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The Nuremberg Trials | Article

The Prosecution

USHMM, Courtesy of Harry S. Truman Library

The chief prosecutors for the trial of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg came from four nations. They were: Robert H. Jackson for the United States; Hartley Shawcross for the United Kingdom; General R. A. Rudenko for the Soviet Union; and François de Menthon and Auguste Champetier de Ribes for France.

Palace of Justice
Jackson and his legal team were first to arrive in Nuremberg at the Palace of Justice, the gray sandstone courthouse where the Nazis had enacted their notorious race laws in 1933. The American legal contingent numbered some 640 lawyers, researchers, secretaries, and guards. The palace complex began to function as a small town that included a cafeteria, army store, barbershop, dispensary, travel service, and even a British pub.

To Condemn and Punish
Because of his familiarity with the project and his stature, Jackson became the de factolead for the prosecution. Wearing a three-piece pinstriped suit with a watch chain hanging from his vest, he gave the trial's opening statement: "The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive their being repeated. That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury, stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of law is one of the most significant tributes that power has ever paid to reason."

In Their Own Words
Jackson built his case around the personal and political writings of the Nazis themselves. "The documentary evidence ... is just unbelievable," remarked a prosecution staff member. "Their own reports illustrated with pictures are far better than any of the studies we have compiled on the persecution of Jews, crimes against humanity, etc. The Germans certainly believed in putting everything in writing." The prosecutors relied less on the interrogations and testimony of witnesses, often unreliable and calculated to deflect blame. This allowed the trial to be completed more quickly.

The Conspiracy Charge
The Allies divided the prosecution work by count, giving the United States the complicated job of proving count one: conspiracy. The Americans hoped to prove that the defendants' crimes and atrocities were not singular but part of a systematic Nazi conspiracy. The concept of conspiracy, which was not part of continental European law, remained controversial throughout the trial. It emphasized the coherence of Nazi policymaking, which was in fact quite confused, and it allowed defendants to claim that they were ignorant of the regime's brutality.

The Other Three Counts
Count two, presented by British prosecutors, addressed crimes against peace, defined in the indictment as "the planning, preparation, initiation, and waging of wars of aggression, which were also wars in violation of international treaties, agreements, and assurances." Although Adolf Hitler had clearly waged an aggressive war, beginning with the invasion of Poland in 1939, count two was based on allegations that the Germans had violated the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, which renounced aggressive war as an instrument of national policy. The pact did not, however, define aggressive war or spell out the penalties for its violation. The Russian and French prosecutors collaborated to present evidence for count three, war crimes, and count four, crimes against humanity, dividing responsibility along East-West lines. The third count dealt with atrocities such as using slave labor, bombing of civilian populations, and killing in retaliation for soldiers lost in battle, violations of international law that were clearly rooted in the Hague Conventions and the Geneva Conventions, which outlined acceptable treatment of POWs and civilians. Under count four, defendants were held responsible for the death camps, concentration camps, and murderous rampages in the East.

Evidence of the Horror
In addition to evidence and testimony, the prosecution showed graphic footage of the liberated concentration camps shot by Allied soldiers. These atrocities were juxtaposed with Nazi newsreels and propaganda films that depicted torch-lit rallies, book burnings, and Adolf Hitler's frenzied speeches. The prosecution also submitted into evidence a piece of tattooed skin and the shrunken head of a Polish worker used as a paperweight at the Buchenwald concentration camp. These grisly images and objects were the world's first look at Nazi atrocities. After five months of work, the prosecution rested its case on March 4, 1946. The trial lasted until October 1,1946, when the judges handed down guilt verdicts for 19 out of 22 defendants. The prosecution had succeeded in focusing the world's attention on Nazi atrocities and holding the perpetrators accountable.

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