The Nuremberg Trials, 75 Years Later

The International Military Tribunal, more commonly known at the Nuremberg trials, began this week 75 years ago in Nuremberg, Germany. The trials were a series of military tribunals held to convict major Nazi German leaders on charges of crimes against peace, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and conspiracy to commit each of these crimes. It was the first time that international tribunals were used after a war to bring national leaders to justice and the first time that film footage was relied on heavily as evidence. (USHMM)

Several trials took place between 1945 and 1949 and tens of thousands of German perpetrators and non-German collaborators were tried by courts in various countries. The most well-known trial of major Nazi leaders, the Nuremberg trials, were held between November 20, 1945 and October 1, 1946. Indictments were entered against 24 major war criminals and seven organizations including the Nazi party, the Reich Cabinet, the Schutzstaffel (SS), and the Gestapo. Twelve of the accused were sentenced to death, seven received prison sentences, three were acquitted, and two were not charged. (USHMM)

Original Caption: “Nuremberg Trials. Looking down on defendants dock, circa 1945-1946.” Local ID: 238-NT-592 (NAID 540127)

During their time in power, the Nazi Party relied heavily on the distribution of propaganda material to create support and spread their message. Camera crews recorded practically every aspect of life in Nazi Germany, documenting everything from political rallies to military invasions. At the end of the war, these films were located and compiled by Allied military personnel into films to be used as evidence during the Nuremberg trials. In addition to using Nazi film footage and photographs as evidence, the prosecution also introduced into evidence footage and photographs the United States Army Signal Corps captured as they advanced with US forces liberating concentration camps. This footage was shown in the courtroom on a large screen to support the charges against each defendant. The holdings of the National Archives Motion Picture Branch includes edited films entered into evidence, such as “Nazi Concentration Camps,” and unedited raw footage documenting Nazi atrocities. [Please note: some footage available in our catalog may contain images that may be disturbing for some viewers.]

The Nuremberg trials were documented with film, photographs and audio on a scale that had never been used in a trial. The National Archives Motion Picture, Sound, and Video Branch holds a set of the audio captured during the main trial as well as subsequent trials. The branch, in collaboration with the Volunteer Office, recently finished a project to digitize audio material from the main trial, making it available in the online catalog, here: Audio Recordings Relating to the World War II War Crimes Trials. In addition to the recorded audio, film footage was captured with the intent of distribution to theaters worldwide for citizens to view. The purpose of these films was to ensure the general public knew of the atrocities committed as well as to prove the legitimacy of the trial. “Nuremberg” and “That Justice Be Done” are two films made for this purpose, both can be found in their entirety in our online catalog.  [Please note: footage in films may be disturbing to some viewers.]

The film “Nuremberg,” a project of the Civil Affairs Division of the War Department, was created to begin reeducation of the public who had been exposed to Nazi doctrine. The project was originally assigned to Pare Lorentz, a well-known American filmmaker who was serving as a filmmaker for the U.S. Army Air Corps. Prior to the war, Lorentz worked closely with President Roosevelt during the depression to make several influential documentaries. Lorentz took charge of the Nuremberg project on behalf of the War Department but he faced opposition from the Office of Military Government. Bureaucratic and funding challenges led Lorentz to resign from the project. Once completed, “Nuremberg” was shown at theaters in the American and British zones of occupied Germany. The film was meant to have U.S. screenings as well, but by 1948 when the film was completed, government leaders feared showing the film would promote negative feelings toward Germany just as the cold war was starting. Because of these fears, the film was not shown in the United States. (“Pare Lorentz’s Nuremberg into the Spotlight)

Clip from “Nuremberg” Local ID: 111-M-7596 [Please note: footage in films may be disturbing to some viewers.]

 

“That Justice Be Done” was one of the last films made under the direction of the War Activities Committee and produced by the Office of Strategic Services. The short propaganda film is a compilation of newsreels, captured German films, U.S. military films, and an explanation of the procedure for trying war criminals in a court of justice. While the film was produced under the direction of the U.S. Government, it was distributed cost-free by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Clip from “That Justice Be Done” Local ID: 111-ADC-10098 [Please note: footage in films may be disturbing to some viewers.]

The Nuremberg Trials served as a precedent for subsequent international trials such as the prosecution of war crimes in Japan. It was the first time that international tribunals were used to hold national leaders accountable for their war-time actions, the first prosecutions for crimes against humanity, the first to rely heavily on audio-visual documentation of crimes as evidence, and a first to be recorded with documentation and distribution in mind. If you are interested in viewing more footage of the trial or evidence used in the trial you can find digitized in our catalog, here: Nuremberg Trial Footage and here: Motion Picture Films Used as Evidence at World War II Crimes Trials, 1945-1947. The film clips above can also be viewed in their entirety in the online catalog: “Nuremberg” and “That Justice Be Done” [Please note: footage in films may be disturbing to some viewers.]

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