Reaching Judgment at Nuremberg

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

This work on the major Nuremberg trial of 1945-1946 is probably the most balanced and judicious study of the trials to have appeared in recent years. It is strong in analysis, devoid of polemics, and richly documented with new evidence. Smith used a wealth of letters, diaries, and memoranda of the Nuremberg judges and their assistants. Particularly valuable were the personal courtroom diaries of the senior American judge, Francis Biddle. These, among other sources, enable us to understand how and why the judges voted as they did on each defendant. The knowledge we gain of this process enables us to evaluate the issues and results of the trials more objectively than was previously possible.

The Nuremberg trial of the twenty-two Nazi leaders by an international tribunal in 1945-1946 remains the “trial of the century.” It was an unprecedented response to a unique situation of both aggressive warfare and atrocities on a vast scale. As in the Napoleonic Wars and in World War I a number of nations were severely damaged by a major aggressor. But World War II went further. At no previous time had calculated aggression, domination of conquered areas, and genocide been applied on such a huge and systematic scale. By 1945 the Allies intended to use their collective, supranational power to punish the enormities perpetrated by Nazi Germany.

Of all the Allies the United States was in a most unusual position. It was the only victorious power that had been geographically untouched by Nazi Germany. Still, as Smith argues at the outset of his study, the United States assumed a leading responsibility for the ideas, plans, and procedures of the International War Crimes Tribunal. America had led the establishment of a United Nations War Crimes Commission as early as 1943. By January of 1945 the United States decided to conduct international trials as the best way to deal with Nazi misdeeds. In 1945 the London Agreement and Charter were drawn up to establish a tribunal. The United States was able to persuade the Soviet Union, Britain, and France to support the idea of international war crimes trials. Such American leadership demonstrated that the United States was morally and militarily the dominant power in the devastated Europe of 1945. Most American officials from the President down, and American public opinion, supported the trial. The legal and research staff was mostly American and the trials were held in the American zone. Moreover, the American judges and prosecutors were mostly free of government direction.

But the development of indictments and procedures for the trials were to be fraught with difficulties, for there were few international precedents available to shape and inform the unprecedented decision to conduct international war crimes trials. The British and Americans led the way in creating new precedents for the development of international law and the protection of human rights. With the support of President Truman, such high American officials as Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Attorney General Francis Biddle, and particularly Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson joined in defining the aims and procedures of the trials. Though the Russians and the French were wary of the application of Anglo-Saxon conspiracy charges to the Nazi crimes, they agreed to go along with the British and Americans.

The Charter of the International Tribunal divided the criminal indictment into three major sections—Crimes Against Peace, War Crimes, and Crimes Against Humanity. To all these crimes were applied the Anglo-American standard of personal responsibility for one’s actions as well as the principle that a conspiracy to commit a crime could be a punishable offense. The Allied powers were particularly concerned with the application and proof of the first charge, “Crimes Against Peace,” or the German conspiracy to wage aggressive war. Nazi diplomatic and military documents were produced in abundance to substantiate this charge. Moreover, the second and third counts of “War Crimes” and “Crimes Against Humanity” were subordinated to the first charge in the indictment, though the Russians and the French were much concerned with substantiating the “War Crimes” of the Nazis. But what of the third charge, that of “Crimes Against Humanity"? Smith effectively argues that the American staff did not immediately recognize the central importance of systematic enslavement, deportation, and genocide that was included under the third count. Since these crimes were never really divorced from the all-important first charge of...

(The entire section is 1869 words.)

Reaching Judgment at Nuremberg Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Choice. XIV, April, 1977, p. 256.

Library Journal. CII, February 1, 1977, p. 382.

New Yorker. LIII, February 21, 1977, p. 126.

Observer. December 18, 1977, p. 21.