Besides historical elucidation and the commemoration of the victims, the legal prosecution of the crimes committed by the Germans and their collaborators was the main motivation for the early study of the Holocaust.

In their efforts to hold the perpetrators accountable, the first generation of Holocaust researchers also aimed to lay the foundation for justice: they sought to bring the perpetrators to trial and to convict them. To this end, survivors gathered testimonies from witnesses and documents from authorities involved in the murders and deportations. The documentation of the historic events sometimes happened right at the sites of the crimes, the extermination camps and other killing sites. These efforts formed the groundwork for judicial procedures.

© Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, 453/7
Demonstration in front of the Austrian Parliament in Vienna, 1945. The protesters demanded that the Nazi authorities should be brought to justice.
© United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Norbert Wollheim
Norbert Wollheim, vice-chairman of the Central Committee for Liberated Jews in the British Zone of Germany, addresses a rally protesting the lenient sentencing of a Nazi war criminal, place unkown, 1947

This research of the Holocaust brought forth one stark doctrine everyone could agree on: a catastrophe like this should never happen again. Thus, international law had to be refined in order to protect citizens from their own state or from others.

However, to grasp the enormous crimes of the Germans, new legal definitions were necessary. Terms, such as “genocide” or “crimes against humanity”, either did not exist or needed further clarification at the end of the war. New institutions had to be established, which could prevent or at least prosecute acts of genocide. The survivors invested a great amount of energy in these tasks.

The early research conducted by Holocaust survivors led to changes in international law, as well as to the establishment of international tribunals.

© Fondazione Centro di Documentazione Ebraica Contemporanea (CDEC), Milano
Permit issued to Massimo Vitale to attend the two separate sessions of the War Crimes trial held in Rome in November 1945 as part of the Nuremberg trials.

Nuremberg International Military Tribunal
The four victorious powers of the World War II jointly founded the International Military Tribunal (IMT) in Nuremberg. The Tribunal met from 20 November 1945 until 1 October 1946. Despite the fact that the Holocaust was treated as one of many other crimes, the IMT and its follow-up US Military Tribunal made terms “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” into requisite legal terms.

© dpa-Bildarchiv / picture-alliance
Robert Kempner holding the book "Das Urteil im Wilhelmstrassen-Prozess" (The Verdict of the Wilhelmstrassen Trial) in Frankfurt am Main, 1951. The German emigrant served as a US military Prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials, in 1947 in the ministries trial against former members of Nazi government agencies.

Genocide Convention 1948
In response to the crimes of the National Socialists, the United Nations (UN) adopted the Genocide Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Genocide has been henceforth outlawed under international law. It is officially defined as an “act committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group as such”. Following the convention, it is punishable worldwide: “Persons committing genocide [...] shall be punished, whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private individuals.” International law, thus, limits national sovereignty, which was a novelty in 1948.

© United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Morris Rosen
The judges of the Nuremberg trials, 1945–1946.

International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court
The International Court of Justice in The Hague has existed since 1945 as the successor of the Permanent International Court established by the League of Nations. It is responsible for carrying out lawsuits against states that violate international law. Individuals can be charged in front of the International Criminal Court (ICC) established in 2002. Both courts pursue crimes against humanity and genocide. Although not all UN member states recognize the ICC – i. e. the US and Russia have not yet ratified the statute of the ICC –, both courts must be seen as milestones in the protection of minorities and as reactions to the Holocaust.

European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms
In 1950, the Council of Europe passed the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Now valid in 47 member states of the Council of Europe, it is a crucial step in the recognition of supranational, individual rights of people which have become enforceable through the European Court of Human Rights.

© / Public Domain
Members and signatory states of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Green: member states of the ICC; Orange: states that have signed the statute but have not yet ratified it; Red: non-member states.