With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Nuremberg lessons still fresh 70 years later

Seventy years ago, on Nov. 20, 1945, only six and a half months after the end of the war in Europe, the Allied victors formally convened the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany. The goal was to prosecute leading Nazis for war crimes and crimes against humanity, the latter defined by the court as “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, or persecutions on political, racial, or religious grounds.” It was, as Lawrence Douglas, one of the world’s foremost experts on Nuremberg and war crimes, puts it, “the law’s first great effort to submit mass atrocity to principled judgment.” 

The lessons of Nuremberg had profound ripple effects in how the world confronts the savagery of both war and genocide. The major perpetrators of the Holocaust— including Hermann Goering, Hans Frank, Albert Speer, and Julius Streicher — were held accountable, but the ramifications of Nuremberg on geopolitical affairs stretched much farther. As leaders like Syria’s Bashar Assad, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un face calls to be tried before bodies like the International Criminal Court, justice in post-war Europe is as relevant as ever.

Douglas, a professor of law, jurisprudence, and social thought at Amherst College, examined five key Nazi trials in his book “The Memory of Judgment: Making the Law and History in the Trials of the Holocaust,” including Nuremberg, the Israeli trials of Adolf Eichmann and John Demjanjuk, and French prosecution of Klaus Barbie. His latest book, “The Right Wrong Man: John Demjanjuk and the Last Great Nazi War Crimes Trial,” comes out in January.

Ideas spoke with Douglas by telephone. Below is an edited excerpt.

IDEAS: Robert Kempner, a German-born, junior US prosecutor at Nuremberg, called the trials “the greatest history seminar ever held in the history of the world.” Why do you think he said that?

DOUGLAS: The Nuremberg trials clearly sought to teach history — to very different audiences. The Allies, in particular the Americans, wanted domestic audiences to fully appreciate why the war effort had been necessary. At the same time, Allied prosecutors wanted the German public to learn of the horrors perpetrated by their government. Many Germans remained faithful to Hitler even after Germany’s collapse. Nuremberg prosecutors hoped that teaching Germans about the crimes of the regime would serve to discredit Hitler and so serve the interests of a transition to democracy. ...

Read entire article at The Boston Globe