Literature of the Holocaust
maintained by Al Filreis


Nuremberg Journal

“War's Crimes and Punishments, Then and Now”


NUREMBERG, Germany, Nov. 19 -- Courtroom 600 in the Palace of Justice here has not changed much over the years.

There are the same hard, wooden benches where Hermann Goring and Rudolf Hess and Albert Speer sat during the 11 months of their trial for War crimes. There is the same solemnity behind heavy drapes where the highest-ranking survivors of Hitler's Third Reich faced 218 days of hearings in 1945 and 1946 that pronounced sentences ranging from death by hanging to acquittal.

But as this city commemorates the 50th anniversary of the start of the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal on Nov. 20, 1945, the memory of the historic trial seems clouded.

Since it set out to establish a new International code of law to deter individuals from initiating acts of war, the world's belligerents have shown scant regard for the effort.

"Crimes against peace since 1945 have cost millions of lives," Peter Shonlein, Nuremberg's Mayor, said today as he urged the creation of a permanent international tribunal here. "Serious human rights abuses are still on today's agenda."

And even as the United Nations tribunals on war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda are cast as successors to the Nuremberg trials, today's debate highlighted the challenges facing modern prosecutors in pursuing the overriding legal bequest of the Nuremberg trials: the notion that no individual may commit a "crime against peace" and expect to get away with it.

"Nuremberg was almost unique," said Lord Weidenfeld, the British publisher who took part in a panel debate today in Courtroom 600 that was the main event in Nuremberg's low-key commemoration of the trial. There were victors; Germany was in ruins; it was easy to have access to the accused."

These days, by contrast, the United Nations tribunal on the former Yugoslavia in The Hague has succeeded in bringing only one defendant to trial; a Balkan peace is still far from guaranteed; and the principal figures under indictment, the Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, are apparently safe from arrest in their Balkan redoubts.

So what relevance can Nuremberg claim now?

In modern times, this southern city has notched itself an ambivalent place in history.

Hitler’s race laws that foreshadowed the systematic killing of millions of Europeans Jews were proclaimed here in 1935. The parade ground where the Nazi Party choreographed annual rallies from 1933 to 1938 still dominates part of the city. Yet, here, 50 years ago, the wartime victors, at Washington's insistence, held a trial that was suppose to enshrine the notion of "justice before vengeance” and offer the world a permanent deterrent to war.

"The lasting contribution of Nuremberg was to make individuals responsible" for the wars they start, Jutta Limbach, the president of Germany's highest court and the first woman to hold the position, said at today's debate with representatives of the United States, the former Soviet Union, Britain and France.

Specifically, the so-called Nuremberg principles, which were never codified as international law, declared that government leaders were to be held accountable for breaches of international law and that no one could plead not guilty to war crimes by saying they were merely following orders.

"Crimes are never anonymous," said Valentin Falin, who was a Soviet Ambassador in Bonn. "They are always committed by people. And all crimes must be punished."

That is precisely the thinking underpinning charges brought by the United Nations against Bosnian Serb leaders. Yet as the debate unfolded today, it became clear that for some, the real significance of the Nuremberg trials lay in the message that they sent to both the vanquished and their victims.

"Victims need an exorcism -- they must be able to grieve,” said Simone Veil, who survived Nazi camps to became a leading politician in France and Europe. "After Nuremberg, no German could say they did not know what had happened."

When the Nuremberg trial ended in October 1946, it produced 12 death sentences, 3 acquittals and 7 prison terms from 10 years to life. Hitler, Goebbels and Himmler had already taken their own lives as Soviet troops pushed into Berlin. Goring avoided his death sentence by swallowing cyanide.

For all its experience with Nazism's rise and fall, though, Nuremberg was not free from the passions and divisions that scoured Germany as the Berlin wall fell. In 1989, the far-right Republicans, campaigning for tougher immigration laws, won almost 18 percent of a local vote, or more than twice the national average.

And while many other Nuremberg residents protested and eventually defeated this show of xenophobia at subsequent elections, some of the 80,000 foreigners who live in this city of 500,000 still feel that Nuremberg has not completely escaped its past.

"We are still treated as second-class citizens here," said Ali Bencibara, the head of a foreigners' advocacy group.

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