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I have been writing about the Holocaust and genocide for most of the last week. This is in large part due to teaching my ethics elective at the Staff College during which time we examined the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide.
In doing so I decided to re-watchthe movie Nuremberg which is about the trial of the major Nazi War Criminals. That trial exposed to the world the evil of the Nazi regime. Massive amounts of documentary evidence were introduced, much from the precise records kept by the Nazis themselves. It may be hard to believe, but those who ordered and directed these crimes were proud of what they did, believing that they were doing the world a favor, but it was not something that they felt that they could speak too openly about. Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and the German police told SS leaders that the Jews were a bacillus that had to be eradicated. At Posen on October 4th 1943 Himmler reminded the senior leaders of the SS of their “duty” in this regard. That speech, with its English and German transcripts can be found here:
The audio of Himmler’s remarks is chilling, as are the written and photographic evidence compiled by the Nazis themselves. The meticulous nature of the Nazis in documenting what they did would be used against their surviving leaders. The Allied troops who marched into Germany and the countries that the Nazis occupied were stunned at what they found the massive amounts of documents, photos, and films, the meticulous records and the human evidence that the Nazis could not hide; the victims of Nazi inhumanity in the liberated concentration camps. Nazi Armaments Minister, Albert Speer wrote of the evidence presented during the trial:
“For many months the documents and testimonies accumulated…. It was horrible, and only could have been borne because our nerves became more blunted from session to session. To this day photographs, documents, and orders keep coming back to me. They were so monstrous that they seemed unbelievable, and yet none of the defendants doubted their genuineness.” (Speer, Inside the Third Reich p.513)
Among the most devastating evidence shown at Nuremberg was a film shot by Allied film crews as they liberated the camps. If a picture speaks a thousand words, the film speaks millions. The scene was described by John and Ann Tusa in their book The Nuremberg Trial:
“There was to be an even stronger reaction that afternoon when the prosecution showed a film to the court of the concentration camps as they had been found by the advancing Allies…. No one who ever saw it in court ever forgot it. A view recorded: ‘The impression we get is an endless river of white bodies flowing across the screen, bodies with ribs sticking through their chests, with pipe-stem legs and battered skulls and eyeless faces and grotesque thin arms reaching for the sky… On the screen there is no end to the bodies, tumbling bodies and bodies in mounds and single bodies with holes between the eyes and bodies being shoved over cliffs into common graves and bodies pushed like dirt by giant bulldozers, and bodies that are not bodies that are not bodies at all but charred bits of bone and flesh lying upon a crematory grate made of bits of steel rail laid upon blackened wood ties.” (Tusa, The Nuremberg Trial location 2563 of 8828 Amazon Kindle edition)
The film left those in the courtroom in stunned silence, the judges left and the chief judge, Sir Geoffrey Lawrence “had not even managed to speak the usual formal words of adjournment.” Even some of the Nazi leaders who were on trial were shocked by what they saw, but few took any responsibility. Many denied knowing anything about the camps of the crimes, some were shocked, and even cried, but most shifted blame to others. Herman Goering told Gustave Gilbert “Everyone was laughing with me and then they showed that awful film and it just spoiled everything.” But one defendant, Hans Frank, the Governor General of occupied Poland told Gilbert, “Don’t let everyone tell you that they had no idea. Everyone sensed that there was something terribly wrong… even if we did not the details. They just didn’t want to know all the details.” (Tusa, The Nuremberg Trial, location 2576) When the trial was concluded and the defendants made their closing statements, most condemned the killings, but only Speer admitted having some share of responsibility for them, the others all denied their own share of responsibility.
I think that it is important for people to watch the film. It is not easy to do, but if we are to ensure that such things never happen again, we have to show it, and we have to educate those who have no contact with, or no direct knowledge of these crimes. There are few survivors left to tell the tale, it is for us the living to ensure that these crimes never happen again.