No trial provides a better basis for understanding the nature and causes of evil than do the Nuremberg trials from 1945 to 1949. Those who come to the trials expecting to find sadistic monsters are generally disappointed. What is shocking about Nuremberg is the ordinariness of the defendants: men who may be good fathers, kind to animals, even unassuming--yet who committed unspeakable crimes. Years later, reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt wrote of "the banality of evil." Like Eichmann, most Nuremberg defendants never aspired to be villains. Rather, they over-identified with an ideological cause and suffered from a lack of imagination or empathy: they couldn't fully appreciate the human consequences of their career-motivated decisions.
Twelve trials, involving over a hundred defendants and several different courts, took place in Nuremberg from 1945 to 1949. By far the most attention--not surprisingly, given the figures involved--has focused on the first Nuremberg trial of twenty-one major war criminals. Several of the eleven subsequent Nuremberg trials, however, involved conduct no less troubling--and issues at least as interesting--as the Major War Criminals Trial. For example, the trial of sixteen German judges and officials of the Reich Ministry (The Justice Trial) considered the criminal responsibility of judges who enforce immoral laws. (The Justice Trial became the inspiration for the acclaimed Hollywood movie, Judgment at Nuremberg.) Other subsequent trials, such as the Doctors Trial and the Einsatzgruppen Trial, are especially compelling because of the horrific events described by prosecution witnesses. (These three subsequent trials each receive separate coverage elsewhere in this website.)
In 1944, when eventual victory over the Axis powers seemed likely, President Franklin Roosevelt asked the War Department to devise a plan for bringing war criminals to justice. Before the War Department could come up with a plan, however, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau sent his own ideas on the subject to the President's desk. Morgenthau's eye-for-an-eye proposal suggested summarily shooting many prominent Nazi leaders at the time of capture and banishing others to far off corners of the world. Under the Morgenthau plan, German POWs would be forced to rebuild Europe. The Treasury Secretary's aim was to destroy Germany's remaining industrial base and turn Germany into a weak, agricultural country.