A Reckoning at Nuremberg
Where Nazi leaders once strutted, a war-crimes tribunal weighed their fate
WASHINGTON — AS World War II drew to a close, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill conceived a simple plan to deal with the brutal warlords of the Third Reich: Summarily execute them, then announce to the world that they were dead.
American President Franklin Roosevelt had a better idea. Executions create martyrs, he warned. Instead, put Nazi leaders on trial, put the evidence of their atrocities on the record, and deal swift justice.
"He was determined that the question of Hitler's guilt - and the guilt of his gangsters - must not be left open for future debate," a senior aide to FDR, Sam Rosenman, remembered later. "There must never be any question anywhere, by anybody, about who was responsible for the war and for the uncivilized war crimes."
In the end, Roosevelt and his successor, Harry Truman, prevailed. The result was the real trial of the century, the dramatic, year-long proceeding at Nuremberg, Germany, that led to the execution of a dozen top Nazis and established the point that the rule of law and not mere vengeance would be the standard of the victorious Allied powers.
"Churchill's plan was rejected because we needed to build a new world, not imitate Hitler's world," says Alfred Rubin, a professor of international law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "We had to demonstrate that [the Nazis] had done something wrong other than be our enemies."
Half a century later, Nuremberg is the model for two new international war-crimes tribunals established by the United Nations to bring to justice the perpetrators of torture and genocide in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
The decision to try Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg was steeped in unintended irony. In the years before the war, the Berlin suburb had been the scene of massive torch-lit rallies, where Nazi power was put on gaudy display. In 1945 and '46, the men who had held center stage sat in the prisoners' dock, defeated and broken, if not repentant.
A few Nazi leaders eluded justice. Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker on April 30, 1945. Three weeks later, Heinrich Himmler, the SS commandant who condemned unprecedented numbers to torture and death in Nazi concentration camps, swallowed poison after being captured at a British checkpoint near Hamburg, Germany.
But 24 top Nazis eventually were designated to be brought before the Nuremberg tribunal, made up of judges from each of the four powers that occupied Germany - the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, and France.
From November 1945 until October 1946, prosecutors produced more than a million pages of evidence of acts that even one defendant - Nazi armaments minister Albert Speer - described as "so monstrous that they seemed unbelievable."
Of the 22 who were eventually tried, three were acquitted, though subsequently retried and sentenced by German courts. Seven, including Speer and one-time Hitler confidant Rudolf Hess, received prison terms ranging from 10 years to life.
In the early afternoon of Oct. 16, 1946, the first of those remaining - Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop - was led into the execution chamber at Nuremberg prison to be hanged. He was followed in brief intervals by 10 others, including party ideologist Alfred Rosenberg and SS head Ernst Kaltenbrunner.
Nazi air marshal Hermann Goering, the most prominent of the defendants, swallowed a vial of poison in his prison cell two hours before his appointment with the hangman.
American journalist William Shirer wrote: "Like his Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, and his rival for the succession, Heinrich Himmler, [Goering] had succeeded at the last hour in choosing the way in which he would depart this earth, on which he, like the other two, had made such a murderous impact."
"The drama which began when Adolf Hitler made his first speech at a beer hall in Munich in 1919 had reached its terrifying catharsis," wrote another historian of the period, Marshall Dill Jr.
In Japan, another Allied war crimes tribunal sentenced 16 Japanese to life imprisonment and six others - including Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo - to the gallows. Other Germans accused of war-related crimes were tried in military courts set up by the occupying powers.
An agency of justice, the Nuremberg court was also a powerful vehicle for public education. It was through radio broadcasts of the trial that many Germans first learned the extent of the rapacity of the Nazi regime, including the ruthless cruelty of the concentration camps.
THOUGH conducted with the utmost gravity, the Nuremberg trials did not escape criticism. The concept of "war crimes" had been defined in the Hague conventions of 1899 and 1907, but other charges against the defendants - "crimes against peace" (planning or waging aggressive war) and "crimes against humanity" (systematic atrocities by a state against its own people in connection with a war crime or crime against peace) - had a more tenuous basis in international law.
The court convicted defendants for some crimes that, legal scholars argued, were not technically crimes when they were committed. Securing convictions also required a certain moral flexibility: condemning Nazis for death camps, for example, while ignoring Stalin's deliberate campaign of starvation that cost the lives of millions of Ukrainians during the 1930s.
Even so, Nuremberg reinforced the legal principle that following the orders of a superior is no defense against criminal liability when war crimes are committed.
Seven such principles gleaned from the Nuremberg trials were adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1950. The year before, conferees at a gathering in Geneva hosted by the International Committee of the Red Cross had defined a new category of war crimes: "grave breaches." Nations would be expected to cooperate in bringing to justice those who committed such crimes.
The principles established at Nuremberg and Geneva provide the principal basis for indictments issued by international tribunals erected at The Hague, Netherlands, to prosecute war crimes in the Balkans and Rwanda.
The tribunal has indicted and issued arrest warrants for 43 Serbs and Croats accused of rape, torture, and mass killings, including Radovan Karadzic, leader of the Bosnian Serbs, and Gen. Ratko Mladic, his chief military commander.
But prosecutors at The Hague will have a far harder time than their predecessors in Nuremberg.
The occupying Allied armies quickly rounded up and delivered indicted Nazi leaders to the court. Today's tribunals have no power of extradition, though they have begun to try Serbian prison-camp commander Dragan Nikolic in absentia, as the Nuremberg court tried Nazi party leader Martin Bormann. Only one of the Balkan defendants - Dusan Tadic, whose trial begins next month - is in custody.
And unlike Nuremberg, where the defendants were deposed leaders of a defeated government, many of those indicted by the Hague tribunal remain in power and are considered crucial to making and keeping a Bosnian peace accord.
All of which poses an acute moral question for the five Western nations seeking to end the four years of fighting in the former Yugoslavia: Is punishing the perpetrators of Balkan atrocities more or less important than forging a durable Balkan peace?
Amid the ruins of the Third Reich there were no such dilemmas.
*Other articles in this series ran Jan. 30; Feb. 13; March 6; April 10; May 5; June 12; July 17; Aug. 4, 8, 14, and 21; and Sept. 1.