German lawyer Hans Rolfe puts on a stellar defense for the former Nazi judges, especially for Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster), who had once been a much respected and admired legal scholar. Of all the defendants, Janning was the only defendant who seemed remorseful and the only one who never spoke in his own defense.
During Rolfe’s brutal cross-examination of concentration camp survivor Irene Wallner (Judy Garland), Janning stands up and orders Rolfe to stop. Janning asks for a chance to testify, and he forthrightly admits that he and other Nazi judges condemned many innocent people to death. Ultimately, all of the defendants are found guilty
Cold War tensions are high between the USA and the Soviet Union, and Judge Haywood (Spencer Tracy) is urged by many people to give the judges lenient sentences, so as not to antagonize the German public. Instead, Haywood (Spencer Tracy) sentences all of the judges to life in prison. In doing so, Haywood loses the friendship of many Germans he has come to know, including Frau Bertholt (Marlene Dietrich).
Lawyer Rolfe tells Haywood privately that, in a few years, almost all Nazi war criminals will be paroled. Haywood agrees that this is very likely, but insists that it is morally unacceptable.
Haywood briefly visits Janning in prison. Janning tries to explain to Haywood that he never knew how evil the Nazis were, and that he never realized Hitler’s actions would lead to the Holocaust. “”You must believe me,” says Janning, “I never knew it would come to this.” But Haywood is unmoved. He says, “It came to this the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.” Haywood walks out, leaving Janning alone in his cell.
A postscript before the credits notes that none of the Nazi war criminals sentenced to prison at Nuremberg served out their full sentences.
Thanks John L!