On This Day (October 20th)

On this day in 1945, 24 high-ranking Nazis comprising the first flight of such evil-doers go on trial before the International War Crimes Tribunal in Nuremberg. The 216 sessions of military tribunals held by the Allied forces under international law and the laws of war after World War 2 were the first in the modern era. The trials were most notable for the prosecution of prominent members of the political, military, judicial and economic leadership of Nazi Germany, who planned, carried out, or otherwise participated in the Holocaust and other war crimes.

Held in the city of Nuremberg, Germany, their decisions marked a turning point between classical and contemporary international law. The import of the trials was so great, Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson took a sabbatical to prosecute.

The following October, 12 of those first tried are condemned to death by hanging: Hermann Goering, founder of the Gestapo and chief of the German air force; Joachim von Ribbentrop, Nazi minister of foreign affairs; and Wilhelm Frick, minister of the interior. Seven others, including Rudolf Hess, Adolf Hitler’s former deputy, were given prison sentences ranging from 10 years to life. Three others were acquitted.

As Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, Wilhelm Burgdorf, Hans Krebs and Joseph Goebbels had all committed suicide in the spring of 1945 to avoid capture or prosecution, these first 12 were as bad as surviving Nazis got, save for Adolf Eichmann , who fled to Argentina to avoid Allied capture; he was later apprehended by Israel’s intelligence service the Mossad and hanged in 1962.

Goering himself escaped the noose as well through suicide while in captivity. The remaining death sentences were carried out on October 16, 1946 by hanging using the standard drop method instead of long drop. The U.S. army denied claims that the drop length was too short which caused the condemned to die slowly from strangulation instead of quickly from a broken neck, but evidence remains that some of the condemned men died agonizingly slowly, struggling for 14 to 28 minutes before finally choking to death. Additionally, the trapdoor was too small, such that several of the condemned suffered bleeding head injuries when they hit the sides of the trapdoor while dropping through.

The executioner Sgt. John C. Woods had hanged 34 U.S. court-martialed soldiers during the war, botching several of them and lending some credence to the theory he was chosen for his incompetence.

Of all the defendants in Nuremberg, one anonymous Allied Control Commission officer remarked “So grotesque and preposterous are the principal characters in this galaxy of clowns and crooks that none but a thrice double ass could have taken them for rulers.”

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