Nuremberg Remembered

By Brown, Pete | Contemporary Review, November 1995 | Go to article overview
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Nuremberg Remembered


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.

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