How We Know What We Know
"The purpose of the Nuremberg trial was not merely, or even principally, to convict the leaders of Nazi Germany ... Of far greater importance, it seemed to me from the outset, was the making of a record of the Hitler regime which would withstand the test of history."
—Robert Storey, head of the US prosecution team
The goals of the International Military Tribunal (IMT) went beyond verdict and punishment. The creators of the court were deliberately assembling a public record of the horrific crimes committed by Germans during World War II, including those of the Holocaust. American chief prosecutor Robert Jackson worried that "unless record was made … future generations would not believe how horrible the truth was."
In order to avoid any accusation of exclusive reliance on personal testimony, which later generations might perceive to be biased, prosecutors decided to base their case primarily on thousands of documents written by the Germans themselves. These masses of documents were translated into the court's four official languages, analyzed for their significance, and reproduced for distribution to defense attorneys and other trial participants. The prosecution presented other evidence through artifacts, diagrams, and photographs taken by Nazi photographers in concentration camps.
Nineteen investigative teams scoured German records, interviewed witnesses, and visited the sites of atrocities to build the case.
Eyewitness testimony presented at the Nuremberg trials laid the foundation for much of what we know about the Holocaust including details of the Auschwitz death machinery, atrocities committed by the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units), the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto, and the original statistical estimate of six million murdered Jews.
Series: Holocaust Denial
Series: International Military Tribunal
Critical Thinking Questions
- How did national histories, agendas, and priorities affect the effort to try war criminals after the war?
- The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg is the best known of postwar trials. Investigate trials conducted by individual countries in the late 1940s.
- Besides military leaders and government officials, which professions were specifically investigated in trials?
- Beyond the verdicts, what impact might war crimes trials have?