MIGHTY HISTORY

What happened when the Nazi generals turned themselves in, 75 years ago

The Nazi generals were paraded in front of Allied cameras, imprisoned, and then put on trial, creating one of the most complex legal challenges in the world to date.

After the final German surrender on May 7, 1945, the Allied forces began arresting German leaders accused of war crimes, summoning some to headquarters in order to turn themselves in and sending teams to arrest those who would resist or attempt to escape.

Here's what happened to the enemy leaders after their final surrender:


First, many of them were placed in front of western newspaper reporters for lengthy interviews and press conferences. This included heads of the navy and army, including Fuhrer Karl Dönitz, the admiral who took control of Germany after Hitler's suicide.

While it may seem odd to give reporters first crack at questioning the prisoners, it makes a certain kind of sense for democracies, republics, and parliamentary countries that need to reward their people for maintaining the faith through years of bloody, costly warfare.

The newspaper reports and video from the interviews were quickly distributed throughout Europe and America, and summations of the events were broadcasted to Japanese troops to make sure they know that they were all alone in resisting Allied advances.

Military police read news of the Nazi surrender. Military police would later provide the guards for the trials of Nazi leaders.

(U.S. Army)

But, the prisoners wouldn't get to enjoy themselves in front of cameras for long. By that point, Allied troops had already liberated dozens of concentration camps and captured communications and testimony from prisoners of war showed that the German army had been complicit with the SS in the crimes.

For these and other charges, the arrested military leaders were moved to prisons, stripped of their weapons and papers, and detained.

They would all face tribunals or German courts, many of them at the famous Nuremberg Trials.

Col. Gen. Alfred Jodl, a high-ranking officer of the Third Reich who was later charged and convicted of war crimes.

(Bundesarchiv Bild, colorized)

For instance, Col. Gen. Alfred Jodl, one of the top officers at the negotiations for Germany's surrender, was later charged with a number of crimes, including supporting the use of slave labor in concentration camps and targeting civilian populations in both Russia and Norway.

His boss, Dönitz, would be charged with "planning aggressive war" and Erich Raeder, a career naval officer who led the sea branch for five years during the war, received the same charge in conjunction with his leading of unrestricted submarine warfare.

Nazi defendants during the Nuremberg trials.

(National Archives)

The Nuremberg Trials, where 24 of the accused were indicted, were controversial among the Allies, mostly because Stalin and Churchill thought criminal trials were unnecessary and simply proposed summary executions. Stalin was especially ruthless, proposing the execution of 50,000 to 100,000 staff officers.

But in the Nuremberg trials and other court proceedings, an actual system of justice was created based on the traditions of the U.S., Great Britain, France, and Russia. There was no modern history of international justice in 1945, and the western powers had to decide how to do everything, from admitting evidence to questioning witnesses.

When the trials were held, they provided something that summary executions or even trials in one country's judiciary could: facts. As prosecutors were forced to bring up the mountains of evidence to convict these men, it created a public record of their crimes and the facts surrounding them.

Broadly, the charges at Nuremberg and similar trials were grouped into three categories. The first was crimes against peace, the second was war crimes, and the third was crimes against humanity.

Out of 24 originally indicted, 20 defendants were convicted and received sentences that ranged in severity, from 10 years in prison to death by hanging. For those sentenced to die, 10 of the sentences were conducted in a single 103-minute block by an American master sergeant.

Another defendant had been sentenced to death in absentia, while another prisoner and the former head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, killed himself with a cyanide tablet the night before his execution.

Of course, those given prison sentences or acquitted were eventually able to rejoin the civilian world, often writing memoirs of their experiences during the war and the Nuremberg process.

While they would argue at the time and in the future that the Nuremberg process was flawed, largely because it was a group of victors in a war prosecuting enemy generals for actions that weren't crimes at the time they were committed, the success of the Nuremberg process created some accountability for World War II and provided the framework for future war crimes trials.