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The Nuremberg Trials | Timeline

Timeline: The War in Europe and its Aftermath

January 30: Adolf Hitler becomes chancellor of Germany.

March 4: Franklin D. Roosevelt is inaugurated president of the United States.

March 20: Nazis open their first concentration camp at Dachau, Germany. The Nazis round up Jews, Gypsies, Communists, Christians, homosexuals, the mentally ill, and other Nazi enemies and send them to camps for forced labor.

May 10: At the urging of Nazi Minister of Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, university students across Germany build huge bonfires and burn books written by Jews and Nazi political opponents.

USHMM, Courtesy of National Archives

August 1-16: The Olympic Games take place in Berlin. Hitler hopes to use the competition to advance the Nazi cause and showcase the German "master race." The German dictator leaves the stadium when African American track star wins four gold medals.

November 9-10: Nazis burn synagogues and loot Jewish homes and businesses in nationwide pogroms called Kristallnacht("The Night of Broken Glass"). Nearly 30,000 German and Austrian Jewish men are deported to concentration camps.

USHMM, Courtesy of National Archives

August: Hitler and Soviet premier Joseph Stalin sign a non-aggression pact and secretly plot to divide Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe between them.

September: Employing blitzkrieg ("lightning war") tactics, Germany invades Poland, which is unprepared for the ferocity of Germany's attack. When efforts to negotiate a withdrawal fail, Britain and France declare war on Germany. World War II begins.

May: Winston Churchill becomes prime minister of Great Britain.

June: The Nazis capture Paris. France surrenders to the Nazis.

July 10: The Battle of Britain unfolds in the skies over England. Germany launches destructive bombing raids on London and other cities, but by the end of October British Royal Air Force pilots have made 25 air raids on Berlin and are shooting down many more German planes over London.

August: In secret meetings on warships off of Newfoundland, Churchill and Roosevelt craft the Atlantic Charter, which pledges "the final destruction of Nazi tyranny," and supports "the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live."

December 7: Japan launches a surprise attack on the U.S. Naval fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Roosevelt asks Congress to declare war on Japan the following day, December 8.

December 11: Germany and Italy declare war on the United States.

January 1: In Washington, D.C., representatives of 26 countries issue the "Declaration by United Nations," a pledge to defeat the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan).

Courtesy: The Library of Congress

January 14-24: At the Casablanca Conference, Roosevelt and Churchill demand the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers.

November 28-December 1: Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin convene in Tehran, Iran, to discuss the German invasion of Italy. It is the first time all three have met.

June 6: Over 160,000 Allied troops and 30,000 vehicles land on a 50-mile stretch of fortified French coastline in the D-Day invasion.

August: U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau submits a plan for post-war punishment of Nazi leaders to President Franklin Roosevelt. He proposes shooting them upon capture and de-industrializing Germany.

November 27: Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Secretary of State Cordell Hull submit a joint memorandum, "The Trial and Punishment of European War Criminals," to President Roosevelt. The proposal, which advocates for the investigation and trial of Nazi war criminals, draws upon the ideas of Colonel Murray Bernays, who has proposed prosecuting the Nazi regime as a conspiracy.

December 16: Germany strikes back at the Allies in the Battle of the Bulge. It will be the Nazis' last major military offensive; within five months Soviet forces will take Berlin.

February 4-11: At the Yalta Conference, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin declare, "It is our inflexible purpose to destroy German militarism and Nazism and ... to bring all war criminals to just and swift punishment."

April 12: While on vacation in Warm Springs, Georgia, President Roosevelt dies of a cerebral hemorrhage. Vice President Harry Truman is sworn in as president.

April 30: Adolf Hitler commits suicide in his bunker below Berlin.

May 2: President Truman appoints Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson as Chief U.S. Counsel for the prosecution of Nazi war criminals.

May 6: Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring surrenders to the Allies. Housed in a castle in Kitzbühel, Austria, Göring is first toasted with champagne, then transferred to Bad Mondorf in Luxembourg, where indicted Nazi leaders are held before transfer to Nuremberg.

May 7: Germany surrenders unconditionally. World War II in Europe ends.

May 23: British tanks enter Flensburg, Germany, where troops capture several Nazis who will be tried at Nuremberg, including Navy Chief Karl Doenitz; Army Chief Alfred Jodl; Head of Armed Forces High Command Wilhelm Keitel; Protector of the Eastern Occupied Territories Alfred Rosenberg; and Reich Minister of Armaments and Munitions Albert Speer. Heinrich Himmler, SS chief and the most powerful surviving Nazi leader, commits suicide.

Ray D'Addario

June 18: Robert Jackson departs Washington, D.C., for London to work out the logistics of a war crimes trial. The Allies decide to use the adversarial system of law favored by the Americans and British, rather than the inquisitive system favored by the French and Soviets. They agree to prohibit the defense that the criminals were simply following orders, but to allow its consideration in sentencing.

June 26: Representatives of 50 countries who had declared war on Germany and Japan meet in San Francisco to sign the United Nations charter and "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind."

July 5: In the wake of the Nazis' unconditional surrender, the Allies create the Allied Control Council, under which the United States, Soviet Union, United Kingdom, and France assume control over Germany. The Allies partition Germany into four zones of military occupation: American, British, French and Soviet. The city of Berlin is divided along similar lines.

July 7: Jackson visits Nuremberg, once the site of major Nazi rallies, and recommends the Palace of Justice for the upcoming trials. Largely undamaged by Allied bombing, the building contains 20 courtrooms and a prison with room for 1,200 inmates. The Soviets suggest that the trials take place within their zone of occupation in Berlin. They compromise: the trial will open in Berlin and unfold at Nuremberg.

July 25: Two months after the surrender, Churchill, Stalin, and Truman meet in Potsdam, Germany to discuss the fate of Germany. Both the United States and Russia want their own economic and political systems to prevail in the areas their soldiers have liberated. Churchill is replaced by a Conservative, Clement Atlee, at Potsdam after he and the Labour Party are defeated in general elections in Britain.

August 6: Following President Truman's order, the B-29 bomber Enola Gay, piloted by Paul W. Tibbetts, drops the uranium atomic bomb code-named "Little Boy" on Hiroshima, Japan, killing 80,000 civilians and injuring 140,000. Three days later, the B-29 bomber "Bockscar", piloted by Charles Sweeney, will drop a second bomb, "Fat Man" on the Japanese city of Nagasaki, killing 42,000 persons and injuring 40,000.

August 8: The Allies sign the London Charter, which forms the International Military Tribunal (I.M.T.) and lays the ground rules for the prosecution of Nazi war criminals. Allied crimes are not eligible for consideration.

August 12: The Germans being held in Luxembourg are flown to Nuremberg, where they are locked up in a prison next to the Palace of Justice.

September 2: Japan surrenders. World War II ends.

September: President Truman names former attorney general Francis Biddle as the American judge at Nuremberg. John Parker, a federal judge from North Carolina, is appointed as the U.S. alternate.

October 14: British representative Sir Geoffrey Lawrence is elected president of the I.M.T., making him lead judge for the proceedings.

October 19: The I.M.T. indicts 24 Nazi leaders on four counts: conspiracy to wage aggressive war, crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

October 25: Nazi defendant Robert Ley, former chief of the German Labor Front, commits suicide before the trial begins.

November 20: At 6 a.m. the defendants are awakened, fed oatmeal and coffee, shaved, and issued court clothing -- uniforms without insignias for soldiers and suits and ties for civilians. At 9 a.m. they are brought through a covered walkway from the prison to an elevator that opens onto the prisoners' dock in the courtroom, where they take their places on wooden benches in the order listed on the indictment. At 9:30 a.m. the courtroom doors open to 250 journalists. A half hour later, the eight judges enter and the I.M.T. convenes for the first time.

November 21: The defendants enter pleas of not guilty. Göring wants to make a statement, but the judges prevent it. Jackson delivers his opening statement, calling the trial "one of the most significant tributes that power has ever paid to reason."

November 29: The prosecution introduces film shot by Allied photographers in the liberated concentration camps of Dachau, Buchenwald, and Bergen-Belsen. The graphic footage of Nazi horrors causes weeping in the courtroom. Defendants Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hans Frank, and Walther Funk appear shocked by what they see. Former Reichsbank president Hjalmar Schacht turns his back to the screen. Göring appears unmoved. He later laments, "... they showed that awful film, and it just spoiled everything."

December 11, 1945: American prosecutors offer into evidence The Nazi Plan, a 45-minute film that includes footage from German propaganda films, including Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, and scenes of shocking atrocities.

December 13: The prosecution introduces grisly evidence from the Buchenwald concentration camp, including tattooed human skin (favored by the commandant's wife for table lamps and other household furnishings) and the shrunken head of an executed Polish worker, which was used as a paperweight by camp commander Karl Koch.

December 18: The prosecution introduces evidence to prove the criminality of seven German organizations: the Nazi Party leadership; the German High Command; the Schutzstaffel (SS) or Protective Squadron; Sturmabteilung (SA) or Storm Troopers; the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) or Security Service; the Reich Cabinet; and the Gestapo.

Ray D'Addario

January 4: Colonel Telford Taylor presents the prosecution's case against the German High Command. He will be appointed lead prosecutor in subsequent Nuremberg trials.

January 28: During the French phase of the prosecution, French journalist Marie Claude Vaillant-Courturier provides eyewitness testimony to atrocities at the Auschwitz and Ravensbruck camps. She describes the process of selecting who would go to the gas chamber and the medical experiments performed on the inmates. The soon-to-be-notorious Auschwitz doctor Dr. Josef Mengele is mentioned for the first time at the trial.

February 11-12: Chief Soviet Prosecutor Roman Rudenko examines Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, who incriminates Göring, Jodl, and Keitel in the aggressive war launched against Russia. When Paulus's testimony concludes, Göring shouts at his lawyer: "Ask that dirty pig if he's a traitor! Ask him if he has taken out Russian citizenship papers!"

February 22: George Kennan, an American diplomat based in Moscow, sends Washington the so-called "long telegram," which explains Soviet hostility toward the West and suggests a policy of containment.

March 5: In Fulton, Missouri, Winston Churchill delivers his famous "Iron Curtain" speech, urging the United States and Western Europe to unite against the Soviets.

March 13-22: Göring testifies. In long answers, he justifies German rearmament and seizing of territory as necessary for the growth of the Third Reich. In cross-examination Göring frustrates Jackson with his discursive answers and side comments permitted by the tribunal.

April 15: A defendant calls Rudolf Höss, a commandant at the Auschwitz concentration camp, who testifies that "hundreds of thousands of human beings were sent to their deaths." When confronted about his apparent indifference, Höss says, "Don't you see, we SS men were not supposed to think about these things; it never even occurred to us. ... We were all so trained to obey orders without even thinking that the thought of disobeying an order would never have occurred to anybody."

Late July: Prosecutors make closing arguments concerning individual defendants.

August 31: Defendants make their final statements.

September 2: The I.M.T. judges begin deliberations.

October 1: The I.M.T. hands down verdicts against 21 defendants. Three are acquitted, six are sentenced to prison terms, and twelve are condemned to death.

October 15: Göring commits suicide by swallowing a smuggled cyanide pill hours before his scheduled execution.

October 16: Eleven war criminals are hanged in Nuremberg. (The remains of Martin Bormann, who was convicted in absentia, will be located decades later in Berlin.) The bodies are placed face up in wooden coffins and photographed before being taken to Munich for cremation. The shocking photographs are made available to the press and published to wide disproval.

October 25: The United States Military Government for Germany establishes Military Tribunal I, which tries 23 Nazi physicians. The doctors are charged with carrying out the Nazi euthanasia program and conducting medical experiments on thousands of concentration camp prisoners, many of whom died or were permanently crippled. Sixteen of the doctors are found guilty. Seven are executed. This is the first of 12 Nuremberg trials prosecuted by the U.S. alone.

March 12: The Truman Doctrine formalizes the American policy of Soviet containment. Addressing a joint session of Congress on March 12, 1947, Truman declares, "It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." The United States supplies $400 million in military and economic aid to Greece and Turkey.

June 5: In a speech at Harvard University, Secretary of State George C. Marshall outlines the European economic recovery program that comes to be known as the Marshall Plan. It allocates billions of dollars to European nations "so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which institutions can exist." By 1953 the United States will give Europe $13 billion ($94 billion in 2005 dollars) in aid. Marshall also offers aid to the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies, but Stalin denounces the program as a political trick and refuses to participate.

June 24: The first serious crisis of the Cold War, the Berlin blockade, occurs when the Soviets order all rail traffic from western sectors of Berlin closed. Two and a half million people are isolated in Berlin with no access to goods, relying on reserves and airlifts for food and medicine.

April 4: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States form the North Atlantic Treaty Oranization (NATO) "to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law." The Soviet Union counters with the formation of the Warsaw Pact, a military alliance of central European countries.

May 23: As U.S.-Soviet relations sour, occupied German territory turns into formal borders. The British, French, and American zones become the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), known as West Germany. The former capital of Berlin is also divided along east/west lines, with West Berlin completely surrounded by East German territory. The Soviet Union is forced to lift the blockade of Berlin.

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