Happy Seventy-First Birthday Nuremberg Trials
The Nuremberg trials are seventy one years old ago today. Idealistic, flawed, controversial, admirable, disappointing, fascinating, troubling events they were too. Well worth remembering. Well worth arguing a great deal about.
The charge of hypocrisy is easily made and easily proven – but “hypocrisy” does not invalidate the procedures. Of course the trials represented “victors’ justice” – but what other justice was possible? Without victory over the Nazis – what possible way of holding them to account could there have been? The judicial process presupposes some form of political authority. There can be no law without order – although seemingly there can be various forms of order without law.
Most crimes go unpunished. Speeding motorists, burglars, evil governments – mostly undergo no form of trial. If we were to try nobody until we could try everyone – then the very concept of criminal law would vanish from the face of the earth. The Nuremberg Trials were opportunistic – because a unique opportunity presented whereby all the victorious powers were suddenly on the same page and in a position to at least pass judgement on the Nazi regime.
The Nuremberg Trials achieved a few things.
They put forward the suggestion that the need to respect the chain of command is ultimately less important than the need to acknowledge essential human imperatives – that obeying an order is less than an absolute requirement when that order demands the abandonment of everything it means to be truly human. And by attempting to formulate a definition of actions that could be described as “inhuman” by any international standard – they were necessarily positing values that might be regarded as “human” by any international standard.
They declared the truth about genocide – made genocide a legally declared and demonstrated crime. The verdicts were more important than the sentences and the evidence was as important as the verdicts.
As for the sentences – of course they were inadequate in many ways.
With due respect for Gilbert and Sullivan, it’s not a particularly sublime objective to make the punishment “fit” the crime. Jeffrey Dahmer was not sentenced to be eaten. The law is not supposed to find a punishment that is equivalent to atrocities.
Albert Speer, perhaps the greatest slave-driver in history, cleverly decided to be sorry – but in a very vague way – and so avoided the noose. The prosecutors were more interested in trapping Goering and so allowed Speer to wax lyrical about the things he “ought” to have known (which he did know) and the things he “ought” to have done (as a distraction from the things he did do).
The Nuremberg Trials were partial, inadequate, opportunistic expressions of victors’ justice – enacted by people with plenty of blood on their own hands. They were not always well organised. But they also put unspeakable inhumanity in a dock and presented evidence against it. The trials did not deter future “crimes against humanity” but they remind us that seventy years ago, people believed passionately that such crimes could be prosecuted and deterred in the future – based on a kind of precedent.
The anniversary of this messy and idealistic endeavour deserves extended and sombre commentary.