The International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg opened in the fall of 1945, but by the winter of 1942, the governments of the Allied powers had already announced their determination to punish Nazi war criminals. On December 17, 1942, the leaders of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union issued the first joint declaration officially noting the mass murder of European Jewry and resolving to prosecute those responsible for violence against civilian populations. Though some political leaders advocated for summary executions instead of trials, eventually the Allies decided to hold an International Military Tribunal so that, in the words of Cordell Hull, "a condemnation after such a proceeding will meet the judgment of history, so that the Germans will not be able to claim that an admission of war guilt was extracted from them under duress." The October 1943 Moscow Declaration, signed by U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Josef Stalin, stated that at the time of an armistice persons deemed responsible for war crimes would be sent back to those countries in which the crimes had been committed and adjudged according to the laws of the nation concerned. Major war criminals, whose crimes could be assigned no particular geographic location, would be punished by joint decisions of the Allied governments.
The trials of leading German officials before the International Military Tribunal (IMT), the best known of the postwar war crimes trials, formally opened in Nuremberg on November 20, 1945, only six and a half months after Germany surrendered. Each of the four Allied nations -- the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, and France -- supplied a judge and a prosecution team. Lord Justice Geoffrey Lawrence of Great Britain served as the court's presiding judge. The trial's rules were the result of delicate reconciliations of the Continental and Anglo-American judicial systems. A team of translators provided simultaneous translations of all proceedings in four languages: English, French, German, and Russian. After much debate, 24 defendants were selected to represent a cross-section of Nazi diplomatic, economic, political, and military leadership. Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Joseph Goebbels never stood trial,having committed suicide before the end of the war. The IMT decided not to try them posthumously so as not to create an impression that they might still be alive. In fact, only 21 defendants appeared in court. German industrialist Gustav Krupp was included in the original indictment, but he was elderly and in failing health, and it was decided in preliminary hearings to exclude him from the proceedings. Nazi Party secretary Martin Bormann was tried and convicted in absentia, and Robert Ley committed suicide on the eve of the trial.
The IMT indicted the defendants on charges of crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The IMT defined crimes against humanity as "murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation...or persecutions on political, racial, or religious grounds." A fourth charge of conspiracy was added both to cover crimes committed under domestic Nazi law before the start of World War II and so that subsequent tribunals would have jurisdiction to prosecute any individual belonging to a proven criminal organization. Therefore the IMT also indicted several Nazi organizations deemed to be criminal, namely the Reich Cabinet, the Leadership Corps of the Nazi Party, the Elite Guard (SS), the Security Service (SD), the Secret State Police (Gestapo), the Stormtroopers (SA), and the General Staff and High Command of the German Armed Forces.
The defendants were entitled to a legal counsel of their choosing. Over 400 visitors attended the proceedings each day, as well as 325 correspondents representing 23 different countries. American chief prosecutor Robert Jackson decided to argue his case primarily on the basis of mounds of documents written by the Nazis themselves rather than eyewitness testimony so that the trial could not be accused of relying on biased or tainted testimony. Testimony presented at Nuremberg revealed much of what we know about the Holocaust including the details of the Auschwitz death machinery, the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto, and the estimate of six million Jewish victims.
The judges delivered their verdict on October 1, 1946. Agreement among three out of four judges was needed for conviction. Twelve defendants were sentenced to death, among them Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hans Frank, Alfred Rosenberg, and Julius Streicher. They were hanged, cremated in Dachau, and their ashes were dropped in the Isar River. Hermann Goering escaped the hangman's noose by committing suicide the night before. The IMT sentenced three defendants to life imprisonment and four to prison terms ranging from 10 to 20 years. It acquitted three of the defendants.