Atrocities on Trial: Historical Perspectives on the Politics of Prosecuting War Crimes

By Patricia Heberer; Jürgen Matthäus | Go to book overview
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The Nuremberg Doctors' Trial and
the Limitations of Context

MICHAEL R. MARRUS

This essay follows a course I often warn my students against: it criticizes the proceedings of the Doctors' Trial more for what did not happen than for what did. I want to argue that the Doctors' Trial—the first of the “subsequent Nuremberg proceedings,” the twelve trials held under United States auspices in the wake of the International Military Tribunal (IMT)—missed an important opportunity to define the principal crimes of German physicians during the Third Reich, to identify the major perpetrators, to put them in a wider intellectual and institutional context, and to sketch an explanation of their crimes. A suggestion, drawn from this observation, is that the focus of the trial contributed to the evasion of medical responsibility that so many commentators have justifiably commented on in recent years. My justification for this approach, fraught as it is with the temptations of anachronism, is that those responsible for the trial themselves defined the standards by which the trial can be assessed.

These standards, it should be said, were extraordinarily high and solemnly declared. One thinks first, perhaps, of the opening address of the American chief prosecutor, Justice Robert Jackson, at the Trial of the Major German War Criminals, insisting on the gravity of Nazi wrongdoing: “The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive their being repeated.”1 “The groundwork of our case,” Jackson told President Harry Truman, “must be factually authentic and constitute a welldocumented history of what we are convinced was a grand, concerted pattern to incite and commit the aggressions and barbarities which have shocked the world.” “Unless we write the record of this movement with clarity and precision,” he continued, “we cannot blame the future if in days of peace it finds incredible the accusatory generalities uttered during the war.”2 Jackson, of course, was not alone in his reference to the historical record. The British chief

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