Justice: from Nuremberg to the Hague: trying criminals

Trying after the war

Long before the camps were liberated and Germany surrendered, the Allies decided during the war that the criminals would have to be tried.

After the war, came the time for justice, the essential step, despite its inadequacies, even ambiguities, to establish criminals’ different levels of responsibility, to highlight the destructive mechanisms that lead humans to commit crimes against other humans and to violate the nature of humanity.

For the first time in the history of mankind, international trials were organised: one in Nuremberg (1945-1946) and another in Tokyo (1946-1948), which is less known to Europeans.


The Nuremberg Trials

The opening of the Nuremberg Trial – ina.fr


On 8 August 1945, the governments of France, Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union signed the London Agreement, which established the Charter of the International Military Tribunal (IMT) to try some of the biggest Nazi criminals. Nineteen UN Member States subsequently joined, giving the IMT an international base.

This trial of twenty-two senior Nazi officials (Hitler had already died), known throughout history as the “Nuremberg Trial”, took place from 20 November 1945 to 1 October 1946. It was symbolically held in Nuremberg, the city where the major Nazi party demonstrations took place.

The Charter of the International Military Tribunal of Nuremberg was the first legal text that defined the notion of crime against humanity as:

Any “inhumane act” such as “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation (…) committed against any civilian population before or during the war, or persecution on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal”.


The mentioning of the Izieu roundup in Nuremberg

On 5 February 1946, Edgar Faure referred to the Izieu case before the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg. He read the telegram signed by Klaus Barbie and commented:

« Je crois que l’on peut dire qu’il y a quelque chose qui est encore plus frappant et plus horrible encore que le fait concret de l’enlèvement de ces enfants ; c’est ce caractère administratif, le compte-rendu qui en est fait, selon la voie hiérarchique, la conférence où différents fonctionnaires s’en entretiennent tranquillement, comme d’une des procédures normales de leur service. C’est que tous les rouages d’un État, je parle de l’État nazi, sont mis en mouvement à une telle occasion, et pour un tel but. »

“I think it can be said that there is something even more striking and horrific than the actual fact that these children were abducted; it is the administrative nature he handled everything with, the report that was made, according to the chain of command, the conference where different officials quietly discussed it, as a normal procedure for their department. It is because all the workings of a state, and I am talking about the Nazi state, were set in motion at once and for one purpose.”


Twelve other trials were held by the Americans alone, again in Nuremberg and on the same premises.

One hundred and eighty-four people were tried, grouped by profession: doctors, lawyers, senior civil servants, soldiers, police officers and industrialists.

The Allies, each in their own occupied zone, tried more than ten thousand people. More than a thousand death sentences were ruled.



The Tokyo Trial

On 19 January 1946, the Charter of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East was promulgated by General Mac Arthur’s decision, the supreme commander for the allied forces in Japan.

Eleven judges were appointed by the Member States of the Far Eastern Commission: Australia, Canada, China, France, Great Britain, India, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the Philippines, the USSR and the United States. The court sat in Tokyo from 3 May 1946 to 12 November 1948. It tried twenty-eight Japanese military or senior officials. Seven were sentenced to death and the others were sentenced to life imprisonment, except for one twenty year sentence and one seven year sentence. Emperor Hirohito was not prosecuted.



National trials

Thousands of war criminals were tried at the places where their crimes were committed, including in Poland (trial of Rudolf Höss in Krakow in 1947, a commander of the Auschwitz camp, and of 40 SS members of the camp) in Hungary, Norway, Romania, Czechoslovakia and the USSR.

In 1947, Simon Wiesenthal (1908-2005) created a historical documentation centre in Austria dedicated to finding Nazi criminals and proving their crimes to the courts.

In Germany


The courts sentenced around six thousand people. Life sentences were issued but overall the number of sentences and convictions remained moderate.

Between 1963 and 1965, around twenty trials of the leaders of the Auschwitz camp were held in Frankfurt. From 1975 to 1981 the trials of the leaders of the Majdanek camp took place in Düsseldorf.

Other trials took place in the early 1980s. Thanks to the fight led by Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, three senior officials responsible for deporting Jews from France were tried: Kurt Lischka, Herbert Hagen and Ernst Heinrichsohn were sentenced to 10, 6 and 12 years’ imprisonment respectively by the Cologne Criminal Court in 1981.

In Israel


Adolf Eichmann’s trial (who was found and extradited from Argentina) was held in Jerusalem for more than four months, from April to August 1961. It had an international impact. The indictment, presented by the Attorney General of Israel, Gideon Hausner, comprised fifteen charges, grouped into crimes against Jews, crimes against humanity, war crimes and being part of a criminal organisation. The vast number of witnesses who took the stand, one by one, helped paint a picture of the specific ways in which Jews were killed in Europe. Adolf Eichmann, who was sentenced to death in December 1961, was found guilty of all the charges against him and was hanged on 1 June 1962.

From 1987-1988, John Demjanjuk, who was accused of being involved in the gassing process at the Treblinka extermination camp in Poland, was tried in Israel after being extradited from the United States, where he had lived since the early 1950s. His death sentence was overturned by the Israeli Court of Appeal because of doubts over his identity.

Upon returning to the United States, he was extradited again in 2009, this time to Germany, where he was charged with complicity in killing 27,900 Jews at the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland.

In France


After the Liberation, several types of courts tried the various French and German responsible.

The term “crime against humanity” had not been used yet and the proceedings did not directly point to the persecution of Jews.

Political leaders were tried by the High Court of Justice of the Liberation for “treason and being complicit with the enemy”.
Some were sentenced to death: Philippe Pétain on 15 August 1945; Pierre Laval, Prime Minister on 10 October; Joseph Darnand, founder of the Legionary Order Service and the “Milice” [Militia], on 5 October. Pétain’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. The other two were executed. René Bousquet, Secretary General of the Police in the second Laval government, was tried on 23 June 1949 and sentenced to “dégradation nationale” for his contribution to the Vichy government.

Opening of the Pétain Trial

The Courts of Justice (one per Court of Appeal, divided into as many sections as there are departments) tried the collaborators.
Acts of “complicity with the enemy” were punished by these departmental sections. Therefore, Robert Brasillachand and Charles Maurras were sentenced to death in Paris and Lyon respectively. Paul Touvier was also sentenced to death, but in absentia, in Lyon and Chambery.

Less serious offences were tried by the civic chambers, which imposed “indignité nationale” [national indignity] sentences.

Military courts tried Germans for “war crimes.” In Lyon, Klaus Barbie, who was head of the Gestapo in that city, was sentenced to death in absentia in 1952 and 1954. In Bordeaux, in January 1953, twenty-one members of the Das Reich division, including twelve Alsatians who were forced to join the division and who were responsible for the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane (Haute-Vienne), were tried. In Paris, in 1954, Knochen, the SS General in charge of the SIPO-SD in France, and his subordinate Oberg were sentenced to death; they were pardoned in 1958 and sent back to Germany in 1962 after being detained for seventeen years. In Paris, in 1954, Aloïs Brunner, who collaborated directly with Aldolf Eichmann and was head of the Drancy camp from June 1943 to August 1944, was sentenced to death in absentia by a military court. In 1990, it was thought that he was in Syria. In 2001, he was sentenced again in France in absentia. He was never found.
In total, more than 800 death sentences were carried out in the name of justice. Four thousand “summary” executions were also reportedly carried out.

Trials for “crimes against humanity” were not held in France until the 1970s.

The militiaman Paul Touvier:
In 1973, a lawsuit was filed against Paul Touvier for crimes against humanity.
Sentenced in absentia after the Liberation, he was pardoned by the President of the Republic, Georges Pompidou.
After a very long case, Touvier was charged in 1981 and arrested in Nice in 1989. In April 1992, the case was dismissed by the Parisian Court of Appeal. But this ruling fell through.
Finally, Touvier was tried in Versailles, from 17 March to 20 April 1994, by the Criminal Court of Yvelines. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for complicity in crimes against humanity (execution of seven Jewish hostages in Rillieux-la-Pape).
He died in prison on 17 July 1996 at the age of eighty-one.

Senior official Maurice Papon:
In 1942, Maurice Papon was general secretary of the Gironde prefecture in the occupied zone where Maurice Sabatier was the prefect. He was also head of the Jewish Affairs Department, where he oversaw 1,560 Jews be arrested, taken to Drancy and handed over to the German authorities. After the war, he pursued a brilliant career as a senior civil servant: he was the prefect of the Parisian police in 1958 and Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1978.
The first complaints were filed on 8 December 1981. 16 years later, Maurice Papon was tried for crimes against humanity. It was the longest trial in French judicial history, held from 8 October 1997 to 2 April 1998 and was one of the few cases where the accused did not sleep in prison.
He was sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment and was deprived of his civil rights. For 4 of the 8 rail convoys that filed charges against him, the criminal court found him to be complicit in their arrest and sequestration. But it found him to not bedid not find him to be  complicit in their murder, considering – following the prosecution’s closing arguments – that the accused was not aware of the Nazi’s plan to kill them.
Sentenced to pay 4.73 million francs in damages to the civil party plaintiffs, he tried to flee but was arrested in Switzerland. He declared himself insolvent.
Released on medical grounds on 18 September 2002, he contested the conditions of the ruling made against him before the European Court of Human Rights, which only found him to be right on a procedural detail.
He died on 17 February 2007 in the Parisian region.

The German, Klaus Barbie, in charge of the Lyon Gestapo
After trying to track him down for more than ten years, the Klarsfeld couple achieved  that he was arrested on 5 February 1983 and brought back to France. He was tried in Lyon in 1987.
The sentence issued on 4 July 1987 was the first sentence for crimes against humanity issued in France.

Other countries


Several European countries tried perpetrators for crimes against humanity that were committed during the Second World War.

This is the case for Italy (Gerhard Sommer, Ludwig Sonntag and Alfred Schonenberg who were sentenced to life imprisonment in 2005), Spain (Anton Tittjung, ongoing trial), Canada (Imre Finta, acquitted in 1994), etc.

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