The Aftermath of World War II

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What evidence was used in the Nuremberg War Crime trials to prove the defendants' guilt?

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In some cases, it was the testimony of the victims themselves that proved the most damning. There were hundreds of witnesses to the crimes of the Holocaust. Soldiers on the Eastern Front also charged German atrocities as violations of the rules of war.

The Germans also kept records at the camps. Though many of the records were lost, as guards and other officials burned the records, there were simply too many to destroy quickly and completely. The orders demonstrated that the camp officers and the German leadership was aware of the human rights abuses being carried out; some ordered the abuses explicitly.

Some of the leaders confessed and tried to curry favor with the Allied war council. Goering tried to curry favor, and he was actually shocked that he was sentenced to death. He viewed himself as a potential interim leader in postwar Germany. One of the key generals on the Eastern front, Jodl, claimed to have been following orders. While there were many atrocities committed in this theater of the war, Jodl was one of the most prominent men hung for his crimes during the war.

The Nuremberg Trials did not convict all of those involved in the crimes against humanity perpetuated in Europe, but they served as a precedent for war crimes trials going forward.

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The evidence against the 24 Nazi leaders on trial consisted in part of eyewitness accounts, including actual victims of Nazi abuses. It also included, however, the volumnious records kept by the German bureaucracy during the war. Many of the atrocities, including the Holocaust and the actions of the Einsatzgruppen on the eastern front were very well-documented, leaving a "paper trail" that the investigators used to tie Nazi leaders to actual crimes. Rudolph Hess, for example, was convicted on the basis of documents he had signed and his comments recorded in very detailed minutes kept of meetings with other German leaders, including Hitler. Ernst Kaltenbrunner was convicted after the court was shown letters bearing his signature that ordered the execution of Allied prisoners of war.

These men were typical in that they were convicted based on their documented participation in atrocities, or the planning of atrocities. Julius Streicher, however, was convicted for different reasons. He held no government position during the war, but had published Der Sturmer, a newspaper that published virulent ant-Semitic propaganda, including calls for "political and ethnic emasculation" of the Jewish people. Some other leaders confessed under a weight of circumstantial evidence. All in all, 12 of the original 24 defendants received death sentences, with the others receiving lesser sentences or being acquitted. Robert Ley, head of the German Labor Front, committed suicide before the trials, and Hermann Goering killed himself while awaiting execution.

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