William Shawcross: Lessons From Nuremberg

Roundup: Historians' Take

[William Shawcross is the author of the forthcoming “Justice for the Enemy: From Nuremberg to Khaled Sheikh Mohammed.”]

GEORGE ORWELL is usually a footsure guide across political battlegrounds. In late 1943, when the tide had turned in the Allies’ favor, he wrote about postwar trials. Oddly, he advocated Hitler and Mussolini slipping away. His verdict for them would not be death unless the Germans and Italians themselves carried out summary executions (as they eventually did in Mussolini’s case).

He wanted “no martyrizing, no St. Helena business.” Above all, he disdained the idea of a “solemn hypocritical ‘trial of war criminals,’ with all the slow cruel pageantry of the law, which after a lapse of time has so strange a way of focusing a romantic light on the accused and turning a scoundrel into a hero.”

For once Orwell missed his step. The Allies did stage a trial of the Nazi war criminals, at Nuremberg. (My father, Hartley, was the chief British prosecutor.) The trial had flaws. To some it will always seem to be “victors’ justice” and it can be called hypocritical in that the Soviet Union, guilty of many of its own crimes against humanity, was an equal partner with the democratic prosecutors and judges.

But, over all, it succeeded very well. It was solemn, as it should have been, and what Orwell called “the pageantry of the law” was neither cruel nor slow — the trial began in November 1945 (remarkably this was only six months after the German surrender) and was all over by the following October. Would that anything could be done so efficiently today....

Nuremberg not only dispatched justice swiftly, it also created a historical narrative that has survived. Robert H. Jackson, the chief American prosecutor and the driving force behind the trials, told President Harry S. Truman that he had assembled more than five million pages of evidence. The files of the SS alone needed six freight cars to carry them. Subsequently the tribunal published 11 volumes of documents and 20 volumes devoted to the proceedings alone. The eminent British historian Alan Bullock wrote of his excitement at reading through these records: whatever the arguments about justice, “from the point of view of the historian the Nuremberg trials were an absolutely unqualified wonder.” Nuremberg was essential in creating memory and senses of responsibility, in Germany itself and far beyond....

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