Section: Survival and legacy

Postwar trials and denazification

The accused at the Nuremberg Trial. The Nuremberg Trial was a trial which prosecuted the major Nazi war criminals for their crimes throughout the Second World War, including the Holocaust, in October-November 1946.

The accused at the Nuremberg Trial. The Nuremberg Trial was a trial which prosecuted the major Nazi war criminals for their crimes throughout the Second World War, including the Holocaust, in October-November 1946.

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

This section will explore how Germany moved into a post-Nazi era and how, when, and where former Nazis were brought to trial.


Denazification is the term used to describe the process of removing Nazis and Nazism from public life in Germany and across occupied Europe following the fall of the Third Reich.

After the war, Germany was split into four zones of Allied occupation. These were: North East Germany (controlled by the Soviet Union), South East Germany (controlled by the United States), South West Germany (controlled by France) and North West Germany (controlled by Great Britain). Each zone of occupation carried out the denazification process differently.

In October 1946, the Allied Control Council announced five categories of Nazis, each of which were dealt with separately:

  1. Major offenders (to be sentenced to life imprisonment/death)
  2. Activists, militarists and profiteers (up to ten years imprisonment)
  3. Lesser offenders (probation for up to three years)
  4. Nazi followers and supporters (surveillance and fine)
  5. Exonerated individuals (no punishment)

Denazification took place within all layers of German society, government and administration, including in the economic sphere, culture, judiciary and government.  For example, libraries were purged of Nazi publications and some former Nazis were removed from public positions.

Denazification was difficult and complex, and never fully completed. The developing Cold War meant that Britain and America felt that West Germany was a useful ally against communism and the Soviet Union, and therefore the Nazis that remained in their positions in society were viewed as less of a threat than communism. On top of this, even the process of establishing who was and who was not a Nazi was challenging and often relied on citizens providing information about themselves.

The first German chancellor of the new republic, Konrad Adenauer, who came to power in 1949, was opposed to the process of denazification. Adenauer instead opted for a strategy of integration – integrating old Nazis into the new republic in order to move forward.

Ultimately, many of those involved in Nazi activities were not punished and retained their personal and professional positions, and much of the wealth plundered by the Nazis was not immediately returned to its rightful owners.

The Nuremberg Trial

In the summer of 1945, legal representatives from the four Allied nations met in London to establish a charter for an International Military Tribunal. The Tribunal was in charge of prosecuting the major Nazi war criminals for their crimes throughout the Second World War, including the Holocaust. The Tribunal decided on four charges: conspiracy against peace, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the waging of aggressive war. The crimes of the Holocaust were included under crimes against humanity.

The first trial took place between October and November 1946 in the German city of Nuremberg. The twenty-one defendants were primarily high-ranking Nazis who had been captured by the Allies at the end of the war, such as Hermann Göring , Wilhelm Frick , Hans Frank , Joachim von Ribbentrop , Albert Speer and Julius Streicher .

The trial covered the crimes and failures of the Third Reich as a whole, and there was no specific part which focused solely on the persecution and mass murder of Jews. The genocide was revealed bit by bit throughout the trial, in witness statements from extermination camp inmates, in clips from Nazi films, or the account of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, who described the camp’s function and activities.

The verdicts were announced on the 1 October 1946. Twelve of the defendants were sentenced to death, including Hermann Göring and Julius Streicher, three received life imprisonment, four received prison terms, and three were found innocent and acquitted of all charges. The death sentences were carried out ten days later on 16 October 1946. On 15 October, Hermann Göring took his own life.


Raphael Lemkin

The term ‘ genocide ’ was created by the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin.

In 1933, Lemkin published a pamphlet proposing that the League of Nations created new international laws relating to the mass murder of groups of people: ‘barbarity’ and ‘vandalism’. He hoped these new laws would prevent mass killings such as the Armenian Genocide of 1915.  Although the pamphlet was circulated at a meeting of the League of Nations in the spring of 1933, it was not discussed and not accepted. Eleven years later, after investigating the fate of Jews in the Holocaust, Lemkin decided to coin a new term – genocide – to both define the crime of mass murder more clearly and raise awareness of it.

According to Lemkin, genocide can be defined as ‘a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves’ (Lemkin, Raphael. Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. Washington D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944, p. 79).

The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg used to term ‘genocide’ to describe the fate of Jews and others under Nazi rule but did not charge the defendants with it as a specific crime. Lemkin continued to lobby the United Nations (UN) to adopt the term. On 9 December 1948, the UN established genocide as a crime in international law.

Raphael Lemkin

A post-war portrait of Raphael Lemkin. [Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain].

The Subsequent Nuremberg Trials

Following the first Nuremberg trial of the twenty-one major war criminals in 1945-1946, twelve more trials were organised by the American occupying authorities. These trials are known as the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials and took place between 1946 and 1949.

The Subsequent Nuremberg Trials tried major war criminals, but of lower ranks than those tried in the first trial. Each of the twelve trials involved defendants from a different strand of the Nazi state, such as the Einsatzgruppen , industrialists, jurists, doctors, and civil servants. In total, 183 defendants were tried, resulting in 77 terms of imprisonment, 8 life sentences and 12 death sentences. 86 of the defendants were found not guilty.


I.G Farben

The sixth of the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials was the trial of the 24 leading members of the industrial company I.G Farben . It took placed between 27 August 1947 and 11 June 1948.

The I.G Farben company had actively collaborated with the Nazis, primarily by using slave labour from concentration camps . The 24 defendants were charged with:

  1. Planning and waging aggressive war
  2. Committing war crimes and crimes against humanity by looting public and private property in occupied countries and through the use of slave labour
  3. Participation in the SS
  4. Participation in plans to commit crimes against peace

Thirteen of the defendants were found guilty and received prison terms from one and a half years to eight years in prison.

The Eichmann Trial

Eichmann, photographed during his trial in Jerusalem in 1961.

Eichmann, photographed during his trial in Jerusalem in 1961.

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

Adolf Eichmann  (19 March 1906 – 1 June 1962) was a leading member of the Nazi Party in charge of organising mass deportations of Jews to ghettos, concentration camps, and extermination camps.

At the end of the war, Eichmann was captured by the United States (although his identity remained unknown as he used a false name) and placed in a camp for SS officials in Germany. However, in 1946, after US officials discovered his identity, Eichmann fled the camp using false papers and went into hiding. In 1950, made his way to Argentina.

In 1960, Eichmann’s hiding place was discovered by the Israeli Secret Service. He was kidnapped and brought to Israel to stand trial.

On 11 April 1961, the trial against Eichmann began in Jerusalem. It drew attention from around the world. Eichmann was charged with crimes against the Jewish people, the first time a high-ranking Nazi had been charged with this crime, crimes against humanity and membership of criminal organisations. 112 witnesses were called to provide evidence.

Throughout the trial, Eichmann proclaimed his innocence. He asserted that, as a bureaucrat , he had no responsibility for his actions, and was simply obeying orders from Hitler. In December 1961, Eichmann was found guilty of crimes against the Jewish people and sentenced to death.

The Eichmann Trial had a significant impact in raising public awareness of the Holocaust. Although the Nazis crimes against the Jewish people were known about, they were often discussed as part of the larger tragedies of wartime, and not noted for their specificity.  Eichmann’s trial and the publicity it received changed this.


Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt (14 October 1906 – 4 December 1975) was a well-known German American Jewish philosopher, author, journalist and political theorist. Arendt was born and brought up in Germany. After being arrested by the Gestapo in 1933, Arendt fled to France and then, following the invasion of France in 1940, to New York.

In 1961, Arendt reported on the Eichmann Trial for the American magazine the New Yorker. In these reports she coined the phrase ‘the banality of evil’. Arendt used this phrase to describe how evil actions, such as genocide, are perpetrated by ordinary people who are not otherwise monstrous, as Nazis are often described. Her reports were later turned into a book entitled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt photographed in Germany in 1933. [Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain].

The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials

The Frankfurt-Auschwitz Trials were the trials of twenty-two Nazi personnel who served at the Auschwitz Camp Complex between 1940 and 1945. The trials primarily took place in Frankfurt am Main between 20 December 1963 and 20 August 1965.

First Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial 

Although some of the more high-profile Nazis who had served at Auschwitz, such as Rudolf Höss or Arthur Liebehenschel , had been convicted at trials such as 1947 Auschwitz Trial in Krakow, most of the approximately 8200 camp personnel who survived the war were not tried in the immediate post-war period.

In 1958, an inquiry into Auschwitz was launched by the Central Office of the State Justice Administrations for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes (ZS) and the German Supreme Court. The sheer amount of evidence meant that the trial took five years to prepare. In this period, over eight hundred people were investigated, although just twenty-two were officially brought to court and accused.

Of these people, two died before the trial began. The trials were based on German state law, rather than the International Law used in the 1945 Nuremberg Proceedings and each of the accused were therefore charged with either murder or accomplice to murder, rather than crimes against humanity (which included genocide ). Two of the twenty defendants were acquitted , twelve received sentences between three and ten years and six received life imprisonment.


Second and Third Frankfurt-Auschwitz Trials

Following the first trial, two other smaller, trials also focusing on Auschwitz were subsequently held in Frankfurt.

The second Frankfurt-Auschwitz trial took place between 14 December 1965 and 1 September 1966. Three of the former senior staff in the camp were tried. One was sentenced to life, and the other two were sentenced to prison terms.

The third Frankfurt-Auschwitz Trial took place between 30 August 1967 and ended 14 June 1968 and charged two former prisoners of the camp with murder and abuse of other prisoners. They both received sentences of life imprisonment.

Other trials

Most of the trials to punish Nazi perpetrators and collaborators took place as not as large group trials, such as the Nuremberg or Auschwitz trials, but as individual trials. In total, courts across Europe sentenced approximately 100,000 Germans and Austrians for their crimes in wartime. On top of this, Soviet courts convicted approximately 26,000 Germans and Austrians for their actions during the Third Reich.

One example of an individual trial was that of Klaus Barbie. Barbie was a German SS and Gestapo officer stationed in France during the war. He was known as ‘The Butcher of Lyon’ for his role in deporting Jews and dismantling the French Resistance. Following the war, he escaped to Bolivia. In 1981, he was extradited to France to face trial. In 1987, he was charged with crimes against humanity and sentenced to life imprisonment. He maintained his innocence throughout.

In addition to the trials of Germans and Austrians, courts across Europe and the Soviet Union extensively prosecuted local collaborators. For many countries, the prosecution of collaborators was a significant and symbolic task. In Hungary, approximately 26,000 people were convicted for treason , war crimes, or crimes against humanity during the Second World War. Similarly, in Czechoslovakia around 32,000 people were brought to court for their role in collaborating with the Nazis.

As a result of the scale of collaboration throughout Europe, it was difficult to punish all collaborators. In the Netherlands, for example, it was calculated that as many as 500,000 people (5% of the population) actively collaborated with the Nazis.



Vidkun Quisling (18 July 1887 – 24 October 1945) was a Norwegian military officer and right-wing politician. During the German occupation of Norway in the Second World War, Quisling was the Prime Minister of Norway. As a supporter of the Nazi regime, Quisling took part in the Nazis persecution of European Jewry, resulting in the deaths of at least 765 Norwegian Jews – approximately one third of the pre-war Jewish population of Norway.

After the war, Quisling was put on trial in Norway as part of the denazification process and found guilty of both murder and high treason. He was sentenced to death and executed on 24 October 1945.


A portrait of Vidkun Quisling c1930. [Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain].

Recent trials

Trials for both Nazis and Nazi collaborators have continued to occur in the twenty-first century, albeit in a very small numbers.

In 2011, the trial of 91-year-old John (Ivan) Demjanjuk set a new precedent in Germany. Until Demjanjuk’s 2011 trial, former Nazis were charged with individual murders, rather than genocide or mass murder. As a result of this, to convict a former Nazi or collaborator of murder, the courts had to find direct evidence of their role in a specific crime, meaning that it was extremely difficult to charge.

However, at Demjanjuk’s 2011 trial, he was, charged and found responsible for the mass murder of 28,060 people at Sobibor, where he served as a camp guard. The prosecution were successful in arguing that Demjanjuk was essential (if replaceable) to the smooth running of the camp, and without people like Demjanjuk, the camp would not have been able to operate.

Following the Demjanjuk case, several other former Nazis have been brought to court on accounts of mass murder. In 2015, Oskar Gröning, a former SS officer at Auschwitz, was charged as an accessory to murder of 300,000 people. He was found guilty and sentenced to four years imprisonment.  In 2019, Bruno Day, who served as a SS camp guard at the Stutthof Concentration Camp, was brought to trial accused of contributing to the murder of 5230 people at the camp. In July 2020, Dey was found guilty and given a two-year suspended sentence.

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