Lessons Of Nuremberg

IT'S SO EASY TO FORGET WHAT THE world was like on Nov. 20, 1945. So easy to forget what, exactly, we knew then -- and what we didn't. The war that had devastated much of Europe had been over for six months, and America's GIs had come home to a nation exhausted by conflict, but euphoric in victory. Across the Atlantic, the country that had brought on the war lay in utter ruin. In the city of Nuremberg, home to the infamous Nazi rallies that Leni Riefenstahl captured on film in the 1930s, the Palace of Justice on Further stress sat amid acres of rubble. Women plucked single bricks from piles "10 feet high and hauled them away one at a time in carts," recalls Whitney Harris, an American who was there. That there was a historic trial about to take place in that hall was of no concern to them. For the vanquished-at least before Nov. 20 -- getting through the day was trial enough.

And then it started. Fifty years ago next month, Associate Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson made the opening statement at what was then called the International Military Tribunal-and what ever since has been known as the Nuremberg war-crimes trial. "The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish," Jackson said, "have been so calculated, so malignant and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated." And over the next 10 months, the prosecution team assembled by the four victorious powers presented, in unrelenting detail, the evidence they had accumulated against the Nazis in the dock: Goring, Hess, Ribbentrop-22 in all, including the missing Martin Bormann. The real trial of our century had begun.

The world has not been the same since. It seems now as if the terrible lexicon of the Nazi era has always been with us. But before Nuremberg, few knew about the "night and fog" decree (ordering the arrest of people who would never be seen again). About work camps. About the "final solution." Those phrases, those actions, documented irrevocably at Nuremberg, will forever haunt mankind, no matter how many anniversaries pass. One week into the trial, the prosecution brought in film from the liberated concentration camps. And there it was in black and white, bulldozers pushing thousands of naked corpses into ditches, the most gruesome footage anyone had ever seen. Ernst Kaltenbrunner ("a vicious horse," in Rebecca West's phrase) had administered the concentration camps from Berlin. As the images flickered past, he turned from the screen, ashen, as if not familiar with the consequences of his work. When the lights came back on that day there was not a sound in the courtroom. Nothing was the same. "I was completely shocked," says Hildegard Hamm-Brucher, a member of the famed White Rose resistance group during the war. "I could not fathom such crimes and how the killers just sat there like innocent lambs." It runs to 42 volumes, the record of the trial, and it is in "every decent library in the world," as Anthony Marreco, a junior member of the British prosecution team, puts it.

What, 50 years on, is the legacy of Nuremberg? "That it happened," says Jeffrey Herf, a historian at Mount Holyoke College and author of a forthcoming book on German perceptions of the Nazi era. "To a very cynical world, the fact that some of them didn't get away was enormously important." The accused men got a fair trial in open court--and the rest, quite literally, is history. Nuremberg "created a record of the rise of the Nazis and their excesses," says Roger Barrett, who ran the documents room at the trial for the Americans. "One that could not be disputed."

That is where the legacy starts, where it is clear and unambiguous. But Nuremberg is plainly not just history. Today its memory is invoked not simply because an anniversary approaches, but because even now, the United Nations is convening major war-crimes trials, intent on bringing to justice those who committed atrocities in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda (page 55). Forty-two Bosnians have already been indicted for crimes under the Nuremberg principles, including genocide; 400 Rwandans are likely to be charged in their country's 1994 bloodbath.

Those horrors clearly demand their own accounting--but as legitimate as the U.N. efforts may be, here is where Nuremberg's legacy gets murky, its usefulness open to question. At the time of the trials, many of the participants believed that the proceedings would deter future aggressors. But it's hard to make that argument, given the history of the last half century. More than 20 million have perished since then in wars and other conflicts; some, as in Pol Pot's Cambodia, methodically exterminated, Nazi style. Judge Richard Goldstone, the lead prosecutor at the international tribunal in The Hague, where the U.N.'s Bosnia trials have commenced, says that in November of 1945, "it was the view of most that the [Nazi] crimes were a unique and horrible deviation on the road of civilization." But that view, he said recently, has been proved wrong. "Never again" was also part of the lexicon that sprang from the trials--"but its hope," Goldstone says, "has become the reality of 'Again and Again'."

Can, in today's cases, an international court conceivably bring Nuremberg-style justice? The prosecutors and human-rights activists trying to bring war criminals in Bosnia and Rwanda to justice are not quick to claim Nuremberg's torch. The differences between the eases, between then and now, are too vast. Take only the obvious. Nuremberg was, famously, "victor's justice" (the trials gave us that phrase, too). In Bosnia, there are no victors; there is not yet even a peace treaty, only a still-smoldering standoff. It is hardly clear that the major protagonists- Bosnia Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, Gen. Ratko Mladie--will ever come to trial. "If this succeeds," says Juan Mendez, general counsel of Human Rights Watch, "it will be a tremendous victory--much greater than Nuremberg." But until then, Nuremberg perhaps goes to prove only "that there was justice because there were unconditional victors," as Herf puts it.

Rwanda seems even more distant from Furtherstrasse. Many of the perpetrators of the 1994 slaughter have dispersed elsewhere in Africa and Europe. Skeptics point out that just last week, the United Nations' new head of human rights in Kigali said that his operation is all but broke. There isn't sufficient international support even though, a year ago, 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in just three months, a "killing intensity even greater than at Auschwitz," as Berlin historian Jfrg Friedrich says acidly. "Only once, in this exceptional case, was anything like these trials possible. The idea of Nuremberg was like a beautiful dream," he says.

It's true that the circumstances surrounding the Nuremberg trial were exceptional. And even so, the urge for justice was limited. The relatively narrow scope of the Nuremberg trial and the "denazification" proceedings that followed in Germany allowed thousands of Nazis back into society. Of the 22 tried at Nuremberg, three were acquitted. In later trials more than 5,000 more Nazis were convicted of war crimes. By 1949 the cold war was on, and the Western allies' appetite for more trials had waned considerably. But lost in most assessments of Nuremberg's lasting effects was its impact, after all, on Germany--and on the country's eventual integration into the West. Nuremberg was, in the end, a message delivered to a defeated nation. And even though the cliche--that few Germans paid attention--is true, it is not necessarily what matters. More important is that some did--very, very closely.

One of them was a young soldier named Helmut Schmidt, just returned from the eastern front and the Ardennes offensive: 29 years later he was chancellor. Another was Richard yon Weizsacker, who helped defend his father--a Foreign Ministry official-in a later judicial proceeding. Thirty-six years later, as president of the Federal Republic in 1985, Weizsacker would give a historic speech about German war guilt and responsibility. There are many others. A democratic Germany--a country that the rest of the world could accept and deal with once the occupation was over--had to start somewhere. Nuremberg, arguably, was that birthplace. "Something," German defense counsel Otto Kranzbuhler would later say, "had to happen to discharge the tension between victors and vanquished. It was the United States who insisted that expiation be sought and found by way of a . . . trial. [The tribunal did] perform this function. It was a painful starting point for building the relations that exist today between Germany and her Western allies." There is, perhaps, not much in that for the bitter and the bereaved in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. But a generation of Europeans and Americans will never forget it.