How should we punish false accusers?

National Socialism and World War II

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Benz

To person

Born in 1941, studied history, political science and art history. Since 1990 professor at the Technical University of Berlin and head of the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism. Chairman of the Society for Exile Research. Co-editor of the historical journal.

The main war criminals trial began on November 20, 1945 in Nuremberg, the former site of the Nazi party rallies. It was a worldwide media event: the leadership elite of the Nazi regime sat in the dock. Numerous individual trials in the four zones of occupation pursued the less prominent crimes.

20 of the 24 main defendants during the Nuremberg war crimes trials with details of the respective sentences. (& copy AP)


Long before the end of the Second World War, the Allies agreed that those responsible for National Socialist rule should be brought to justice before an international court on behalf of the United Nations, which emerged in 1945 as the successor to the League of Nations. The punishment of the "major war criminals" was announced in November 1943. The court statute was published in August 1945, the offenses read "Conspiracy against peace", "Crimes against peace", "War crimes", "Crimes against humanity". Behind it hid murders and abuse, deportation for slave labor, persecution and the extermination of human life. The charge of "preparing and conducting a war of aggression", however, was entirely new in legal history, and this charge has fueled the suspicion among some observers that the legal basis of the whole major war criminals trial was built on shaky ground.

The fact that the winners sat in court over the losers in order to punish Hitler's war of aggression as a breach of international law appeared to some on the losing side more as an act of "victorious or revenge justice" than as an example of the further development of international law. However, when discussing whether the International Court of Justice did not violate the principle of "no punishment for an act that was not yet punishable at the time it was carried out", it was all too easy to forget that conventional German criminal laws were used to convict men in the dock were completely sufficient and that not a single one was convicted solely for the new criminal offense "preparing and conducting a war of aggression". The International Court of Justice held its opening session in Berlin on October 18, 1945, and negotiations began on November 20, 1945 in Nuremberg.

The term "military tribunal" could mislead people into believing that the court lacked expertise. But judges and prosecutors were first class lawyers from four nations. The accused were 24 people and six collectives who were defined as "criminal organizations" in the sense of the indictment: German Reich Government, NSDAP, SS, Secret State Police, SA, General Staff and High Command of the Wehrmacht. The defendants also sat in the dock on behalf of these organizations. Instead of the 24 defendants, however, there were only 21 men who could be called to account in the Nuremberg courtroom on 218 days up to the verdict on October 1, 1946. One, the head of the Reich Organization of the NSDAP and head of the "German Labor Front" Robert Ley, had evaded the court by suicide, another, the head of the party chancellery Martin Bormann, was tried in absentia, a third, Gustav Krupp von Bohlen and Halbach was unable to stand trial.