This year marks 75th anniversary of the start of the Nuremberg trials. In courtroom 600 of the Palace of Justice, the first trial began on November 20, 1945, just six months after Germany surrendered in World War II.
In front of the International Military Tribunal, 24 prominent Nazis were indicted on charges that included genocide and crimes against humanity. The trial lasted until October 1 of the following year.
“It was the first time in history that the words ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’ were spoken. [in a legal context], and that changed the world, “says Philippe Sands QC, human rights attorney at Matrix Chambers. In his book East West Street, Sands explains that the crimes were created for trial purposes by two laymen: Hersch Lauterpacht, a Cambridge University professor who would become the father of the modern human rights movement, and Raphael Lemkin, a lawyer who fled Poland in 1939 and eventually worked with the American prosecution team for the trial. They both lost their families during the Holocaust.
“Lauterpacht was the one who had the idea to include the term ‘crimes against humanity’ in the Nuremberg statute, three words to describe the murder of four million Jews and Poles on the territory of Poland,” writes Sands.
While Lauterpacht’s approach was aimed at protecting individuals, Lemkin’s use of the term genocide was more related to protecting groups.
The judges and prosecutors belonged to the four wartime allies: France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, while most of the defense lawyers were German. This remains the only time in history that the English bar association made the decision that no British lawyer could represent the defense. From the UK, the lead prosecutors were Labor Attorney General Sir Hartley Shawcross and Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, who would become the Conservative Attorney General.
Although some criticize it as winning justice, given that the defendants were tried for crimes that did not exist in the law when they were committed, the trials are seen as a milestone towards the establishment of a permanent international court.
Tom Blackmore, grandson of Maxwell Fyfe, says the process offered the Nazis the things they had denied their victims: the natural justice of hearing the charges against them and the opportunity to defend themselves and appear for cross-examination. “His [Fyfe’s] The technique in cross-examination was a bit like a truth commission. He tried to get the defendants to acknowledge their guilt, ”says Blackmore.
Speaking at a ceremony in the Nuremberg courtroom to commemorate the 75th anniversary, Sands agreed that it was a “flawed trial” but said it “has come to represent the instinct for justice and the rule of law in our complicated world, and an end to impunity for mass crimes.”
It was “a revolution,” says Sands, because it was “the first time in human history that the state no longer had unlimited power as a matter of international law over citizens.” For the first time there were limitations. “
It says: “The international criminal court exists only for the Nuremberg trials. Had it not been for Nuremberg, we would not have had the courts of Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the trial of [Augusto] Pinochet, or last year’s Rohingya hearings at the international court of justice.
Hans Frank, known as the Butcher of Poland, was a lawyer and had been Hitler’s personal representative in occupied Poland. He was charged and convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity, and was hanged. His son, Niklas Frank, was seven years old when his father was executed. After looking at the newspapers, Niklas realized his father’s crimes. He recalls: “We obtained permission to see our father shortly before the verdicts were rendered.
“I was sitting on my mother’s lap. He was sitting by the window with little holes, laughing and telling me that very soon we will celebrate a merry Christmas in our house. I was thinking, ‘Why is he lying to me? He knows they will hang him. I was very disappointed. “
He adds: “The only use of the crimes of my father and the Nazis – this group of criminals – is that they were the reason for inventing this international law and the international court that is now in The Hague. That’s a very positive thing. “
The 12 subsequent Nuremberg trials of lower-ranking Nazis, including doctors, judges and officials, took place between December 1946 and April 1949. They took place in the same courtroom, but took place in court. US military and were run solely by Americans.
Ben Ferencz, now 100, is the last surviving prosecutor from those trials. At 27, he was the chief prosecutor in the Einsatzgruppen trial, the ninth of 12 trials organized by the United States. He says: “It was a great challenge for me to have as my first case as a lawyer and to recognize that it was the largest murder trial in history. I felt that justice could only be done if I could create a rule of law that would protect everyone in the future, by criminalizing any crime that threatens the peace and security of humanity.
In the Einsatzgruppen trial, 24 defendants were charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes, and membership in criminal organizations. They all pleaded not guilty and, according to Ferencz, showed no signs of remorse. One of the defendants committed suicide before the arraignment, while another was removed during the trial for medical reasons. The remaining 22 were found guilty on all counts, except for two defendants who were convicted only on the third count.
Ferencz says the legacy of the trials remains to be seen. “Hopefully, he will recognize that the crimes described in the case were so horrendous that we cannot risk repeating them anywhere and at any time.”
Despite ongoing violence around the world, Sands, who is co-chair of a panel that drafts a legal definition of ecocide as a potential international crime, says “the ideas that came from [the trials] inspire us to look to the future ”.
“It’s a long game,” he says. “The revolution does not happen overnight, we will get there.”
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