Lessons from Nuremberg, 75 years on

Philippe Sands, the son of a Holocaust survivor, and Horst von Wächter, the son of a Nazi, are both trying to understand their family history.

British Attorney General Sir Hartley Shawcross speaks at the war crimes tribunal at Nuremberg, Germany, on Nov. 15, 1945.

Philippe Sands is on a journey through history, one that has particular resonance this year as the world marks the 75th anniversary of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, Germany.

As a human rights lawyer and a legal scholar, he traces his work directly to those trials as the birth of international law. 

More personally, his odyssey has taken him through his own Jewish family’s reckoning with the Holocaust – and brought him to another man’s struggle to come to terms with his father’s legacy as a Nazi governor.

Growing up, Mr. Sands knew he was descended from Holocaust survivors and that his mother had been a hidden child, sheltered by sympathetic Christians. But his grandfather never discussed this period with him. 

So as an adult, Mr. Sands turned to history books, and later to his own research, to better understand what it had been like to live under the Nazi regime. 

“It was an act of identity, a way of understanding my grandfather better as a way of knowing myself better,” he says during an online discussion commemorating the Nuremberg trials hosted by Temple Beth El in Boca Raton, Florida, and American Friends of the Hebrew University.

This quest brought him to another family, that of Otto von Wächter, a high-ranking member of the SS who was indicted for the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews but ultimately escaped international justice. 

Just as Mr. Sands was trying to better understand his family history, Horst von Wächter, Otto’s son, was also grappling with his family’s past. Mr. Sands found he could relate, and says he even came to like Mr. Wächter, though he struggles with Mr. Wächter’s tendency to sanitize his Nazi father’s culpability. 

Despite their differences, the two men continued to correspond. 

Mr. Wächter expressed frustration that others labeled him a “new kind of Nazi” because he felt compelled “to find the good in my father.” “How can I prove I’m not a Nazi?” he asked.

Mr. Sands suggested donating his father’s photos, letters, and documents to a museum. And so Mr. Wächter donated all 10,000 pages to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “For the first time we have a detailed account of what happened in the period of May 1945-July 1949,” because of that donation, Mr. Sands says. 

Understanding this period after World War II is just as important as documenting the atrocities of the Holocaust itself, Mr. Sands says.

The Nuremberg trials brought some closure to a horrific period of human history. But they also represented the beginning of a new international order and human rights. They gave the world a shared set of international principles for warfare that forbade crimes against humanity and genocide, both terms coined during the proceedings.

“People are beginning to realize that what happened in 1945 was nothing short of revolutionary,” Mr. Sands says. “We have a big responsibility to carry the torch going forward.”

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