The Hostages Trial (or, officially, The United States of America vs. Wilhelm List, et al.) was held from 8 July 1947 until 19 February 1948 and was the seventh of the twelve trials for war crimes the U.S. authorities held in their occupation zone in Germany in Nuremberg after the end of World War II. These twelve trials were all held before U.S. military courts, not before the International Military Tribunal, but took place in the same rooms at the Palace of Justice. The twelve U.S. trials are collectively known as the "Subsequent Nuremberg Trials" or, more formally, as the "Trials of War Criminals before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals" (NMT).
This case is also known as the "Southeast Case" because the defendants were all German generals leading the troops in south-eastern Europe during the Balkans Campaign, i.e. in Greece, Albania and Yugoslavia, and they were charged as those responsible for the hostage-taking of civilians and wanton shootings of these hostages and of "partisans" that the German troops committed there in the years from 1941 on.
The judges in this case, heard before Military Tribunal V, were Charles F. Wennerstrum (presiding judge) from Iowa, George J. Burke from Michigan, and Edward F. Carter from Nebraska. The Chief of Counsel for the Prosecution was Telford Taylor, the chief prosecutor for this case was Theodore Fenstermacher. The indictment was filed on May 10, 1947; the trial lasted from July 8, 1947 until February 19, 1948. Of the 12 defendants indicted, Franz Böhme committed suicide before the arraignment, and Maximilian von Weichs was severed from the trial due to medical reasons. Of the remaining ten defendants, two were acquitted; the others received prison sentences ranging from seven years to lifetime imprisonment.
The accused faced four charges of having committed war crimes and crimes against humanity:
- Mass murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Greece, Albania, and Yugoslavia by having ordered hostage taking and reprisal killings.
- Plundering and wanton destruction of villages and towns in Greece, Albania, Yugoslavia.
- Murder and ill-treatment of prisoners of war, and arbitrarily designating combatants as "partisans", denying them the status of prisoners of war, as well as their killing.
- Murder, torture, deportation, and sending to concentration camps of Greek, Albanian, and Yugoslav civilians.
All defendants were indicted on all counts; they all pleaded "not guilty".
The tribunal had to deal with two pressing questions:
- Were partisans "lawful belligerents" and thus entitled the status of prisoners of war?
- Was taking hostages and reprisals against civilians as a "defense" against guerrilla attacks lawful?
On the question of partisans, the tribunal concluded that under the then current laws of war (the Hague Convention No. IV from 1907), the partisan fighters in southeast Europe could not be considered lawful belligerents under Article 1 of said convention. On List, the tribunal stated:
- "We are obliged to hold that such guerrillas were francs tireurs who, upon capture, could be subjected to the death penalty. Consequently, no criminal responsibility attaches to the defendant List because of the execution of captured partisans..."
Regarding hostage taking, the tribunal came to the conclusion that under certain circumstances, hostage taking and even reprisal killings might constitute an allowed line of action against guerilla attacks. In the tribunal's opinion, taking hostages (and killing them in retaliation for guerilla attacks) was subject to several conditions. The tribunal also remarked that both the British Manual of Military Law and the U.S. Basic Field Manual (Rules of Land Warfare) permitted the taking of reprisals against a civilian population. (The British manual did not mention killing, but the US manual included killing as a possible reprisal.) Nevertheless, the tribunal still found most of the accused guilty on count 1 of the indictment because it considered the acts committed by the German troops to be in excess of the rules under which the tribunal considered hostage taking and reprisal killings lawful.
One common line of defense of the accused was the Plea of Superior Orders: they stated that they were only following orders from higher up, in particular from Hitler and Field Marshal Keitel. The tribunal recognized this defense only for some of the lower-ranked defendants, but concluded that in particular the highest-ranking officers, List and Kuntze, should have been well aware of the fact that these orders violated international law and thus should have opposed the execution of these orders, even more so as they were in a position that would have allowed them to do so.
Clarification of military occupation
The Tribunal considered the question of whether the Croatian state was a sovereign entity capable of acting independently of the German military (Germany recognised the Croatian government on 15 April 1941). It concluded that it was not, that military occupation did not depend on the physical deployment of troops (as they could be redeployed into the territory at will), but on the control exercised by the occupying power. It followed that as the area remained under the control of the occupying power therefore "Logic and reason dictate that the occupant could not lawfully do indirectly that which it could not do directly".
|Name||Function at time of offense||Charges||Sentence|
|Wilhelm List||Field Marshal, Commander in Chief South-East 1941-1942, head of the German 12th army in 1941||G||I||G||I||lifetime imprisonment; released in December 1952 due to medical reasons. Died 1971|
|Maximilian von Weichs||Field Marshal, commander of the German 2nd army during the Balkans Campaign with the rank of a Generaloberst||I||I||I||I||Removed from the trial due to illness. Died 1954|
|Lothar Rendulic||Generaloberst, Commander of the 2nd Panzer Army in Yugoslavia 1943-44||G||I||G||G||20 years' imprisonment reduced to 10 years. Released 1951. Died 1971|
|Walter Kuntze||General of Engineers, successor of List as Commander in Chief South-East and head of the 12th army as of October 29, 1941||G||I||G||G||lifetime imprisonment. Released 1953. Died 1960|
|Hermann Foertsch||Generalmajor, Chief of Staff of the 12th army||I||I||I||I||acquitted. Died 1961|
|Franz Böhme||General of the XVIII Mountain Army Corps (1940–43), successor of Rendulic in 1944||I||I||I||I||Committed suicide on May 30, 1947 (before the arraignment).|
|Hellmuth Felmy||General; commander of Army Group Southern Greece||G||G||I||I||15 years' imprisonment; reduced to 10 years in 1951. Died 1965|
|Hubert Lanz||General of the XXII Mountain Army Corps (1943–45)||G||I||G||I||12 years' imprisonment; released 1951. Died 1982.|
|Ernst Dehner||Generalmajor, corps commander under Rendulic||G||I||I||I||7 years' imprisonment; released 1951. Died 1970|
|Ernst von Leyser||General der Infanterie, corps commander under Rendulic and Böhme||I||I||G||G||10 years' imprisonment; released 1951. Died 1962|
|Wilhelm Speidel||Generalmajor, military commander in Greece 1942-44||G||I||I||I||20 years' imprisonment; released 1951. Died 1970|
|Kurt Ritter von Geitner||Chief of Staff of the military commanders in Serbia and Greece||I||I||I||I||acquitted. Died 1968|
I — Indicted G — Indicted and found guilty
- (WCC 1949): Law Reports of Trials of War Criminals, Vol. VIII, 1949 of the United Nations War Crimes Commission.
- Description from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
- Another description
- Nuremberg Trial Transcript Collection
- The hostages trial, trial of Wilhelm List and others: Notes held at University of the West of England original source: United Nations War Crimes Commission. Law Reports of Trials of War Criminals. Volume VIII, 1949
- The law relating to hostages and reprisals held at University of the West of England original source: United Nations War Crimes Commission. Law Reports of Trials of War Criminals. Volume VIII, 1949
- Basic Field Manuel & Rules of Land Warfare paragraph 358.d, page 89
- Part IV: Legal status of the Croatian Government of the Hostage Trial
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