Brown, Pete, Contemporary Review
Fifty years ago, on 20 November 1945, the greatest trial in history commenced -- the Nuremberg War Crimes trial. It was not the longest trial in history but it dealt with literally hundreds of defendants while thousands more were never actually brought to trial.
They were the first trials brought against a new breed of criminal -- the war criminal. They lasted some ten months, and as recently as 1991 spawned a War Crimes Bill in Britain. The prosecutors were multinational, from Britain, the US, France and the USSR. The main defendants were the German leadership with the exception of Hitler and Goebbels both of whom had already committed suicide, and Martin Bormann, Hitler's deputy, who was reputed to have made his escape but who has never been found. The trials were initiated by the victorious Allies to serve the cause of international justice after the most horrific war on record and to act as both a deterrent and precedent for future conflicts. The fact that only German defendants were included suggests an economy of justice that has never really been explained satisfactorily. Other appalling events such as the Katyn massacre, the Dresden and Hamburg fire storms or the villages torched and their inhabitants massacred by Italian soldiers in occupied countries, appeared not to have entered the terms of reference at Nuremberg.
Geoffrey Lawrence, a British Lord Justice of Appeal since 1944, was the court president and the central figure at the Nuremberg trial. A benign, balding figure, he dominated the proceedings for nearly twelve months. He would permit no unfair prejudice or comment at the trial and presided over it with a marked, but aloof, authority. He even won the respect of the Nazi defendants with his rulings on the complex legal arguments arising from the trial for which the court had no clear precedents to it.
Sir Norman Birkett was the other British judge at Nuremberg. An interesting description of him is provided by Francis Biddle, the principal American judge who saw him as `. . . very different. Lawrence was short and roundish. Birkett towered above him, six feet three, beak-nosed, reddish hair, lean, angular, hawk-like. He had wit, was broadly read, particularly in poetry; was impulsive and generous. I liked Birkett at once. I don't think the two men were close friends. Temperamentally they were very different. They appeared, however, to get along well, their relationship marked by more than usually good manners'.
Francis Biddle, the senior American member, was a man of great character and intelligence. He had been disappointed at not being selected as President of the Tribunal though his support for Lawrence was unquestionable when this had been decided in October 1945. He came from a distinguished Philadelphian family, and was born in Paris on 9 May 1886. He was a romantic figure, compelling but unpredictable. He had been the private secretary to Oliver Wendell Holmes, one of the most famous judges of the US Supreme Court. With his dark eyebrows and handsome moustache, he looked more like a fashionable trial lawyer than a judge. John J. Parker, the second American judge, came from Charlotte, North Carolina, the state where he had been born on 20 November 1885. He graduated from its university in 1907, took his law degree in 1908 and was a US circuit judge.
The French judges, almost as one, were fascinating by their inexplicable passivity. They scarcely uttered a word throughout the whole proceedings, as if impelled by some higher being to be perpetual observers of the great drama unfolding before them. Professor Henri Donnedieu de Vabres of the Sorbonne, had a round forehead and a heavy drooping moustache. When the trial had lasted about six months, he astonished the court and the defendants by suddenly reaching for the microphone and asking a series of skilful questions that revealed a complete grasp of an intricate point of law.
Robert Falco seemed the more lively of the two Frenchmen. A small, dark-haired figure, he was bird like, shrewd and an able jurist. Each day he was tire first to emerge from the judges' room and sweep info court with quick, eager steps, his gown flying as if expecting some gratifying entertainment rather than the sombre, historic drama it was. He was Chief of Counsel at the Paris Court of Appeal and Counsellor at the Supreme Court of Appeal.
I. T. Nikitchenko, Major General of Jurisprudence, was a small, round-faced Russian with his hair brushed severely back. His narrow eyes showed little expression unless excited by mention of the `Fascist hyenas'. A man of sharp intelligence with a sense of humour, his contribution to the trial was limited by orders from Moscow. Colonel Alexander Fedorovich Volchkov was said to be People's Commissar for Justice and Professor of International Law. Western intelligence services at Nuremberg made reports on him. It was suspected that he might not be a qualified judge when in the month before the trial he refused to take the chair in private sessions in the absence of Nikichenko. That he was close to the secret police is certain and he may have been appointed to watch Nikitchenko.
Chief among the twenty-one men who entered the dock at Nuremberg's Palace of Justice on chat Tuesday morning was former Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, the second man in Hitler's Reich. When he received the indictment, Goering had scowled and upbraided his captors. Now, in court, he had recovered his composure. According to eyewitnesses he had shed weight and appeared in good health. Freed from his dependence on drugs, Hermann Goering was once more a formidable fighting machine.
Rudolph Hess, once deputy Fuhrer and designated third in the Nazi succession before he flew to Scotland in 1941, stared fixedly ahead with glazed eyes. Some on the prosecution side were doubtful that he should stand trial. He claimed to remember nothing, yet his IQ score, as assessed by Dr. Gilbert, a psychologist assigned to the trials, had been significantly above average and hardly that of an absent-minded `dummkopf'. When served his indictment, Major Airey Neave reported that `he collapsed on his bed doubled up with stomach cramp'. In court he read a book and chewed gum.
Joachim von Ribbentrop, the former Foreign Minister, shook and shivered. He had broken down and wept on receiving the charges against him. Now he sat slumped in his seat with dark rings under lifeless eyes.
Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, Chief of Staff of the Wehrmacht, jauntily munched biscuits while the prosecutor, Colonel Pokrovsky, read the fourth count, crimes against humanity. Julius Streicher, the Jew-baiting Gauleiter of Franconia, had allowed hair to grow on his shaven pate and, smartly dressed in a blue suit, was more at ease than he had earlier appeared to be.
The tall, distinguished banker, Hjalmar Schacht, looked enraged, as well he might, considering that he himself had been held in a concentration camp under suspicion of plotting to murder Hitler. Alfred Rosenberg, the `philosopher' of the Nazi Party and sometime Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories, had a crumpled, distraught appearance. Hans Frank, Party lawyer and former governor of Poland, seemed resolved to sustain the image of a repentant sinner and devout Catholic convert.
Wilhelm Frick, the former Minister of the Interior, resembled a grizzled farmer sitting there in his tweed jacket. Walther Funk, a financial journalist and former Minister of Economics, was slack-jawed, as if uneasy in strange surroundings. Admiral Karl Doenitz, former Chief of the U-boat flotillas, then Commander of the German Navy and finally Hitler's designated successor, was his usual blithe self: alert, intelligent, almost imposing.
One man was missing from the line-up: the scar-faced giant, Ernst Kaltenbrunner. The epitome of Gestapo evil, head of the central security administration, the RSHA, who had blubbed uncontrollably in his cell being served the writ, was in hospital with a haemorrhage. He would make his appearance later. Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, the arms manufacturer, was senile and dying. He was excused trial. Finally, the Nazi labour leader Robert Ley, architect of the Strength Through Joy Movement, had cheated the court by hanging himself in his cell. Using his American military jacket and a towel soaked in water, he had rigged up a gallows from the sluice bar of his lavatory.
Of the twenty-one principal defendants, eleven were sentenced to hanging including Goering, von Ribbentrop, Keitel and Kaltenbrunner. Goering subsequently cheated the gallows by poisoning himself with a long-concealed pill in one of his teeth, a bizarre insurance against retribution for just such an eventuality. Three got life imprisonment: Hess, Funk and Raeder. Others received prison terms ranging from ten to twenty years including Doenitz, who received ten years after being so stoutly defended by the brilliant Kranzbuehler. Only two were acquitted, Schacht and von Papen. They were indicted on only two of the four counts received by the other defendants.
Should there have been a Nuremberg Trial? Was it merely `victor's justice'? Some have suggested that the circumstances of 1945 made a trial politically necessary, others argue that while there are certain rules of war, war criminals of a defeated state should not be tried in future. How are such conflicting statements to be reconciled? How are the `rules of war' to be enforced if there is neither a code of international law nor a tribunal? Would it come back to the individual to act according to the dictates of his conscience?
Many on the British side held the view that summary methods should have been used instead of a judicial trial. In 1945, Winston Churchill proposed that a list of Nazi war leaders be prepared for summary execution. Others viewed this attitude as wrong. If there had not been a fair trial, the Nazi myth would have grown stronger than it is today, and the places of execution would have become Nazi shrines, perhaps the subject of annual pilgrimage. Nazi bosses would have become martyrs, dying without the chance to voice a defence. Nor would history have been able to record the sheer enormity of the crimes revealed in the evidence.
But it can at least be claimed that Nuremberg, by excluding the defence of `superior orders', has influenced the laws of war and defined more clearly the responsibilities of soldiers. American and British military manuals now declare that a soldier is only obliged to obey `lawful orders'. The German army is required to carry out no order which would lead to a crime. Such well-meaning additions to military law place the onus on the individual to decide what military action would lead to a crime.
All this brings us finally to the War Crimes Act passed in 1991 by Parliament amid much controversy. The House of Lords was adamantly opposed to this Bill but failed to stop its receiving the Royal Assent. One wonders why it has taken so long for such a Bill to be recognised. It is almost as if, now that the Cold War is over, British Military Intelligence need something else to occupy their time. They have dragged an old ogre up from the past to keep their target practice up.
As a result of this, a list of war criminals living in Britain for the past forty years or so has been given to a special unit of the police to investigate but so far little has been heard of any impending war crimes trials. When I enquired of the Crown Prosecution Service, a young girl politely informed me that, yes, they had received a file from the police and, yes, they were seriously considering prosecuting seven of the ten suspects on the file. But the CPS has to decide if there is sufficient evidence for a case to go before judge and jury. Then, finally, they have to obtain the permission of the Attorney General to go to trial. So after three years of police investigations a mere seven suspects may be indicted under the War Crimes Act. It sounds like a very expensive exercise. Forty years ago -- yes. Today, when war criminals are old men and virtually past retribution, the validity of spending such large sums of money in bringing them to trial is questionable.
What of the future? Will the greatest war crimes trial in history lead to the smallest, fifty years later? Will government legislation be quietly side tracked into a sleepy backwater of bureaucratic stagnation? One thing's sure: wars will go on producing war criminals who escape international justice and who survive to draw their pension, as any veteran UN soldier will tell you.…
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Publication information: Article title: Nuremberg Remembered. Contributors: Brown, Pete - Author. Magazine title: Contemporary Review. Volume: 267. Issue: 1558 Publication date: November 1995. Page number: 257+. © 1999 Contemporary Review Company Ltd. COPYRIGHT 1995 Gale Group.