If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

READ: Nuremberg Laws, Nuremberg Trials

For most of human history, rulers did whatever they wanted inside their borders. In 1935, the Nazi Nuremberg Laws showed what could happen when rulers do whatever they want. After World War II, the victorious allies put Nazi leaders on trial for crimes against humanity.

Nuremberg Laws, Nuremberg Trials

By Bennett Sherry
For most of human history, rulers did whatever they wanted inside their borders. In 1935, the Nazi Nuremberg Laws showed what could happen when rulers do whatever they want. After World War II, the victorious allies put Nazi leaders on trial for crimes against humanity.

The Nuremberg laws and national sovereignty

Since the end of the Second World War, international states have agreed on the importance of basic human rights. Despite the widespread acceptance of human rights in theory, however, in practice proponents face a dilemma between human rights and national sovereignty. You may remember that national sovereignty is the idea that nation states have a right to exist and to be free from interference. Governments can do whatever they wish, to whomever they wish, inside their own borders. In the second half of the twentieth century, people began to make arguments for human rights of individual people over the rights of governments. Human rights and the international law that protect those rights are direct challenges to national sovereignty. Two events in one city in southern Germany show how World War II changed how people thought about national sovereignty and human rights.
On September 15, 1935, at a Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, Germany, the Nazi leadership enacted a set of laws known as the Nuremberg Laws. By singling out Germany’s Jewish population, these laws aimed to create a homogenous society. The laws came from Nazi ideology, an extreme form of eugenics and social Darwinism.1These ideas were popular with imperialists in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The Nuremberg Laws defined German Jews not by their religious beliefs but by their ancestry. They took away their citizenship, and placed restrictions on their employment and ability to marry.
A chart explaining the pseudo-scientific racial categories established by the 1935 Nuremberg Laws. White circles identify ancestors of “pure” German blood while black circles identify Jewish ancestry. Only those with four non-Jewish grandparents were considered fully German. (1935) From the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, public domain.
Adolf Hitler used the Nuremberg Laws to portray Jews as the enemy of the German people. These laws set the stage for the atrocities of the Holocaust and helped build Hitler’s justification for purging Germany society of anyone he felt was not a “pure” German. In addition to Jews, the Nazis murdered millions of disabled, black, Roma, and gay people who did not fit their racial ideology. The atrocities that the Nuremberg Laws enabled are stunning examples of the dangers of unlimited power. The Nuremberg Laws enforced Hitler’s belief that he could do whatever he wanted to whomever he wanted inside his borders.

The United Nations and the paradox of human rights

After the war ended in 1945, the victorious allied powers wanted to establish a peaceful world order. So, they debated the role of human rights in ensuring world peace. Nazi atrocities and aggression convinced them to take international action to prevent future such acts and wars from happening again. Inspired by the Atlantic Charter and President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech, human rights advocates argued that international recognition of human rights was necessary to ensure peace and security. Debates about human rights were central at the San Francisco Conference in 1945 as the allies met and created the United Nations. The Charter of the United Nations was signed by 50 countries in San Francisco in June of 1945. It contains a paradox. Its introduction and very first article state a “faith in fundamental human rights.” The very next part of the Charter, Article 2, guarantees national sovereignty and forbids the United Nations from getting involved in any matters “within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.” This is a paradox (contradiction) because an international organization like the United Nations cannot prevent or punish human rights abuses by governments if those governments are allowed to do whatever they wish inside their national borders.
Preamble (introduction) to the Charter of the United Nations. Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Domestic Operations Branch. Bureau of Special Services. National Archives at College Park. (1945) From the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, public domain.
The Nuremberg trials, which started just five months after the signing of the United Nations Charter, addressed this paradox. The early plans for the trials were first discussed at the San Francisco Conference. In a remarkable display of cooperation, the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France agreed to bring the leadership of the Nazi party to trial. The trials helped take ideas about human rights and turn them into formal international laws. This was the first time in history that the international community prosecuted the leaders of a major power.
Nuremberg Trials. Defendants in their dock; Goering, Hess, von Ribbentrop, and Keitel in front row. (circa 1945-1946) From the Office of the U.S. Chief of Counsel for the Prosecution of Axis Criminality, public domain.

The Nuremburg trials

The Nuremberg Trials were a total of thirteen trials of Nazi officials held from 1945 to 1949. They were held in the same city where, a decade earlier, Hitler had declared the Nuremberg Laws. The first of these trials is the most significant. The United States, Soviet Union, United Kingdom, and France hosted this first trial, called the International Military Tribunal. The subsequent twelve trials were hosted by the United States alone, foreshadowing later Cold War tensions between the United States and Soviet Union. The trials sought to hold Germany’s leaders accountable for crimes so serious that they required jurisdiction (authority) beyond the borders of any one state: crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The nature of these three types of crimes, the allies argued, required an international solution.
Hermann Goering at his trial in Nuremberg. (1946) By Raymond D'Addario, public domain.
The Nuremberg trials were something new. They represented the idea that states and national leaders could be punished, not just for aggression toward other nations (as had been the case after World War I), but also for violating the rights of their own citizens. For their part, the German leaders on trial defended their actions on the grounds of national sovereignty. The high-ranking Nazi official Hermann Goering insisted, “That was our right! We were a sovereign state and that was strictly our business.” But the Nuremberg trials rejected the principle that a government could do whatever it wanted inside its own borders. Goering was convicted and sentenced to death. He committed suicide in his jail cell the night before his execution.

International law and human rights

The Nuremberg trials importantly made the case for a set of rules that take precedent over (are more important than) the laws of any one nation state. This set of rules is known as “international law.” International law sets expectations for how nation states interact with each other. It is made up of both formal treaties and informal sets of principles.
Eleanor Roosevelt and United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Spanish text. (1949) From the National Archives, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, public domain.
The Nuremberg Principles were one outcome of the Nuremberg trials. These seven rules explain what a war crime is. In addition to defining things like “crimes against humanity,” the principles also make it clear that “I was just following orders” is not a defense for committing war crimes. The Nuremberg Principles were part of a broader set of evolving documents and understandings about what international law and human rights are. Human rights historians credit the Nuremberg trials with laying the foundations for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), and the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which form the basis of international humanitarian law and the laws of war.
The Nuremberg trials were also important to the development of human rights in the second half of the twentieth century. Without international jurisdiction over human rights abuses within national borders, there could be no global standard for human rights. This is the key difference between human rights and civil rights. Civil rights are rights you are entitled to because you are a citizen of a country. The rights of French citizens differ from the rights of Chinese citizens. Human rights, on the other hand, are rights that you have because you are a human being.
The historian Lynn Hunt argues that human rights require three interlocking qualities: “Rights must be natural (inherent in human beings); equal (the same for everyone); and universal (applicable everywhere).” Theoretically, human rights do not depend on what country you are a citizen of. Because every person everywhere has the same human rights, and because states in the twentieth century have signed agreements and treaties guaranteeing those rights, human rights continue to challenge the idea of national sovereignty and local authority.
The Nuremberg trials and documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) were the basis for many later national laws and constitutions. The principles produced by the Nuremberg trials were later included in binding treaties like the Genocide Convention and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. International agreements help set the standards by which national governments are measured. They set a standard for human rights to which citizens may hold their governments.

A victor's peace and power over principles

The Nuremberg trials and the human rights concepts they helped develop have helped people around the world to challenge and protect themselves from the local authority of nation states. Individuals may ask international organizations to bring charges against governments they accuse of violating human rights. The European Court of Human Rights has delivered more than 10,000 judgements since 1959. Nuremberg set the precedent for creating the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 1998, as well as the international prosecution of such leaders as the Serbian President, Slobodan Milošević. But the prosecution and punishment is often dependent on the political and military will of the world’s most powerful nations.
Many politicians in the United States were reluctant to take stronger action in support of human rights after World War II. Several American senators—most notably, John Bricker—argued that international agreements like the UDHR would threaten the independence of Americans. They feared that such treaties could make the United States subservient to the United Nations.
The International Criminal Court (ICC), The Hague, Netherlands. (2011) By Vincent van Zeijst, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Eleanor Roosevelt, who led the committee that wrote the UDHR, wanted a binding treaty that would bring human rights firmly into international law. President Harry Truman, however, instructed Roosevelt to reject any binding treaties and instead draft a non-binding resolution (declaration or oath). The Universal Declaration is the most translated document in history. However, after its drafting, representatives of the British Empire ran a secret campaign at the United Nations to limit the document’s translation into the languages of Britain’s colonies. The United States and Great Britain had just fought a war and held trials confronting Nazi crimes and imperialism. And yet, both countries feared giving up their own power to the United Nations. Since the ICC opened in 2002, the only leaders brought to stand trial have been from Africa. Both the United States and Russia initially signed the treaty creating the ICC and then later withdrew their signatures.
Despite these limitations, precedents from the Nuremberg trials have changed the world. These principles placed limitations on the rule of even the world’s strongest powers. For instance, in 1946, 1947, and 1951, several African American rights organizations appealed to the United Nations regarding racial equality and segregation in the United States. The 1951 appeal, titled “We Charge Genocide,” referenced the 1948 Genocide Convention. The Nuremberg trials and the following treaties and documents supporting international commitments to human rights did not end the principle of national sovereignty. However, as with this example, human rights advocates have used international law to embarrass national governments and to continue to chip away at the idea that governments can do whatever they want inside their own borders.
Author bio
Bennett Sherry holds a PhD in History from the University of Pittsburgh and has undergraduate teaching experience in world history, human rights, and the Middle East at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Maine at Augusta. Additionally, he is a Research Associate at Pitt’s World History Center. Bennett writes about refugees and international organizations in the twentieth century.

Want to join the conversation?

No posts yet.