"Never before in legal history has an effort been made to bring within the scope of a single litigation the developments of a decade, covering a whole continent, and involving a score of nations, countless individuals, and innumerable events."
—US Chief Prosecutor Robert H. Jackson
Today, in the decades following the International Military Tribunal (IMT), the body of international law addressing crimes against humanity has grown dramatically. Special tribunals have tried crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in a number of countries, including Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leon, and Cambodia. The framework and the guiding vocabulary for these courts rest on precedents established at Nuremberg.
Even before the end of World War II, leaders of the Allied nations resolved that perpetrators of atrocities, such as mass murder of Jews, would be tried by the nations where the crimes were committed. Major war criminals whose crimes could be assigned no particular geographic location would be punished by joint decision of the Allied governments.
In August 1945, Allied leaders signed the London Charter (also referred to as the Nuremberg Charter), which established an international military tribunal to try German leaders responsible for the war and for mass crimes.The Charter provided that the tribunal would consist of one judge and one alternate judge from each of the major Allied powers: France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States. All decisions by the tribunal required a majority vote from this judicial panel. The Charter stipulated that the trials should be fair and provide the defendants due process.
The tribunal was given the authority “to try and punish persons who acting in the interest of the European Axis countries” committed one of these three newly defined categories of crime:
Crimes against peace—planning and waging war.
War crimes—violations of existing laws concerning mistreatment of enemy combatants and prisoners of war; deliberately causing death or injury to civilian populations outside of military necessity.
Crimes against humanity—the "murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation ... or persecution of an individual on political, racial, or religious grounds." This was the rubric under which Holocaust crimes were tried.
Among the most significant legal concepts to emerge from the IMT was that the defense argument of following orders was not a valid excuse for criminal behavior.
Series: International Military Tribunal
Critical Thinking Questions
- Beyond the verdicts, what impact can trials have?
- How were various professions involved in implementing Nazi policies and ideology? What lessons can be considered for contemporary professionals?
- How have some professional codes of conduct changed following the Holocaust?
- Is there a direct link between words and actions? Can words and images inspire people to commit acts of genocide?