Morality and Law
Nuremberg Trials 75 Years On: Who Was Tried and How

The Nuremberg Tribunal, on the one hand, laid the foundation for the modern interpretation of war crimes, crimes against peace and humanity. On the other hand, the court clearly distinguished between different spheres of state activity within the criminal regime. This approach is understandable. But let’s not forget about Hannah Arendt’s famous thesis about the banality of evil: everyone is guilty within the framework of a criminal regime, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.

2020 is rich in military anniversaries. Most recently, we celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Victory of the Soviet people in the Great Patriotic War, which was followed by the American atomic bombing of Japan and the end of World War II in general. They are followed by another important anniversary. In the autumn of 1945, the Nuremberg Tribunal began its work, condemning the key Nazi criminals. Undoubtedly, the decisions of the tribunal have, to this day, not only had historical, but also political significance; they once and for all drew a line under the definition of the criminal essence of Nazism.

An important aspect in the activities of the Nuremberg Tribunal today is associated with which defendants received this or that punishment, and which were freed from responsibility. Here, in many cases, the verdicts of the tribunal have been very revealing. We cannot say that they became a kind of precedent for other international courts, but nevertheless they are significant.

And here it is interesting to trace the key decisions. For instance, Nuremberg’s verdict was unambiguous and clear against Ernst Kaltenbrunner, SS Obergruppenfuehrer, head of the General Directorate of Imperial Security, and Hans Frank, Governor General of Nazi-occupied Poland, where the main death camps were located. The heads of the special services of the criminal regime and its deputies in those occupied territories, where the main atrocities were committed, were recognised as deserving the death penalty; no one has any questions here. Although it’s asked why all of the regional governors of the Reich weren’t brought to court at Nuremberg, for example, Reich Commissioner for Ukraine Erich Koch.

At the same time, in a number of other cases, the decisions of Nuremberg caused quite a tangible discussion from different sides of the political spectrum. For example, one such case was the innocent verdict of Hans Fritzsche, the head of German radio. In a number of studies devoted to Nuremberg, it was quite explicitly indicated that Fritzsche was involved in the trial “instead of Goebbels”. Since the Reich Minister of Public Education and Propaganda, whose name has become a common name, committed suicide, the figure of Fritzsche was chosen to replace him, in order to condemn the entire Nazi propaganda machine in his person.

It should be noted here that in addition to Fritzsche, there was also the mouthpiece for Nazi anti-Semitism, the publisher of the Der Stürmer weekly Julius Streicher, who was sentenced to death. The verdict is absolutely fair and didn’t raise any questions. At the same time, Streicher (a Gauleiter of Franconia until 1940, and then generally in disgrace and without party posts) was not involved in the general process of leading Nazi propaganda. In Goebbels’ diaries (where he wrote down the details of his propaganda work almost on a daily basis), mentions of Streicher are minimal, in contrast to mentions of Fritzsche. Fritzsche was, both officially and informally, Goebbels’ closest collaborator, and with him he put into practice all the key issues of Nazi propaganda.

Nevertheless, Fritzsche was declared not guilty. Yes, there was the dissenting opinion of the judge from the Soviet Union, who disagreed with the acquittal of Fritzsche. Nevertheless, almost immediately after his release by the international tribunal in Nuremberg, Fritzsche was arrested by the West German authorities and received a sentence as part of the denazification process. The decision of the international tribunal in Nuremberg was as follows: in the person of Streicher anti-Semitism was condemned, but in the person of Fritzsche the Nazi propaganda was not condemned.

This sparked an understandable debate that the criminal regime’s propaganda machine did not become a crime.

By the way, it was on this issue that the Nuremberg verdict did not become a de facto precedent for the later international tribunals. For example, at the Rwanda Tribunal, the leaders of Radio of Thousand Hills were convicted.

Another example which prompted discussion is the concept/myth of the “clean Wehrmacht”, when the armed forces of Nazi Germany were declared only to be doing their duty and not involved in war crimes. According to this logic, these were only committed by the Schutzstaffel (SS) paramilitaries, the special services of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) intelligence agency, and regional governors. The verdict of Nuremberg is known here: the top leaders of the Wehrmacht, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and Colonel General Alfred Jodl, who appeared before the court, received a death sentence, but the High Command of the Wehrmacht itself was not recognised as a criminal organization, unlike the SS, SD, Gestapo and NSDAP governing bodies. The judge from the USSR expressed his disagreement with this.

The latter decision formed the basis of the concept of “clean Wehrmacht” and is perceived by its supporters as its proper legal basis. At the same time, according to this logic, they dispute the validity of the death sentences of Keitel and Jodl, since the leaders of the “clean Wehrmacht” were “not guilty of anything”. On the other hand, since crimes against humanity and the development and conduct of an aggressive war were included in the number of charges in Nuremberg, one can find mentions that not only Keitel and Jodl should have been brought to trial in Nuremberg, but also other leaders of the Wehrmacht, for example, Field Marshal Manstein, the developer of the plan for an aggressive war against France, Field Marshal Paulus, the developer of the Barbarossa plan, Colonel General Guderian, who developed and promoted “blitzkrieg” etc.

As a result, the verdicts of Nuremberg, according to many, left an open question as to whether an army in the service of a criminal regime is criminal in itself.

The next aspect is related to the role of diplomats. Reich Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop received a death sentence. His predecessor in this post until 1938, Konstantin von Neurath, got 15 years in prison, and the Ambassador to Turkey, former Chancellor Franz von Papen, was acquitted. It is clear that Neurath received his main punishment for his subsequent tenure as Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, but nevertheless he was found guilty on the charge of conspiracy against the world, which refers to his activities in the Foreign Ministry. Papen, of course, was tried and acquitted primarily as a former chancellor, and not as an ambassador (although after Nuremberg he was immediately condemned by the West German authorities during the denazification process). But in general, even if we dismiss the argument that Ribbentrop was sent to the gallows to keep him silent about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the Nuremberg sentences in this part show that the diplomats of a criminal regime are guilty of conspiring against peace and unleashing an aggressive war, despite the seemingly purely peaceful nature of diplomacy by definition. Here, incidentally, this approach of Nuremberg towards the fault of diplomats became a de facto precedent for subsequent cases. Former Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz under Saddam Hussein was convicted following his overthrow.

The next example is the youth policy of the Reich. Former imperial youth leader until 1940 (Reichsjügendfürer) Baldur von Schirach was sentenced to 20 years. But he was found guilty only of crimes against humanity, which he committed in his subsequent post as Gauleiter of Vienna (after Anschluss). The accusation brought against him on another count, a conspiracy against the world, which concerned precisely his activity as Reich Youth Leader, did not receive support from the court, and on this count he was acquitted. Although it is clear that the role of youth mobilisation under the leadership of the NSDAP played an obvious role in the Nazification of German society and its preparation for an aggressive war. Thus, the youth policy of the criminal regime, along with its propaganda, did not receive condemnation in Nuremberg. And thus, in the opinion of some experts, the main paradox of Nuremberg was created, when the sphere of the regime’s ideological policy was outside the framework of condemnation.

The last group of Nuremberg verdicts concerns the economy. No one was sentenced to death here. Economics Minister Funk received a life sentence, but was then released on medical grounds, Armaments Minister Speer was sentenced to 20 years, and the former head of the central bank, Schacht, was found not guilty. The Reich Chancellery (government apparatus) was also not recognised as a criminal organisation. Here, the Nuremberg verdicts made it clear that the economic sector of the criminal regime was the least criminal in itself, or not at all. This position was then broadcast in subsequent international tribunals. Although, in the view of sound logic, one question remains absolutely pertinent: why is someone who makes guns or allocates money for them any better than those who fire them?

As a result, the Nuremberg Tribunal, on the one hand, laid the foundation for the modern interpretation of war crimes, crimes against peace and humanity. It then found its development in subsequent international tribunals. On the other hand, the court clearly distinguished between different spheres of state activity within the criminal regime. This approach is understandable. But let’s not forget about Hannah Arendt’s famous thesis about the banality of evil: everyone is guilty within the framework of a criminal regime.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.