The Ghosts of Nuremberg

Only a small percentage of Americans would still be able to remember, with any clarity, the trials in Nuremberg, Germany at the close of WWII. The civilized world, led by the United States, moved quickly to bring the criminals of WWII to trial. With America resorting to an aggressive war against Iraq, the ghosts of Nuremberg must surely be stirring about.

There was a time in this country when the Golden Rule actually had meaning. We were quick to criticize those who would attack another sovereign nation without provocation. We used to call those who were attacked and were fighting to defend their country from such aggression, freedom fighters, or at least rebels. Now that we are the aggressor nation, those labels have been changed to "insurgents, militants" or "dead-enders," but that was before God started dictating our foreign policy, using George W. Bush as his spokesperson. It sure changes things when "the big guy" is on your side. I really cannot see why Bush and company bothered with all those lies about WMDs and al-Qaeda connections. Perhaps the democrats would not accept divine intervention.

Back to the ghosts of Nuremberg: the trials began in November of 1945. The Chief Prosecutor, Robert Jackson, on leave from the U.S. Supreme Court, began the proceedings against twenty-one of Adolf Hitler’s top lieutenants, including Herman Goering, Wilhelm Keitel and Rudolph Hess, who stood accused by the world’s first international tribunal of masterminding horrific crimes. Among the charges listed in the long indictment were crimes against humanity and crimes against the peace.

This crime against the peace was a brand new charge, never before seen in international law. American prosecutors, led by Justice Jackson, had a more sweeping view of justice in mind. They saw the supreme crime at Nuremberg not in any specific act of Nazi mass killing, nor in the construction of the death camps like Auschwitz. For American prosecutors, the supreme crime was a completely new criminal charge: waging aggressive war, or the crime against peace.

Even though Winston Churchill, Henry Morgenthau and Cordell Hull advocated summary executions of those accused, and Stalin suggested that Nazis should stand trial with a presumption of guilt, and that judges presiding over their trials should concern themselves with determining the degree of punishment, Jackson, with the full support of President Truman, advocated that Nazi leaders be tried, but that they be subject to a fair trial. Individuals – political and military leaders – were to be held accountable by an international authority for atrocities committed in the name of the State.

It should be noted, opposition to the trials came from some heavy hitters in the American establishment. Chief Justice Harlan Stone of the United States Supreme Court and Justice William O. Douglas condemned the trial. The trials also drew political fire from Senator Robert A. Taft, a powerful politician and presidential candidate.

Regardless of this opposition, the trials were held and precedent was set. Case law, the pundits call it.

Robert Jackson would tell this court that the aim of Nuremberg was not to merely punish the crimes of Nazi Germany: “The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant and so devastating that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive their being repeated.”

Justice Jackson said, “Any resort to (aggressive) war, any kind of war is a resort to means that are inherently criminal as means. War inevitably is a course of killings, assaults, deprivations of liberty and destruction of property.”

The prosecution would hold subsequent trials, for it was felt the criminal acts went far beyond the government and the military. Prosecutors thought that one trial of 21 Nazi leaders did not adequately address criminal guilt in Germany. The prosecution stated, “It was felt that we had to bring in the industrialists, who built the concentration camps in order to have cheap labor for their war machine. The generals, who had the power to stop Hitler and chose not to, the doctors, who conducted medical experiments for example, were to be portrayed so the world could see precisely how it was that a civilized country like Germany could resort to such barbarism."

The prosecutors felt the military/industrial complex of Germany was complicit in the conduct of the war, not just the military and its civilian leadership.

Telford Taylor would take over for Jackson, who returned to his duties on the Supreme Court, as Chief Prosecutor in the trial of the German industrialists. In his opening statement at the trial, Taylor said: “One does not build a stupendous war machine in a fit of passion, Or an Auschwitz factory during a passing spasm of brutality. There will be no mistaking the ruthless purposefulness with which the defendants marked on the course of conduct. That purpose was to turn the German nation into a military machine and build it into an engine of destruction so terrifyingly formidable that Germany could impose her will and dominion on Europe.”

The civilized nations of the world in 1945 saw that it took an entire country to commit the crime of "aggressive" war. One man, acting with the authority as leader, could not be the only culpable person in such a criminal endeavor. The enemy could not be transformed into some "sub-human" species without the help of the entire nation. Whether overtly or covertly, everyone was involved.

Is it any wonder that the United States, led by George W. Bush, has said that we no longer believe in the role such as that taken by this country at Nuremberg. Bush says that no American soldier should ever face trial in anything but a U.S. court. Is it not hypocritical for the United States to stand in judgment of anyone, in any country, for any offense, if that is our position? Can we sentence citizens of Iraq to die for the sins of Saddam, by American bombs and missiles, and be accountable to no one? Would we have allowed the Germans to try their leaders and soldiers at the end of the war? And we think people hate us because we are free!

Benjamin Ferencz, a member of the prosecution at Nuremberg, strongly disagrees with the position taken by Bush: “What the United States is saying is that we don’t want the rule of law. I think that is dangerous, very dangerous, because we cannot lay down a law for the United States and not for the rest of the world. That doesn’t fly. Justice Jackson made that clear at Nuremberg. Law must apply to everyone equally or it’s not law at all. Those who are pushing the other view have a misguided idea of what law is all about. They also have a misguided conception of how to safeguard the welfare and justice and rights for citizens everywhere.”

How much respect does anyone have for a hypocrite, and how much are we the people, responsible for the death and destruction in Iraq and Afghanistan?

What would happen if we no longer were the "superpower?" How would we defend our aggressive war in a Nuremberg-type scenario? Does might really make right? The ghosts of Nuremberg say no!

January 10, 2005