Nuremberg: The Fall Of The Supermen

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On the twentieth of November, 1945, the trial began “in a high solemn moment of extreme importance!’ as the Soviet member, General I. T. Nikitchenko. put it. Geoffrey Lawrence, the British member, made a brief statement before the indictment was read as required by the Charter of the International Military Tribunal (it took nearly two days to read it in four languages).

 
 
 
 

On the twentieth of November, 1945, the trial began “in a high solemn moment of extreme importance!’ as the Soviet member, General I. T. Nikitchenko. put it. Geoffrey Lawrence, the British member, made a brief statement before the indictment was read as required by the Charter of the International Military Tribunal (it took nearly two days to read it in four languages). “It is the duty of all concerned,” he said, “to see that the Trial in no way departs from those principles and traditions which alone give justice its authority and the place it ought to occupy in the affairs of all civilized states.” Everyone was impressed with his dignity and sincerity; and the sense of authority—so thoroughly British in quality—that he brought to the courtroom largely accounted for the orderly days in court that followed. “Incidents” had been feared, but there were none. Germans were used to bowing their heads to authority.

The chief American prosecutor, Justice Robert Jackson of the Supreme Court, made an eloquent and moving opening statement. The wrongs here condemned, he began, were so devastating that “civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated. That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury, stay the hand ol 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.” We must never forget, he continued, “that the record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. If these men are the first war leaders of a defeated nation to be prosecuted, they are also the first to be given a chance to plead for their lives in the name of the law.” The duty of the Tribunal, he said, was to apply the sanctions oi’the law to those who were guilty of the crimes charged. Civilization “does not expect that you can make war impossible. It does expect that your juridical action will put the forces of international law, its precepts, its prohibitions and, most of all, its sanctions, on the side of peace, so that men and women of good will in all countries may have ‘leave to live by no man’s leave, underneath the law.’ ”

Sir Hartley Shawcross, when he opened the British case on December 4, emphasized individual responsibility: “The State is not an abstract entity. Its rights and duties are the rights and duties of men. Its actions are the actions of men. … Politicians who embark upon a war of aggression should not be able to seek immunity behind the intangible personality of the State.”

To me, FranÇois de Menthon’s summary of the French case was more interesting than any, and in many ways more moving: more interesting because he sought to distinguish and to understand the German soul within the dark atmosphere of German action; more moving because he thought and spoke of Germans as members of a group to which all human beings belonged. The philosophy of the National Socialist party, he argued, had logically resulted in a war of conquest fought without respect for any human values. The vast organized criminality sprang from “a crime against the spirit,” which aimed to plunge humanity back into barbarism—it was not the spontaneous savagery of a primitive race, but a reaction conscious of itself, utilizing for its ends the material means put at the disposal of mankind by contemporary science.

This doctrine, de Menthon pointed out, was based on the monstrous theory of racism. Its end was the absorption of the personality of the citizen into that of the State, and the intrinsic value of the human being was finally denied. Anyone whose opinions differed from the official doctrine was asocial and unhealthy. Humanism was condemned as decadent. Reason was replaced by the romance and the virility of war; violence became the test of manhood. National Socialism in modern Germany, he concluded, was the “ultimate result of a long evolution of doctrines,” raising “inhumanity to the level of a principle.”

General R. A. Rudenko, presenting the Russian case three weeks later, talked of crimes in the Slavic countries. He referred to the defendants, doubtless for some semantic reason of his own, as “Hitlerites” and “Fascists”—never as “Nazis”—with “the morals of cannibals and the greed of burglars.” The prosecutors, he ended, were presenting the defendants with “a just and complete account which must be settled.”

Of the defendants Hermann Wilhelm Goering was by far the most kaleidoscopic. He would occasionally forget himself in a blaze of anger. For so gross and heavy a human being he could move with extraordinary quickness. He sat in the corner of the defendants’ box, a rug across his knees, the double-breasted light gray uniform of a Reichsmarshal that he had designed for himself now faded and baggy, and without decorations.