Two years ago, My Own True Love and I spent Christmas with family members in Nuremberg. It was a fascinating mixture of Christmas markets, the city’s glory days in the medieval period, gingerbread, and Nazis.* It was a perfect history nerd holiday, with lots of new perspectives on things I thought I knew something about.
One of the real eye-openers for me was the fact that the Allies conducted hundreds of war crimes trials. The Nuremberg trials attracted the most attention at the time and are the most well known today. And rightly so. These are the trials that went after the big names in the Nazi leadership. (They were also the trials in which the legal parameters of war crimes were hashed out. )
Twenty-two German leaders were tried at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg. Another 177 leading figures in the Nazi administration were tried under the umbrella of the International Military Tribune in a series of twelve trials known as the Subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings. The four Allied powers occupying Germany and Austria tried hundreds more for crimes committed in their zones of occupation. (Much of what we known about the concentration camp system comes from testimony at these trials.) Together, these tribunals tried more than 1500 Nazi war criminals. That is a lot more than twenty-two.
By 1950, international support for continuing the war crimes trials evaporated in the face of new Cold War concerns. As a result, thousands of Nazi officials and collaborators never faced trial. Many returned to the professions they had practiced during the Third Reich. A large number of those who had been convicted for war crimes were released long before the end of their sentences.
These days I’m taking a close look at one set of trials: the Bergen-Belsen trials, which took place in the British sector slightly before the major trials in Nuremberg. The trial focuses on Joseph Kramer, known as the Beast of Belsen, and other Nazis who staffed the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. It’s pretty grim stuff.