An Allied tribunal brings Nazi leaders to account at Nuremberg

This is an entry in the cover feature 10 trials that changed the world.

If Winston Churchill had gotten his way, the Nuremberg Trials never would have taken place. His preferred method for dealing with captured Nazi leaders at the end of World War II was to line them up against a wall and shoot them. But ultimately, the key Allies—the United States, the Soviet Union, France and Britain—agreed on the importance of demonstrating that, unlike the Nazis, the rest of the world was committed to following the principles of a civilized rule of law.

The prosecution of the Nazi leaders had no firm legal precedent. Legal representatives of the Allies met in London to create the legal standards for the case and craft an indictment charging the defendants with war crimes as well as crimes against peace and crimes against humanity. They established an International Military Tribunal made up of judges from each of the four Allied countries. Proceedings would take place in Nuremberg, one of the Nazi movement’s most hallowed grounds.

The first trial began dramatically with an eloquent opening statement on Nov. 21, 1945, by chief prosecutor Robert H. Jackson, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. “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,” Jackson said.

The trial of the major German leaders was followed by 12 others, which were heard by an American military tribunal. Those trials involved lower-level functionaries, including judges and doctors, who carried out Adolf Hitler’s policies. The verdict in the Nazi doctors’ case led to the adoption of the Nuremberg Code, 10 principles that have come to govern human research around the world.

All 13 trials were lengthy and hotly contested. The defendants argued that they were being tried under ex post facto laws. The Nazi doctors pointed out that physicians in the United States did not always obtain informed consent for experimentation. And various defendants noted that Nazi sterilization laws were based on statutes adopted in the U.S. and upheld by the Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell (1927).

It was nearly 50 years before international criminal tribunals were created once again—this time to address atrocities committed during conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Finally, in 2002, the International Criminal Court came into existence under a treaty hammered out in 1998 to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression. Ironically, the United States, which pushed so hard for the Nuremberg Trials after World War II, still has not ratified the treaty establishing the ICC.

Lori B. Andrews is a professor at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, where she serves as director of the Institute for Science, Law and Technology.

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