Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Judgement at Nuremberg


In 1947 four German judges are themselves on trial for having enforced Nazi laws concerning eugenic sterilization and race. One is an unrepentant Nazi, two are party hacks who did what they were told, and one (Burt Lancaster) was a highly respected jurist. Spencer Tracy is the homespun country judge tapped to head the three-judge panel in the winding-down days of the Nuremberg war crimes trials. Richard Widmark is the passionate prosecutor who is trying to get some measure of justice for the horrors he saw at Dachau. Maximilian Schell is the equally passionate and very smart defense lawyer who wants to recapture some dignity and respect for the German people, while making the point that the judges had no choice but to follow the law, bad as it was. There is pressure to get the damn thing over with, and to acquit if possible, because America is going to need the German people in the coming Cold War, and we don’t want to offend them. Dachau? Water under the bridge. There are all the makings of a crackerjack courtroom drama here, and Stanley Kramer delivers on all fronts, taking over three hours to do it. I wouldn’t have cut a minute. The film was nominated for a truckload of Oscars, but this was the year of West Side Story, which almost took them all. Schell won for Best Actor, and it was well-deserved.

The movie examines some very disturbing questions. So the Nazis made a law demanding the sterilization of “social undesirables?” (The feeble-minded, the insane, homosexuals, drunkards and layabouts? Ah, but so did the great Oliver Wendell Holmes! It was known as eugenics, and some otherwise sane people believed in it early last century. Gypsies and Jews? Well … America didn’t go that far, though many wouldn’t have minded, but we did conduct experiments on Negroes with syphilis.) You say the German people did nothing to stop the rise of the Nazis? And what did the Russians do? They signed a non-aggression pact. What did the west do when Hitler annexed Austria, the Sudetenland and then the rest of Czechoslovakia? Why, Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement and let him have it. And just what is the moral responsibility of a jurist when it comes to a law that provides no justice? Well, I believe it is to provide justice, but that isn’t easy or even immediately obvious. The people in this film wrestle with all these questions, and find few easy answers.

It is so easy to be holier-than-thou when considering the German people from 1933 until 1945. The huge majority of them worshipped Adolf Hitler, there is no way to get them off the hook for that. As to the question of what did they know and when did they know it about the mass extermination of as many as 11 million people … I can believe that most of them didn’t know the details, but they must have heard the rumors, and they must have known that those cattle cars leaking shit and piss and blood and screams and the decaying bodies of Jewish infants were going somewhere, and they weren’t coming back. And then the question becomes, what were they supposed to do about it? And the answer, as it would have been for the huge majority of Americans or the citizens of any other country, is … nothing. We did nothing as the Japanese-Americans were shipped off to concentration camps. Did many Americans know, from their own personal experience, that those people were not being gassed and cremated? What would most of us have done if that had been the case, and we did know? Nothing. I’m sure of it. It is frightening to stand up to tyranny, and one of the most dangerous things you can do, as the government will squash you like an insect. Believe it.

And I’m not being sanctimonious here. I have examined myself, as I think we all must in the face of the horrors of Auschwitz, and wondered what I would have done if my country went insane. I feel confident that I would not have been an SS soldier running a gas chamber, but that’s an easy one. Would I have hidden Anne Frank? Would I have joined an underground? Would I have thrown my body in front of a train? In all painful honesty, I can’t say that I would have done any of those things. I’ve never had that kind of moral test, and I hope I never have to face one. I fear I might fail it, that I might opt to stay silent and alive.

After all, for eight years my country has been sliding toward totalitarianism and what have I done? In the trial, it is pointed out that Hitler came to power in a time of fear, which is always ripe ground for fascism. And we are in a time of fear, and this administration has used every opportunity to exploit it. “Good” citizens, American or German, are always eager to give up their rights, liberties, and freedom for a sense of (false) security … and how many times have you heard that word in the last eight years? All the moves toward fascism have been justified in the name of security … and we have, so far, eaten it up. How many times have you heard the word “freedom” perverted, as it emerged from that shithole George W. Bush uses for a mouth? We have so far lost the right of habeas corpus, much of the Fourth Amendment, and the Fifth, and they are hard at work on the First. If George W. McCain and Chatty Kathy get elected in November, he will appoint a fifth and maybe even a sixth toady to the Supreme Court and we will lose Roe v. Wade. And what are you doing about it?

What have I done? Well, I’ve attended half a dozen pathetic anti-war marches. What should I do? Carry a sign in front of the White House? That will shake them to their very cores, won’t it?

My only power is as a writer, and I have done what I can with that skill, and I’m doing it right now. But what would I do if there was a knock on the door in the middle of the night? It’s Homeland Security, and I am in violation of the new law making it a felony to offer aid and comfort to our ill-defined “enemies” (we are currently fighting war on a word—terror—as well as a country), through action or speech. And that is defined as writing or speaking anything derogatory about our great leaders. I can either shut the fuck up, or get on the cattle car. What would I do?

Probably shut the fuck up. Anything to stay off that cattle car …