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What We Don't Remember About Nuremberg, but Should

An overheard conversation between top Nazis Goering (front left) and von Ribbentrop (front, second from right) set off the chain of events revealing to the public the existence of the Hitler-Stalin Pact's "secret protocol," which included evidence of Soviet war crimes committed in tandem with the Nazis. The Allies suppressed the document at the Nuremberg trials. 

This is the 75th anniverary of the non-aggression pact between the Hitler and Stalin, the latter becoming (after Hitler attacked Stalin on June 22, 1941) the member of the "Big Three" known as "Uncle Joe." In the commemorative essays discussing the twin dictators' earlier alliance of August 23, 1939, which would be followed by Hitler and Stalin's conquest of Poland the following month, the pact's secret protocol that divided the nations of central and Eastern Europe between them is also mentioned. I have yet to see, however, any discussion of how that secret protocol became known to the public.

That disturbing story of near-suppression takes us past the war to the trials of the Nazi high command in Nuremberg -- widely hailed the model of international justice. But what a morally rotten exercise it was, as war criminals (Soviets) sat in judgment of war criminals (Nazis) while war crimes (British and US) were occurring all around (Operation Keelhaul, the little known British-US-enabled "repatriation" from the West of millions of Soviet-claimed persons to death/the Gulag, was in full swing).

There, in a Nuremberg prison yard, a German defense lawyer by chance overheard top Nazis (von Ribbentrop and Goering) discussing the contents of the still-secret protocol, which offered evidence of Stalin’s guilt in committing “conspiracy to wage aggressive war,” one of the key charges against the German high command. With Stalin trying to blot out his alliance with Hitler from the record -- with full support of his British and American allies -- how did the secret protocol ever come to the world's attention?

Here is what happened at Nuremberg, as discussed in Chapter 2 of American Betrayal, pp. 54-58.

...  Even to participate in these trials, the Western Allies had to overlook Stalin’s crimes and pretend they had not taken place within the timeline of the war whose very outbreak was precipitated by the infamous 1939 Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact negotiated by German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov. After all, the Nazis and Soviets had begun World War II together as allies with the invasion of Poland. The Germans invaded Poland from the west on September 1, 1939—a well-known date—and the Red Army invaded from the east on September 17, 1939.

Not a well-known date.


Given the USSR’s 1939–41 attacks on Poland, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Bessarabia alone, as John Laughland writes in his 2008 book A History of Political Trials, “the Communists were therefore guilty of exactly the same crimes against peace as the Nazis. They were also guilty of numerous atrocities.”56

At first, this was another concept that brought me up short, another point of clarity that should have been obvious but had somehow been obscured by the fog of that vaporous arsenal clouding our understanding of the past. It wasn’t right to convict Hitler’s successors of charges that Stalin was equally guilty of and call it not only justice but Perfect, Lodestar Justice for the Ages. One of the many proofs of the corruption of Nuremberg lies in the fact that when a German defense counsel named Alfred Seidl brought forward the first public evidence of the secret protocol to the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact that divided the nations and peoples of Europe between Hitler and Stalin—evidence of Stalin’s guilt of committing “conspiracy to wage aggressive war,” one of the key charges against the German high command—Seidl’s evidence, a verified copy of the protocol, was ruled inadmissible. In open court—and not just any open court, but the model court of a new international order—the Western Allies signed on to a Soviet conspiracy of silence conceived of and directed by Stalin. Meanwhile, Stalin, it turns out, had empowered a secret commission at Nuremberg “to prevent at all costs any public discussion of any aspects of Nazi-Soviet relations in 1939–1941, and, first and foremost, of the actual existence, let alone contents of the so-called secret protocols,” writes Arkady Vaksberg in his 1990 biography of Andrei Vyshinsky, Stalin’s Prosecutor. Vyshinsky headed that secret commission. “However, all his [Vyshinsky’s] worries proved unfounded; the foreign members [of the tribunal] were quite kindly disposed toward their [Soviet] Allies and certainly no desire to strain relations.”57

In this cozy court, Seidl set off an unanticipated eruption of the facts, which the U.S. government, already in possession of the Nazi archives, might well have known even before the German lawyer made his case. Quite by chance, Seidl had overheard von Ribbentrop in the prison yard revealing the secret protocol and its contents to Hermann Göering. Seidl then embarked on a very vocal search for the document, up and down channels, eventually and clandestinely receiving a photostat of the document from an unnamed U.S. officer, who we might assume was fed up with Nuremberg “justice,” too. While the evidence wasn’t admitted in court, it entered the equally important court of public opinion. On May 22, 1946, the day after Seidl was overruled at Nuremberg, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch published the once-secret protocol in its entirety, thus thwarting the conspiracy of silence.

It’s possible that without Seidl’s “indomitable” efforts, as the Post-Dispatch described them, we might never have learned about the secret protocol— certainly not for some time. The fact is, not a jot about the Soviet criminal case came to judgment at Nuremberg—not the NKVD massacre of some twenty thousand Polish officers known as the Katyn Forest Massacre (charged to the Germans), not the forced “repatriation” of some two million Soviet-claimed refugees, which occurred thanks to essential assistance from British and U.S. troops—our very own war crime—which was still under way in Germany and elsewhere even as Nuremberg unfolded. Yes, as we’ve seen, Vyshinsky, Stalin’s all-purpose fixer and prosecutor at the notorious Moscow show trials of the 1930s (the Great Purge that liquidated tens of thousands of Soviet citizens58), kept showing up to ensure, minder-style, “that everything went off as planned, and especially to ensure that no discussion of the Nazi-Soviet Pact was allowed in the courtroom.”59 However, as we’ve also seen, the presence of the man Britain’s chief prosecutor Sir Hartley Shawcross called “Stalin’s foremost proxy” was likely unnecessary, what with “the Tribunal,” as Telford Taylor, chief American counsel at Nuremberg, writes in his Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials, “doing its best to protect [the Soviets] from embarrassment.”60

Shades of George Bush at Malta, forty years later.

Taylor’s 1992 “personal memoir” of Nuremberg only skimmed what he called the trials’ “political warts,” the “biggest wart” being “the presence of the Soviet judges on the bench.” Why? By way of explanation, Taylor invoked the “hatred and fear of communism and the Soviet Union . . . voiced throughout the United States,” which is no explanation at all. As for the Moscow show trials, he gently broke it to readers on page 639 that the trials “had a very bad name.” Then there was that “very ticklish matter” of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Taylor writes. Even a practically kindly passing reference to the perfidious agreement by prosecutor Shawcross was infamously omitted in deference to Soviet sensibilities.61 These were the lies and hypocrisy that led to such ghastly scenes as when, with Hermann Göring and Rudolph Hess in the dock, the Soviet prosecutor Roman Rudenko spoke on February 8, 1946. Taylor writes, “Rudenko described the [German] invasions of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia, and then . . . the Soviet Union. Certain events contemporaneous with the destruction of the Polish state seemed to have been erased from Rudenko’s memory” (emphasis added).

“Certain events,” of course, referred to the massive, simultaneous and, at that moment in the proceedings, ongoing Soviet role in said Polish destruction. Taylor’s account continued, quoting the words of the Soviet prosecutor, “On September 1, 1939 the fascist aggressors invaded Polish territory in treacherous violation of existing treaties,” [Rudenko] declaimed, and read from a document . . . to show “how the gangster assault of Hitler’s Germany on Poland was prepared in advance” (emphasis added).

“Prepared in advance”? Even Taylor doesn’t fail to notice Rudenko’s omission, writing, “Of course, the crucial ‘preparation in advance’ was the Nazi-Soviet treaty.”62 Taylor makes no additional comment on this brazen hypocrisy, an altered state of mind that the West dysfuntionally tolerated to a point where even as late as 1986, Soviet officials could with impunity denounce references to the historical consequences of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact as being “disinformation about the prewar policy of the USSR” and a “hackneyed lie that the Soviet-German Treaty of 1939 opened the path to the second world war.”63 Never mind that it did. Taylor does, however, note a memorable observation made by Nuremberg psychologist Dr. G. M. Gilbert: “Gilbert recorded that Goering and Hess, in disgust, took off their headphones. During the lunch break, Goering was scornful: ‘I did not think that they [the Russians] would be so shameless as to mention Poland.’ ”64

When Göring and Hess have the moral high ground, you know you’re in trouble—or at least you should. Knowing or not, everyone who participated in the charade at Nuremberg was complicit. In a 1962 essay titled “Who Betrays Whom?” the British writer and ex-Socialist Malcolm Muggeridge, who had famously and to the detriment of his journalistic career borne early witness to the horrors of Soviet collectivization and forced famine in the 1930s, had this to say: “Let us hope that mankind will sometime recover sufficient equanimity to get a laugh out of the spectacle of English and American judges sitting alongside Soviet ones, and solemnly pronouncing Germans guilty of the use of forced labour and of the partition of Poland.”65

Germans, but not Soviets.

No such knowing derision has ever compromised the solemn regard in which Nuremberg is still held, still respected as a civilizational milestone. Given the travesty of Soviet immunity alone, this vaunted tribunal gives off the noxious fumes of aWestern show trial, albeit one conducted not to establish the phony guilt of defendants but rather to establish the phony legitimacy of the court itself—specifically the Soviet Union’s rotten central role in it. How else to regard a judicial proceeding where Moscow show trial judge Iona Timofeevich Nikitchenko presided?66 In his Nuremberg memoir, Telford Taylor opaquely introduced late-twenty-century readers to Nikitchenko as “an army judge advocate,” but in 1936, Nikitchenko made mass murderers’ row as one of the judges who signed the spurious death sentences of the “old Bolsheviks” in the first of Stalin’s public show trials that initiated the Great Purge decimation of a generation of Russians.67 ”We might agree, at least retrospectively,” Robert Conquest wrote in 2005 regarding Nikitchenko’s blood-soaked spot on the Nuremberg bench, “Nuremberg can be pronounced defective on this basis alone.”68

But we do not so agree, retrospectively or otherwise. Such a thought doesn’t enter our minds. Nuremberg “justice” as jointly apportioned by “Allies” who included hardened criminals-against-humanity from the USSR lives on as “a moral reference point.”69 How can that be? How can we look at darkness and see purity? Once again, Mikhail Gorbachev’s failure to accept the reality of half a million trucks and jeeps wasn’t and isn’t the only amazing game of denial in town.

Indeed, Bukovsky’s notion of Western “ideological collaboration” to serve Soviet ends has a long and storied tradition that, as the example of the 1946 Nuremberg Trials indicates, certainly goes back further than 1991. In both cases, in Moscow in 1991 and at Nuremberg in 1946, Communist doctrine and its leading agent, the Soviet Union, were allowed to slip away unrecognized, unjudged, unpunished. Perhaps it’s possible to say that the difference is that in 1946, the main motivation to protect Communism, while enabled and acquiesced todue to Allied expediency, still came from within the USSR, a co-victor, after all, in World War II. In 1991, with the USSR in tatters, the decisive block on passing judgment against the USSR, the Cold War loser, came from the West itself.

Now, what was it I said at the beginning of this chapter about finding equilibrium in the conventional wisdom about the 1989 breakup of the Soviet bloc?