The Persistence of Hate In American PoliticsHistorians in the News
tags: Nazism, political violence, Nuremberg trials
The historian Joan Wallach Scott started thinking of the judgment of history when the Charlottesville riots took place in 2017. The appearance of a large number of marchers chanting antisemitic slogans (such as “Jews will not replace us”) and displaying Nazi paraphernalia ran counter to her assumption that history had rendered its final judgment on the Nazis. She had thought that Nazism had been banished forever from the political stage. How could she have been so wrong?
The question of how to provide a reckoning for large-scale state wrongs has been at the forefront of the efforts of the international human rights movement for decades. In the latter half of the 1980s and in the 1990s, despite such disasters as the genocidal conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, it appeared there was a global trend toward democratization and greater respect for rights. The Soviet empire collapsed; military regimes in Latin America and parts of Asia were forced to yield power; and apartheid in South Africa came to an end. Efforts to secure accountability accompanied democratization. National and international tribunals and investigative commissions led to the punishment of the perpetrators of atrocities in Latin American countries such as Argentina and Chile, African countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone, and in the European countries of the former Yugoslavia. They also contributed to democratic reforms in several such countries. Also, in a few countries, including Morocco and Canada (where an investigative commission addressed abuses against the country’s Indigenous population), the state has paid reparations to victims and their survivors.
Yet it is also the case that many of those most deeply involved in promoting accountability have experienced a high level of frustration. Many consider that what has been accomplished falls far short of what they anticipated. Autocratic leaders now dominate many states, including some that preserve the trappings of democracy but not its substance. The prospect of a reckoning has not tempered the behavior of the leaders of powerful states such as Russia, China, the United States, Brazil, or India, or the leaders of secondary powers, such as Turkey, Israel, Iran, or Saudi Arabia. Holding officials to account for great crimes—in the wars in Syria and Yemen; the mass incarceration of China’s Uighur minority; the slaughter of thousands of suspected drug users in the Philippines; the genocidal attacks against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar—seems almost a forlorn cause.
In her new book On the Judgment of History, Scott examines three attempts to secure a historical reckoning for great crimes: the Nuremberg trials of the top Nazi leaders following World War II; the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, which examined the crimes committed under apartheid; and the demand in the United States, which began several decades before the Emancipation Proclamation, that slaves and their descendants should be given reparations for slavery and Jim Crow. What did these movements achieve, and what did they leave undone? How do you keep the most hateful acts and ideologies out of politics for good?
Nuremberg was different from any of the more recent struggles for accountability. The Allies had defeated the Nazis. Those accused of atrocious crimes were in the custody of the victors. Many important leaders on the winning side, including British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, initially espoused summary execution of the top Nazi war criminals, though not on the large scale proposed by the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin. Yet the U.S. prevailed in its support for a tribunal that would conduct fair trials. The most influential figure in persuading the Roosevelt and Truman administrations to favor this course was the U.S. secretary of war, Henry L. Stimson. He was a conservative Republican Wall Street lawyer who had a long history of service in high government posts. A strong believer in the rule of law, Stimson argued that the best way to demonstrate the evil of the Nazi regime would be to hold trials.
Criticism of the Nuremberg tribunal at the time and ever since has emphasized that it was “victor’s justice.” The winners provided both the prosecutors and the judges. Indeed, the Nazis had committed the most horrifying crimes, but the Allies had also committed significant crimes. The failure to address these crimes produced a number of distortions in the proceedings. The Soviet prosecutors used the opportunity to accuse the Nazis of carrying out the Katyn Forest massacre, in which nearly 22,000 Polish officers and intelligentsia were executed by shots to the back of the head in 1940, a period following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact when the two powers had divided between them control of Poland. It was not until 1990 that Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union, publicly conceded that the massacre was carried out by the Soviet Union. The attempt to blame the Nazis at Nuremberg did not enter the tribunal’s judgment, but it tarnished the proceedings.
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