The 12 Most Brutal War Criminals Throughout History (And The Punishments They Got)

According to international law, war crimes and crimes against humanity are the gravest sins of all. Although we might point to the Nazis as perpetrating some of the worst war crimes ever, there have been a few others who achieve equal footing on the brutality scale. If there's anything to learn from this, it's that no country, political leader, or military commander is immune to the discretion of the International Criminal Court.

This list details some of the most gruesome war crimes of all time, as well as some of the worst war crime punishments. Although it would've been easy to include all 22 Nazis tried at Nuremberg and be done with it, these selections highlight some lesser-known, but no less brutal, war crimes.

  • If you've ever seen Schindler's List, you might've felt a chilling sensation in your bones watching Ralph Fiennes portray Nazi psychopath Amon Göth. He was Hitler's No. 1 hitman, personally responsible for the murder of an untold number of Jews. Göth was the first person ever to be convicted of homicide as a war crime. During his time as the commandant of the Krakow-Plaszow concentration camp in German-occupied Poland, he made his living murdering Jews and other victims of the concentration camp. 

    Steven Spielberg wasn't exaggerating, either, in his depiction of Göth. He had two dogs, Rolf and Ralf, whom he trained to tear inmates apart. He once shot a Jewish cook because he made his soup too hot. On dozens - if not hundreds - of occasions, Göth would perch quietly in his office and shoot workers from his window if they rested or appeared slow. In 1946, he was tried by the Supreme National Tribunal of Poland and sentenced to a hanging. His last words atop the gallows were "Heil Hitler."

  • Hideki Tôjô Ordered The Attack On Pearl Harbor And Was Sentenced To Death
    Photo: US Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Tôjô Hideki was single-handedly responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was the leader of the Imperial Japanese Army and the 40th Prime Minister of Japan. On September 11, 1945, US military police surrounded his house and heard a muffled shot inside. They entered to see that Hideki had shot himself in the chest, aiming for his heart, but missed. As he bled, he said, "I am very sorry it is taking me so long to die. The Greater East Asia War was justified and righteous. I am very sorry for the nation and all the races of the Greater Asiatic powers. I wait for the righteous judgment of history. I wish to commit suicide but sometimes that fails."

    After he was rescued, Hideki was sentenced to death. He was executed by hanging in December 1948.

  • Ilse Koch Tortured Concentration Camp Prisoners And Was Put In Jail For Life
    Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Known as "The Witch of Buchenwald," Ilse Koch became a guard and secretary at the Sashsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin in 1936. She transferred to Buchenwald a few years later. She quickly cultivated a reputation as someone with a sadistic lust for killing.

    Rumors have historically circulated that she would walk around the camp naked, and if anyone so much as looked at her, she would whip them. Koch was one of the first Nazis tried for war crimes. It is believed she ordered the execution of Jewish prisoners with distinctive tattoos so that she could skin them and keep their body art as souvenirs. Some sources even claim she made lampshades out of human skin, but it was never proven. Koch was arrested in June 1945 and received a life sentence for incitement of homicide and other related crimes. In 1967, she committed suicide while in prison. 

  • Henry Wirz Crowded 32,000 Inmates Into A Prison Designed For 10,000 And Was Hanged
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Civil War was the bloodiest conflict in American history, with 620,000 lives lost. But only one man was tried for war crimes related to the conflict. His name was Henry Wirz.

    Wirz was a Swiss-born Confederate officer who oversaw Camp Sumter in Georgia, a prison where 32,000 prisoners lived in deplorable conditions. Union POWs were cramped in small living spaces, surrounded by putrid walls, fed in scarcity, and given fecal matter-ridden water. There was also an abysmal sanitation system which led to thousands of cases of scurvy, dysentery, and diarrhea. 13,000 perished in total. When Wirz was tried for violating the laws of war, he said he was simply following orders. He was sentenced to death and hanged shortly after.