The United States Congress established the Days of Remembrance as our nation’s annual commemoration of the victims of the Holocaust, and created the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as a permanent living memorial to those victims.
This year, the Days of Remembrance fall between Sunday, April 23, and Sunday, April 30, 2006, with Holocaust Remembrance Day observed on April 25. The theme for this year’s commemoration is “Legacies of Justice,” in honor of the courage of, and the precedents set by, those who testified during the trials of Nazi war criminals. The theme also pays tribute to those who tirelessly work for the cause of justice, both then and now. Today, more than ever before, individual and communal willingness to seek justice after the Holocaust serves as a powerful example of how our nation can — and must — respond to unprecedented crimes. We must vigorously pursue justice for the victims of such acts of hatred and inhumanity, not only for their sake but for the sake of present and future generations.
The Holocaust was an unprecedented crime — millions of murders, wrongful imprisonments, and tortures, rape, theft, and destruction. In the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, the world was faced with a challenge — how to seek justice for an almost unimaginable scale of criminal behavior. The International Military Tribunal (IMT) held at Nuremberg, Germany, attempted to meet this immense challenge on a legal basis. This year, we mark the 60th anniversary of the IMT, a watershed moment in international justice. The commemoration of this anniversary coincides with numerous atrocities perpetrated in our world today — crimes that again challenge us to ask: can justice ever be done?
Nazi Germany planned and implemented the Holocaust under the cover of World War II. It was in this context that the IMT was created, a trial of judgment for war crimes. The IMT was not a court convened to mete out punishment for the Holocaust alone. The tribunal was designed to document and redress crimes committed in the course of the most massive conflict the world has ever known.
The Holocaust was, in the legal language of the IMT, “a crime against humanity.” Convened within months of the end of the war, from November 20, 1945, until the verdicts were delivered on October 1, 1946, the tribunal at Nuremberg set precedents: in international law, in documentation of the historical record — in seeking some beginning, however inadequate, in a search for justice.
While many top Nazi leaders, including Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels, committed suicide in the final days of the Nazi regime, 21 major war criminals were prosecuted in what would become the best-known post-World War II trial, the IMT held at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Germany. Convened by the Allied powers — the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union — IMT prosecutors based their case primarily on documents written by the Germans themselves. Nevertheless, courageous Holocaust survivors offered critical testimony before the IMT. David Wajnapel, a Polish Jew, provided evidence about the death march from the Majdanek camp. Shmuel Rajzman, a Polish Jew deported to Treblinka in August 1942, offered firsthand descriptions of the operation of that killing center. Members of liberating armies also testified at the trial. Capt. John Barnett, and other officers from the U.S. Army Signal Corps, testified to the authenticity of photos taken when their troops overran concentration camps.
By its charter, the IMT was given the authority “to try and punish persons who acting in the interest of the European Axis countries” committed one of these four newly-defined categories of crime:
Among the most significant legal concepts to emerge from the IMT was that the defense argument of following orders was not a valid excuse for criminal behavior.
The goals of the International Military Tribunal transcended verdict and punishment. The creators of the court were self-consciously assembling a public record of Nazi crimes. American chief prosecutor Robert Jackson worried that “unless record was made…future generations would not believe how horrible the truth was.”
In order to avoid any accusation of exclusive reliance on personal testimony, prosecutors decided to base their case primarily on thousands of documents written by the Germans themselves. These masses of documents were translated into the court’s three other official languages (English, Russian, and French), analyzed for their significance, and reproduced for distribution to defense attorneys and other trial participants. The prosecution presented other evidence through artifacts, diagrams, and photographs taken by Nazi photographers in concentration camps.
Nineteen investigative teams scoured German records, interviewed witnesses, and visited the sites of atrocities to build the case. Captured documentation and eyewitness testimony presented at Nuremberg laid the foundation for much of what we know about the Holocaust including details of the Auschwitz death machinery, atrocities committed by the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units), and the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto. It was during the trial that the statistical estimate of six million murdered Jews was first offered.
The top-level Nazi officials indicted by the IMT were not the only war criminals brought to justice in the Nuremberg courtroom. Additional proceedings called second- and third-ranking officials of the Nazi regime to account. Under the authority of the IMT, the United States held 12 such trials, known collectively as the Subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings. The defendants included concentration camp administrators, Einsatzgruppen commanders, physicians, and public health officials. Jadwiga Dzido, a Polish-Catholic inmate of the Ravensbrück concentration camp, testified at the Doctors Trial in Nuremberg on December 22, 1946, about the injury done to her leg during medical experiments. Karl Hoellenrainer, a Romani (Gypsy) prisoner at Dachau, testified at the same trial about experiments done on him to test various methods of making salt water drinkable. On December 21, 1946, Father Leo Miechalowski, a Roman Catholic priest from Poland, testified at the same trial about being subjected to hypothermia experiments and intentionally infected with malaria while at the Dachau concentration camp.
The scope of Nazi crimes meant that these trials punished only a minority of the perpetrators, and legal efforts often yielded limited tangible results. As a result of postwar clemency and the shifting priorities of Cold War politics, most Nazi war criminals escaped judgment; many of those tried and convicted had their sentences commuted or reduced.
Soon after the German surrender, tribunals in Poland, the Soviet Union, and in Allied-occupied Germany also began prosecutions. Dina Pronicheva, a Jewish survivor of the Babi Yar massacre in the Ukraine, testified during a Soviet trial in Kiev about her wartime experiences. During a trial in the British occupation zone of Germany in 1945, Dora Szafran, a Polish Jew arrested by the Nazis in May 1943, gave testimony about her incarceration in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. And Michael Pellis, a survivor of Dachau, testified in November 1945 about SS selections of prisoners to be killed at that camp.
The trials of Nazi war criminals continued in the decades following World War II, and eyewitness testimony remained critical to the process. Simon Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor, dedicated his life to raising public awareness of the need to hunt and prosecute Nazis who had evaded justice. Wiesenthal helped to locate and bring to justice such perpetrators as Franz Stangl, the former commandant of the Sobibor and Treblinka killing centers; Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan, a former Majdanek guard; and Karl Silberbauer, a Gestapo agent who led the arrest of Anne Frank and her family. Similarly, Beate Klarsfeld, a noted Nazi hunter, in 1971 tracked down Klaus Barbie, who had been responsible for the arrest and deportation of Jews from France.
Evidence collected for the IMT pointed to a man named Adolf Eichmann as the key figure behind the planning and implementation of the “Final Solution” to murder the Jews of Europe. Eichmann had eluded capture after the war. In 1960, Eichmann was living in Argentina with his wife and three sons, when Israeli agents kidnapped him and flew him to Israel to stand trial. During the trial in Jerusalem, numerous survivors testified about their experiences during the Holocaust. Mordechai Ansbacher, a German Jewish teenager at the time of his deportation, testified about conditions in the Theresienstadt ghetto. Aviva Fleishmann testified about the deportation of Hungarian Jews to the Auschwitz killing center and about forced marches from Budapest into southern Austria. The impassioned statements of ghetto fighters such as Zivia Lubetkin and Jewish partisan fighters like Abba Kovner generated interest in Jewish armed resistance. The trial also prompted a new openness among many Holocaust survivors, some of whom for the first time felt empowered to share their experiences with a new generation.
Eichmann was indicted on 15 counts, including crimes against humanity and crimes against the Jewish people. He was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to death, the only time the State of Israel has invoked capital punishment. The televised Eichmann trial provoked international attention and controversy as well as a reexamination not only of the crimes of the Holocaust, but also of the perpetrators and the very nature of evil.
Today, 60 years after the IMT, the body of international law addressing crimes against humanity has grown dramatically. There are now special international tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for genocide in Rwanda. The framework, and the guiding vocabulary, for these courts rests in significant part on legal precedents established at Nuremberg.
The search for justice requires more than punishment of the guilty. We honor the memory of those who suffered and perished during the Holocaust by working towards a world of justice and peace. Drawing attention to the voices of victims of oppression and genocide — whether they be Holocaust survivors or those fleeing the genocide taking place today in Darfur, Sudan — is one of the chief legacies of the justice sought at Nuremberg.
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 Soviet Union opens 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.
March 7, 1945
American forces cross the Rhine River in western Germany.
April 4-5, 1945
April 11, 1945
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.
May 5, 1945
The U.S. 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
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).
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 (including Martin Bormann, personal secretary to Hitler and chief of the Nazi Party apparatus, who was tried in absentia) and acquits 3. Seven of the defendants are sentenced to prison terms and 12 are sentenced to hang (including Bormann).
October 1946 - April 1949
Subsequent U.S. trials of government ministry officials, industrialists, SS agency commanders, lawyers, physicians, jurists, administrators of concentration camps, and commanders of the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units) are held in Nuremberg.
January 12, 1951
United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide enters into force.
June 1, 1962
Following his conviction for crimes against the Jewish people, Adolf Eichmann is executed in Jerusalem.
Franz Stangl sentenced to life in prison by a court in Germany for crimes committed during his tenure as commandant of Treblinka.
July 4, 1987
A French court finds Klaus Barbie guilty of crimes against humanity and sentences him to life in prison.
Extremist leaders of Rwanda’s Hutu majority launch a campaign of extermination against the country’s Tutsi minority.
September 2, 1998
The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda issues the world’s first conviction for genocide when Jean-Paul Akayesu is judged guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity for acts he engaged in and oversaw as mayor of the Rwandan town of Taba.
September 9, 2004
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “genocide has been committed in Darfur.”
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