The Nuremberg Trials are a perfect example of the complexities of the truth, justice, and reconciliation process.
The complexities in Nuremberg post-conflict grew from the involvement and leadership of the international community demanding justice within a fractured nation and society foreign to their own. The most interesting part of what has become an international debate for more than 70 years is the question of who should be held responsible for mass atrocities. After the formation of the International Military Tribunal Charter, chief justices of France, England, the Soviet Union, and the U.S., came together in hopes of answering this question.
However, their past understandings of right and wrong changed as defense attorneys presented at trial the historical background of their defendants, the “followers” of the Nazi regime. Unfortunately, like Germany, many of the top leaders and masterminds behind mass atrocities are unreachable post-conflict. Oftentimes, these past leaders have committed suicide, were killed by a foreign government, or have been excommunicated.
Based on this reality, I question, to what extent is the judicial process necessary when masterminds of atrocities are unattainable and the followers of regimes are not fairly tried. I argue the judicial process is a key building block to the truth and reconciliation process, but it is not necessary for communities to move forward and heal, as it can stifle the unification and collective identity building process.As referenced in David Cohen’s “Transitional Justice in Divided Germany after 1945”, for many prosecutors in the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg (IMT), truth and justice were considered inseparable.
French Chief Prosecutor Champetier de Ribes specifically notes “the chief concern of this trial IMT is above all that of historical truth” (Cohen 5). Unlike mass atrocities in Argentina, Armenia, and Cambodia where societies are seeking justice many years after an atrocity occured, the Nuremberg Trials were successful because the prosecution was able to discover past German and Nazi documents, a key part of the historical record. Allied prosecutors were successful in developing a lasting record of the German and Nazi perpetrators’ actions. However, the purpose of this record was realized in some ways and failed in other ways. Due to Germany’s separation into four separate zones after the war, there were four strategies and methods of conducting allied trials and denazifying Germany. Each nation was collectively committed to their political goals of creating a new German world order and denazifying the country.
However, did their presence in Germany prove successful? Was creating a historical record worth the money, time, and guilt that came from putting ordinary Germans on trial? The decisions to have low level Nazi guards or ordinary German citizens tried in the international or domestic court didn’t in totality achieve those political goals. Putting individuals on trial who were too afraid to oppose past Nazi rule was an example of “symbolic justice” (Cohen). While the cost of symbolic justice is steep, it helped to build a collective German responsibility of participation in a system of organized criminality (Cohen 5). Symbolic justice reminds Germans and the world, complicity during a mass atrocity shall never be allowed again.
Additionally, the International Military Tribunal Charter indicates all “leaders, organizations, instigators, and accomplices participating in the formulation or execution of a common plan or conspiracy to commit any of the foregoing crimes are responsible for all acts performed by any persons in execution of such plan” (Damrosch 1322). This language represents the judges’ lens when litigating trials concerning national figures with little prominence. All co-conspirators were a part of the problem and convicting them would also be a part of the solution. Based on the idea of symbolic justice and the IMT Charter, the interrogation and involvement of lower level Germans was imperative for the greater movement of justice and reconciliation. While I agree that symbolic justice is important, I do not believe it is a requirement of a nation to reach truth and reconciliation. In many cases where uncovering the “truth” is nearly impossible when files have been purged, leaders have perished, and witnesses are unwilling to testify, symbolic justice will not be achieved in a courtroom.
Additionally, as Germany took on the role of determining who would be identified as “followers” or “Mitlaufers” throughout their society, they considered the nuisances of this process. Many “followers”, in their point of view, should not be seen as responsible for exclusion or punishment. A well-known critic of Nazism, Dr. Eugene Kogon, even argued that it is unjust to punish individuals who made “an innocent political mistake” when deciding to follow Hitler and join Nazism (Cohen 10). In the film, “Judgement at Nuremberg”, it is quickly apparent that a number of the defendants were connected to the Nazi party in very tangential ways. When the defense attorney brings up the complex backgrounds of each defendant, I am immediately reminded of the four guards whose cases were appealed and a few of them acquitted in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The court system, in that case, was able to uncover the realities of the perpetrators and bring their stories to courtroom. However, the court was not able to free them from the mental and emotional harm that a trial causes for the defendant. This harm does not help the denazification of a society.
Also, the trials and some of the strategies taken by the Allied Powers created an us versus them mentality between those who were perpetrators and those who were victims. Ultimately, there was no real way to measure the denazification of German communities. While each of the four Allied Powers decided to remove people in political and economic positions who were associated with the Nazi party, they did little to build a new collective German identity of inclusivity. The Soviets, in particular, required past Nazi leaders or perpetrators to demonstrate they had “innerly broken with Nazism” (Cohen 14), in order to get their jobs or positions back in the government or German system. This method demonstrates that there was no real system to judge or measure if Germans had internally broken with Nazism.
In most cases making this sort of internal judgement about someone would be nearly impossible. Changing one’s inner ideological belief system doesn’t happen overnight, over one year, or at the jeopardy of one’s job. As history reflects, moving away from Nazi beliefs has taken the passing of older generations, in order to create a new inclusive German identity. However, could this process have happened more quickly if Germans were expected to participate in truth and reconciliation commissions that would help ALL Germans determine a new unique identity? If truth and reconciliation commissions require participants to be truthful, honest, and forthcoming in return for their amnesty, this processes can beget truth without causing perpetrators to feel extreme mental and emotional harm or guilt.
This process creates a collective struggle and commitment to fight against future atrocities that only comes when perpetrators, victims, and survivors can sit side by side. The true way to “denazify” or to remove the presence of a past regime is to create a new identity that reflects the identity of ALL of its inhabitants. Judicial processes are important and can be a measure of success for attorneys, but it doesn’t ensure a society will rehabilitate, restore, and heal from past atrocities.
I believe there are other ways to uncover important historical facts, such as empowering human narratives. History is nothing without both facts and interpretations from its most powerful and subjugated peoples.