The Nuremberg trials were military tribunals with judges from the Soviet Union, France, Britain, and the United States. It was the first trial of its kind, begun on November 20, 1945. It was a precedent in modern history and has been described as a new page in international law.
The trials began with indictments against twenty-four Germans considered important wartime political and military leaders. A second set of trials, the Doctors' Trials, began in December 1946, and the trials of judges began in March 1947. The film Judgment at Nuremberg, by Stanley Kramer, is based on the Judges' Trial. It was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". In the film, the character of Ernst Janning was based on Franz Schlegelberger, the highest-ranking defendant in the Judges’ Trial. Here on youtube is Janning's defense attorney, played by Maximillian Shell, using history in an attempt to puncture the righteousness of his client's accusers.
In real life, Schlegelberger went along with the National Socialist order, preserving his position as a Justice Minister. He had not joined the National Socialist Party until ordered to do so five years into the Hitler regime, and he retired in 1942, claiming at the Judges' Trial that retiring sooner would have put a more brutal jurist in his place. The tribunal concluded that Schlegelberger "loathed the evil that he did," that he had preferred a life of scholarship and had retired in 1942 because "the cruelties of the system were too much for him." The tribunal also concluded that was guilty of having put his signature to documents that disregarded even the pretense of judicial process.
The movie depicted the American jurist, Dan Haywood, having a conversation with Schlegelberger, the fictional Ernst Janning, after he was sentenced to life in prison for conspiracy to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity, a conversation that touched on the deaths of Jews and the core significance the Nuremberg trials: individual responsibility.
Janning: "I never knew it would come to that. You must believe it!" Judge Dan Haywood: "Herr Janning, it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent."
Among the indicted for the trials that began in November 1945 were the high ranking Nazis Hermann Goering and Rudolf Hess. Himmler, Goebbels and Robert Ley had killed themselves before the trial opened. Another, Martin Borman, was tried in absentia — his death back in May still unknown to the world. (The day before he was to hang, Goering would kill himself with cyanide he obtained by trading his wristwatch and other personal items with an American guard.) Also tried was the industrialist Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach. And there was Hitler's economics minister to 1937, Schacht. There was the rabid anti-Semite Julius Streicher, a newspaper publisher. There was Ribbentrop, Hitler's Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Hans Frank, who had been in charge of Germany's blood-drenched occupation of Poland.
And there was the Nazi party's crackpot philosopher, Alfred Rosenberg who had written about racial theory and was opposed to degenerate art. He had argued for a new "religion of the blood" based on the "Nordic soul." He had stated his hatred against "Liberal Imperialism" and "Bolshevik Marxism", had helped plan the invasion of the Soviet Union, and following that had been appointed minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories. Asked if he had a last statement before being hanged, he said "no."
Among the accused was General Jodl, who had signed the unconditional surrender for Germany. Jodl was among those judged guilty and hanged with others in 1946. And there was Admiral Karl Doenitz (Dönitz), whom Hitler had chosen as Germany's head of state just before killing himself. Doenitz had been a national hero of sorts and a leader of Germany's submarine warfare and described as Hitler's choice by default, Hitler believing that others had betrayed him.
Doenitz was described by several German naval officers as having been "closely tied to Hitler and Nazi ideology." He saw himself as a loyal military officer following orders. On the charge that he met and planned the course of the war with Hitler, he said:
In heaven’s name, how could an admiral do otherwise with his country's head of state in a time of war?
During the trial Doenitz claimed that he had known nothing about the extermination of Jews. He described men under his command as busy with their work rather than having thoughts about violence against Jews, and he spoke of having supported an Admiral Bernhard Rogge who had a Jewish grandparent.
A variety of sources describe Doenitz as having used the Nazi language of hostility toward Jews. He had spoken of "international Jewish capital," and in August 1944 he had spoken of the "filthy, poisonous atmosphere of Jewry." He had also said that he was "of the opinion that the endurance, the power to endure of the people, could be better preserved if there were no Jewish elements in the nation."
Karl Doenitz was given credit for treatment of prisoners of war according to standards of the Geneva Conventions (established in 1929). He was charged with having conducted unrestricted submarine warfare, but with the realization that Britain and the US had done the same the charge was dismissed. Doenitz was found not guilty on Count One of the indictment but guilty under Count Two (Crimes against Peace) and Count Three (War Crimes). Doenitz was sentenced to ten years in prison (Spandau Prison in what was then West Berlin). He would be released in 1956, age 65, and would receive a government pension due his rank.
The Nuremberg Trials influenced international law. In December 1948 the United Nations would adopt a resolution against Genocide and another for a Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
With the trials, intellectual discourse began paying more attention to individual responsibility for evil deeds. Unfortunate circumstances diminished in significance. (Hitler himself was a product of unfortunate circumstances: a culture of anti-Semitism, his having been a German soldier in World War I, Germany's defeat and the Versailles Treaty.) Nuremberg was about no excuses based on circumstance. Those who supported the trials, despite its flaws, saw something historical and progressive in it: a rise above accepting the existence of chauvinistic conquerors destroying freedom and self-determination. A new age was emerging: respect for imperialism was diminishing. Colonialism was on the way out.
Germans in the American zone, for the most part, accepted the trials, although with little enthusiasm and wishing that Germans had been included among the jurists — which would have made the trials seem less of a victor's justice. Having lost and suffered from the war, common Germans were inclined to be in tune with the anti-war assumptions expressed by the Allied tribunal at Nuremberg. Old stories and theories about Jews were losing credibility. Liberalism's belief in natural law ethics was growing, as were apologies. Many Germans claimed that they had not known of the concentration camps and the killings of Jews. (According to a Stanford University scholar, Alina Petra Utrata, eventually, 30 percent of Germans polled in the American zone said they first learned of the annihilation of Jews from the Trials.)
The idea of individual responsibility would be raised in the trial of a former National Socialist official Adolf Eichmann in Israel in April 1961. Eichmann and his staff had been involved in the deportations of Jews to extermination camps. During his trial he claimed that he bore no responsibility for his actions. The political theorist Hannah Arendt faulted Eichmann for his lack of "critical distance" in thought, for a "banality of evil" expressed by Eichmann as just doing his job.
Contrary opinion about the justice and Nuremberg trials would be expressed at the 1981 funeral of Karl Doenitz in Germany. West Germany's Social Democratic government in Bonn, led by Chancellor Helmut Schmidt (World War II veteran), refused to send a representative to the funeral and forbade members of the armed forces to attend in uniforms. This, according to an article in the New York Times, "infuriated the men from the old soldiers'leagues and rightwing organizations" in attendance at the funeral. They described the Schmidt government as a "shame-regime" and told German television reporters that they didn't dare "tell the truth" about Admiral Doenitz. One said of Doenitz: "He did his duty, what any decent soldier would do." A man next to him shouted that Doenitz was "sentenced by a criminal Allied tribunal that broke every international standard to send him to jail! He was a hero of the German people!"
But among other people, attitudes toward responsibility had been moved forward. Eichmann's youngest son Ricardo was to say he didn't agree that his father's "following orders" argument. And in his 1988 book Justice, Not Vengeance, Simon Wiesenthal wrote that "The world now understands the concept of 'desk murderer'."
Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.