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On November 20, 1945, one of history's great courtroom dramas opened in Nuremberg, Germany. Twenty-one of Adolf Hitler's top lieutenants, including Herman Goering, Wilhelm Keitel and Rudolph Hess stood accused by the world's first international tribunal of masterminding horrific crimes. Among the charges listed in the long indictment were crimes against humanity and crimes against the peace—aggressive warfare—a charge wholly new to international law.
On the second day of the trial, Chief Prosecutor Robert Jackson, on leave from the United States Supreme Court, delivered an address that ranks as one of the twentieth century's great legal speeches. Jackson reminded the court that the aim of Nuremberg was not to merely punish the crimes of Nazi Germany: "The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant and so devastating that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive their being repeated."
After a year of trial, all but three of the Nazi defendants were found guilty. Twelve were sentenced to death but only 11 were hanged. Defiant to the end, Hermann Goering committed suicide with a cyanide capsule hours before his execution.
The Nuremberg trial was hailed as a legal triumph. In the past, victors usually executed enemy leaders without holding a legitimate trial. And some Allied leaders, including Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, had advocated summary executions for Germany's leadership instead of trials. But under United States pressure, Nuremberg would signify a new approach to seeking justice for horrific atrocities. For the first time, individuals—political and military leaders—were held accountable by an international authority for atrocities committed in the name of a state.
Allied prosecutors hoped Nuremberg would hold a mirror up to the German nation and compel ordinary Germans to recognize the Nazi crimes. Soon after the first trial closed, America launched a second round of prosecutions at Nuremberg. Other Allied nations also tried Nazis and their collaborators in occupied Germany and there were trials elsewhere in Europe and around the globe. (See related article on a center collecting war crimes records.) In what became known as the
subsequent American trials at Nuremberg, prosecutors targeted "major" war criminals from broad sectors of German society, not just the Nazi leadership. These trials are largely forgotten today but are crucial to ongoing efforts to determine criminal responsibility for mass violence. With a new International Criminal Court taking jurisdiction in the summer of 2002, the lessons of Nuremberg—successes and failures—are all the more relevant.
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