Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
On October 1st 1946, twenty-one Nazi leaders waited in the dock in Saal 6oo (Courtroom 600) at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg to hear the pronouncement of the verdict and their sentences on the charges of war crimes.
Just a week ago during our most recent trip to Germany I stood next to that same defendant’s dock where Hermann Goering and twenty other men sat, and then rose to hear the verdicts of the Tribunal. Goering and ten compatriots, Governor General of Poland, Dr. Hans Frank, Minister of the Interior and Reich Protector of Bohemia-Moravia Dr.Wilhelm Frick, General Alfred Jodl, SS General and head Reichs Main Sucurity Office Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, Chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, Regional Leader of Thuringia, and head of Slave Labor programs, Fritz Sauckel, Dr. Arthur Seyess-Inquart, Reichskommissar of occupied Netherlands, and Julius Streicher, Gauleiter of Franconia and publisher of the Nazi propaganda paper, Der Sturmer. Party Secretary Martin Bormann was sentenced to death in abstentia as the Allies believed that he may had escaped Berlin after Hitler’s death. It has since been discovered that he died in the attempt.
Others were sentenced to varying prison terms. Grand Admiral Karl Donitz, 10 years, Minister of Economics, Dr. Walter Funk, life in prison, Deputy Fuhrer Rudolf Hess, life in prison, Foreign Minister, Baron Konstantin von Neurath, 15 years, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, life in prison, Head of the Hitler Youth, and Gauleiter of Vienna, Baldur von Schirach, 20 years, Armaments Minister, Albert Speer, 20 years in prison.
Three men were acquitted: Hans Fritzsche of the Propaganda Ministry, Dr. Hjalmar Schlacht pre-war head of the Reichsbank, and Economics Minister, Franz von Papen, and Vice Chancellor, Ambassador to Austria and later Turkey.
Robert Ley, head of the Reich Labor Front was not tried as he committed suicide in his cell the day following his indictment. Neither was Gustave Krupp, C.E.O. of the Krupp industrial firm and armaments manufacturer who was too sick to go to trial.
Following the trials of the major war criminals, eleven more trials were held, including the Doctor’s Trial, a General’s Trial, also known as the Hostage Trial, and the Einsatzgruppen Trial.
To stand in that room where such evidence was presented and powerful testimony given was humbling. To see where learned men, powerful, and even respected men, who had so willingly sacrificed any trace of personal honor and morality, men who aided and abetted a regime which committed the most heinous crimes committed by a civilized “Christian” nation in history left me silent. I have studied these trials since I was in college over 35 years ago. My primary professor, Dr. Helmut Haeussler was an interpreter at the trials.
Since that time I have continued to study them and today as I see the rise of Right Wing movements in Europe, as well as the United States, movements which have at their core many of the same beliefs and principles held by Hitler, the Nazi Party, and the men who stood trial at Nuremberg I find myself frightened.
This is especially so in the United States where Donald Trump has made repeated policy statements limiting civil rights and freedom of speech, limiting the role of the courts, curtailing freedom of the press, favoring one religion above others, curtailing the legal and civil rights of whole groups of people, expelling millions of people, banning whole groups of other people entry into the country, promising to rid the government of his opponents, to fire military leaders who disagree with him in mass, to commit the military to use methods that are condemned as war crimes, war crimes such as were prosecuted by the United States and her Allies at Nuremberg.
To make matters more frightening, many of Trump’s supporters see no problem with this and are often shown on video threatening opponents, advocating even more extreme and violent measures than Trump himself. They justify their proposed polices by saying that these measures are to “protect the country,” and to Make America Great Again.”
But at what price?
In Judgement at Nuremberg, the film version of the Judges’ Trial, Spencer Tracy played Judge Dan Heywood. In the scene at which the verdicts were read, he gave this speech, some of which echoed the words of Justice Robert Jackson’s final statement at the major war crimes trial:
“Janning, to be sure, is a tragic figure. We believe he loathed the evil he did. But compassion for the present torture of his soul must not beget forgetfulness of the torture and the death of millions by the Government of which he was a part. Janning’s record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial: If he and all of the other defendants had been degraded perverts, if all of the leaders of the Third Reich had been sadistic monsters and maniacs, then these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake, or any other natural catastrophe.
But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary – men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination. No one who has sat through the trial can ever forget them: men sterilized because of political belief; a mockery made of friendship and faith; the murder of children. How easily it can happen. There are those in our own country too who today speak of the “protection of country” – of ‘survival’. A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient – to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is ‘survival as what’? A country isn’t a rock. It’s not an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.”
A nation is what it stands for. The ideals that have marked the American experiment have never been perfectly practiced by the United States, but they are still the hallmark of the last and greatest hope of civilization. They are the ideals which lead people around the world to want to become Americans, they are the ideals which sustain us. But what Trump and his followers say is that they are not important, and in fact should be limited or abrogated entirely. But this is the way of expediency, and the end of the American experiment.
Standing beside the dock at Nuremberg I was humbled by the fact that I was where such history had been made, and at the same time I was frightened for my country and the world.
I will be spending some time this week to write about the trials, as well as the visit to Dachau that I made on this trip.