Warning: This post contains some disturbing pictures related to the Holocaust.
The Nuremberg trials following the end of World War II have few precedents in history. They have created controversy ever since they first happened, with some claiming that it was nothing more than victors' revenge. (This is heard even in the countries that won the Second World War.) Nonetheless, it was a kind of international cooperation that was sorely needed at the time, and helped to set a precedent for enforcement of international laws. It helped to bring closure for millions affected by the Holocaust, who were able to find some measure of consolation in the justice dealt out to those who had done the deeds.
The defendants in the dock (in the real trials)
The controversy in its own time may have been partly due to the complex geopolitical situation following World War II. The Russians were among the victors represented at the Nuremberg trials, and many of them were not much better than the people they sat in judgment of. The Americans were mindful of the Cold War that was then in its earliest stages; and many of them didn't want to risk alienating their German allies, who were in an important location in the struggle with communism. (The battle lines of the Cold War went right through the divided postwar Germany; with the West Germans fortunate to live in a new democracy under the supervision of America, Britain, and France; and the East Germans condemned to live in a communist prison, under the supervision of the Soviet Union - little better than the Nazi government it had supplanted.)
Border between the two Germanies - Iron Curtain, 1949
Since the time that the Nuremberg trials took place in, there have been two important Hollywood movies made about the dramatic events of these times. One is a 1961 film called "Judgment at Nuremberg," and another is a 2000 film simply entitled "Nuremberg" (made for TV). The films are about very different stories, and so it may not be entirely fair to compare them; but "Judgment at Nuremberg" stands out as the better of the two films in the power of the drama; and in its examination of how the Holocaust could have happened. Nonetheless, the later 2000 film is worth examining as well; as the particular trial it covers was more important for the punishment of the major Nazi officials - Herman Göring being the most prominent of them - who had been so important in the geopolitics of the war itself. Since the trials it covers were chronologically before the "Judgment at Nuremberg" trials, I will first examine the events of this movie; which may help to give some context for the events of the other.
The 2000 film "Nuremberg" stars Alec Baldwin, Jill Hennessy, Christopher Plummer, Matt Craven, and Brian Cox (among others). It deals with the first of the Nuremberg trials, which tried all the major players in the wartime Nazi government. (All of them, that is, except for ones that had fled to South America and elsewhere to escape justice; or who had committed suicide rather than die as their enemies chose. Many of the major Nazi officials, including Hitler himself, had already died by the time this first trial began; and so the trial could focus its attention on the ones that were left.) This trial was groundbreaking in several ways; because it was the first of its kind, and because it established a precedent for many another. Much of importance has happened since then in this area, and so the trial had enormous historical importance in these (and other) ways.
Defendants in the Nuremberg trials (the real ones)
The most important geopolitical thing about this trial was that the judges were representatives of four different nations - the United States, Britain, France, and (most interestingly) Soviet Russia. The Russian judge, on orders from his government, was pushing to have the whole lot of them executed right off the bat, without a trial of any kind - a typical Stalinist yes-man in that respect. Truman and Churchill, obviously, believed that if it was wrong for the Nazis to shoot people without a trial, then it was wrong for the Allies to do so; and so they refused to give in to the Soviet pressure. They even threatened to have the Soviet Union excluded from the joint trials, and forced to conduct their own trials - a threat that worked, because the Soviet Union had a much smaller percentage of the "big fish," and so would lose much influence on the outcome of the trials by being excluded. (Most of the Nazis had fled West to escape the conquering Russians, and so the Western Allies had a much higher percentage of the major players - forcing the Russians to go along with the Allied-style trial, or risk being excluded from it and thus lose influence on its outcome.)
Defendants listen to verdict through earphones (actual photograph)
The movie has some fine performances, with the finest of them being the portrayal of Herman Göring by Brian Cox - a skilled actor at playing villains, who may be best known for playing a villain in the recent Bourne trilogy (Ward Abbott, to be precise); and the movie has some notable dramatic and narrative power. My biggest complaint about this "Nuremberg" movie is that the film depicts an affair between the chief American prosecutor and his female secretary (no sex shown - just implied with subtle hints), which did not actually happen in real life. Considering how closely the movie follows the rest of the story, this insertion of this scandalous (and ultimately fictitious) romance is perhaps the biggest flaw of the film. Nonetheless, the film stands out as a fine depiction of the important events of the first trial; with a lot of human interest in their portrayal of these events. (Even so, though, the better of these films is the 1961 classic "Judgment at Nuremberg," the one that I will transition into reviewing now.)
Actual image of starving prisoners at Mauthausen concentration camp,
immediately after its liberation by the Americans
(typical of the images shown at the trials)
"Judgment at Nuremberg" depicts a trial that was much less known at the time the movie came out, but which has actually become more famous than the groundbreaking first trial, because of the influence of this movie. The movie depicts the trial of four German judges, who were responsible for carrying out the Führer's decrees in their area. Most noteworthy historically is their involvement in the Holocaust, where they each sentenced numerous Jews to death for no reason other than their race; and were thus complicit in the wickedness of these mass murders. This movie was also one of the first Hollywood movies to feature actual footage of the Holocaust, which is graphic and brutal even by today's standards. I will not go much into the grim details in this post, but suffice it to say that it includes disturbing footage of piles of dead bodies; which had to be moved by a bulldozer for sanitary reasons. (That's as much as I'll say in this post - I apologize to my viewers for the two disturbing pictures shown here; and I should make clear that I wouldn't even show these two, if it weren't for the fact that there are some who believe it didn't happen - a sad commentary on how much our society has forgotten.)
Actual image of mass grave at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp
(typical of the disturbing images shown at the trials)
The movie has its share of intense courtroom scenes, and it was probably one of the more dramatically powerful films to appear at that time; dealing with subject matter that had been largely ignored by the postwar American media. They show how many Americans were not interested in the Nuremberg trials then, because of the geopolitical complexity of the early Cold War, and wanting to get the Germans on their side. A newspaperman in the movie says that "I couldn't give away a story on the Nuremberg trials right now" (or words to that effect), because the public just wasn't interested. It was a sad thing for the conduct of these trials that by the time a few years had passed, no one cared anymore about what happened to the war criminals; and many were content to just "let bygones be bygones" and forget what had happened there - a situation that the movie makes sure to mention in its final verdict, when saying that it was the right thing to do to hold the trials anyway.
Maximilian Schell as the German defense attorney, who won an Oscar for his performance
The movie also has its fair share of fine performances, with one of the finest casts in Hollywood history. (Spencer Tracy, Maximilian Schell, Richard Widmark, Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Judy Garland, and many others lead the film.) This may be the most moving depiction of the Nuremberg trials, at least for the part of it dealing with the Holocaust. The first one is better at dealing with the crimes committed in actual battles, but the second one is better at dealing with the genocide; and also helps to answer the question of how these terrible events could have happened.
This movie also helps to show Germany's guilt in this matter, helping to address the common defense that they "didn't know what was happening" in the concentration camps. This has been one of the common excuses since World War II for the generation that lived in Nazi Germany, and the movie helps to show how empty it is. The Holocaust will always remain controversial, and so the message of the movie will always remain relevant, helping to make sense out of the terrible crimes of this period.
DVD of Nuremberg (2000 movie)
DVD of Judgment at Nuremberg
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World War II miniseries
My Marshall Plan post
The effects of dividing Germany after the war
Nuremberg (2000 movie) trailer
Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) trailer