November 20th marks the start of the Nuremberg trials

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Starting on November 20, 1945, trials of 24 high-ranking Nazis began in Nuremberg, Germany, for crimes committed during World War II, including crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, war crimes and “a common plan or conspiracy to commit” the above mentioned criminal acts.

The Nuremberg trials were established under the authority of the International Military Tribunal established by the London Agreement of August 8, 1945, signed by representatives from the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the provisional government of France. Later on, 19 other countries accepted the provisions of this agreement.

The tribunal was authorised to find any person guilty of the three earlier-mentioned counts of war crimes and to declare any group or organisation to be criminal in character. The prosecution could also bring any members of said organisations to trial for having been their members.

A weak defence

The Nazi leaders had two major lines of defence. Their first argument was that only the state, and not individuals, could be found guilty of war crimes. The second was that the crimes they were charged with were ex post facto, meaning that the crimes they committed were not regarded as crimes before the trials started.

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The tribunal rejected the first line of defence by stating that crimes are committed by individuals and that only by punishing these individuals can the provisions of international law be enforced. The tribunal also stressed that the acts committed by the defendants were regarded as criminal before World War Two.

Outcome of the Nuremberg trials

On October 1, 1946, after a total of 216 sessions, the verdicts on 22 Nazi leaders, put on trial, were handed down. Hjalmar Schacht, Franz von Papen, and Hans Fritzsche were acquitted. Karl Dönitz, Baldur von Schirach, Albert Speer, and Konstantin von Neurath were sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. Rudolf Hess, Walther Funk, and Erich Raeder were sentenced to life imprisonment.

Hans Frank, Wilhelm Frick, Julius Streicher, Alfred Rosenberg, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Fritz Sauckel, Alfred Jodl, Wilhelm Keitel, and Arthur Seyss-Inquart were sentenced to death and were hanged on October 16, 1946.

The two remaining Nazi leaders, Martin Bormann and Hermann Göring were also tried and sentenced to death, however, Bormann was sentenced in absentia, and Hermann Göring committed suicide before he could be executed.