This week marks an important anniversary in human events. On Nov. 20, 75 years will have passed since the first Nuremberg Trial commenced against major Nazi war criminals in the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Germany.
An International Military Tribunal (IMT) composed of judges from the Allied nations in World War II — United States, Great Britain, France and Russia — started the trial of 23 of Nazi Germany’s most powerful political and military leaders. The defendants made up a Who’s Who of the titans of Nazi Germany and included: Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary and head of the Nazi Party chancery, who was tried in absentia; Admiral Karl Donitz, head of the German Navy; Hans Frank, a vicious antisemite who was governor general of Poland; Hermann Goring, founder of the Gestapo, head of the German Air Force and Hitler’s chosen successor; Alfred Jodl, chief of operations of Germany’s armed forces; Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s chief deputy; William Keitel, commander of Germany’s armed forces; Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister; and Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazis’ chief philosopher in charge of conquered Eastern territories.
The chief prosecutor at the first Nuremberg trial was one of America’s most brilliant advocates, Robert H. Jackson, a former justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and former U.S. attorney general, who was appointed by President Truman to lead America’s team of prosecutors at the trials.
Justice Jackson presented a masterful opening statement Nov. 21, 1945. He said, in part:
“What these men stand for we will patiently and temperately disclose. We will give you undeniable proofs of incredible events…They took from the German people all those dignities and freedoms that we hold natural and inalienable rights in every human being. The people were compensated by inflaming and gratifying hatreds toward those who were marked as ‘scapegoats.’ Against their opponents, including Jews, Catholics, and free labor, the Nazis directed such a campaign of arrogance, brutality and annihilation as the world has never witnessed since the pre-Christian ages. They excited the German ambition to be a ‘master race,’ which of course implies serfdom for others. They led their people on a mad gamble for domination. They diverted social energies and resources to the creation of what they thought to be an invincible war machine. They overran their neighbors. To sustain the ‘master race’ in its war-making, they enslaved millions of human beings and brought them into Germany, where these hapless creatures now wander as ‘displaced persons.’”
He noted that for a reckoning of Nazi atrocities to be held, “judgment must be by victor nations over vanquished forces. The worldwide scope of the aggressions carried out by these men has left but few real neutrals. We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well. We must summon such detachment and intellectual integrity to our task that this trial will commend itself to posterity as fulfilling humanity’s aspirations to do justice.”
It is remarkable that a major defense of the Nuremberg defendants was that they were “just following orders.” They also argued that they were serving the destiny of their vision of a greater Germany. The first defendants in the Nuremberg trials, the Nazi elite, plied the tribunal with pleas that they did not know the details of the systematic extermination of more than 6 million Jews. They asserted that as Hitler’s subordinates, they were carrying out his orders. Hitler, alone, was Nazi Germany’s supreme authority, and, therefore, they disclaimed responsibility.
Sir Norman Birkett, a British judge at Nuremberg, characterized the proceedings as “the greatest trial in history.” The Nuremberg trials are of paramount importance in modern history because they marked a decision by the Allied nations to hold Nazi Germany’s top officials and responsible authorities accountable for their actions; provided a fair forum for the proceedings; and accorded basic rights to the accused defendants: the right to counsel, the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses, a presumption of innocence, with the burden of proving the defendants’ guilt by the prosecution.
The defendants’ plea of “just following orders” was not upheld. Each defendant was judged on evidence of his culpability, as proven by witnesses who testified, in detail, about atrocities; voluminous documentary evidence from the Nazis’ own records of their vile conduct was offered, as was the testimony of the defendants themselves.
The Nuremberg Trials set an important precedent. Crimes against humanity will not be ignored.
“That four great nations flushed with victory and stung with injury, stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law, is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason,” said Justice Jackson.
The first trial culminated in death sentences for 12 leading Nazis. Seven were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 10 years to life and three were acquitted, demonstrating the inherent fairness of the proceedings.
The Nuremberg Trials established that civilized nations will not allow perpetrators of war crimes to escape with impunity. The Nazis’ vile crimes against humanity were publicly exposed so that the world would know their horrors. By remembering the unspeakable horrors, and the Nuremberg Trials that exposed them, we rekindle our commitment that such barbarity will not be excused by civilized mankind.
This editorial appeared in the Nov. 19 edition of the Jewish Herald Voice and is reprinted with permission.