70 years on: when the first Nazis were tried

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70 years on: when the first Nazis were tried
12 of those in the docks at the first Nuremberg trial were sentenced to death by hanging. Photo: DPA

It was the biggest trial in history. On November 20th 1945, 22 Nazi leaders went on trial in Nuremberg for atrocities committed by Hitler's regime. 70 years on, Germany's Nazi trials continue - but time is running out.


War crimes, crimes against peace, and – for the first time ever – crimes against humanity. These were the charges facing 21 Nazi leaders who stood in the dock for the first Nuremberg trial in November 1945.

The men were tried by four judges of the International Military Tribunal (IMT), representing the victorious Allied powers: the US, Britain, the Soviet Union and France.

"It was victors' justice," Fannie Lafontaine, professor in international criminal and humanitarian law at Quebec's Laval University, told AFP.

"The Allies were never put on trial for their crimes. A pitfall that we have tried to never repeat."


When the verdict arrived on October 1st 1946, 12 were sentenced to death - including Hitler's Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick; commander of the Luftwaffe Hermann Göring; and SS chief Ernst Kaltenbrunner.

Seven others received prison sentences ranging from 15 years to life imprisonment. Three were acquitted.

But the Nuremberg Trials were far from over.

The Bavarian government hopes that Courtroom 600 may one day be a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. Photo: DPA

Why Nuremberg?

The Allies had already decided in 1942 that Nazi war criminals would be punished after the war.

The "Declaration on German Atrocities in Occupied Europe" - signed in Moscow in 1943 - promised that once the Nazi party was defeated, the Allies would "pursue them to the uttermost ends of the earth ... in order that justice may be done."

The British government reportedly wanted to "shoot the leaders once they were caught and formally identified," but it was eventually decided that a legal process should take place.

But where?

The Soviets wanted Berlin, the capital of Nazi Germany.

Leipzig and Luxemburg were also briefly considered - but in the end, Nuremberg won out.

As well as boasting a Palace of Justice that had remained largely undamaged during the war, Nuremberg had a symbolic connection to Nazi Germany.

It had been the host of the party's annual propaganda rallies, as well as the birthplace of the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws.

In Nuremberg, then, the Nazi party would meet its symbolic end.


The mystery of Martin Bormann

In November 1945, 22 Nazi leaders were put on trial in Court Room 600 of Nürnberg-Fürth Regional Court - but only 21 of them were present.

As private secretary to Hitler, Martin Bormann was part of the Nazi Chancellor's inner circle and held a position of great power in the party. 

But by November 20th, Bormann had vanished. 

He was tried in absence, convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to death by hanging.

It wasn't until 1972 that Bormann's remains were found in Berlin. He had committed suicide in May 1945, forensic examinations suggested.

(L-R) Hermann Göring, Rudolf Heß and Joachim von Ribbentrop stand in the docks on February 13th,1946. Photo: DPA

Why was Nuremberg so important?

The Nuremberg trials were "the first building block in the fight against impunity," lawyer Elise Le Gall told AFP, "aimed at considering that crimes offending humanity's conscience should be prosecuted and cracked down on."

Le Gall took part in the trial of former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre for crimes against humanity - something unheard of in a court of law before the Nuremberg trials.

"Nuremberg was the first time that "individual criminal responsibility for international crimes like war crimes" were recognised, she said.

"Now it seems obvious," she added. "But it was a revolution, because international law confined itself mainly to relations between states" before 1945.


What happened afterwards?

Those sentenced to death were hanged on October 16th 1946 - aside from Göring, who committed suicide the night before the executions, and Bormann, who was yet to be found.

Just over a month later, the second Nuremberg trial began.

This time, it was 23 Nazi physicians on trial before a US tribunal, accused of playing a part in Nazi human experimentation and mass murder disguised as euthanasia.

Eleven further trials followed up until 1948 - and in 1950, the United Nations international law commission drew up the "Nuremberg principles".

They offered new definitions of war crimes, crimes against peace, and crimes against humanity - affirming that those who commit them are personally responsible for their acts.

The Nuremberg Doctors' Trial began on November 21st 1946. Photo: DPA

Further trials

Between 1963 and 1965, the controversial Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials tried 22 of the notorious camp's former personnel.

Along with earlier Auschwitz trials in Krakow, this took the total number of tried defendants up to 789 - a mere 12 per cent of the 6,500 surviving Auschwitz recruits.

Over the coming decades, trials continued on a more individual basis.

In July 2015, 94-year.old "Auschwitz bookkeeper" Oskar Gröning was the latest to be sentenced to four years in prison.

A Lüneburg court ruled that in his role as accountant at the concentration camp, Gröning had acted as an accessory in the murder of 300,000 Jewish prisoners.

"It is too late for those who actually took the decisions, so we have to stretch the notion of guilt to a ridiculous point to try the lackeys," complained famed French Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld before Gröning's trial.

Oskar Gröning sits in court in April 2015, three months before his sentencing. Photo: DPA

Today, around a dozen investigations are still ongoing.

The cases include that of a 91-year old female Auschwitz worker, and two male recruits aged 92 and 93 - all of whom could be tried by a juvenile court because of their age during their time at Auschwitz.

The cases aim to bring "even the most minimal participant" in Nazi war crimes to justice and "allow the last survivors to speak," historian Werner Renz told AFP.

But the decades that have passed since 1945 make this a complicated job - and one that gets more difficult by the day.

In 2013, accused Auschwitz guard Hans Lipschis was due to stand trial for aiding and abetting murders - but prosecutors were forced to abandon the case after the 94-year-old's early-stage dementia left him unfit for trial.

And in January 2014, a German court halted proceedings against 92-year-old former SS officer Siert Bruins accused of the murder of Dutch resistance fighter Aldert Klaas Dijkema in September 1944.

It was impossible to convict Bruins of murder, the judge said, as so much evidence had been lost since the killing.

It's Germany's "second guilt" that although 1.1 million people died at Auschwitz, fewer than 50 of the camp's 6,500 surviving workers were ever convicted, lamented late German writer and Holocaust survivor Ralph Giordano.

And with defendants getting older and evidence further out of reach, Germany is now racing against time to bring the last Nazi accomplices to justice.



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