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Berga: Soldiers of Another War
Stories of Berga What Would You Do? Timeline & Maps Berga and Beyond War Crimes
Intro POWs and the Laws of War WWII and Its Legacy
WWII and Its Legacy
Intro Customary Laws Military Tribunals Recent Developments

WWII Atrocities Background text: Prosecution
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Witness at trial

A witness at a war-crimes trial after World War II.
The International Military Tribunals

Upon World War II's conclusion, the Allied Powers established two major tribunals, the International Military Tribunal for Germany ("Nuremberg Tribunal") and the International Military Tribunal for the Far East ("Tokyo Tribunal"). In August 1945, the Allied powers, through a convention, created the International Military Tribunal, which had jurisdiction over the "trial and punishment of the major war criminals of the European Axis."

The framers of the Military Tribunals used customary international law to establish the category of war crimes identified as "crimes against humanity."

Man with headphones

A former Nazi official listens to testimony at his trial.

These trials gained notoriety because they sought, for the first time on a large scale, to hold military and civilian leaders of the Axis countries accountable for massive violations of the laws governing armed conflict. At the cessation of hostilities in Asia, a similar tribunal was created for some of the crimes committed by the Axis powers in Asia.

As the Allied Powers developed the constitutions of these military tribunals, the existing international legal framework's limitations became apparent. For example, the Geneva and Hague Conventions in place during World War II were focused on the relationship between belligerent nations and military forces while ignoring, at least to some extent, war's impact on the civilian population. The Hague Convention of 1907 codified a series of limitations and protections only with respect to the treatment of the civilian population in an occupied territory.

Therefore, crimes perpetrated against the civilian populations of Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Yugoslavia, and the other countries invaded by Germany were punishable under the Hague Conventions. The crimes committed against German civilians, however, were not specifically covered under any of the existing conventions governing conduct during warfare because they were not committed by an invading power, but rather by the citizens' own government. This absence of law establishing protections for all civilians challenged the Tribunals' ability to hold military and civilian leaders of the Third Reich accountable for the war crimes committed against its own civilian population.

In response to this void, the framers of the Military Tribunals used customary international law to establish the category of war crimes identified as "crimes against humanity." The Tribunals defined crimes against humanity as "murder, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war; or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated." The category of crimes against humanity enabled prosecutors to hold German officials accountable for not only the atrocities committed against citizens of other nations but also those atrocities visited on Germany's own citizens.

In addition to the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals, which tried only the top echelon of political and military leaders, thousands of war crimes trials were conducted by more than twenty countries in Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Pacific. The majority of these trials were conducted by military tribunals. Ludwig Merz and Erwin Metz, the only German officers to be tried for the violations of the laws of war committed at Berga, faced such a tribunal. Because of the extraordinary numbers of violations that occurred during World War II, without these local, smaller war crimes trials even fewer individuals would have been held accountable for their illegal conduct.

© 2003 Educational Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.

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