Fifty Years Ago, the Trial of Nazi War Criminals Ended: The World Had Witnessed the Rule of Law Invoked to Punish Unspeakable Atrocities

In the war-shattered city of Nuremberg, in November 1945, an Allied tribunal convened to seek justice in the face of the Third Reich’s monstrous war crimes

Defendants in the dock at the Nuremberg trials
Defendants in the dock at the Nuremberg trials Wikimedia Commons

In the dock were 21 captured Nazi leaders men like Hermann Göring and the satanic Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the scar-faced functionary second only to Heinrich Himmler in overseeing the death camps. Their alleged crimes included the mass murder of some six million Jews and millions of other human beings deemed "undesirable" by Adolf Hitler. "Civilization," said eloquent American prosecutor Robert Jackson, "cannot tolerate [these wrongs] being repeated."

For the prosecution, the moral and legal dilemmas they faced were profound and daunting. The choice to prosecute Nazi leaders--and not the German people offered a way of achieving, simultaneously, retribution and mercy.

In the end, ten men, including Kaltenbrunner, would hang, on October 16, 1946. (Göring, ever cunning, committed suicide in his cell on the eve of the executions.) By rejecting group guilt and mass purges, the judges defied hatred and struck a blow for peace that may yet, a half-century later, help temper the madness of war.

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