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The Justice Trial Begins, 1947

Updated: Mar 25, 2021

On This Day in Jewish History: March 5, 1947


On this day, 1947, The Justice Trial begins. Six months after Germany surrendered in World War II, the United States, the United Kingdom, the USSR, and the French Republic all signed the Nuremberg Charter to bring the Nazis to justice. During the war, leaders of Allied Powers had declared that they intended to punish Nazi war criminals, and the Nuremberg Charter was the result of this declaration. In general, this charter declared that all German war criminals would go to the place where they had committed their crimes and be prosecuted by the law in said country. Those who were deemed major war criminals -- that is, those who committed war crimes in more than one country -- would be tried by the International Military Tribunal. The IMT was made up of a judge, an alternate judge, and a prosecution team from each of the four participating countries. The first IMT trial was held at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Germany from November 20th, 1945 until October 1st, 1946. Twenty four defendants -- all involved in economic, political, or military Nazi leadership -- were indicted, though only twenty one defendants appeared in court. It is worth noting that the Holocaust was not the primary subject of the trial, but evidence of the Final Solution, concentration and death camps, as well as the deaths of six million Jews was presented. In the end, nineteen of the twenty four defendants were found guilty. What followed the first IMT trial was a series of Subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings, as well as trials in Germany and its former allies of hundreds of Nazi perpetrators. The Subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings were for Nazi war criminals (as opposed to major war criminals), and the United States military tribunals in Germany were the leading force in the twelve trials. On February 13th, 1947, the United States created the Military Tribunal III, the third of twelve Subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings. Known as the Justice or Judges’ Trial, this trial was focused on German judges and prosecutors of the Reich Ministry of Justice or People's and Special Courts. Like the IMT, the sixteen defendants were on trial for: Conspiracy to commit war crimes, crimes against humanity and peace. Crimes against humanity. War crimes against soldiers of countries at war with Germany and civilians of places occupied by Germany. Additionally, seven of the sixteen defendants were charged with counts of membership in the SS, SD, or the Leadership Corps of the Nazi Party, all organizations that the IMT had declared were criminal organizations. During the Justice Trial, prosecutors had to prove that the sixteen defendants, who were judges and prosecutors, used their position of power to further the Nazi regime’s mission. As the prosecutors explained it, the defendants "[utilized] the emptied forms of legal process for the persecution, enslavement and extermination on a large scale.” The Justice Trial began on this day, March 5th in 1947. The opening statement declared why this case was so unique: “[The defendants], together with their deceased or fugitive colleagues, were the embodiment of what passed for justice in the Third Reich.” The trial lasted eight months, ending on October 18th, 1947 when the defendants gave their final statements. The judgement was given on December 3rd, 1947, and the sentences were given out the next day. Of the sixteen defendants, ten were found guilty and four were acquitted. Four of the defendants were given a lifetime sentence, though two were actually released a few years after their trial. Additionally, one defendant had committed suicide after the indictment, and another defendant, Karl Engert, was sick and his case was declared a mistrial. The ten who were found guilty were not all imprisoned for the rest of their lives; as stated before, only two of them served life in prison. The rest of those sentenced in prison were mostly given less than ten years, and some were even released early. One of the men who was sentenced for life was Oswald Rothaug, who functioned at the executive level of the Leadership Corps of the Nazi Party. He was released from prison on December 22nd, 1956. The legal path taken to condemn and punish Nazi war criminals was important and historically unlike anything we’ve seen before, but the leniency that allowed most of the men tried in the Justice Trial to eventually go free was not unique. During the 1950s, the concern for pursuing justice for World War II crimes was overpowered by the rise of the Cold War, so those who were imprisoned but not sentenced to death were released during this time. As upsetting as it may be knowing that Nazi war criminals were given freedom in spite of the horrid crimes they committed, the International Military Tribunal and the Subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings set vital legal standards with regards to the pursuit of justice in the face of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.



“Subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings, Case #3: The Justice Case.” Holocaust Encylopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/subsequent-nuremberg-proceedings-case-3-the-justice-case Linder, Doug. “A Commentary on the Justice Case.” Famous World Trials: Nuremberg Trials 1945-1949. 2000. https://web.archive.org/web/20060207171413/http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/nuremberg/Alstoetter.htm “Phillips Nuremberg Trials Collection: Trial 3 - Justice Case.” University of Georgia School of Law. September 2020. https://libguides.law.uga.edu/c.php?g=177170&p=1164750 “International Military Tribunal At Nuremberg.” Holocaust Encylopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/international-military-tribunal-at-nuremberg “Postwar Trials.” Holocaust Encylopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/war-crimes-trials?parent=en%2F9448 Taylor, Telford, "Opening Statement for the United States of America.” Trial 3 - Judges Case. 1947. https://digitalcommons.law.uga.edu/nmt3/4. All pictures can be found here: https://web.archive.org/web/20060212205029/http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/nuremberg/justiceimages.htm

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