The American Trials at Nuremberg

On October 1, 1946, the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, a joint trial conducted by Britain, France, the US, and the USSR concluded. Of the twenty-four men who were indicted, nineteen were convicted. Twelve men, including Reich Marshal Hermann Goering, were sentenced to death. Ten were ultimately hanged, with Goering committing suicide the night before execution. Reich Labor Leader Robert Ley had also committed suicide after indictment. One, Nazi Party Secretary Martin Bormann, was sentenced to death in absentia as he was believed alive at the time. His body would be exhumed in Berlin in 1973, thus the official conclusion was he committed suicide to avoid capture by the Soviets on May 2, 1945. However, compelling evidence suggests that he in fact died in Asuncion, Paraguay, on February 15, 1959, of stomach cancer and his body was moved in secret to Berlin and buried. I strongly recommend you check out historian Mark Felton’s video series on Martin Bormann for more details, the link I will provide in references. This was the only international trial in Germany, with the other nations conducting their own trials. The United States conducted numerous trials, including twelve at Nuremberg. These trials dealt primarily with high-ranking Nazis in the military, judiciary, medical, business, and governmental fields.

The trial of the major Nazis was the one international court trial of them, with cases of lesser functionaries being tried by the respective allied powers. Since Nuremberg was located in the American zone of occupation, subsequent trials of Nazis occurred in the city. There were twelve major trials held and I will deliver, largely from memory as I researched Nazi Germany a lot as well as the trials of the major figures as a younger man, general summaries of what happened in them.

The Doctors Trial (The United States of America v. Karl Brandt, et al.)

The lead defendant among the twenty-three defendants was Karl Brandt, Reich Commissioner for Health and Sanitation and a personal physician to Hitler. These men were tried for their roles in human experimentation and the euthanasia program. Prosecutor Telford Taylor introduced the case thusly, “The defendants in this case are charged with murders, tortures, and other atrocities committed in the name of medical science. The victims of these crimes are numbered in the hundreds of thousands. A handful only are still alive; a few of the survivors will appear in this courtroom. But most of these miserable victims were slaughtered outright or died in the course of the tortures to which they were subjected. For the most part they are nameless dead. To their murderers, these wretched people were not individuals at all. They came in wholesale lots and were treated worse than animals” (USHMM). Of the twenty-three defendants, seventeen were convicted and seven of them received death sentences (including Brandt), all of which were carried out on June 2, 1948. The most controversial acquittal was that of Kurt Blome, the Deputy Reich Health Leader, who had admitted to ordering typhus experiments on concentration camp inmates and could have otherwise faced the noose. The U.S. government had intervened in this case and he became a subject of Operation Paperclip for his research into chemical warfare. Convicted Luftwaffe Doctor Hermann Becker-Freyseng would also contribute work to the United States as part of Operation Paperclip from his cell.

Milch Trial (The United States of America v. Erhard Milch)

Field Marshal Erhard Milch was Hermann Goering’s right-hand man as State Secretary in the Reich Ministry of Aviation. After refusing to be a witness for the prosecution at the international tribunal he was tried for his involvement in the procurement and use of slave labor and his involvement in fatal medical experiments on people without their consent, most notably high altitude and freezing experiments. He was acquitted of direct participation in medical experiments but was convicted of responsibility over them as well as extensive involvement in slave labor, being sentenced to life imprisonment in 1947. However, he was granted clemency in 1954.

The Judges’ Trial (The United States of America v. Josef Altstoetter et al.)

The lead defendant, Altstoetter, was not the worst of the sixteen defendants. Of them, ten were convicted and four received life sentences. Of the remaining two, one had committed suicide and the other was let off on account of illness. The film Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) is based on this case, with the more sympathetic defendant representing legal scholar Franz Schlegelberger while the ardent Nazi represented Oswald Rothaug, both who were among the four to receive life sentences. Rothaug was noted as the worst among them for perverting the law to get a Jewish man a death sentence for an offense that under German law was normally penalized by imprisonment. The former was released in 1950 on health grounds while Rothaug was released in 1956.

Pohl Trial (The United States of America v. Oswald Pohl, et al.)

The Pohl Trial surrounded the administration of concentration and death camps, with the head of the SS office for this function, the SS Main Economic and Administrative Office, being SS General Oswald Pohl. Pohl was regarded among the defendants as most responsible for the wretched conditions of the camps as head administrator and played a major role in the Holocaust. Although the trial resulted in four death sentences, only Pohl’s was carried out on June 7, 1951.

Flick Trial (The United States of America vs. Friedrich Flick et al.)

This trial was one of the first real misses, as out of the six defendants only Flick, his deputy Otto Steinbrinck, and functionary Bernhard Weiss were convicted, with Steinbrinck only being convicted for his membership in the SS. Weiss received a mere 2 1/2 year sentence for involvement in slave labor. Friedrich Flick only got a seven-year sentence over slave labor and “Aryanization” (theft) of Jewish property, being released in 1950. An estimated 80% of slave laborers under Flick firms died from the brutal working conditions. Upon his release he also had all his wealth restored to him and never paid a cent in reparations to survivors. Flick’s firm would only after his death pay reparations to survivors and their families.

IG Farben Trial (The United States of America vs. Carl Krauch, et al.)

IG Farben was involved in the German war machine as well as had partial ownership in a firm that held the trademark for Zyklon-B, the gas used to exterminate Jews and others in the Holocaust. These defendants were being tried, however, for their role in slave labor and expropriation. The British had their own trial for the officers of the firm that had manufactured Zyklon-B, two of whom were executed as it was proven that they sold it knowing exactly what it was being used for. No death sentences were handed out in this case, and the highest sentence was eight years, with Walter Duerrfield and Otto Ambros receiving these sentences. Both men were implicated in slave labor at Auschwitz, with the latter being chief of production at I.G. Farben’s facility at Auschwitz and Buna. Ambros would remain a significant figure in the German business world, be part of Operation Paperclip, and would be a consultant for the American firms Dow Chemical and W.R. Grace as well as the U.S. Army Chemical Corps.

Hostages Trial (The United States of America vs. Wilhelm List, et al.)

The German army made a practice of taking hostages and executing them in reprisal for partisan attacks. Hitler’s order was that for every one German soldier killed, ten hostages were to be executed. The defendants convicted in this case engaged in these reprisals. Interestingly enough, the worst of them, Franz Boehme, who had upped the ante to one to one hundred, committed suicide after learning he was going be extradited to Yugoslavia, where he would have probably been hanged. The lead defendant, Field Marshal List, was sentenced to life imprisonment but was released in 1952 due to poor health. However, he lived far longer than one would expect, dying in 1971.

RuSHA Trial (United States of America v. Ulrich Greifelt, et al.)

This trial prosecuted fourteen officials involved in the program to resettle Germans into Polish lands and displace Poles and Jews. This included programs that “Aryanized” children by abducting them from their parents and giving them to German parents and programs to encourage or compel abortions for non-Aryan mothers. The most notable defendants were Werner Lorenz, Otto Hofmann, and Ulrich Greifelt, SS officers deeply implicated in displacements of non-Germans and the kidnapping of children. Hofmann was a participant in the Wannsee Conference in 1942. All three men were convicted. Although no death sentences were handed out in this trial, Richard Hildebrandt, who was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment, was subsequently extradited to Poland for another trial and executed in 1952.

Einsatzgruppen Trial (The United States of America v. Otto Ohlendorf, et al.)

This trial was against the officers of SS battalions used to mass murder Jews, Slavs, and others the Nazis deemed undesirables in the Baltic states, Russia, and Ukraine, called Einsatzgruppen. They killed 2 million people, 1.3 million being Jews. the most notable defendants at trial were Ohlendorf, the head of Einsatzgruppe D, Einsatzgruppe C head Otto Rasch, and Paul Blobel, who commanded the unit that perpetrated one of the deadliest massacres of World War II, the Babi Yar, in which 33,771 Jews were murdered over two days. Of the 24 defendants all save Otto Rasch (who was released due to health reasons and died less than a year later) were convicted and 14 were sentenced to death. Of these, only the four worst defendants, which included Ohlendorf and Blobel, were executed after High Commissioner John J. McCloy reviewed and commuted numerous sentences. Defendant Eduard Strauch, another one of the worst of them suffered an epileptic attack and faked mental illness to try to get out of trial. Although he was sentenced to death, he was extradited to trial for Belgium where he was again sentenced to death for his crimes as SD commander, but he died in prison in 1955.

Krupp Trial (The United States of America v. Alfried Krupp, et al.)

The Krupp trial covered the use of slave labor by the Krupp firm and other firms under Krupp.
This was one of the most controversial trials as despite the use of slave labor the lead defendant, Alfried Krupp, the head of the Krupp firm, got the highest sentence of only 12 years imprisonment with him forfeiting property. All but one of the other defendants were convicted and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment. Krupp was not only released on January 31, 1951, he also had all his wealth, previously confiscated, restored to him, even that made with slave labor. The Krupp firm would after Krupp’s death in 1967 pay reparations to survivors and their families.

Ministries Trial (The United States of America vs. Ernst von Weizäcker, et al.)

This was a trial of functionaries just below major Nazis, lasted the longest, and concluded last. Ernst von Weizsäcker, one of Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop’s deputies, was the lead defendant. Of the 21 defendants, two were acquitted of all charges. Weizsäcker was convicted of crimes against humanity but sentenced to only 7 years’ imprisonment based on mitigating evidence that he was connected with anti-Nazi forces and on claims that he had no knowledge that his involvement in deporting French Jews would lead them to extermination at Auschwitz. His conviction was considered a “deadly error” by Winston Churchill, and after a commutation to 5 years imprisonment, he would be released in October 1950. Secretary of State in the Interior Ministry Wilhelm Stuckart received the spectacularly low 3 1/2 years imprisonment with time served, so he was released promptly despite his attendance at the Wannsee Conference in 1942. Among the worst convicted were in the cases of SS General Gottlob Berger and Plenipotentiary to Hungary Edmund Veesenmayer, both men who were sentenced to 25 and 20 years imprisonment respectively for the direct roles they played in the Holocaust.

High Command Trial (The United States of America vs. Wilhelm von Leeb, et al.)

This trial, having fourteen defendants, was the last to start and covered the actions of members of the German High Command and their involvement in war crimes, which included the transmission and execution of orders illegal by international law. Although the lead defendant was General Wilhelm von Leeb, he was only sentenced to three years for transmitting the Barbarossa Decree with time served, so he was released immediately. The defendants who stood out most were General Walter Warlimont, who was responsible for the Barbarossa Decree that allowed the murdering of civilians to counter partisan activity and General Hermann Reinecke, as he was uniquely responsible for the policy and implementation of as head of the General Office of the Armed Forces in the OKW that resulted in 3.3 million deaths of Soviet prisoners of war. This included deliberate starvation of Soviet POWs and the turning over of any ideologically or racially unacceptable POWs to the SS for execution. Both men were sentenced to life imprisonment. However, Reinecke and Warlimont were released in 1954 with the last of the convicted defendants in this trial. Luftwaffe General Hugo Sperrle, who had directed the Blitz over London, was one of two defendants acquitted as the Allies had done no different with their aerial bombing. One defendant, General Johannes Blaskowitz, committed suicide during the trial, which was a strange incident as he was widely expected to be acquitted.

The Aftermath

In 1950, the Peck Panel was assembled to review the sentences of convicted Nazis. Of 99 cases reviewed, in 77 cases sentence reduction was recommended. High Commander for West Germany John J. McCloy reviewed these recommendations and for some he was more lenient and for others less so. However, many sentences were reduced in January 1951 with some, including Alfried Krupp, being released. All of the defendants in the Ministries Trial, even those deeply implicated in the Holocaust, were released by December 1951. Of the convicted who were not executed or died in prison, the last were released in 1958.
Of the trials, those of industrialists were the least successful at the administration of justice as building up West Germany as a Cold War bulwark was prioritized, followed by the Ministries Trial in which everyone was released by the end of 1951. The cases that did the emphasis had not yet turned to building up West Germany as an anti-communist bulwark and justice seemed most proportionate here despite the case of Kurt Blome.

Whatever the United States’ shortfalls in the administration of justice in their trials, they paled in comparison to how they addressed Japanese war criminals. However, that is a post for another day.


Callahan, M. (2014, February 1). Behind the Secret Plan to Smuggle Nazi Scientists to America. The New York Post.

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The Doctors Trial: The Medical Case of the Subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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Felton, M. (2022, September 5). The Hunt for Martin Bormann – Episode 1: Hitler’s Gatekeeper. Mark Felton Productions.

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