War Crimes Trials: Nuremberg and the Pacific

War Crimes Trials: Nuremberg and the Pacific

Postwar War Crimes Trials


In the postwar period, people realized the essentiality of holding people accountable for their wartime actions if future humanity were to be protected. Although the Nuremberg Trials and Tokyo War Crimes Trials were far from perfect, they demonstrated to the world that individual actions matter and international justice would be meted out to those who crimes against humanity.


Learning Objectives

  • Evaluate the significance of the Nuremberg and Tokyo War Crimes Trials


Key Terms / Key Concepts

The Nuremberg Trials: most famous set of international war crimes trials of top Nazi officials

Tokyo War Crime Trials: most famous set of war crimes trials of top Japanese officials


The Nuremberg Trials


The Nuremberg Trials were a series of military tribunals held by the Allied forces of World War II, most notably for the prosecution of prominent members of the political, military, and economic leadership of Nazi Germany. In 1945 and 1946, the trials were held at the Palace of Justice in the city of Nuremberg, Bavaria, Germany. The choice of locations was not coincidental. Nuremberg had been the home of the Nazi party. Holding the trials in Nuremberg held symbolic importance for the Allies who had defeated the Nazis.

The first and best-known of these trials was that of the major war criminals before the International Military Tribunal (IMT). Held between November 20, 1945 and October 1, 1946, the IMT tried 23 of the most important political and military leaders of the Third Reich. One of the defendants, Martin Bormann, was tried in absentia, while another, Robert Ley, committed suicide within a week of the trial’s commencement. Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Joseph Goebbels were not included in the trials because all three committed suicide several months before the indictment was signed. The second set of trials of lesser war criminals was conducted under Control Council Law No. 10 at the U.S. Nuremberg Military Tribunals (NMT); among the second set of trials were the Doctors Trial and the Judges Trial.


Nazi officers awaiting judgment at the Nuremberg Trials. The main target of the prosecution was Hermann Göring (at the left edge on the first row of benches), who was considered the most important surviving official in the Third Reich after Hitler’s death. Göring was sentenced to death but committed suicide before the sentence could be carried out.


Creation of the Courts


In 1945, all three major wartime powers—the United Kingdom, United States, and the Soviet Union—agreed on the format of punishment for those responsible for war crimes during World War II. France was also awarded a place on the tribunal.

Some 200 German war crimes defendants were tried at Nuremberg, and 1,600 others were tried under the traditional channels of military justice. The legal basis for the jurisdiction of the court was defined by the Instrument of Surrender of Germany. Political authority for Germany had been transferred to the Allied Control Council which, having sovereign power over Germany, could choose to punish violations of international law and the laws of war. Because the court was limited to violations of the laws of war, it did not have jurisdiction over crimes that took place before the outbreak of war on September 1, 1939.


The Nuremberg Trials Begin


The IMT opened on November 19, 1945, in the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg. The first session was presided over by the Soviet judge Nikitchenko. The prosecution entered indictments against 24 major war criminals and seven organizations: the leadership of the Nazi party, the Reich Cabinet, the Schutzstaffel (SS), Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the Gestapo, the Sturmabteilung (SA), and the “General Staff and High Command,” comprising several categories of senior military officers. These organizations were to be declared “criminal” if found guilty.

The indictments were for participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of a crime against peace; planning, initiating and waging wars of aggression and other crimes against peace; war crimes; and crimes against humanity.

The accusers successfully unveiled the background of developments leading to the outbreak of World War II, which cost at least 40 million lives in Europe alone, as well as the extent of the atrocities committed in the name of the Hitler regime. Twelve of the accused were sentenced to death, seven received prison sentences (ranging from 10 years to life in prison), three were acquitted, and two were not charged.

Throughout the trials, specifically between January and July 1946, the defendants and a number of witnesses were interviewed by American psychiatrist Leon Goldensohn. His notes detailing the demeanor and comments of the defendants were edited into book form and published in 2004.


The Tokyo War Crimes Trial 


Following Japan’s defeat in World War II, the global community began to investigate allegations of Japanese war crimes. These investigations culminated in a series of war crimes trials, most famous of which was the Tokyo War Crimes Trial. The international community accused Japan of crimes against humanity, crimes against peace, and war crimes. Accusations and evidence circulated to show that beginning with the Japanese conquest of Manchuria, the Japanese forces regularly abused prisoners of war, employed forced labor, destroyed towns and cities, slaughtered civilians, raped, looted, and tortured civilians. Tens of thousands of testimonies, documents, and eyewitness accounts were investigated. Among the most heinous charges were the Japanese involvement in human experimentation, such as with the infamous unit 731, the Bataan Death March, and the destruction of the Chinese city of Nanking. Using the IMT in Nuremberg as a model, courts began to assemble in Tokyo in the spring of 1946. In April 1946, the trials of many top-ranking Japanese officials began.

The primary target of the Tokyo War Crimes Trial was the former Japanese prime minister Tojo Hideki. He was accused of, and later convicted of being instrumental in many of Japan’s most heinous behaviors during World War II.


The Tokyo War Crimes Trial. Tojo Hideki sits in the front, left corner.


In the fall of 1948, the Tokyo War Crimes Trials ended. Twenty-three defendants were convicted, seven of whom were sentenced to death by hanging. Each of the defendants was found guilty of committing war crimes, and particularly, crimes against humanity. Out of respect to the Japanese culture, Douglas MacArthur, who proceeded over the trials, did not allow photos to be taken of the execution of the Japanese war criminals. Several additional, smaller war crimes trials occurred throughout Japan in the succeeding years.


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