Tuesday, April 14, 2009

This Day in Legal History (“Follow-Up” Nuremberg Trials End)

April 14, 1949—With the political atmosphere radically changed from when the trials began 3 ½ years before, the Nuremberg Trials came to a quiet end, with nowhere near the media coverage it garnered initially. Still, they had established a crucial international legal standard for holding to account those who perpetrated wars of aggression and genocide.

The best-known of the 13 trials was the first, featuring 21 members of Hitler’s inner circle, including Herman Goering, Rudolf Hess, Albert Speer, and Joachim von Ribbentrop. That judicial all-star proceeding featured former Attorney General Francis Biddle as one of the judges, Associate Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson as lead American prosecutor, and Thomas Dodd, a silver-haired assistant prosecutor whose tough cross-examinations made him a rising star stateside in the Democratic Party, leading eventually to his election as U.S. Senator from Connecticut.

The volume of correspondence edited by Sen. Christopher Dodd from his father to his mother, Letters From Nuremberg, shows that even as the first trial ended its final days, prosecutors realized that reporters were losing interest in the testimony.

To be sure, Justice Jackson’s decision to introduce a mass of documentary evidence meant that those dramatic moments that the media love would be in short supply. But ultimately, the documents meant not only that the Nazi defendants would be convicted by their own hands, but they also secured the judgment of history, making Holocaust deniers look positively ridiculous.

In contrast to the first trial, the U.S. was the only one of the Allied powers that officiated at the dozen subsequent “Follow-Up Trials.” Though less publicized than the first batch, their range was even wider, showing how responsibility for the Nazi regime extended not just to Hitler’s immediate henchmen, but also to professions that accommodated the Nazis to secure their own continuing access to power, including:

* doctors
* legal professionals
* SS and police commanders
* industrialists
* military personnel
* civil servants and diplomats

The 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg slightly fictionalized the follow-up trial dealing with judges and lawyers. The last trial—variously known as the “Foreign Office,” “Ministries” or “Wilhelmstrasse” case—focused on civil servants and diplomats.

By 1949, despite often-staggering odds (particularly in the trial of the industrialists, prosecutors faced hostile judges), the American prosecution team had secured an impressive array of convictions that still managed to prove this was not simply, as charged by critics such as Senator Robert Taft and Supreme Court Justices William O. Douglas and Harlan Fiske Stone, “victors’ justice”. The fate of the 200 accused stood, at the end of the day, as follows:

* 38 acquitted
* 36 sentenced to death
* 23 sentenced to life imprisonment
* Others sentenced to prison for up to 24 years

Nevertheless, even more powerful forces besides prominent American politicians and jurists were now arrayed against the prosecution. Soviet solidification of the Iron Curtain had effectively taken place throughout Eastern Europe, with a blockade of Berlin—and a year-long American-led airlift—creating the need to keep a potential new ally—the new, democratically elected government of West Germany—on the side of the West.

Conservative and/or isolationist congressmen such as Sen. Joseph McCarthy took particular exception to the trial of German industrialists such as I.G. Farben and Alfried Krupp, blaming the proceedings on left-wing-inspired subversion.

The U.S. military governor and high commissioner for Germany, John J. McCloy, appointed a review board that reviewed sentences imposed by the tribunal. Some American prosecutors would note bitterly years later that none of the prosecution staff or judges were even consulted as sentences were commuted.

Compromised and controversial though they were, the Nuremberg Trials left a powerful imprint on international law and the subsequent writing of 20th-century history.

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