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The idea of accountability for war crimes has been a major issue in the twentieth century. There have been many trials dealing with the personal responsibility of war criminals. The military tribunal in Tokyo after WWII, the trials to persecute war criminals in the former Yugoslavia, and the trials in Rwanda are all examples of such trials. Since the Nuremberg trials of 1945, which dealt with the responsibility of Nazi war criminals, the denial of personal accountability for war crimes was not accepted. Even though the Nuremberg trials brought in new laws and policies, it was a poorly run trial with uncertain prosecutors. At the end of the Nuremberg trials, new laws and policies which are utilized to this day, were the end result of the trials. The trials forever changed war and the accountability for war crimes. Eleven of those who were tried received sentences of death. Compared to the 6 million Jews killed, justice was certainly not one of the end results of the Nuremberg trials.
To understand the Nuremberg trials and the concept of it bringing justice, one must have a knowledge of the events leading up to the trial. In July 1941, Adolf Hitler began carrying out what he called the final solution. The Final Solution of the Jewish Question was the code name assigned by the German bureaucracy to the annihilation of the Jews. Concentration camps and extermination camps were built for the sole purpose of quick and easy disposal of human life. The Nazi executioners used every method imaginable until the most efficient and effective means of exterminating the Jews was found. In most camps, the use of gas chambers was common, while in other camps the prisoners were lined up and shot, hundreds at a time. When Jews were brought into the Auschwitz, Belzec and Birkenau extermination camps, most were led directly to the gas chambers after a physical examination by a doctor to deem them fit for hard labour. Those who weren t, as well as small children and babies, were taken to the gas chambers. The Nazi executioners would tell the prisoners that they were going for their required delousing shower. Almost all of the prisoners would realize what was happening when no water came out of the showers and when they noticed that there were no drains in the floor. For those who were not sent to the gas chambers, life was even worse. The prisoners had to work from sunrise to sunset, with hardly any food and very poor weather conditions. If anyone tried to escape they were shot instantly and the other prisoners had to stand outside throughout the night as a punishment for disobedience. Another special group of Jews was assigned to be a part of the Sonderkommando. These were the Jewish male inmates who were promised their lives and adequate food in return for performing the most ghastly job of all. First, they had to remove the blood and then pull the dead out of the chamber with nooses and hooks. Then they had to search for gold teeth or fillings, which would be removed from the mouths of the dead. They then had to load the bodies into a railway car that led to the furnaces.
Hitler s ideas of Jewish extermination began in a German prison. Hitler was convicted for harbouring Nazi Revolutionary ideas. During his sentence of a year, he wrote his famous autobiography, Mein Kampf (My Battle). In it, he openly revealed his sinister political intentions. He wanted to rebuild the National Socialist party and obtain power legally. We shall have to hold our noses and go into the Reichstag he said, ultimately showing his distaste for Germany s current political situation. Apart from his varying political views, Hitler also discussed many racial issues. His description of the Jews is as follows:
The Jewish people, despite all apparent intellectual qualities, is without any true culture of its own. For what sham culture the Jew today possesses is the property of other peoples, and for the most part it is ruined in his hands. He is, and remains, the typical parasite, a sponger who like a noxious bacillus keeps spreading as soon as a favorable medium invites him. And the effect of his existence is also like that of spongers: wherever he appears, the host people die out after a shorter or longer period of time
Hitler viewed the Jews as the source of all evil, misfortune and tragedy. He also preached this to his followers, who in turn practiced Hitler s suggestion of racial cleansing and purification. His followers possessed many of the same qualities as Hitler. The dream of a perfect state, with all people being of pure German ancestry, was constantly striven for. Each of these followers was equally responsible for some aspect of the Holocaust. Whether it was operating death camps, performing human experiments or manufacturing the weapons used to kill six million Jews, these men were all personally accountable in some way. This idea of personal accountability was strictly enforced during the Nuremberg Trials of 1945, which was an attempt to bring some sort of justice to the families, as well as the victims, of the Holocaust.
The Nuremberg Trials commenced on November 22, 1945 in Nuremberg, Germany. An International Military Tribunal met in Nuremberg in order to try former Nazi leaders. Out of the millions who were responsible, twenty-two men were tried over the course of ten months. To start the trial, representatives from the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union, had to define the crimes over which the court had jurisdiction. They settled upon three main categories, in which the many crimes committed by the Nazi leaders, could be classified. They are as follows:
1. Crimes Against Peace which included the planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression, or a war in violation of International treaties, agreements or assurances.
2. War Crimes which included violations of the laws or customs of war. Such violations shall include, but not be limited to, murder, ill-treatment or deportation to slave labour or for any other purpose of civilian population of or in occupied territory, murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war, or persons on the seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity.
3. Crimes Against Humanity which include murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war, or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds.
After these types of crimes had been defined, the prosecution teams took almost four months to present their case, but when it was completed the defendants and their lawyers realized that they had to contend with a body of evidence much greater than they had imagined or ever thought possible. The defense counsels argument was entirely based upon challenging the fact that the laws that would decide the fate of their defendants, were created at the beginning of the trial. They argued that the laws were not credible unless they had been declared criminal by a law already in existence. This argument was thrown out, but the defense lawyers replaced it with a new one. The new argument was that the Nazi s were not alone in their criminal activity due to the fact that many other countries had participated in World War II. Again the defense s arguments were thrown out of court.
The trial itself was very poorly run. Throughout the proceedings, the credibility of the prosecution was questioned due to their creation of the three classifications of war crimes. The defense claimed that since these classifications were not in place when the crimes actually took place, they should not be considered while the defendants were on trial. The tribunal rejected the motion, but among the defense lawyers, the tribunal s ruling had caused more criticism and spite than approval. The defense s argument regarding the Nazi s following superior orders was also dismissed, with the tribunal stating that The true test, which is found in varying degrees in the criminal law of most nations, is not the existence of the order, but whether moral choice was in fact possible They decided that moral choice was definitely possible, and that these men should be personally responsible for their acts. Through the trial, the defense made many more arguments such as these which were constantly dismissed or ignored.
A few of the defendants were also disruptive during the trial. Hermann Goring, on many occasions, would attempt to stand and read a prepared statement in the middle of the proceedings. He was asked to sit down each time with no further chastisement. He charmed the guards and the members of the court. He tried to create a united front among the defendants, only to find that his partners in crime were ashamed of their acts and did not want to be associated with the horrors of concentration camps, mass murder and slave labour. He was methodical and diabolical and extremely unremorseful. During his cross-examination he showed no emotion and delivered smooth, calm answers. This was due to the fact that the court translators were very slow. As they were translating the question into German for the German speaking court members, Goring would formulate an answer and deliver it perfectly. For example, Jackson tried to persuade Goring to confess that the Nazi s plan to occupy Rhineland without warning in 1936, was a Nazi secret, hidden from other countries. Goring smoothly answered, “I do not believe I can recall reading beforehand the publication of the mobilization preparations of the United States.” Answers such as these were common. The prosecution also had many more faults in their courtroom actions. After Robert H. Jackson, a United States lawyer, based a line of questioning on a mistranslated document, Goring corrected him. When he seemed to be closing in on Goring, Jackson suddenly switched subjects.
The records of the Nuremberg trials were very poorly recorded. The written reports were often incomplete, due to the confusion in the courtroom. The translators constant dialogue confused the stenographers, therefore they missed many important parts of the proceedings. The visual records were also of a mediocre quality. The camera angles were awkward and many times the videotape would run out, unbeknownst to the camera operators.
The horrors of the Holocaust were displayed, uncensored, in the courtroom. Film evidence, of Nazi Generals beating, killing and burning Jews was shown, with no remorse from any of the defendants. Desensitization had definitely occurred among the defendants and some, such as Hermann Goring, were proud of what they had done. Albert Speer ranked high among Hitler’s few confidants and was chief of all Nazi war production for the Nazi s last three years. He oversaw 14 million workers; he could hardly claim ignorance of their condition or how they were recruited. In the spring
of 1944, for example, he ordered 100,000 Jewish slave workers from Hungary as if they were simply supplies necessary for production. He believed that if these workers died, he could get more, without any problem. Robert Ley, the boss of the German Labor Front, governed the lives of 30 million German workers. At the last moment, the prosecutors realized their key industrial defendant, the weapons maker Alfred Krupp, had not personally run his family’s slave-labor factories until after the war began so he was free from all charges of pre-war atrocities. Rudolf Hoess, who was the commander of Aushwitz, received a sentence of life imprisonment. The Aushwitz extermination camp was the main camp, with the most deaths, yet it s commander received such a petty sentence. Considering the number of innocent Jews, as well as many others whose lives were extinguished, the prosecution of only twenty-two men hardly seems to bring any justice to those who were directly or indirectly affected by the Holocaust s devastating effects.
All of the defendants oversaw thousands of Jews. Most of these men supervised the concentration camps and extermination camps and were not unaware of the workers condition or what their future condition would be. Each man was personally accountable for the death of thousands. Out of the twenty-two defendants, eleven received the death penalty, one of which was tried in absentia. The others received life sentences, or sentences as short as ten years. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Germans were involved in the Nazi s final solution yet only twenty-two were tried. The court proceedings were ridiculous and the recordings of these proceedings were even more mediocre. The one positive outcome of the Nuremberg trials were the new laws and policies adopted to prosecute war criminals all over the world. Although they changed the policies regarding war criminals, the Nuremberg trial never remotely enabled the world to outlaw war. By 1991, the wars of this century had killed more than 107 million people. The court of 1945 may seem irrelevant to the wars of the 1990 s, in which ethnic killers manage to avoid justice, yet there is one common ground. The desire to prosecute those who assault and besiege society and its people. What the Nuremberg judges and lawyers really achieved has never been more important. By rejecting group guilt and insisting on accepting personal accountability, the Nuremberg judges defied hatred and spite and paved the road for peace that may yet, half a century later, help alleviate the severity and madness of war.
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