Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah) The Story of Murray C. Bernays

Murray C. Bernays, a name perhaps not known to most, was responsible for constructing the legal framework and procedures for the Nuremberg War Crime Trials after World War II. His work was of utmost importance as it helped bring justice to those found guilty of heinous crimes during WWII. For his work at Nuremberg, Bernays was awarded the Legion of Merit.

It seems only fitting that Bernays, a naturalized American Jewish citizen, would be the one responsible for collecting evidence and building the case against the Nazis. Bernays, who was said to be a “brilliant lawyer and meticulous investigator,” composed a prosecution strategy that would be more effective than simply prosecuting individual Nazis. Rather, Bernays believed that the atrocities committed by the Nazi party could be viewed as a conspiracy against humanity; a conspiracy based upon the doctrine of racial purity. If the prosecution was framed in this fashion and could prove that the Nazi program was indeed a conspiracy against humanity, carried out in violation of international law, then the entire Nazi organization would be found guilty. This was a paramount contribution by Bernays because this way the Allies would not have to try each individual associated with the Nazi party, but rather extend the verdict of guilty to any and all who were members.


Col. Bernays (left) with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, the chief U.S prosecutor at Nuremberg. Taken at Bovington airport, near London on July 22, 1945. (Bernays Collection, 3817, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming).

The Nuremberg Trials lasted a total of 218 days, with 236 witnesses questioned, 5,330 documents and 200,000 statements submitted as evidence and 25,000 pages of protocol written. The verdicts came out on September 30 and October 1, 1946 that resulted in seven imprisonments, 12 death sentences and three acquittals. Though later some death sentences were changed to prison sentences and there were some early releases, the Nuremberg Trials would leave a lasting legacy on the world.

The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, Germany, which was a panel of eight judges, two named by each of the four Allied powers, has served as a model for other tribunals in trying war criminals. Some examples include The Hague in the Netherlands – for trying crimes committed during the Balkan wars – and the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, which tried Japanese officials for crimes against peace and against humanity. The Nuremberg Trials also contributed to the development of international criminal law and has served as a model for conventions such as the 1948 Convention of Genocide.

Murray C. Bernays regrettably became quite ill during the evidentiary phase and was unable to remain present for the trials. He had intended to go to Japan to help with preparations for war crime trials there, but because of illness he retired from the Army. He returned home to New York, where he practiced law for several law partnerships between the mid-1940s and mid-1960s.

The American Heritage Center holds Murray C. Bernays papers, which consist of Bernays’ files regarding the Nuremberg War Crime Trials (correspondence, legal documents, reports, clippings, plans, memos), photographs of Bernays and colleagues, and Bernays’ personal correspondence, creative works, and documents related to Bernays’ military commissions during World War I and World War II.

– Clint Ide, American Heritage Center intern from the UW Department of History

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6 Responses to Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah) The Story of Murray C. Bernays

  1. Michael B. Bernays says:

    Murray C. Bernays was my grandfather, and I am very proud to see his accomplishments noted. There is a very thorough history of the planning and preparation for the Nuremberg trials in The Road To Nuremberg, by Bradley F. Smith, which explores in fascinating detail the political in-fighting in the Roosevelt administration between those who favored summary execution for the top Nazis, and those who favored a trial, based on Anglo-American notions of evidentiary principles and due process of law. Murray Bernays was designated by Secretary of War Henry Stimson to develop a plan for the later, which resulted in the events described in this excellent article. Thank you.

    • Bruce Bleier says:

      Hi Michael….Murray C. Bernays was my grandmother Ida’s 1st cousin. Her maiden name was Cohen, as was Murray’s before he changed it to Bernays. So, it looks like we have the same great, great grandparents and we’re third cousins! If you’d like, please feel free to contact me at brucebleier@aol.com

      • Bruce Bleier says:

        OK….my brother tells me I’m an idiot….and I think he is correct! Murray Bernays was my other Grandmothers 1st cousin, Florence Sonnenthal. So, we’re still third cousins, just on the other side!

  2. Tyler Cline says:

    Michael, we are very pleased to be the stewards of your grandfather’s collection, and we are proud to share his contribution to history with all.

  3. Vickie Cohen Meyer says:

    Dear Michael:

    Ever since I was a kid, my dad told me about my Uncle Murray. I remember him only insofar as he married Grace and I saw them from time to time when we were young. I am trying to figure out exactly how we are related. I’m certain it’s on my dad’s side. It’s confusing to me since both of my parents had the last name Cohen before they married so that always adds another layer of complexity to tracing back family roots. And, I know that there was family in Philly although most of my dad’s family lived in D.C. Did Uncle Murray have siblings? If so, what were their names so I can put this puzzle together. Unfortunately, both of my parents are recently deceased so I can’t ask them.

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