Magazine article The Christian Century

Judgment at Nuremberg: A Half-Century Appraisal

Magazine article The Christian Century

Judgment at Nuremberg: A Half-Century Appraisal

Article excerpt

Prophets and philosophers have long taught that there exists a higher, universal law that stands above the laws of nations. But is that higher law recognized only in temples and adjudged only in heaven? Or can it be enforced by human laws and institutions? The fact that we can even pose such questions seriously is a testament to the significance and--until recently--uniqueness of the Nuremberg trial, which began just over 50 years ago on November 20, 1945.

Like many of our best institutions, Nuremberg was a response to our worst excesses. Never before had there been an international criminal trial. Nation states had insisted on the exclusive right to try their own citizens and to protect their own, in war as in peace. At most, a conquering army might court-martial the soldiers of a vanquished nation.

This tradition of domestic sovereignty was plainly inadequate to deal with Hitler and the Third Reich. The acts of Nazi Germany left no doubt that massive evil could emanate from the very summit of a nation state and permeate a nation's own laws. Such a case called for an international tribunal to prosecute violations of universally accepted norms.

In lieu of prosecuting their own Nazi prisoners, the four Allied powers--the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union--agreed in the Nuremberg Charter of August 1945 to prosecute the major Nazi war criminals before an International Military Tribunal. Each power would be represented on the tribunal; convictions would be decided by majority vote. The trial would take place at Nuremberg, whose imposing courthouse had somehow survived the Al bed bombing that left most of the city in rubble.

The Charter empowered the tribunal to try three crimes: "crimes against peace"--waging or conspiring to wage a war of aggression; "war crimes"--inhumane wartime treatment of civilians and prisoners; and "crimes against humanity"--murder, extermination, enslavement or other inhumane treatment of or discrimination against any civilian population, before or during the war.

The Charter also made each individual responsible for his own actions and omissions. No one was to be either above or below the law. High officials could not claim immunity, nor could subordinates claim that they merely followed orders.

These Nuremberg principles could not be applied to the two top Nazis, Hitler and Goebbels, who had committed suicide as Soviet troops entered Berlin. But there was no shortage of senior Nazis in custody. Hermann Goering, chief of the air force and war economy, and Hitler's designated successor, topped the list. The prosecutors agreed to try 24 people in all, including Rudolf Hess, Hitler's deputy for Nazi Party matters; forced labor chief Fritz Sauckel; armaments chief Albert Speer; Hans Frank, Hitler's governor-general in Poland; Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop; Julius Streicher, editor of the anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stuermer; and Admiral Karl Doenitz, chief of the navy, who was named in Hitler's will as president and supreme commander of the Reich.

Before the trial ended, one defendant, labor czar Robert Ley, committed suicide; another, aging industrialist Gustav Krupp, was ruled too ill to stand trial. A third, Martin Bormann, Hess's successor as Nazi Party deputy chief, was never found, but was tried in absentia and sentenced to death.

Of the remaining 21 defendants, 11 were sentenced to death by hanging, and seven were given prison terms ranging from ten years to life. Three (a banker, a propagandist and an ambassador) were found not guilty.

Twelve subsequent trials, involving 190 lesser defendants, also took place at Nuremberg between 1946 and 1949. These trials were conducted before American judges in the American occupation zone. Important as these trials were (the film Judgment at Nuremberg was based on one such trial), they did not involve an international tribunal.

The Americans who negotiated the Nuremberg Charter had three principal objectives: to make wars of aggression an international crime, to make atrocities against civilian populations an international "crime against humanity," and to achieve both goals through a trial that exemplified the rule of law. …

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