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18 September 2014
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Milosevic on Trial: The Dilemmas of Political Justice

By Shane Brighton
Judging the Nazis

Photograph showing Goering and Hess during the Nuremberg war trials
Goering (left) and Hess (right) during their criminal trials at Nuremberg in 1946 ©
The occupation of Germany after World War Two and the allied capture of many of the accused made the politics of the Nuremberg trials a rather different affair from their predecessors. The fate of the Nazi leadership had already been the subject of some debate. Stalin advocated the summary execution of up to a 100,000, but later moderated his view to suggest mass show-trials. The Leipzig debacle in mind, Churchill suggested that once the identity of senior Nazis had been verified they should be shot without judicial process; in a lighter moment he added that the remainder should be castrated.

'Scant formal reference was made to the Holocaust and virutally none to the fate of Europe's Jews...'

After fierce debate in Washington, American pressure settled the matter. The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg tried 21 senior Nazis before judges drawn from the allied nations. Of the accused, 11 were executed, seven received lesser sentences and three were acquitted. Several hundred smaller trials followed. The legal orientation of the Nuremberg Trials and their sister Tribunal in Tokyo reflected the grievances of the allies, being almost entirely concerned with prosecuting Axis leaders for 'conspiracy to wage aggressive war'. Attention to their brutality was largely limited to 'violations of the customs of war' in the form of mistreatment of allied POWs. Scant formal reference was made to the Holocaust and virtually none to the fate of Europe's Jews, although during the trials and their accompanying investigation much evidence emerged about both.

Published: 2002-03-01

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