November 20, 1945 — The Nuremberg War Trials began on this day. As the Second World War was coming to an end in 1945, details of the appalling atrocities – later to become known as the Holocaust – were becoming known.
As a result there was a clamour for those responsible to face justice and the unprecedented war crimes tribunal was set up. It was held in what was seen as a fitting location – the German city of Nuremberg which had been the site of spectacular annual Nazi propaganda rallies. Holding the post-war trials there helped mark the symbolic end of Hitler’s Third Reich.
At the end of the war Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader, initially proposed the execution of 50,000 to 100,000 German staff officers, while British Prime Minister Winston Churchill discussed the possibility of summary execution (execution without trial) of high-ranking Nazis.
He was persuaded by the Americans, however, that criminal trials would be more effective. Among other advantages, the proceedings would require documentation of the crimes and prevent later claims that the defendants had been condemned without evidence.
And so a series of 13 trials came to pass at Nuremberg lasting from 1945 to 1949. The defendants included Nazi Party officials and high-ranking military officers along with German industrialists, lawyers and doctors. They faced charges such as crimes against peace and crimes against humanity.
Some of the big Nazi fish evaded the justice net closing in on them. The biggest, Adolf Hitler, committed suicide with his new bride, Eva Braun, in his bunker beneath the ruins of Berlin as the last shots of the war were being fired.
His hated propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, also killed himself in the bunker alongside his wife, Magda, after they had poisoned their six children with cyanide. Goebbels succeeded Hitler as Chancellor of Germany, but his "reign" lasted only one day.
Martin Bormann, Hitler's immensely powerful private secretary, fled from the bunker as Allied troops approached and probably committed suicide as his planned escape proved futile. In 1972 his body was found where it had been buried in 1945, the identification being confirmed by DNA tests in 1998.
While on the run in a crumbling Berlin in 1945 Heinrich Himmler was arrested by British forces. Head of the Gestapo (Secret State Police) and overseer of the concentration camps, Himmler directed the extermination of some six million Jews and the killing of millions more Polish and Soviet people. He killed himself while in custody.
Hermann Göring was Commander-in-Chief of the German air force, the Luftwaffe. One of Hitler's closest allies, he was responsible for the creation of the concentration camps and the Gestapo, which he handed over to Himmler. He told SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich – shot and killed by a team of Czech and Slovak agents in 1942 – to arrange the "Final Solution" that would kill millions of Jews. In 1939 Hitler declared Göring his successor and in 1940 gave him the special rank of Reichsmarschall des Grossdeutschen Reiches (“Marshal of the Empire”).
Göring expected to be treated as a plenipotentiary when, after Hitler’s suicide, he surrendered to the Americans. Instead he was kept in a cell until his trial when he denied any involvement in Nazi atrocities, which he claimed to be the secret work of Himmler.
Göring "starred" in the first and best-known of the Nuremberg hearings – the Trial of Major War Criminals, held from November 20, 1945. Twenty-four individuals were indicted, along with six Nazi organisations considered to be criminal, including the Gestapo.
Sitting alongside Göring in the dock were leading Nazis such as Rudolf Hess, Hitler's deputy; Karl Doenitz, commander of the German navy; Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Foreign Minister; Albert Speer, the Munitions and Armaments Minister; and Wilhelm Keitel, Chief of Staff of the German High Command.
All but three of the defendants were found guilty. Twelve were sentenced to death and the rest received prison sentences ranging from 10 years to life. Ten of the condemned were executed by hanging on October 16, 1946.
Göring asked to be shot rather than hanged but his request was denied. The day before the scheduled executions, he sat in his cell and wrote a note:
"To the Allied Control Council:
I would have had no objection to being shot. However, I will not facilitate execution of Germany's Reichsmarschall by hanging! For the sake of Germany, I cannot permit this. Moreover, I feel no moral obligation to submit to my enemies' punishment. For this reason, I have chosen to die like the great Hannibal."
He then put a smuggled cyanide pill into his mouth and within minutes, like his adored Führer and other high-ranking Nazis, he was dead.
Published: November 7, 2018
Nazi Minister of Armaments and War Production
Foreign Minister of the German Reich
Joachim von Ribbentrop
Naval Commander and Nazi leader
German WWII General