Crimes of the Holocaust: The Law Confronts Hard Cases

By Savelsberg, Joachim J. | Law & Society Review, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Crimes of the Holocaust: The Law Confronts Hard Cases


Savelsberg, Joachim J., Law & Society Review


Crimes of the Holocaust: The Law Confronts Hard Cases. By Stephan Landsman. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. Pp. 320. $49.95 cloth.

Crimes of the Holocaust recounts the histories of four of the best-known trials against perpetrators of the Holocaust. The first four chapters are devoted, respectively, to the Nuremberg trial in Germany, the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, the deportation case and trial against John Demjanjuk in the United States and Israel respectively, and the trial against Imre Finta in Canada. A fifth and final chapter briefly reviews French and German court responses to the Holocaust, criminal prosecutions of previous Latin American regimes by their democratic successor governments, and current international tribunals (International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, International Criminal Court). The final pages provide suggestions for the coordination of truth commissions with criminal court proceedings and for improving future prosecutions.

Landsman writes his book as "an American trial lawyer, legal academic, and Jew" (p. xi). He is equally concerned with effective prosecution and punishment and with fairness of criminal proceedings. Both concerns are, as his arguments suggest, closely intertwined, and one of the book's central concerns is expressed in an introductory quotation by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: "Great cases like hard cases make bad law."

The horrors of genocide are one theme of the book. Evidence in the four trials attests to hundreds of prisoners being burnt to death in locked barracks, human skin lampshades, shrunken skulls, gassing trucks, removal of gold teeth from the corpses, forced castration of one inmate by another, drilling into another inmate's anus with an auger, slicing off of ears before entry into the gas chambers, suffering and death in the gas chambers, the smashing of baby skulls to save ammunition, mountains of corpses pushed by bulldozers, and the severely injured crying from within piles of corpses in the mass graves.

Conducting trials in face of such monstrous organized and individual crimes is not just painful because of the unbearable accounts participants have to endure and witnesses have to report and relive. It is also challenging because such trials serve diverse and partly contradictory purposes. They are first and foremost criminal trials. Yet they also serve political purposes, and they simultaneously seek to provide a historical and public documentation of hate and cruelty. Landsman's account is full of examples attesting to these agendas (e.g., pp. 6ff, 13ff, 56ff, 60, 93f, 96, 111ff, 123, 169).

Successes and weaknesses of the trials are evident in their outcomes and in their proceedings. The Nuremberg trial resulted in the conviction of almost all charged and in most cases in severe penalties, primarily death, and the Eichmann trial in a guilty verdict and in the perpetrator's execution. In contrast, the trials against Demjanjuk and Finta eventually resulted in the release of the accused (and in Demjanjuk's renaturalization in the United States). The latter cases were hampered by "delay, the sprawling and diffuse character of the prosecution case, the substantial risk of misidentification of perpetrators, the harassment of traumatized victim witnesses, [and] the vituperative accusations of defense counsel" (p. …

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