A Reckoning at Nuremberg
Where Nazi leaders once strutted, a war-crimes tribunal weighed their fate
AS World War II drew to a close, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill conceived a simple plan to deal with the brutal warlords of the Third Reich: Summarily execute them, then announce to the world that they were dead.Skip to next paragraph
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American President Franklin Roosevelt had a better idea. Executions create martyrs, he warned. Instead, put Nazi leaders on trial, put the evidence of their atrocities on the record, and deal swift justice.
"He was determined that the question of Hitler's guilt - and the guilt of his gangsters - must not be left open for future debate," a senior aide to FDR, Sam Rosenman, remembered later. "There must never be any question anywhere, by anybody, about who was responsible for the war and for the uncivilized war crimes."
In the end, Roosevelt and his successor, Harry Truman, prevailed. The result was the real trial of the century, the dramatic, year-long proceeding at Nuremberg, Germany, that led to the execution of a dozen top Nazis and established the point that the rule of law and not mere vengeance would be the standard of the victorious Allied powers.
"Churchill's plan was rejected because we needed to build a new world, not imitate Hitler's world," says Alfred Rubin, a professor of international law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "We had to demonstrate that [the Nazis] had done something wrong other than be our enemies."
Half a century later, Nuremberg is the model for two new international war-crimes tribunals established by the United Nations to bring to justice the perpetrators of torture and genocide in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
The decision to try Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg was steeped in unintended irony. In the years before the war, the Berlin suburb had been the scene of massive torch-lit rallies, where Nazi power was put on gaudy display. In 1945 and '46, the men who had held center stage sat in the prisoners' dock, defeated and broken, if not repentant.
A few Nazi leaders eluded justice. Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker on April 30, 1945. Three weeks later, Heinrich Himmler, the SS commandant who condemned unprecedented numbers to torture and death in Nazi concentration camps, swallowed poison after being captured at a British checkpoint near Hamburg, Germany.
But 24 top Nazis eventually were designated to be brought before the Nuremberg tribunal, made up of judges from each of the four powers that occupied Germany - the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, and France.
From November 1945 until October 1946, prosecutors produced more than a million pages of evidence of acts that even one defendant - Nazi armaments minister Albert Speer - described as "so monstrous that they seemed unbelievable."
Of the 22 who were eventually tried, three were acquitted, though subsequently retried and sentenced by German courts. Seven, including Speer and one-time Hitler confidant Rudolf Hess, received prison terms ranging from 10 years to life.
In the early afternoon of Oct. 16, 1946, the first of those remaining - Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop - was led into the execution chamber at Nuremberg prison to be hanged. He was followed in brief intervals by 10 others, including party ideologist Alfred Rosenberg and SS head Ernst Kaltenbrunner.
Nazi air marshal Hermann Goering, the most prominent of the defendants, swallowed a vial of poison in his prison cell two hours before his appointment with the hangman.
American journalist William Shirer wrote: "Like his Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, and his rival for the succession, Heinrich Himmler, [Goering] had succeeded at the last hour in choosing the way in which he would depart this earth, on which he, like the other two, had made such a murderous impact."