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  LIbrary Treaties The Nuremberg Principles, Commentary by January Godkin

Origin of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg
By January Godkin

During the course of World War II multiple atrocities were committed by  the German army that, when discovered, shocked the world.  The governments of the allied forces that defeated the Nazis were divided on the proper approach to dealing with the leaders of the army and government of Germany. A compromise was reached in the creation of the International Military Tribunal.  The United States, United Kingdom, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and France decided to prosecute, in a court of law, Nazi offenders in a court to be set at Nuremberg, Germany, former center for Nazi politics.  The 24 defendants were, for the most part, well known Nazi officials and military leaders representing the major branches of the administration.  The defendants included prisoners held by each of the four nations. Only 21 defendants made it to the trial - two committed suicide and one was thought to be dead but was tried in absentia just in case he should ever surface.

The Nuremberg Trials, as they would come to be known, were based on the premise of international law.  The London Charter, the document which created the International Military Tribunal, set out the four crimes that defendants would be charged with the following: Conspiracy to commit aggressive war, Crimes against Peace, War crimes, and Crimes against humanity (such as the extermination camps).  The court was made up of representatives of each of the four countries and presided over by an elected President.  Each country took charge of prosecuting the defendants on one of the four counts.  The U.S. was in charge of presenting the most difficult count to prove:  the charge of conspiracy to commit war before the war started.  The British took control of the crimes against peace charge, while the French and the Soviets jointly presented the West-East sides of the remaining two counts.


The controversial trial, the first to ever mass-prosecute people who could claim to simply have followed orders, set a precedent for the use of international law to punish those who commit atrocities in the name of nationalism.  The defendants were punished with varying in sentences. 

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See Also
The Nuremberg Principles
Nuremberg and Nuclear Weapons

More on the Web
List of indictments and punishments of Nuremberg Tribunal
Good Nuremberg background site
Standards and rules by which the Nuremberg trials were held.
The events of 1945, the creation of the court, etc (Includes incomplete transcripts of the trials)

Eleven defendants received the death penalty, eight were sentenced to long prison terms, and three were acquitted of the charges against them.

The legacy of the trial is extremely important to the current attempts to establish an International Criminal Court. The legacy of Nuremberg, however imperfect the trial and the ideals behind may have been, remains unfulfilled.  The prosecution of war crimes in an international court has been nonexistent for most of the half-century since the Nuremberg Trials.  While the UN International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, have begun to proceed with the ideals set out at Nuremberg in their prosecution of war criminals, there is still much that is needed.  One hundred and twenty nations have signed a treaty agreeing to the creation of an International Criminal Court.  Only seven nations voted against creating a permanent International Criminal Court, among them the United States, Yemen, Qatar, Libya, Iraq and China.  The establishment of the ICC is essential to creating and maintaining a defined set of rules and laws to regulate the behavior of governments and individuals around the world.