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War crimes trials in Germany after the First and Second World War

[0]  Progress can be described as making every mistake only once. [1] 100 years after the outbreak of the First World War, feuilletons of European newspapers are full stories about „the great seminal catastrophe of this century“ [2]. Around 80-90 per cent of those articles are about the outbreak, its causes and who to blame for the four years of mass slaughter. In a clever move, the Australian historian Christopher Clark published a book [3] in which he famously argued that Europe’s leaders had behaved like sleepwalkers – a book which still is in the centre of a hot debate.

During the early 1940s, America and Britain  realized (to put it mildly) that their attempts to never let a World War happen again failed quite spectacularly. The Treaty of Versailles posed a big burden on the post-WW I German democracy and huge parts of the population were of the opinion that not only they had defended themselves in the war, but that they were also made the scapegoat of the disaster. The Treaty, written by the former German enemies without any German participation, placed all war guilt on Kaiser Wilhelm and his suspects. Whether this was correct or not isn’t the question of this article. I would rather like to analyse the allied attempts following the Second World War to avoid the last mistake and to make it clear to the global community and to every German, who was to blame this time.

In this venture, the Nuremberg Trials were key. During this military tribunal, the most prominent surviving German leaders/criminals, such as Göring, Hess, Speer and Keitel, were accused and sentenced. However, the idea of a war trial was not new and the Allied organizers were able to build upon rich experience from the 1920s. Back then, the Treaty of Versailles included a passage according to which “all persons accused of having committed an act in violation of the laws and customs of war […] against the nationals of one of the Allied and Associated Powers will be brought before the military tribunals of that Power.” [4] The result was called the Leipzig Trials, in many aspects a predecessor of Nuremberg. In the following, I would like to briefly contrast the two attempts in order to show, how the latter avoided making the mistakes of the former.

1. Timing
The Leipzig Trials did not begin before 10th January 1921. The opening was quite obscure with the accusation of three soldiers who stole 800 Marks from a brothel in Belgium [5].
In contrast, the Nuremberg Trials lasted only one year and finished 16 months after the war ended.

2. Responsibilities
After large protests from the German government and civil society, and due to few enforcement authority, the allied forces handed over the responsibility over the trials to the German Supreme Court in Leipzig. The prosecutors were given a list of war criminals identified by the allied leaders. The search for the accused largely consisted of newspaper advertisement, which requested the individuals to hand themselves in. [6] Rather unsurprisingly, no one took that option.
The allied chief prosecutors of Nuremberg had the advantage of full support of the respective victorious armies.

3. Choice of chief prosecutors
The German chief prosecutor, Ludwig Ebermayer, frequently pleaded for a verdict of not guilty and in one occasion even fully backed the closing statement of the defense lawyer. [7] The Nuremberg prosecutors, e.g. the former United States Attorney General Jackson or the member of the French Resistance, François de Menthon, took a somewhat more serious approach.

4. Media Coverage
During the Weimar Republic, media was, to a big part, in the hands of royalists and nationalists, the media coverage, hence, being heavily skewed towards defending the few defendants and the even fewer convicts.
In post WW II Germany, newspapers and radio were controlled by the occupying powers and intensely deployed.

5. Security
In 1946, executions took place within two weeks after the end of the Nuremberg Trials and no convict fled its sentence. 20 years earlier, quite a number of those convicted were freed from prison in rather peculiar circumstances (e.g. being able to walk from the prison library through the prison gate which somebody accidentally  “forgot” to close)

I would like to conclude by pointing out that although the mistakes of the Leipzig Trials were quite breathtakingly big, progress was made and Nuremberg proved to be an improved version. Let us hope that the International Criminal Court (ICC) will soon get even further ahead.


[0] The picture shows the German chief prosecutor, Ludwig Ebermayer, one of the least engaged prosecutors in history.
[1] Although former US president Bush has a different opinion:
[2] Phrase coined by the US historian and diplomat George F. Kennan.
[3] The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2012).
[4] Article 228 and 229 of the Treaty of Versailles, cited according to
[5] No joke. If you do not believe me, check Harald Wiggenhorn (2005): Verliererjustiz, Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlag,  p. 107.
[6] Again, check it if you like: Wiggenhorn (2005),  p. 77.
[7] You know what to do. Learn German and look it up, in: Wiggenhorn (2005),  p. 247.

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Gunnar Take

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