The Road to Nuremberg

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

In 1942, as the Nazi killing machines began in earnest to undertake the “final solution” to the so-called Jewish Question, information on the mass murders began to filter back to government authorities in London and Washington. At first the stories seemed too horrible to be believed. The Nazi record of aggressive warfare had, of course, been clear since the attack on Poland in 1939. The brutality with which the German armies apparently disregarded the standard laws and usages of warfare among civilized countries was also becoming clear, but the crime which would become known as genocide still seemed literally incredible. In December, 1942, after months of attempted verification, delays, and negotiations within the Allied camp, the British and American governments issued a joint statement denouncing the Nazi mass murders and declaring that the perpetrators would not “escape retribution.” In November, 1943, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, and Soviet Foreign Minister V. M. Molotov issued the Moscow Declaration outlining the Allied policy toward Nazi war criminals: major war criminals at the top of the hierarchy would be “punished by the joint decision of the governments of the allies,” while lesser offenders would be turned over to liberated countries for trial and punishment under local laws.

Yet these statements left many questions unanswered: exactly what were the definitions of the crimes involved? Were they traditional violations of the codes of war, such as shooting prisoners and noncombatants, or did they extend into new areas, such as the conspiracy to launch wars of aggression and commit genocide? Which individuals would be held accountable at the highest level? Only the top political leaders? Or would military and industrial leaders be charged as well? Would there be an actual trial, or would a set list of offenders simply be assumed guilty and dealt with through administrative procedures: summary execution? If there were to be some kind of trial, what would it be like? Could it be designed to demonstrate both the absolute power and the absolute justice of the victorious Allies?

These are the questions which were debated vigorously within the American government and military hierarchy in late 1944 and early 1945: these debates form the major substance of Bradley Smith’s book here under review. Smith, an academic historian whose book Reaching Judgment at Nuremberg (see Magill’s Literary Annual, 1978) took readers into the judges’ private chambers as they decided the fate of the top Nazis on trial, has now turned his considerable skills to the background of the trials. Some of the information he recounts here has been in print for a generation, but much of it is newly unearthed from American archives through his efforts. A companion volume of documents, The American Road to Nuremberg: The Documentary Record (Hoover Institution Press, 1981) will be of aid to future scholars of the questions he addresses.

Some readers may be disappointed by The Road to Nuremberg. The book deals almost exclusively with the American side of the issue; the British get some coverage, the Russians and French virtually none. The period from August, 1944, to June, 1945, is covered in bureaucratic detail, but the international aspects of “the road” from June to August, 1945, are given very short shrift. Questions such as “Why at Nuremberg rather than at Berlin?” are not covered at all.

Nevertheless the book is a significant contribution to an understanding of American policy toward Germany as the war ended. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom one might have expected to have played a central role in policy formation, emerges as an elusive and indecisive leader. At the Quebec Conference in September, 1944, Roosevelt seemed to stand firmly with Winston Churchill and his Lord Chancellor, Sir John A. Simon, who held that the Nazis whose guilt was patently obvious should be shot without any form of trial at all. At that meeting Henry Morgenthau, Jr., deeply angered by the increasing evidence of Nazi atrocities, also favored summary execution. Lord Simon and Prime Minister Churchill had long argued privately for such a course, since it would avoid lengthy legal proceedings. In 1815, they pointed out, Napoleon had also been dealt with by a purely political decision, in his case lifelong imprisonment on a faraway isle. Simon, Churchill, and apparently Roosevelt too, agreed that the Moscow Declaration had implied that a “political” rather than a judicial procedure was the most appropriate one for the leading Nazis. Such a drastic policy seemed consistent with the Morgenthau Plan for the economic deindustrialization of Germany, also apparently agreed upon at the same meeting, but the story of the Road to Nuremberg had barely begun.

It is surprising, perhaps, that the chief objections to summary execution came from the higher echelons of the United States War Department. Henry Stimson, Secretary of War, a redoubtable Republican who lent important breadth to Roosevelt’s war cabinet, was by no means pro-German, but he did have the...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Book World. XI, May 24, 1981, p. 6.

Choice. XIX, September, 1981, p. 146.

Kirkus Reviews. XLIX, February 1, 1981, p. 204.

Library Journal. CVI, March 15, 1981, p. 660.

New Statesman. CII, October 9, 1981, p. 18.

The New York Review of Books. XXIX, February 18, 1982, p. 30.

Publishers Weekly. CCXIX, February 20, 1981, p. 84.