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IMT defendant Rudolf Hess speaks to a lawyer or prosecutor in Nuremberg.

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    IMT defendant Rudolf Hess speaks to a lawyer or prosecutor in Nuremberg.
    IMT defendant Rudolf Hess speaks to a lawyer or prosecutor in Nuremberg.


    IMT defendant Rudolf Hess speaks to a lawyer or prosecutor in Nuremberg.
    Charles Alexander
    1945 November 20 - 1946 October 01
    Nuremberg, [Bavaria] Germany
    Variant Locale
    Photo Credit
    United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Robert Kempner
    Event History
    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.

    Rights & Restrictions

    Photo Source
    United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
    Copyright: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
    Provenance: Robert Kempner
    Source Record ID: Collections: 2001.62/Nuremberg 28: F1

    Keywords & Subjects

    Administrative Notes

    Rudolf Hess (1894-1987), Deputy Leader of the Third Reich who introduced the concept of Lebensraum (living space) into National Socialist ideology. Hess joined the NSDAP in 1920 while studying political science at the University of Munich. During the course of his studies, Hess came under the influence of the geopolitical theories of Karl Haushofer, which he reconfigured into a pseudo-scientific rationale for German expansionism and introduced into Nazi doctrine. In 1923 Hess participated in the failed Beer Hall Putsch, for which he was jailed for seven months in the Landsberg prison with Hitler. During this period he helped Hitler write Mein Kampf. Not only did he take down most of the dictation for the book, he also contributed ideas to certain sections. In particular, the portions on Lebensraum, the role of the British Empire and the organization of the Nazi party bear his influence. Following his release from prison, Hess served as Hitler's personal secretary. After seven years of devoted service, Hitler appointed Hess Chairman of the Central Political Commission of the NSDAP and promoted him to the rank of SS General. Shortly afterwards on April 21, 1933, he was named Deputy Leader, a position which was largely ceremonial. Hess lacked the intelligence and independence to undertake any initiatives of his own, but he left his mark in his pursuit of an unrestrained cult of the Fuehrer. Hess' fidelity was rewarded by appointment to such high level positions as Reich Minister without Portfolio (1933), membership in the Secret Cabinet Council (1938), membership in the Ministerial Council for Reich Defense (1939), and successor designate to Hitler and Goering (1939). Over time, however, Hess was increasingly marginalized, especially due to the efforts of his subordinate and eventual successor, Martin Bormann. Hoping to redeem himself in the eyes of Hitler, Hess undertook an unauthorized one-man peace mission to Great Britain. On May 10, 1941 he secretly flew a German fighter plane to Scotland and bailed out near the home of the Duke of Hamilton. Hess hoped to convince the Duke (whom he had met at the Berlin Olympics) and through him, the British government, that Hitler had no desire to destroy Britain, a fellow Nordic Nation, but only wished to have a free hand in pursuing his policy of Lebensraum in eastern Europe. To his evident surprise, Hess was not welcomed by the British, but imprisoned as a prisoner of war, and Hitler denounced him as a lunatic. After the war Hess was brought to trial before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. Though his mental condition was in doubt, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The Soviets blocked all attempts for an early release. Hess finally committed suicide at Spandau prison in 1987. He was the last of the Spandau prisoners tried at Nuremberg.

    [Source: Wistrich, Robert. "Who's Who in Nazi Germany." MacMillan, 1982; Zentner, Christian. "Encyclopedia of the Third Reich." MacMillan, 1991.]
    Record last modified:
    2010-01-21 00:00:00
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