Justice at Nuremberg–or Not?

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“This, then, is the climax!  This is the moment you have been waiting for all these black, despairing years!  To see Justice catch up with Evil.  To see it overtake these barbaric little men who almost destroyed our world.  This, really, is the end of the long night, of the hideous nightmare.

And how the mighty have fallen! . . . Why, the sudden loss of power seems to have stripped them clean of the arrogance, the insolence, the truculence that was their very being in all the years I knew them.  How quickly they have become broken, miserable little men!”

(Written by William L. Shirer, Tuesday, November 20, 1945, Nuremberg, Germany.)

Seventy-eight years ago today, the first Nuremberg war crimes trial, also known as the International Military Tribunal, began.  Twenty-four of the most important political and military leaders of Nazi Germany were on trial for, among other things, crimes against humanity.

The United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union were making good on the promise they had made just over two years earlier, in the so-called Moscow Declaration of November 1, 1943. There, the three big Allied powers did “solemnly declare and give warning . . . as follows: At the time of granting of any armistice to any government which may be set up in Germany, those German officers and men and members of the Nazi party who have been responsible for, or have taken a consenting part in the above . . . atrocities, massacres and executions, will be sent back to the countries in which their abominable deeds were done in order that they may be judged and punished according to the laws of those liberated countries.”   Where such offenses had no geographic locale, the criminals would be punished by a joint decision of the Allies.

The Judges

The Nuremberg trials were the result.  The prosecution, led by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, wanted more than to simply win convictions against the initial 24 defendants.  They wanted the proceedings to 1) provide “irrefutable evidence” of Nazi war crimes, 2) offer a “history lesson” to the defeated German nation, and 3) delegitimize the traditional German elite.  Proceedings began on November 20, 1945, and ended on October 10, 1946. Of the 24 initially charged, 12 were sentenced to death by hanging, 7 received sentences ranging from ten years to life imprisonment, 3 were acquitted, 1 was deemed physically incapable of standing trial, and 1 died by suicide before the trial could begin.

The hangings were all carried out on October 16, 1946.  Among the 10 actually hanged (Martin Bormann had been sentenced in absentia, and Hermann Göring, died by suicide the day prior to his scheduled execution), was Wilhelm Keitel, the head of the OKW (Supreme Command of Armed Forces).

November 20 also marks an anniversary of another sort with particular relevance to Keitel.  Those of you who have heard my lecture on the heavy water war/Vemork raid, have learned of the tragic fate of the 30 British demolition experts who took part in Operation Freshman (November 19/20, 1942), the attempt to destroy the Norwegian heavy water facility at Vemork.  The plan called for the sappers to land in Norway in two gliders, destroy the facility, and try and escape to neighboring Sweden.  Such an escape called for evasion over hundreds of miles of Norwegian terrain (in the middle of winter) despite the fact that the sappers could hardly speak a word of Norwegian. In other words, the odds of a successful evasion were practically nil.  By wearing British uniforms, however, the attackers could feel safe in the knowledge that, under the Geneva Convention, they would, if captured, be interned as POWs for the duration of the war.

What the sappers did not realize, however, was that Hitler had decreed that any enemy soldier caught in a commando operation was to be killed immediately, uniform or no, the Geneva Convention notwithstanding.  On November 20, 1942, those surviving British sappers in glider #2 were executed pursuant to the so-called Commando Order, which had been signed by none other than Keitel in October 1942. It is thus ironic that exactly three years after the deaths of the British commandos, Keitel would stand trial for his actions.  By signing the Commando Order, Wilhelm Keitel had sealed his own fate. Whether he realized the coincidence is unknown, although perhaps the enormity of his crimes finally sank in when his request to be shot by a firing squad was rejected by the Allies in favor of death by hanging.

The Defendants

Subsequent war trials at Nuremberg targeted a further 177 military and party leaders, leading to 142 additional convictions, and 25 death sentences. This represented a small fraction of the almost 100,000 Germans initially arrested as war criminals, and the 2,500 “major” war criminals identified by the Allies.

Although other war trials were also held in subsequent years in various venues outside of Nuremberg, the numbers convicted, and their sentences, like that of General von Falkenhorst* represent an exceedingly small price to pay for the many, many millions of innocent lives lost at the hands of the Nazis during World War II.

* = Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, the Supreme Commander of German forces in Norway, was also sentenced to death in 1946 for his role in the death of the British commandos in Operation Freshman.  His sentence was later commuted to 20 years imprisonment.  In 1953, having served only seven years of his sentence, he was released “for reasons of health.”  He lived for another 15 years, dying in 1968.

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