Judgment at Nuremberg

Brook McPhail

During Adolf Hitler's rise to power in the 1930s and 1940s, thousands of Jews and non-Aryans were forced in to concentration camps where they were starved, beaten, and eventually killed.  Heart-wrenching stories and horrific pictures of the Holocaust stunned many at the end of World War II.  In the seven decades that followed, many scholars and global citizenry learned of Hitler’s rise to a dynamic and deadly dictatorship Yet, a mystery remains. How could Adolph Hitler, unprepossessing physically and intellectually, have grown so powerful, so quickly? He is clearly responsible for thousands, even millions of lives, but yet, does all the blame lie with him? There were numerous other high political officials, prominent businessmen, judges, and even doctors who sentenced and condemned and executed the victims who stood before them. There were leaders on regional and national levels who used prisoners in concentration camps as slaves as well as doctors and nurses sterilizing those deemed inferior or simply non-Aryan or utilizing torture in the guise of pseudo-medical experiments.

Judgement At Nuremberg JacketFifteen years after the war ended, in Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg, the director showed his audience a fictionalized courtroom trial with four defendants who served as judges during the Nazi regime. This film reveals a side of the war most people these days rarely consider but which looms increasingly large in the world politics of terrorism and military confrontation: the role of, the use of, the morality of, criminal charges brought against leaders, often elected, when they lose.

Originally written as a play for television by Abby Mann, Judgment at Nuremberg was released in 1961, and received eleven Academy Award nominations. Ms. Mann won Best Screenplay written from a different medium. Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, and Maximilian Schell starred in this real-life courtroom drama. Other acclaimed performances by Judy Garland, William Shatner, Richard Widmark, and Marlene Dietrich gave the film a stellar cast worthy of nominations. The intensity of the script and the richness of black and white photography (years later Schindler’s List would benefit from similar artistic values) riveted the cast and turned it into a true dramatic ensemble.

Spencer Tracey, nominated for Best Actor in a Lead, portrayed Chief Judge Dan Haywood, an American judge from Maine. He and two other judges presided over the tribunal court. Spencer Tracy Maximilian Schell played Hans Rolfe, the lead council for the defendants. Schell, a well-known German actor in America, gave a passionate, heartfelt performance. His opening scene with its first passionate speech in German segueing into fluent English grabbed the audience immediately. Considering that the movie was released less than fifteen years after the actual trials, Schell, growing up in post Nazi era, clearly had, as did the German nation, some personal feelings attached to this time period. His performance won him an Academy Award for Best Actor; one of the few times in Oscar history that essentially two great male actors shared the top award. In addition, Dr. Ernst Janning, a high ranking, well-known and respected Judge of Occupied Germany was played by Burt Lancaster in a bravura performance almost matched by Richard Widmark’s “The Eskimos did it” rant. All of these characters were fictionalized but with elements based on people’s actual lives and memoirs.

The movie began with Judge Haywood arriving in Nuremberg, Germany. In the film, he was a hard-nosed, Yankee Republican, legal scholar who was not too sure about his surroundings and exactly what took place in this foreign land. Being an American, he had heard of the terrors of Hitler and the Nazi genocide that had taken place. Throughout the movie, he was deeply concerned with his surroundings and the German people in an effort to understand the mindset of those living in Germany during 1933-1945. In his brief, spare time, Judge Haywood befriended a recent widow of a convicted German Third Reich officer. Marlene Dietrich At first, she was very wary of all Americans because her well-respected husband had been found guilty for the war crimes committed and had not been allowed a dignified execution. Although she claimed her husband despised Hitler, and had no idea of the terrible things that were being done, he was still hung like everyone else. In the movie, the twosome frequently attended fancy bars and restaurants and the theater. Throughout the film, this widow tried to demonstrate to the judge that the German people were not bad people, and that no one knew what had transpired in Germany during the Third Reich.

The viewer is then introduced to the American prosecuting attorney, Colonel Tad Lawson, who had been profoundly scarred by the German atrocities, as well as the four German defendants who had been judges during the Third Reich, and their passionate defense lawyer, Hans Rolfe. Of the four defendants (most modeled on composites of more famous Nazi leaders) , one seemed somewhat arrogant and stood ready to defend the decisions he had made, two looked scared and ashamed, and the fourth seemed full of sadness and pain. The four defendants All the defendants, except Dr. Janning, testified to the court that they were only following orders and did not really understand the consequences for the people in their jurisdiction, and that therefore they were not guilty. The trial started with opening statements from the opposing sides. The prosecution claimed the defendants were well educated and mentally capable of resisting Nazi teachings and brainwashing. The defense gave a patriotic speech declaring the German judges were only doing what they thought best for their country, claiming, “my country….right or wrong.”

The prosecution began their case, calling their first witness who had been sterilized by a court order issued by one of the defendants. The defense countered that sterilization had been used previously to stop the mentally handicapped or disabled from reproducing. He then asked the witness to perform a rather easy task, a task most people in the general public could do, and the witness could not. The prosecution also called other German judges and well known citizens of Nuremberg to testify that everyone, including the defendants, knew exactly what was happening. The major flaw of that argument was that no one could recall specific instances regarding these four men. Judy Garland The last witness was a woman, Irene Hoffman, who had been tried and convicted for breaking the Nazi Racial Laws. These laws forbade any Aryan from having any sort of relations with a person that was non-Aryan. This young girl had lost her parents at a young age, and an elderly Jewish man named Feldenstein had taken the true role of a father figure to her. After a very public and politically oppressive trial, Mr. Feldenstein was found guilty of having inappropriate relations with the young girl and was soon hanged in the city of Nuremberg. Although Judy Garland was too old for the part and already moving towards the tragic end of her life, the role gave a moving tribute to her acting ability.

When the defense began their case, they turned back to refute prosecution witnesses. For example, they called Feldenstein’s housekeeper who testified that the old man and the young girl had visited in her apartment many times. She also told the court that, on one occasion, Ms. Hoffman kissed the elderly gentleman and had also been seen sitting on his lap. The defense then called Ms. Hoffman back to the stand, where Rolfe deliberately berated her in an effort to coerce her into telling of Feldenstein’s illegal love affair with her. She incessantly refused to admit that anything inappropriate had ever happened between herself and Feldenstein. At the height of her testimony, with Ms. Hoffman in despair, Dr. Janning yelled for his defense attorney to stop. For the first time in the movie, Janning addressed the court:

"There was a fever over the land. A fever of disgrace, of indignity, of hunger. We had a democracy, yes, but it was torn by elements within. Above all, there was fear. Fear of today, fear of tomorrow, fear of our neighbors, and fear of ourselves. Only when you understand that - can you understand what Hitler meant to us. Because he said to us: 'Lift your heads! Be proud to be German! There are devils among us. Communists, Liberals, Jews, Gypsies! Once these devils will be destroyed, your misery will be destroyed.' It was the old, old story of the sacrificial lamb. What about those of us who knew better? We who knew the words were lies and worse than lies? Why did we sit silent? Why did we take part? Because we loved our country! What difference does it make if a few political extremists lose their rights? What difference does it make if a few racial minorities lose their rights? It is only a passing phase. It is only a stage we are going through. It will be discarded sooner or later. Hitler himself will be discarded... sooner or later. The country is in danger. We will march out of the shadows. We will go forward. Forward is the great password. And history tells how well we succeeded, your honor. We succeeded beyond our wildest dreams…It is not easy to tell the truth; but if there is to be any salvation for Germany, we who know our guilt must admit it . . . . whatever the pain and humiliation."

After the Janning’s emotional statement, the lawyers gave closing arguments. Colonel Lawson began by showing footage of concentration camps: bulldozers moving massive mounds of bodies, the gas chamber that could “kill 10,000 people in half an hour,” and pictures of nearly starved men, women, and children forced to live in horrendous conditions. As the terrible images were forced upon every single person in that room, the slogan for the camps, “break the body, break the spirit, break the heart,” echoed throughout the courtroom. Maximillan Schell and William Shatner in the courtroom. Although the footage did not directly relate to the accused, it was hard to forget those images, those words. After the extremely effective closing by the prosecution, the defense, desperate to “salvage (if not exonerate) his country’s past for the sake of its future,” tried to use compelling logic to shift blame, not only for the immediate clients, but for the future of Germany.

Throughout the movie, many tried to persuade the judge to consider the repercussions of a guilty verdict. The United States wanted to keep good relations with Germany, and the Germans wanted to move forward, past this embarrassing, shameful evidence; however, in the end Judge Haywood and his international colleagues held these defendants accountable, found them guilty, and sentenced them accordingly. His widowed friend played by an elegant Marlene Dietrich, as well as every German associated with the trial, was devastated. The movie ended when Judge Haywood visited Dr. Janning's prison cell. Janning expressed respect and admiration for the tribunal’s final decision. The end quotes are moving and telling:

Janning: Judge Haywood .... The reason I asked you to come . . . .Those people. Those millions of people . . . . I never knew it would come to that. You must believe it! You must believe it! Haywood: It came to that the first time you sentenced a man to die you knew to be innocent.

This movie raised serious questions about the Holocaust. The word "Holocaust" engraved on marble Did the average Germans know of the hideous persecutions? How could they not? Their neighbors were yanked from their houses at night. Railroad cars were stuffed full of children crying for their parents. This was racism at its worst and conducted right under their noses. Where did the blame stop…with Hitler, commanders of the concentration camps, the city officials, or perhaps every single person in Germany who “chose” not to know and looked the other way?

This particular film makes a powerful impact, and watching this drama, decades after the true events occurred, forced viewers to reflect and ask questions, When first released, many young Americans thought about World War II and Germany in very generic ways. This dark film raised questions and suspicions that probably (hopefully) were already looming in mature American minds, but Americans, as a whole, had some difficulty wrapping their heads around such atrocities. Some of those difficulties remain still. For example in 1961, the performance by Schell was not only heartfelt and genuine, but also shed a little light for Germany and its former enemies on the persuasive power of emotional propaganda which should have made his fellow countrymen proud. Watching this historical movie in current times is quite different than when first released. Yet sadly, a half a century later, younger generations see the Holocaust less emotionally as a distant, historical memory, little grasping the horror of the actions wrought by Hitler and the Nazis. This film memorializes and encapsulates the story of those that suffered under the Third Reich.

Film critic, Tod Worner states, "Judgment at Nuremberg is an extraordinary film with an enduring script and unparalleled acting. But even more, it is a film about the human heart. A heart divided between good and evil. May we never forget its lesson. May we always choose right." Finally, the film still today generates important ethical and moral discussions about hatred and persecution, about right and wrong, about power and abuse of power, but it also raises questions that need to be explored and resolved in the near future. The Nuremberg Courtroom What is the role of such criminal war crimes tribunals in the future? Ironically, many states want to use such trials as punishment for perceived enemies, but fear the danger implied in international tribunals for their own political leadership. In 1918, many called for such a trial of the Kaiser of Germany. Tiny Holland, however, often a shining harbor of tolerance and refuge for the persecuted, refused to surrender him as well other exiles from the defeated nations. Despite a few clearly deserved and/or notorious cases brought through the United Nations and the World Court, the legal development of such international legal cases (in a world filled with terrorism, often state funded and covertly supported), promises to be difficult, tediously slow, and fraught with danger.

Additional editorial comments by Clio’s Eye Staff

Recommended books and films:

Although numerous films and documentaries are available for use in conjunction with this film, one of the best is a documentary, The Wannsee Conference which details with chilling formality, the matter of fact, explicit detail of plans by German military and civil servants for the final solution: the extermination of those held in Nazi concentration camps.

Bosch, William J. Judgment On Nuremberg: American Attitudes Toward the Major German War-crime Trials. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970.

Buckley, William F. Jr. Nuremberg: The Reckoning. New York: Harcourt, 2002.

Roseman, Mark. The Villa, The Lake, The Meeting: Wannsee and the Final Solution. Penguin Press Allen Lane. 2002.

For those living in Texas or neighboring states, this Houston museum provides a somber look into the Holocaust and its terrible toll. Online at: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Introduction to the Holocaust.” http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php

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