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University of Connecticut University Libraries Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center

Issues of the Holocaust

Nuremberg Historical Background

At the end of World War I, the victorious Allies (England, Italy, France, and the United States) gathered in Versailles, France to draft a peace treaty. The victors, beset by heavy losses during the war, felt that the losers should compensate them for the damages that had been endured. Germany was not allowed to partake in the negotiations and was only allowed to participate in the signing of the agreement (28 June 1919). Most historians will agree that the treaty was especially harsh on the vanquished parties. Its reparation clause made Germany and her allies accept responsibility for all losses and damages incurred by the Allied powers. The costs of these reparations were set at $33 billion. Germany was to bear the majority of the costs.

These reparations were to cause severe economic hardships for Germany. The German government relied on borrowing money from other countries as well as printing new money to pay off the debts. This resulted in extraordinary inflation. By the end of 1923, the German mark stood at the inconceivable price of 25 billion to the dollar. The result was the redrawing of the reparation provisions established at Versailles and the withdrawal of the French from the Ruhr.

From 1924 to 1929, Germany, under the rule of Gustav Stresemann, continued to borrow vast sums of money. Most of it was obtained from American financiers. At first, Germany's economy made a strong recovery, but it was short-lived. In late October 1929, the New York Stock Market collapsed. Americans demanded immediate repayment of their loans. Germany's economy reeled under the blow and experienced massive unemployment.

The National Socialists, under the direction of Adolph Hitler, took advantage of the economic and political devastation. By July 1932, the Nazi party had won 230 of the 547 seats in the Reichstag (German parliament). Though not a majority, it was the largest party in the legislature. Hitler was appointed Chancellor of the German Republic on 20 January 1933. Instead of sharing power with his coalition government, Hitler embarked on a policy of terror and legal reform, turning Germany into a totalitarian state. The Nazi party took control of all aspects of German life, from the government to the courts to the economy. The Enabling Act of March 1933 gave the dictator the power to rule by decree for four years. With the death of President Von Hendenburg, Hitler combined the offices of Chancellor and President.

These circumstances should not have come as a surprise because in the 1920s, Adolph Hitler had outlined his plans for the revival of Germany from the losses of World War I. He blamed Germany's problems on a number of groups including capitalists, communists, and Jews. Other features of his program included the need for a strong leader for the German state.

Hitler wanted to make up for Germany's defeat during the First World War. He believed that Germans, or Aryans, were a superior race and were therefore entitled to Lebensraum or more living space. Throughout his leadership, Hitler promoted discrimination against individuals that he deemed inferior. This included Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's witnesses, political opponents, Slavs, and others.

In spite of stipulations in the Versailles treaty against rearmament, Hitler began rearming Germany in 1935. In 1936, he occupied the Rhineland, Danzig (the Polish corridor) in 1937, and Austria in 1938. The Allies allowed Germany to annex the part of Czechoslovakia that was inhabited mainly by people of German descent. The former Allied countries had hoped that Hitler would not want to initiate another war and would be appeased with the territory that he had acquired. This was not the case.

Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact in 1939. This paved the way for both nations to invade and divide Poland. Germany attacked Poland on 1 September 1939. As a result of this action, Britain and France declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939.

By 1942, Germany, Italy and Japan were at war with twenty-six allied countries. Although in the beginning, Hitler's forces looked unstoppable, by the summer of 1942, the Allies began to make significant advances in both North Africa and Europe. By January of 1943, the tide had turned completely to the advantage of the Allies.; By 1945, Hitler still refused to surrender. He ordered his troops to continue. Thousands of Hitler's troops began to disobey his orders and surrendered. The war now, for the first time, was being waged on German soil. Hitler ordered the destruction of nearly all means of production and transportation within the country. Germany was spared this fate as Hitler's subordinates refused to follow through on these orders.

In April 1944, two Jews who had escaped the death camp of Auschwitz informed the world of the terrible horrors that were occurring there. Details of genocide, slave labor, starvation and malnutrition that prisoners had undergone were provided. As the world learned of these atrocities, individuals and countries became outraged and demanded that something should be done to punish those responsible for these actions.

After the end of the war, the question of how to punish these responsible individuals was answered with a number of suggestions. United States Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau stated that all captured Nazi leaders should be shot immediately without the benefit of a trial. Henry Stimson, the US Secretary of War, believed that this would violate everything that our legal system stood for, including the right to a trial. Army Colonel Murray Bernays was asked to find a solution to this dilemma. He suggested an international court that would hold individuals responsible for actions that the entire world would define as crimes.

On 8 August 1945, the charter of the International Military Tribunal declared that aggressive war was an international crime and an International Military Tribunal was established in Nuremberg, Germany to try the remaining major German leaders for their actions both before and during World War II. Nuremberg was the city where Hitler had proclaimed his racial laws in 1935. Judges from the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union, as well as four alternates were assigned the jurisdiction to try high ranking Nazis deemed personally responsible for the specific charges. This would be the first time that an international court would hold a government responsible for its treatment of both its own citizens and citizens of other countries during war time.

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.  [Justice Robert Jackson, opening statement People vs. Nazism]

The specific charges that were brought against twenty-three individuals included crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Crimes against peace were defined as the planning, preparation, initiation, and waging of a war of aggression. War crimes were defined as the violations of the laws or customs of war including the murder, ill treatment and deportation to slave labor of civilian populations and the murder and ill treatment of prisoners of war. Crimes against humanity were defined as the murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation and other inhumane treatment of civilians before and during the war. This also included the persecution of individuals on political, racial or religious grounds.

The founders of the Nazi party were charged with conspiring to launch World War II and related atrocities from 1919 to 1945. All of the defendants were charged with planning aggressive war. Eighteen defendants were charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. Seven Nazi organizations were accused of these crimes. If convicted, all of the thousands of members of those organizations would have been considered guilty without the benefit of a trial.

The judges at Nuremberg came to believe that only through the principle of individual responsibility could justice be served. To apply collective guilt would only exacerbate the problems currently facing the post war world. The judges ruled that all individuals were innocent until proven guilty. What this meant was that although the court held that the SS, Gestapo-SD, and top Nazi leadership had voluntarily joined in the committing of war crimes, each individual member of these organizations had to be given the right to trial before being held personally responsible.; This was a difficult position for the judges to have taken considering the mood of the times, but it was extremely important to reject the concept of collective guilt that the Nazis had ordered on groups such as Jews and homosexuals.

The court ruled that the conspiracy began in 1937, not in 1919 as the prosecution had suggested. Twelve of the defendants were sentenced to hang, seven were given prison terms of varying lengths, and three were acquitted. Göring committed suicide only hours before the hanging was scheduled to occur.

Twelve subsequent trials were held in Nuremberg. The outcome of these trials led to the statement that guilt should be determined on the basis of whether or not the person had the opportunity to make a moral choice, not whether or not a superior had given an order. For many Nuremberg brought to light, for the first time, the "Night and Fog decree", "Crystal Night", "the final solution" and other horrific Nazi atrocities.

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