From Liberation to the Pursuit of Justice
May 1 - May 8, 2005
“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, Chief US Counsel to the International Military Tribunal, Nuremberg, Germany, November 21, 1945
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is mandated by Congress to educate Americans about the history of the Holocaust and to annually commemorate its victims in the national Days of Remembrance observance. The Museum has designated “From Liberation to the Pursuit of Justice” as the theme for the 2005 Days of Remembrance in memory of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps and the subsequent prosecution under international law of major Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, Germany. Reflection on the liberation of thousands of Jews and other prisoners from Nazi camps and the prosecution of Nazi perpetrators reminds us that we must take action to prevent atrocities and vigorously pursue justice for the victims of such acts of hatred and inhumanity.
Sixty years ago, as American, British, and Soviet soldiers moved across Europe in a series of offensives on Germany, they encountered and liberated concentration camp prisoners. Advancing from the west, US divisions freed the major concentration camps of Dora-Mittelbau, Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, and Dachau in Germany, and Mauthausen in Austria. In northern Germany, British forces liberated Bergen-Belsen and Neuengamme. In the east, Soviet divisions liberated Auschwitz in Poland in January 1945. Just a few weeks before the German surrender in early May 1945, they liberated the Stutthof, Sachsenhausen, and Ravensbrück concentration camps inside Germany. In liberating the Nazi camps, the Anglo-American and Soviet soldiers exposed to the world the full visual horror of Nazi atrocities, lending urgency to the demands for justice.
Combat-hardened soldiers were unprepared for what they found in the camps: stacks of dead bodies lying around, and barracks filled with dead and dying prisoners. The stench of death was everywhere. Although the Germans had attempted to evacuate them, the camps still housed thousands of emaciated and diseased prisoners, a sight that shocked the liberating soldiers. Those prisoners who survived resembled skeletons because of forced labor and lack of food. Many were so weak that they could hardly move. Disease remained an ever present danger and the liberators had to burn down many of the camps to prevent the spread of epidemics. General Dwight D. Eisenhower made a deliberate visit to the Ohrdruf camp in order to witness personally the evidence of atrocities that "beggar description." Publicly expressing shock and revulsion, he urged others to see the camps first-hand, lest “the stories of Nazi brutality” be forgotten or dismissed as merely “propaganda.”
Like all survivors of the camps, Jews were plagued by illness and exhaustion. But, unlike those from other victim groups, Jewish survivors emerged from concentration camps and hiding places into a Europe in which they felt they no longer had a place. They had not only lost their families, but also their homes and in most cases, their entire communities, during the Holocaust. Many Jews were reluctant to return to their home countries because of continuing antisemitism and fear of Communist rule. They faced a long and difficult road to recovery.
After the war, military tribunals in Poland, the Soviet Union, occupied Germany, and elsewhere prosecuted captured Nazi officials under a variety of charges, many of which paralleled what were later defined as "crimes against humanity." While several Nazi leaders, including Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels, committed suicide in the final days of the Nazi regime, representatives of the victorious Allies prosecuted other major offenders in the best-known war crimes trial, the Nuremberg Trial, held at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Germany, between November 1945 and August 1946. Under the auspices of the International Military Tribunal (IMT), prosecutors and judges from the four occupying powers (Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States), tried some of the leading officials of the Nazi regime on four counts, including a newly defined count of "crimes against humanity," in which significant evidence relating to the Nazi effort to murder the European Jews was introduced. Several prominent Nazis were sentenced to death, others received prison sentences, and a few were acquitted.
In the three years following this major trial, the IMT conducted 12 subsequent trials before US Military Tribunals and presided over by US judges. The proceedings were directed at second- and third-ranking officials of the Nazi regime. They included concentration camp administrators, commanders of the mobile killing units of the Security Police (Einsatzgruppen), Nazi physicians, and public health officials. Ultimately, only a minority of the perpetrators were indicted. And, in the end, many Nazis escaped judgment or were treated with leniency.
Nonetheless, the Nuremberg trials have had a major impact on international law over the last 60 years. The International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and the recently created International Criminal Court are all part of the legacy of Nuremberg and of ongoing efforts of the world community to prevent and punish the crime of genocide.
September 1, 1939 Germany invades Poland, beginning World War II.
December 7-11, 1941 The United States enters World War II.
June 6, 1944 D-Day. Allied soldiers land in Normandy, France.
June 22, 1944 The Soviets open a major offensive, crushing German forces and sweeping into central Poland by early August.
January 12, 1945 The Soviets begin a winter offensive, which liberates western Poland.
January 27, 1945 The Soviets liberate Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex.
February 4–12, 1945 Yalta Conference: Allied leaders discuss the trial of German war criminals among other matters.
February 13, 1945 The Soviets liberate Gross-Rosen concentration camp.
March 7, 1945 American forces cross the Rhine River in western Germany.
April 4-5, 1945 Advance units of the US 4th Armored and 89th Infantry Divisions liberate Ohrdruf, a subcamp of Buchenwald.
April 11, 1945 The US 4th Armored and 6th Armored Divisions liberate Buchenwald. The US 3rd Armored and 104th Infantry Divisions liberate Dora-Mittelbau/Nordhausen concentration camp complex.
April 12, 1945 Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower, George S. Patton, and Omar Bradley visit the Ohrdruf concentration camp.
April 15, 1945 British troops liberate Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
April 22, 1945 Soviet and Polish troops liberate Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
April 22 - May 7, 1945 A bipartisan congressional delegation tours the liberated concentration camps of Buchenwald, Nordhausen, and Dachau.
April 23, 1945 The US 90th Infantry Division liberates Flossenbürg concentration camp.
April 23 - May 8, 1945 18 American editors and publishers inspect several liberated German concentration camps.
April 29, 1945 The US 20th Armored and the 42nd and 45th Infantry Divisions liberate Dachau concentration camp.
April 29-30, 1945 Soviet troops liberate Ravensbrück concentration camp.
May 4, 1945 British troops liberate Neuengamme concentration camp.
May 4-5, 1945 The US 80th Infantry Division liberates Ebensee, a subcamp of Mauthausen.
May 5-6, 1945 The US 71st Infantry Division liberates Gunskirchen, a subcamp of Mauthausen.
May 6, 1945 The US 11th Armored Division liberates Mauthausen concentration camp.
May 7, 1945 German General Alfred Jodl signs Germany’s unconditional surrender at Reims, France.
May 8, 1945 V-E Day.
May 10, 1945 Soviet troops liberate Stutthof concentration camp.
June 7, 1945 Justice Robert Jackson, Chief of Council for the United States in the Prosecution of Axis War Criminals, submits his report to President Truman.
August 8, 1945 The London Agreement, establishing the International Military Tribunal (IMT) at Nuremberg and the Tribunal's charter, is signed by the four Allied powers (United States, France, United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union).
October 19, 1945 The IMT formally indicts the Nuremberg defendants on four counts: crimes against peace, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and conspiracy to commit these crimes.
November 20, 1945 First public session of the trial of the major war criminals opens before the IMT at Nuremberg.
October 1, 1946 The IMT convicts 19 of the 22 defendants (Bormann is tried in absentia) and acquits 3. Seven of the defendants are sentenced to prison terms and 12 are sentenced to hang.
October 1946 - April 1949 Subsequent US trials of government ministers, industrialists, lawyers, physicians, and jurists, administrators of concentration camps, and commanders of the Einsatzgruppen are held in Nuremberg.
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