Nuremberg Verdicts: Sixty-Seven Years Later

It’s courtroom drama at its best! Let the power of this historic event propel a study that will have your kids glued to the history screen.

By Mollie Moore

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Can you imagine the tension, the expectancy, as the world waited to hear the verdicts in the Nuremberg Trials? Globally, the trials had people clamoring for the newspapers, eager beyond words to read the long-awaited sentencing of twenty-two prominent Nazi leaders. It had taken eleven long months for the International Military Tribunal to move through the trials. In late 1946, the war was freshly over, but the wounds were still painful. October 1, 2013 marks the 67th anniversary of the 1946 Nuremberg Trial verdicts, which makes it a good time to introduce this historic event to your class.

This is one of those events in history so monumentally remarkable, that there is little else you need to do other than present the facts, provide primary sources (I’ll link you to plenty), and let the story unfold for your rapt high school historians. I’ll suggest some ideas for facilitating this in your classroom, while sticking to simple, authentic strategies. Do you only have one or two days? I think you’ll still find something you can use to commemorate this notable event. However, I do recommend that you do not study this topic in isolation. If you can, discuss the trials after you have covered the Holocaust and WWII with your class.

Starting out: A Classroom Exhibit

I often like to start a new study by allowing kids to form questions on their own, whether or not they have been given context. Before they walk into class, set up stations around the room with primary source images or documents. Give them a variety to look at, and let the pictures speak for themselves. Don’t go crazy making fancy stations; all you need is tape, a wall, and a printer.

Here are some options from the gallery of primary source images on “A Teacher’s Guide to the Holocaust”:

Images from Yad Vashem

You might even look into some newspaper archives, like Timothy Hughes Rare and Early Newspapers

Once you’ve put these up around the room, number them and have students silently make their way around to each display and take notes. Use this template if you’d like, or pupils can simply do free-style observations. When they are done, discuss their thoughts on each image, projecting them if you can. This will get curiosity stirring, and learners will answer quite a few questions with prior knowledge and collective observation. I often assign one student’s question to another student as homework, especially since I rarely know every answer! This is a great launching place to begin discussing these trials and the context surrounding them.

Holding a Trial

If your class has already had some exposure to the trials and WWII, this is a great way to extend the stories into a role-play and bring learners into the moment. Consider holding a mock trial, focusing on one defendant’s case and assigning parts to each pupil. The Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre will make this incredibly easy for you with their complete teacher’s guide to a mock trial of defendant Julius Streicher.  If you have a week or so to go deeper into the material, this resource is a gold mine of step-by-step guides, primary source evidence, scripts, student readings, discussion prompts, and even evaluation forms.  Although I can’t say I’ve done it, I know I would have if I had I discovered this resource prior to teaching my WWII unit.

Decisions: Should the US be Part of the International Criminal Court?

Classroom time for connecting the past to current issues is often a luxury, but with big issues such as war crimes and genocide, it’s often helpful to show learners that this isn’t something that ended back in 1946. If you haven’t already, discuss some of the ethical considerations involved with an international justice such as the Geneva Convention and the International Military Tribunal used during the Nuremberg trials.

To bring the conversation to modern-day, consider debating whether or not the United States is justified in refusing to participate in the International Criminal Court. These discussion questions and brief facts can get you started, but this is a great chance to assign research to two distinct debate groups:

  1. The United States should participate in the ICC
  2. The United States should not participate in the ICC

This research-driven debate gives historians a chance to look into current attempts at global justice such as the Yugoslavia Tribunal and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, as well as consider whether or not this is a system the United States would benefit from.

Additional Options for Investigating the Nuremberg Trials:

Coming to Terms with the Past

Examine the Holocaust through the eyes of a survivor: Simon Wiesenthal. The focus here is on how this event can cultivate growth and learning, and scholars research and teach on various post-holocaust events.

Mock Tribunal in Action

Bring the Yugoslavia International Criminal Tribunal to life as learners take on roles such as the prosecution, the defense, the Serbs, the Croations, the Bosnian Muslims, the European Union, and more. Kids study the Statue of the International Tribunal and even hold a pre-trial press conference. 

Collect Oral Histories About the Genocide in Guatemala

Do your pupils know about the Guatemalan Genocide? Explore this tragedy through the lens of oral history, and take it a step further by actually communicating with Guatemalans who have stories to share. The film clip discusses the difficulties of prosecuting the criminals behind it all, and learners get the personal perspectives that make this study come to life. The lesson is also designed for the Common Core.