judge and an alternate judge to the proceedings. The Judges were Robert Falco and Professor Henri Donnedieu de Vabres from France, John Parker and Francis Biddle from the US, Sir Norman Birkett and Sir Geoffrey Lawrence from Britain, and Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Volchkov and Major-General Iona Nikitchenko from the Soviet Union. The chief prosecutors were Auguste Champetier de Ribes and François de Menthon from France, Lieutenant-General R. A. Rudenko from the Soviet Union, Sir Hartley Shawcross from Britain, and Robert H. Jackson of US. There was also a defense council where individual lawyers defended their clients. They were mostly from Germany.

The main charges were a crime against humanity, war crimes, planning war, and conspiracy. The prosecution charged 24 major criminals of war and convicted six organizations that were presented as criminals. These included OKW or the German armed forces (High Command), SA or the Sturmabteilung, Gestapo, SD or Sicherheitsdienst, SS or Schutzstaffel, and the Nazi party. (Podolski, 110-112)

The main convicts were Rudolf Hess and Walther Funk with Life Imprisonment and Hermann Göring, Wilhelm Frick, Hans Frank, and Martin Bormann with death. Karl Dönitz was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. Others were Julius Streicher with death, Albert Speer with 20 years, Arthur Seyss-Inquart with death, Baldur von Schirach with 20 years, Fritz Sauckel with death, Alfred Rosenberg with death, Joachim von Ribbentrop with death, Erich Raeder with life sentence, Baron Konstantin von Neurath with 15 years, Ernst Kaltenbrunner and Alfred Jodl with death. (Shaw, 33)

International Criminal Law

System of explicit and implicit agreements that are instrumented among States and nations is commonly referred to as international law. It recognizes and implements standards and values and the chief concern, in this case, is not an individual citizen but a nation. The main aspect of international law is based upon the fundamentals of Geneva conventions, international criminal law, maritime law, and the United Nations. However, it would not be justified to state that international law is a tool in the hands of a powerful nation. It is true, that on specific grounds this law has been utilized for the advantage of a powerful nation but in a general sense this law is justified and beneficial for all. For example, in the context of trade, the international maritime law is a very beneficial law that is used for the benefit of all users. When dealing with international trade the appendix of exchange by sea cannot be overlooked at any consequences. Thus again, we come up with the most important factor of sea trades. It is the law or rules that govern the activity of this trade. However, from the point of view of human rights, international law has proved to be a very beneficial establishment. The Nuremberg trials are the prime example of international law acting as a defender of human rights.

Nuremberg in context of International Criminal Law

Perhaps the first need for an international legal platform for referring to crime against humanity was realized in the wake of the devastation of the holocaust and the result was the Nuremberg trials. Such utter devastation, like those witnessed during the holocaust years, was unthinkable and complete enough to invite international comment regarding it. Lawyers all over the world felt the need to address the crime doers during the holocaust and to punish them for the devastation they cost. This global interest in the subject led to what came to be called the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG). The UN General Assembly adopted the CPPCG on the 9th of December 1948. The CPPGP came into effect only 3 years later on the 12th of January 1951. The CPPGP provided the first international definition for the act of genocide, which was soon included within the criminal legislation in a large number of countries. The International Criminal Court, which was established as an effect of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court also adopted the definition. (Roberts, 345)

The international definition for genocide recognizes it as acts carried out with the specific purpose of obliterating completely or even ‘in part’ a certain ‘national, ethnic, racial, or religious groups. Such acts might include mass murder, torture, or other bodily harm, purposefully inflicting on certain group events or conditions which might affect them adversely, etc.

Initially, the convention was also meant to cover political killings. However, world powers such as the USSR, who were perhaps concerned about being brought under the legal microscope, objected to this inclusion and insisted on leaving out the mass murder of groups with a particular political inclination or social position from the definition. As a result, the international definition of genocide today does not include such killings and the international criminal law is in no position to take action against them.

The primary objective of the convention was to help uphold the basic values of humanity and civilization. Given the consideration of human rights, the requirement to abstain from genocide is acknowledged as erga omnes. The convention when devised was intended to address not just former acts of genocide but also future acts carried out with the same intention. The acceptance of the possibility of future instances of genocide is yet another brave and practical manner of dealing with the cyclic nature of the issue. Genocide has occurred repeatedly in almost every part of the world in every stage of history. Conventions such as this are an attempt at softening their impact and, if possible, preventing their occurrence. (Sen, 87)

The Nuremberg model

The Nuremberg trials quite literally paved the path for what is today called international criminal law. This set of trials was conducted in order to take legal action against some of the most well-known leaders of the devastating Nazi regime. The Nuremberg trials came about as an attempt at ‘total denazification of Germany, a constant and nagging demand of the US of A. The plans of denazification included Henry Morgenthau Jr.’s design to forcefully de-industrialize and devastate Germany (in much the same way Germany herself had planned to devastate Eastern Europe). To his delight, both Roosevelt and Churchill promptly accepted his plans and even tried to pass them in the Quebec conference (September 1944). Despite the USA and Britain’s enthusiasm about the proposal, however, the Soviet Union refused to be a party to it and instead counter proposed a judicial process to deal with the situation. As word got around about the Morgenthau Plan the public all over the world protested to it vehemently and the USA was forced to abandon the project.

Once the Morgenthau plan lost favor the idea next inline i.e. the “Trial of European War Criminals” found much support. This plan devised by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and the department of war was put into process shortly after the death of President Roosevelt and the trials were soon scheduled for the month of November. The method and format of punishment for the Second World War criminals were decided upon by the US of A, Britain, and the Soviet Union, who were now the undisputable world powers. The legal basis for the court proceedings was provided by the London Charter. A total of 200 different defendants were tried in the course of the Nuremberg trials. 1,600 more were tried by means of the more usual methods of military justice. (Roy, 217-219)

The Nuremberg trials and International criminal law

The Nuremberg trials have greatly influenced the development of international criminal law. The International Law Commission created Principles of International Law Recognized in the Charter of the Nürnberg Tribunal and in the Judgement of the Tribunal in 1950 as per the directions of the United Nations. The much-debated proposal for the permanent international court of law is also based upon the model provided by the Nuremberg trial. (Mukherjee, 256)

Perhaps the primary reason why some object to the use of the Nuremberg trial model today is simply because of the sort of juridical power they expect such a court of law to leave in the hands of world superpowers such as the US of A who themselves perform a number of war crimes and are therefore considered unlikely to be impartial under all circumstances.

War crime tribunals

The international war crime tribunals are created specifically for the purpose of trying people or persons accused of having performed or been party to war crimes. Tribunals permit war criminals engaged in a variety of heinous crimes ranging from rape to torture and mass murder to provide an explanation for their actions to both, their victims (and/or their surviving families) and the concerned citizens of the world by means of the media. War tribunals have now almost obliterated the use of retributive justice and helped replace it with a new breed of liberal legalism based completely on an international code of law. (Lamb, 56)

The advantages of war crime tribunals

Supporters of war crime tribunals claim that institutions such as this help deter those whose who might turn out to be future war criminals. This is also one of the primary reasons provided for the establishment of a regular international court of law. War crime tribunals found presently are usually commissioned by the UN. Supporters claim that the permanence of a system is enough to keep potential war criminals at bay.

Yet another advantage of war crime tribunals is the sort of opportunity it allows both the leaders and the citizens of the world to question the appalling political decisions and actions taken by the head of countries and the soldiers under them. It is the only forum where people in power may be pinned against the wall and questioned regarding their possible intentions and their justification for the same. Some consider the capacity to put forward such questions before perpetrators the biggest advantage of a forum such as a war crime tribunal.

Additionally, psychiatrists say that a forum such as a war crime tribunal is essential for the victims of atrocities to recover their sense of power and control, which tremendous war crimes might have stripped off them. Psychiatrists consider this opportunity for victims to identify and question their torturers can help them feel empowered and thereby regain their lost self-esteem. A war tribunal can also prove to be a point of catharsis for victims who may have been shocked into silence by their experiences. A cathartic experience such as a war tribunal can allow the victims to emerge out of their stupor soon and thereby live a free, burdenless life. (King, 134)


Despite the insistence of a large group of people a chunk of people all over the world still feel that the presence of a tribunal does not in any way influence or dissuade potential war criminals from performing atrocities. This group insists that the mere knowledge of the possibility of punishment is not likely to keep war criminals from expressing the tremendous hate they might feel for a certain group of people they choose to attack. Also, they point out that a number of war criminals consider themselves to be visionaries, revolutionaries who would help change the world for the better. The concept of being punished for their actions is not something they are likely to view as a possibility. Critics of the system also believe that war tribunals are also likely to avoid judging leaders or ‘visionaries’ such as these, instead, they argue, tribunals stick to meting out punishments to small fry’s and officials who operate according to the directions of their leaders. (Kar, 34)

Some also claim that the legal system has too many loopholes to help judge war criminals correctly. Unclear testimonies, lack of evidence, etc. might all help an obvious criminal escape punishment simply because their crime might not be proved in the eyes of the law. War times, these people say, are not structured enough to be brought under the orderly legal system. The methodical premise of the legal system is in many ways incapable of judging an anarchic phenomenon such as war and war crimes.


In this context, it would be relevant to state that though the ICC could come up with several solutions in relation to international crime there are certain advantages and disadvantages of ICC. It is true that the ICC would create homogenous measures of a justice system that should be acceptable by all and this system of justice would also help to ascertain several international disputes that could otherwise only be solved by violence. But there are a few cons too. It is possible that like United Nations the ICC would also be directed by members who contribute most and that would certainly create discrimination. (Able, 223)


In conclusion, it should be stated that there is not enough conclusive evidence to support the statement that international law is a body of legislation only to be instrumented by powerful nations. It can however be stated that there are certain areas of international law that need to be clarified and properly imposed in order to minimize the influence of powerful nations in the context of the law. Finally, in conclusion, it should be mentioned that this group of critics point out those war tribunals are in no way capable of resolving the primary issue which might have sparked off the battle in the first place. They just continue to harp on the problems that arose without providing any positive solution to them and the Nuremberg trials showed the path of this implementation in international criminal justice.

Works Cited:

Able, Albert. The Outcomes of Trade: A legal Force. London: OTRC Ltd, 2001.

Kar, Prakesh. History of War. Kolkata: Dasgupta & Chatterjee, 2007.

King, Henry. The Statistics of War. Dunedin: HBT & Brooks Ltd, 2001.

Lamb, David. Cult to Culture: The Development of Civilization. Wellington: National Book Trust, 2004.

Mukherjee, Saikat. International Legal Strategies and Principals. Dunedin: IBL & Alliance Ltd, 2006.

Podolski, Vladimir. Public Perception of Perceptions: An Approach towards Political Intelligence; Dunedin: IBL & Alliance Ltd, 2003.

Roberts, Mark. Outline of Global War; Wellington: National Book Trust, 2001.

Roy, Durga. Birth of Thought: The Evolving Intelligence; Part II; Auckland: HDT Ltd, 1999.

Sen, Srinivas. Difference between Thinking and Acting in Global Politics. Bloemfontein: ABP Ltd, 1998.

Shaw, Malcolm. International Law; NY: Cambridge University Press, 2003.