Most Infamous Nuremberg Trial Defendants

The Nuremberg Trials, officially known as the International Military Tribunal, were a series of military tribunals held after World War II to bring Nazi war criminals to justice.

Conducted in Nuremberg, Germany, from November 20, 1945, to October 1, 1946, these trials marked a pivotal moment in international law and human rights, setting precedents for handling allegations of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Among the 24 main defendants, several stand out due to their high-ranking positions in the Nazi regime and the severity and nature of the crimes they were accused of committing.

In the article below, World History Edu explores the lives, roles, and trials of some of the most infamous defendants at Nuremberg.

The Nuremberg Trials were a landmark in the history of international law, establishing a clear message that individuals would be held accountable for their actions, regardless of their position. Image: Judges’ section at the International Military Tribunal.

Hermann Göring

Hermann Göring was arguably the most prominent defendant at Nuremberg due to his high rank and close association with Adolf Hitler. As a founder of the Gestapo and commander of the Luftwaffe, Göring played a crucial role in both the political terror and military might of the Nazi regime. He was instrumental in creating the first concentration camps and had a significant hand in the economic exploitation of conquered territories.

At Nuremberg, Göring faced charges of conspiracy to wage war, crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. He was also implicated in the Holocaust, particularly through his 1941 order to Heydrich to prepare for the Final Solution. Despite his vigorous self-defense during the trials, Göring was found guilty on all counts but committed suicide the night before his scheduled execution by ingesting cyanide.

Image: Göring (1893 – 1946)

Rudolf Hess

Rudolf Hess, once Adolf Hitler’s Deputy Führer, was another high-profile defendant, known for his solo flight to Scotland in 1941 in an attempt to negotiate peace with the United Kingdom. This flight resulted in his capture and imprisonment by the British for the duration of the war.

At the tribunal, Hess faced similar charges to Göring, although he claimed amnesia about his role in the Nazi regime, which was met with skepticism.

Hess was convicted of crimes against peace and conspiracy, receiving a life sentence, which he served at Spandau Prison until his suicide in 1987. His long imprisonment and mysterious death have fueled numerous conspiracy theories.

Image: Rudolf Hess (1894 – 1987)

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Joachim von Ribbentrop

As Hitler’s Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop was directly involved in the diplomatic maneuverings that led to the invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II. He played a significant role in negotiating the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which temporarily allied Nazi Germany with the Soviet Union, facilitating the invasion of Poland and the start of the war.

Ribbentrop was found guilty of all charges, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, particularly for his involvement in the occupation policies in Eastern Europe and the extermination of the Jewish population. He was executed in 1946.

Image: Ribbentrop (1893 – 1946)

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Wilhelm Keitel

Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel served as the head of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), the High Command of the German armed forces. Under his command, the German military engaged in numerous war crimes, including the shooting of POWs and the barbaric treatment of civilians in occupied territories.

Keitel signed numerous orders that violated international law, including the infamous Commissar Order, which called for the summary execution of Soviet political commissars captured in battle.

Keitel was sentenced to death at Nuremberg, a sentence he faced claiming that he was merely following orders—a defense rejected by the tribunal.

Image: Wilhelm Keitel (1882 – 1946)

Ernst Kaltenbrunner

Ernst Kaltenbrunner was the highest-ranking SS leader to be tried at Nuremberg. As the head of the Reich Security Main Office, he was directly in charge of the security and intelligence agencies, including the Gestapo and the concentration camps. Kaltenbrunner was responsible for implementing the Final Solution and was involved in the mass murder of Jews and other persecuted groups across Europe.

Kaltenbrunner’s defense claimed he was unaware of the atrocities committed by the organizations under his command, a claim discredited by substantial evidence to the contrary. He was convicted on all counts and executed in 1946.

Image: Kaltenbrunner (1903 – 1946)

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Alfred Rosenberg

Alfred Rosenberg was a primary ideologue of the Nazi Party, deeply involved in shaping the racist policies of the regime. He served as the Minister for the Eastern Occupied Territories, where he oversaw the brutal occupation and exploitation policies, including the starvation of civilians and the deportation and murder of Jews.

Rosenberg was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity and was executed in 1946. His role in the ideological formulation of Nazi policies made him one of the intellectual authors of the Holocaust.

Image: Alfred Rosenberg (1892 – 1946)

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Here are some frequently asked questions about the Nuremberg Trials:

What were the Nuremberg Trials?

The Nuremberg Trials were a series of military tribunals held after World War II, in which the Allied powers prosecuted prominent leaders of Nazi Germany for crimes committed during the war. The trials took place in Nuremberg, Germany, from 1945 to 1946.

Who was tried at Nuremberg?

The Nuremberg Trials primarily targeted major political, military, and economic leaders of Nazi Germany. The most famous was the first trial, known as the Trial of the Major War Criminals, which included 24 of the most important captured leaders of Nazi Germany, such as Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, and Albert Speer.

What were the charges?

Defendants were charged under four counts: conspiracy to commit crimes alleged in other counts; crimes against peace; war crimes; and crimes against humanity. These encompassed a range of atrocities including genocide, the mistreatment and murder of prisoners of war, and the planning and execution of wars of aggression.

What were the outcomes of the trials?

Of the 24 defendants in the first trial, 12 were sentenced to death, three were acquitted, and the rest received various terms of imprisonment. Subsequent trials led to more convictions and a broader understanding of the scope of Nazi crimes, including medical experiments and economic exploitation.

Why were the trials held in Nuremberg?

Nuremberg was chosen for its symbolic significance and practicality. The city had been a site of major Nazi rallies and was largely undamaged by the war, providing an intact infrastructure to host the trials. It also represented a form of poetic justice, holding the trials in a city that was significant to the Nazi regime.

What was the significance of the Nuremberg Trials?

The trials were significant for several reasons: they marked the first time that international trials were used to prosecute war crimes, established the principle that individuals could be held accountable for their actions, even if acting on behalf of a government, and set precedents in international law regarding genocide, crimes against humanity, and the concept of a war of aggression.

How have the Nuremberg Trials influenced international law?

The Nuremberg Trials significantly shaped the development of international criminal law. They were a precursor to the establishment of permanent international courts, such as the International Criminal Court (ICC), and influenced many international legal standards and institutions that handle crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Were there any criticisms of the Nuremberg Trials?

Yes. The Nuremberg Trials faced several criticisms, including claims of “victor’s justice,” where only the defeated were prosecuted, and the retroactive application of some laws. Critics argued that similar crimes committed by the Allies were not prosecuted, such as the atomic bombings and the firebombing of Dresden.

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