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Seeking justice

Many senior Nazi war criminals were never sentenced for their roles during the Holocaust. Some, like Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler committed suicide as the war came to an end. Many escaped Germany and were never found. However, international efforts to bring those responsible for the Holocaust to justice began after the war and have continued into recent years.

The Nuremberg Trials

After the war, judges from the Allied powers convened to bring the most senior Nazis to trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity. These took place in Nuremberg, Germany between 1945 and 1946. 22 top Nazis were brought before the court, with 12 being sentenced to death. 12 further trials then took place. From the total of 199 defendants, 37 were sentenced to death (including the 12 from the first trial). The main focus of the trials was on the role played by senior Nazis in starting World War Two, and not specifically their involvement in the Holocaust.

The Nuremberg Trials were one of the most important innovations in the history of international law, and set a precedent which led to future international tribunals. Over 50 years later, in 2002, the International Criminal Court (ICC) was established as a permanent tribunal to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. 123 States are members of the ICC.

Some further trials of lesser war criminals were held, but the cooperation between the Allied powers seen at the main Nuremberg Trials had quickly broken down. After Germany’s surrender, the Allies divided Germany into four military zones of occupation – for France, Britain, the US and the Soviet Union. A process of ‘denazification’ began, removing Nazi Party members from positions of power, disbanding organisations associated with Nazism, and removing swastikas and other outward symbols of the regime. However this process was often rushed as the Americans, British and French sought to build a democratic state in West Germany, and the USSR sought to build a communist state in East Germany. Therefore, many thousands of people who were involved in or benefitted from the Holocaust never had to atone for their actions.

The search for justice

In the years following the Holocaust, some people like survivor Simon Wiesenthal made it their mission to track down Nazis across the world, and present evidence to governments to prosecute them.

Adolf Eichman at trial

In 1959 the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad received intelligence about the whereabouts of Adolf Eichmann, who had a major role in the ‘Final Solution’, organising the transportation of Jews to the death camps.

Eichmann was captured by Israeli agents in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in May 1960. He was taken to Israel where he was tried for 15 criminal counts, including ‘crimes against the Jewish people’. The trial began in Jerusalem in April 1961 and included testimonies from survivors, many of which had not been heard publicly before. Eichmann testified from within a bulletproof glass booth. He was found guilty on all counts. After an unsuccessful appeal, he was hanged on 31 May 1962.

The Eichmann trial attracted huge publicity around the world, and helped raise awareness of the enormity of the crimes committed during the Holocaust.

In 1988 an investigation revealed that Nazi war criminals were living in the UK. A law was passed in 1991 which allowed people to be tried for Nazi war crimes under UK law, but only one successful prosecution was carried out.

In recent years, courts have continued to prosecute those who played a role in perpetrating the Holocaust. For example in July 2015, a German court convicted Oskar Groening, a 94-year-old former guard at the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, of being an accessory to the murder of at least 300,000 Jews. You can read more about this here.



Friday 20 November 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the start of the Nuremberg Trials. In this guest blog post, international lawyer and Professor of International law at University College London Philippe Sands QC reflects on the importance of the trials and their lasting legacy.

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Raphael Lemkin

Raphael Lemkin

Holocaust survivor Raphael Lemkin coined the word ‘genocide’ and helped establish the term in international law. Shocked and saddened by massacres throughout history, as well as the murder of his family by the Nazis, he longed for accountability for deplorable acts committed by countries within their own borders, campaigning tirelessly to reach his goal.

Read his story
Rudolf Vrba

Rudolf Vrba

Rudolf Vrba escaped from Auschwitz-Birkenau so he could warn Hungarian Jews about their imminent extermination. His report was an important piece of evidence at Nuremberg.

Read Rudolf's story