Justice at Nuremburg: National Justice on Trial

by Dexter Satterwhite


The codification of law has been the basis of civilized society since antiquity. Today, most societies in the west base their laws upon two legal codes: Civil Law which had its origins in Roman law, and English Common Law which originated in the Middle Ages and is still practiced in Britain and her former colonies. Yet, whether Civil or Common, modern law codes are based upon the concept of administering justice equitably. When, however, law is perverted into a corrupt tool of a government to further its own ends, justice breaks down, and tyranny is the result. Such was the case in Germany, in 1935, when the Nuremberg Decrees transformed German law into a weapon of the state for the sole purpose of oppressing and destroying a people.

Facilitating the growth of a brutal regime, the judges of the Third Reich lost their legal souls and, in so doing, branded Germany as a rogue and outlaw state. Yet, is it just to hold accountable those whose duty was not to make the law but rather to administer it? In other words, is it a judge's purpose to merely judge under existing law or to maintain a civilized and common ideal of justice? Those are the questions raised by producer-director Stanley Kramer in his important 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg. Based on the first international war crimes adjudication with the characters being a composite of the actual defendants of the Nuremberg trials, Judgment at Nuremberg tackles issues that are still at issue today: Who is guilty for the Holocaust and the crimes of the Third Reich? Should only Adolph Hitler and his inner circle of henchmen, who devised the Nuremberg Decrees and who planned and carried out the extermination of eleven million people including six million Jews, be held responsible for these crimes? Should lesser Nazi officials, such as the judges who remained on the bench and served a despicable regime during this era also be blamed for this tragedy? To what extent do the German people share in collective guilt for the Holocaust?

The film centers around an American judge, Dan Haywood, played brilliantly by Spencer Tracy, who is sent to Germany in 1948 to head an international tribunal. Haywood must preside over the trial of four Nazi judges, the most noteworthy being Ernst Janning, portrayed convincingly by Burt Lancaster. Janning had been an important legal figure in Germany before the rise of Hitler. The American prosecutor, a dogged idealist capably portrayed by Richard Widmark, is determined to gain convictions against the defendants as well as stiff sentences for their alleged crimes.

In the midst of the trial, the Russian closure of the border between Berlin and the rest of Germany administered by the western allies necessitates the dramatic Berlin airlift. Berlin, located 100 miles inside the Russian zone of occupation, required thousand of tons of supplies to be flown in daily to feed the residents and thus allow the western allies to maintain a presence there.

As the film indicates, war crimes trials are becoming increasingly unpopular with the German people by 1948. It is moreover deemed critical for the allies to maintain the cooperation of the Germans in opposing this new Communist threat. As a consequence, political pressure is placed upon Haywood to speed up the proceedings, and, if they are found guilty, to be lenient in punishing the defendants. Nevertheless, that plan proves difficult as mountains of evidence come to light. The judges' complicity in making possible the forced sterilization of mental incompetents and the imprisonment or execution of anyone deemed a danger to the Nazi state is frightfully clear. One particular case brought out in the trial is that of a Jewish merchant accused of having sexual relations with a sixteen-year-old German girl named Irene Hoffman, movingly portrayed by Judy Garland. Although the merchant had been exonerated by Hoffman's testimony, Janning had nevertheless found him guilty, sentencing him death and Hoffman to prison for perjury.

Throughout the judges' trial, the defendants' attorney, Hans Rolfe, dramatically portrayed by Maximilian Schell puts forth a desperate but vigorous defense. Arguing first that a judge's responsibility rests in administering the law, not making it or changing it, Rolfe then argues that the judges, by staying on the bench, actually helped save lives by blunting the full force of the Nazi horror. His final argument rests on the notion that the whole world shares the guilt of the Holocaust. The public's initial acceptance of Hitler, which made possible his rise to power, as well as the Allies' deliberateness in ignoring these issues during the war, makes the world a conspirator in German guilt. Rolfe, who in his mind is defending the German people as much as the defendants, attempts to deflect the prosecution's charges as best he can, stating to the court at one point:

At the beginning of the trial, Janning like the other defendants, is defiant, claiming that the court has no legal jurisdiction in the case since the alleged crimes took place under the laws of a defunct government. As the trial progresses and the magnitude of the Nazi extermination program comes to light, Janning recognizes his and his co-defendants' perversion of justice under Hitler. Late in the trial, Janning addressed the court and admits his guilt:

Janning then blames himself, even above the other judges, for his complicity:

The trial grinds to its conclusion with pressure mounting on Haywood and his fellow judges to be lenient. When the decision comes, however, it is harsh; all defendants are found guilty, and all are sentenced to life imprisonment. As Haywood announces the verdict and metes out the punishment of the court, he reminds those present of the role of justice in human affairs:

Judgment at Nuremberg answers the question as to the culpability of the perpetrators, large and small, famous or unknown, of the Holocaust, but the film is silent regarding the issue of the collective guilt of the German people. This issue is tackled by Alan S. Rosenbaum in his book Prosecuting Nazi War Criminals, published in 1993. According to Rosenbaum, the importance of such proceedings is to bring to light, as much as possible, the deeds of the Nazis and their collaborators, as well as to educate future generations as to the possibility of such a catastrophe occurring again unless the forces of bias and hatred are faced and opposed. Although not willing to assign collective responsibility for past Nazi crimes to the German people as a whole, Rosenbaum does assign the Germans the responsibility of alerting their children, in the future, as to the magnitude of those crimes:

In the last scene of the film, Kramer challenges the excuse used by the judges and other war crimes defendants, that of not suspecting the magnitude of the Nazi horror. Judge Haywood, after responding to Janning's appeal for a prison visit, receives the former German judge's word of honor that he did not know the horrible purpose of the Nazis. "Those people, those millions of people," Janning pleads, "I never knew it would come to that. You must believe it."

"Herr Janning," Judge Haywood replies before he turns to leave, "It came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent."


Judgment at Nuremberg is a masterpiece from a producer-director famous for many fine films concerning important social issues including High Noon, The Defiant Ones, Inherit the Wind, On the Beach, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Nominated for eleven academy awards, Judgment at Nuremberg is a must for anyone interested in the Holocaust and the issues raised by war crimes trials. Spencer Tracey received an academy award nomination for his performance as Judge Haywood. Also Judy Garland as Irene Hoffman and Montgomery Clift as a victim of forced sterilization, received academy award nominations. Maximilian Schell received the academy award for his role as the passionate and patriotic defense attorney in the film. The art direction is excellent; the dialogue from screenwriter Abby Mann is intellectually and emotionally gripping, while the black and white cinematography is first rate. Black and white cinematography is especially effective in this film because the audience is subconsciously aware that most of the newsreels from this era were black and white, while, at the same time, color would have detracted from the somberness of the theme of the film. Judgment at Nuremberg well deserves its place as a classic film about the post-Nazi era. Moreover, it carries with it valuable lessons as to the importance of justice in a civilized society.

The Nuremberg trials, conducted in 1945 and 1946, rendered 22 verdicts on 24 defendants under indictment for crimes committed in four categories: crimes against the peace or deliberately starting a war, crimes against humanity or willfully committing genocide, violations of the laws of war, and conspiracy to commit any or all of the above. The trial consisted of 216 court sessions and ended on October 1, 1946. Nineteen of the defendants were found guilty. The Tribunal sentenced Karl Dönitz, Baldur von Schirach, Albert Speer, and Konstantin von Neurath to prison terms ranging from 10 to 20 years. The Tribunal sentenced Rudolf Hess, Walther Funk, and Erich Raeder to life terms in prison. Hans Frank, Wilhelm Frick, Julius Streicher, Alfred Rosenberg, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Fritz Sauckel, Alfred Jodl, Wilhelm Kietel, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, Martin Bormann, and Hermann Göring were sentenced death by hanging. Hjalmar Schracht, Franz von Papen, and Hans Fritzche were acquitted. The executions were carried out later in 1946. Further trials of lesser officials including ministers, military figures, industrialist, physicians, and jurist, held from December 1946 to March 1949, resulted in further convictions. By 1955, all of the defendants who had received prison terms, except for Speer and Hess, had been released. Speer was released from prison in 1966. Hess died in prison in 1987.

In addition to Judgment at Nuremberg, numerous books and videos are available on the subject of Nazi war crimes and the post war trials. To learn more about the Holocaust and post World War II war crimes trials, read Alan S. Rosenbaum, Prosecuting Nazi War Criminals which explores the legal precedents and importance of prosecuting those responsible for the Holocaust; Robert E. Conot, Justice at Nuremberg which gives an excellent account of the Nuremberg trials; Arno J. Mayer, Why did the Heavens not Darken? The "Final Solution" in History which chronicles the Holocaust in terms of the changing psychological currents of Hitler and the Nazi elite up to and after the failure of Operation Barbarossa; Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews and Perpetrators Victims Bystanders both of which explore the Nazi bureaucratic machinery that made the Holocaust possible; Eugen Kogon, The Theory and Practice of Hell which presents a chilling account of daily life in a Nazi concentration camp, and how camp life evolved as the war progressed.