After the Holocaust

Refugees and trials of the Nazis.

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Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC.

The Allied victors of World War II (Great Britain, the United States, France, and the Soviet Union) faced two immediate problems following the surrender of Nazi Germany in May 1945: to bring Nazi war criminals to justice, and to provide for displaced persons (DPs) and refugees stranded in Allied-occupied Germany and Austria.

Following the war, the best-known war crimes trial was the trial of “major” war criminals, held at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Germany, between November 1945 and August 1946. Under the auspices of the International Military Tribunal (IMT), which consisted of prosecutors and judges from the four occupying powers (Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States), leading officials of the Nazi regime were prosecuted for war crimes. The IMT sentenced 13 of those convicted to death. Seven more defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment or to prison terms ranging form 10 to 20 years. One defendant committed suicide before the trial began. Three of the defendants were acquitted. The judges also found three of six Nazi organizations (the SS, the Gestapo-SD, and the Leadership Corps of the Nazi Party) to be criminal organizations.

In the three years following this major trial, 12 subsequent trials were conducted under the auspices of the IMT but before US military tribunals. The proceedings were directed at the prosecution of second- and third-ranking officials of the Nazi regime. They included concentration camp administrators; commanders of the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units); physicians and public health officials; the SS leadership; German army field commanders and staff officers; officials in the justice, interior, and foreign ministries; and senior administrators of industrial concerns that used concentration camp laborers, including I.G. Farben and the Flick concern.

In addition, each occupying power (Great Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union) conducted trials of Nazi offenders caught in its respective zone of occupation or accused of crimes perpetrated in that zone of occupation. The U.S. military authorities conducted the trials in the American zone at the site of the Nazi concentration camp Dachau. In general, the defendants at these trials were the staff and guard units at concentration camps and other camps located in the zone, and people accused of crimes against Allied military and civilian personnel.

Those German officials and collaborators who committed crimes within a specific location or country were generally returned to the nation on whose territory the crimes were committed and were tried by national tribunals. Perhaps the most famous of these cases was the trial in 1947 in Cracow, Poland, of Rudolf Hess, commandant of Auschwitz. Trials of German war criminals and their collaborators were conducted during the late 1940s and early 1950s in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union. After the establishment of West Germany in 1949, many former Nazis received relatively lenient treatment by the courts. Courts in West Germany ruled the offenders were not guilty because they were obeying orders from their superior officers. Some Nazi officers were acquitted and returned to normal lives in German society, a number of them taking jobs in the business world.

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