Section: Survival and legacy

What became of the perpetrators?

The Nuremberg Trials

Towards the end of the Second World War, the Allies decided to bring to justice those accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity once the war finished.

Trials of leading German officials took place between 18 October 1945 and 1 October 1946 in Nuremberg, Germany, before judges representing the Allied powers. These are now known as the Nuremberg Trials.

Twelve of those convicted were sentenced to death, among them Hermann Goering, Hans Frank, Alfred Rosenberg and Julius Streicher. On the eve of Goering’s execution, he committed suicide in his prison cell. Three other defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment and four to prison terms ranging from 10 to 20 years. Three of the defendants were acquitted.

Many of the defendants had argued that they had been following orders. The judges at the trial ruled that ‘following orders’ was not a legitimate defence for criminal acts.

Between December 1946 and April 1949, twevle further trials of high-ranking German officials took place at Nuremberg. Some 177 persons were tried, including many leading physicians, lawyers, judges, government and industrial figures. In addition, some members of the Einsatzgruppen were also tried. Out of this number, only 97 were convicted and sentenced.

Many more trials were held, the overwhelming majority involving lower-level officials and functionaries. Over the next few years, concentration camp commandants, guards and others who had committed crimes against Jews and others were tried. Camp survivors gave witness testimonies at the trials.

Nevertheless, the majority of the perpetrators and collaborators were never brought to justice. Many of them returned to the jobs or professions they had left before the war.


Immediately after the surrender many German citizens were taken to the camps to witness what the Nazis had done. There was an attempt to de-Nazify Germany.

Many of the cities of Germany had been severely bombed. Surviving buildings that had Nazi associations were renamed. Monuments, statues, signs, and emblems linked with Nazism were also removed and destroyed.

Nazi propaganda was removed from education, the media, and the many religious and social institutions. Many pro-Nazi leaders and clergymen were removed from their posts. Nazi or military parades, anthems or the public display of Nazi symbols were also banned.

The German legal system was de-Nazified. From December 1945 German courts were able to try German citizens and pass sentence on the crimes they had committed during the war years.

From 1933 to 1945 Nazi influence had affected almost all areas of life. It seemed impossible to remove every single Nazi from their positions. Many Germans brought before the courts were given very light sentences.

Were the perpetrators caught?

The vast majority of perpetrators escaped prosecution. Many of them went back to their pre-war lives. Many more Nazi war criminals escaped to countries outside Europe.

However, certain organisations and individuals have dedicated their lives to hunting down and prosecuting perpetrators and collaborators.

Simon Wiesenthal (1908-2005) was a Holocaust survivor who dedicated his life to raising public awareness, and hunting down Nazis who had escaped justice. He initially worked for the War Crimes section of the United States army. However, in 1947 he opened the Jewish Historical Documentation Centre in Austria.

Wiesenthal lobbied western governments to locate and prosecute escaped Nazi war criminals. He also found evidence leading to the capture of leading Nazis. His most famous case concerned Adolf Eichmann, about whom he provided key information.

The French lawyer Serge and his wife Beate Klarsfeld, also devoted their lives to the pursuit of Nazi war criminals. Their most famous case led to the arrest of Klaus Barbie (known as the butcher of Lyon).

During the war, Barbie had served as a head of the Gestapo in Lyon, France. He was responsible for the rounding up of French Jews to be sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, including 44 Jewish children from an orphanage.

After the war, he evaded arrest and escaped to South America. In 1987 he was brought back to France and found guilty of crimes against humanity. Barbie was sentenced to life imprisonment.

SS doctor Josef Mengele performed medical experiments without anaesthetic on child prisoners in Auschwitz. He abused every medical ethic. After the war he escaped to South America. Despite every effort he was never brought to justice.

The vast majority of Nazi offenders have escaped punishment.

The trial of Adolf Eichmann

In May 1960 Israeli agents kidnapped Adolf Eichmann and took him to Jerusalem for trial. He was charged on 15 counts, including crimes against the Jewish people and crimes against humanity. This photograph shows Eichmann in the dock during his trial in 1961.
In May 1960 Israeli agents kidnapped Adolf Eichmann and took him to Jerusalem for trial. He was charged on 15 counts, including crimes against the Jewish people and crimes against humanity. This photograph shows Eichmann in the dock during his trial in 1961.

© 2011 Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority.

After the war Adolf Eichmann was one of the most important war criminals still at large. He had been a key figure in murder of the Jews of Europe.

As head of the Gestapo’s section for Jewish affairs, Eichmann had planned and organised the deportations to the death camps. He had also decided how the property of deported Jews would be seized and what would happen to money gained.

Eichmann had managed to flee to Argentina where he lived under a false name, Ricardo Klement. However, in May 1960 Israeli agents kidnapped him and took him to Jerusalem for trial. He was charged on 15 counts, including crimes against the Jewish people and crimes against humanity.

The Eichmann trial awakened international interest in the Holocaust. Many Holocaust survivors gave their testimony. The trial made headline news throughout the world. It led to many books being written and films being made dealing with different aspects of the murder of the Jews of Europe.

Eichmann was found guilty and sentenced to death. This was the first and last time the death sentence has been given in an Israeli court.

On 1 June 1962 he was executed by hanging. His body was cremated and his ashes scattered at sea, beyond Israel’s territorial waters.

Between 1961 and 1967, 20,000 young Germans, previously ignorant of their country’s past, volunteered to work in Israel.

Jack meets a perpetrator

In this video Jack, a Holocaust survivor, talks about an experience he had many years after the end of the war.

During a visit to Novogrudek Jack met a man who asked a favour from him. Amazingly, the man asked Jack if he would give him a reference to say that he had been a “good guard”.

Very soon Jack discovered a dark side to the man’s history. The man said that he had paid his dues as he had spent 25 years in prison for his actions.

Watch the video and find out what the man had done. Find out how Jack reacted to him.

Please note that the lead in may take a few moments to allow the video to begin.


What happened in July