War Crimes Trials, Now and Then

War Crimes Trials, Now and Then

“What is there to ‘admit’?”
-Adolf Eichmann, pretrial testimony

REBECCA WEST thought they were boring. Karl Jaspers hoped they might lead the Germans to salvation. Janet Flanner regarded them as an island of sanity in a sea of moral wreckage.

In 1946, the Nuremberg trials were a puzzlement. They represented a strange new breed of justice—an attempt to fit, if not squeeze, incomprehensible atrocities and a new kind of crime into the more-or-less traditional canon of Western law. Today, as the so-called “human rights culture” continues to develop—or at least to be debated, if not exactly triumph—the Nuremberg trials are the source of renewed interest (and sometimes puzzlement still). With Slobodan Milosevic at The Hague, hundreds of alleged génocidaires on trial in Arusha and Kigali, and an International Criminal Court (ICC) tentatively on the agenda, the Nuremberg trials are being re-viewed—in a slew of books, plays, and even television films—with an interest sometimes verging on the urgent.

The Nuremberg trials are a good example of how an event becomes an experience, of how a thing becomes a process, of how it lives on in our consciousness and our political culture, returned to again and again. In 1947, Karl Jaspers recognized that the real meaning and the real worth of the trials would be determined when they were over—would be determined, that is, by how the world subsequently understood and used them. “The essential point,” he wrote in The Question of German Guilt, “is whether the Nuremberg trial comes to be a link in a chain of meaningful, constructive political acts (however often these may be frustrated by error, unreason, heartlessness and hate).”

The Nuremberg trials are also an example of how an ever-evolving experience is different from a finite event—indeed, of how the event and the experience sometimes flatly contradict each other. In the popular imagination, for instance, Nuremberg is remembered as a crimes-against-humanity tribunal, yet this charge was given the shortest shrift by the Allied prosecutors, and defined in what we would now consider a radically truncated if not meaningless form. Moreover, the trials never focused on the war against the Jews—that took the Eichmann trial, fifteen years later. (At Nuremberg, only the Soviet prosecutor called witnesses who testified as Jews qua Jews.) And the trials certainly failed in their goal of changing German attitudes toward Hitler, much less leading (or forcing) the Germans to grapple with their guilt. “The Nuremberg trials put the spotlight on the brilliant, foul complexities of the big Nazis’ master plans, but the average German can truthfully state that such remarkable ideas certainly never occurred to him,” Janet Flanner, writing for the New Yorker, observed in 1947. “The p...