Hostages Case (NMT)

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Case No. 7 of the Nuremberg Military Tribunals (NMT), the Hostages Case, charged twelve senior military officers for "criminal disregard of the rules of warfare for of hostages and civilians."[1] The fourteen defendants were all senior officers in the army and navy, or in the German High Command, OKW. Defendant Blaskowitz committed suicide in prison before the conclusion of the trial.

Part of the crimes involved an order, promulgated by the theater commander, Maximilian von Weichs to execute one hundred civilian "hostages" for every German soldier killed by the partisans, as well as the destruction of villages and killing of villagers near the sites of partisan activity in Yugoslavia, Albania and Greece. [2]

This was an especially difficult legal case, as the taking and killing of hostages was, although deplored, permissible in international law.


  • Field Marshal Wilhelm List, who had commanded the Twelfth Army, which was responsible for the invasion and conquest of Yugoslavia and Greece, until October 1941.
  • Lt. General Wilhelm Kuntze was also a defendant.
  • General Lothar Rendulic commander of the Second Panzer Army in Yugoslavia during 1943-44
  • Lt.General Hermann Fortsch, Chief of Staff to List, Kuntze and von Weichs.
  • Field Marshal Maximilian von Weichs, supreme commander of German forces in this region 1944-45, although arraigned, was separated from the case before its conclusion due to illness.

The basic charge against all the defendants was responsibility for the unwarranted slaying of many thousands of Yugoslav and Greek civilians. On other occasions, all the inhabitants of particular villages, near which partisan action had occurred, were slaughtered and the villages burned. ...several of the defendants who had served on the Russian front were charged with killing uniformed prisoners of war pursuant to the notorious German "Commissar Order." [Source: Taylor, p.321]


The tribunal dismissed the charges relating to partisans or guerrillas. Whilst accepting that there were circumstances under which members of units operating against the German forces in Yugoslavia and Greece were entitled to protection as lawful belligerents, it concluded that "the greater portion of the partisan bands failed to comply with the rules of war entitling them to be accorded the rights of a lawful belligerent. The evidence fails to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the incidents involved in the present case concern partisan troops having the status of lawful belligerents."

On the issue of "hostage" taking and their execution, the tribunal accepted that, in principle, regardless of how abhorrent that might be morally, this was allowed for under international law, although this was a "barbarous relic of ancient times." It described it as a last resort for maintaining order.

It held, however, that there had to be some relationship between the population from which hostages were taken, and the acts to be deferred. If the population had neither knowledge nor approval of the acts, it could not held responsible. If it did, the reprisals had to be proportionate to the acts, in keeping with the proportionality concept within the jus in bello area of just war theory.

In this case, the tribunal found disproportionality.

Thousands of innocent inhabitants lost their lives by means of a firing squad or hangman's noose ... Mass shootings of the innocent population, deportations for slave labor and the indiscriminate destruction of public and private property ... lend credit to the assertion that terrorism and intimidation was the accepted solution to any and all opposition to the German will. It is clear, also, that this had become a general practice and a major weapon of warfare by the German Wehrmacht... That the acts charged as crimes in the indictments occurred is amply established by the evidence. ... The guild of the German occupation forces is not only proven beyond a reasonable doubt but it casts a pall of shame upon a once respected nation and its people.

Specific charges

There were four basic charges:

  1. crimes against the peace
  2. war crimes and crimes against humanity: crimes against enemy belligerents and prisoners of war
  3. war crimes and crimes against humanity: crimes against civilians
  4. common plan or conspiracy.

The conspiracy charge were dropped.

The war crimes and crimes against humanity indictments included criminal responsibility in connection with the implementation

On the charge of waging aggressive war the Tribunal returned a finding of not guilty, on the grounds that "The acts of Commanders and Staff Officers below the policy level, in planning campaigns, preparing means for carrying them out, moving against a country on orders and fighting a war after it has been instituted, do not constitute the planning, preparation, initiation and waging of a war or the initiation of invasion that International Law denounces as criminal. Under the record we find the defendants were not on the policy level, and are not guilty under Count I of the Indictment." (United Nations War Crimes Commission, p.70)

Two of the defendants were acquitted of all charges. The remaining eleven were all found guilty on charges (2) and (3) above, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to terms of imprisonment ranging from life to three years. List and Kuntze, were sentenced to life imprisonment.


  1. Papers of the International Military Tribunal and the Nuremberg Military Tribunals, ArchivesHub, a national gateway to descriptions of archives in UK universities and colleges, University of Southampton Libraries Special Collections Reference: GB 0738 MS 200
  2. Stuart D. Stein, ed., The "Hostages Case" (United States v. List et al), Nuremberg Trials Held by the United States of America Under Control Council Law No.10, Web Genocide Documentation Centre, Faculty of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences, University of the West of England