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The Nuremberg Trials are generally seen as a landmark in international law. When I first learned about the trials in school, I took for granted that they were a good thing, that the big wig Nazis got their due, and that the trials were fair, maybe even more than fair considering the men (and some women) they prosecuted and the severity of the crimes.

Digging deeper, especially into sources from the time period, a different picture develops. Nuremberg was controversial right from the beginning. Even as the trials were running, the world media was debating whether they were fair at all. Nothing quite like it had ever been done. How could the Allies be sure they were not committing an act of revenge on Nazi Germany cloaked in a legal process?

That’s one of the topics in the fascinating article Nuremberg: A Fair Trial? A Dangerous Precedent by Judge Charles E. Wyzanski Jr., published in the US magazine of political analysis The Atlantic from April 1946. It’s not easy reading, but if you give it a chance, you get a deep look at how the trials worried legal experts, especially in the United States, the driving force of most of the trials. What were the long-term implications of trying people for acts that were not crimes under their own laws? What about trying them for breaking laws “invented” after the fact, solely in order to investigate and punish those people? Was it fair to try them under a legal system from another country? In the end, was Nuremberg mostly a political act?

I’m not a legal expert and can’t go deeply into these issues myself, but I recommend reading the article and then thinking about the relationship of the United States to today’s International Court of Justice at the Hague. (The US no longer accepts the court’s jurisdiction when it comes to alleged US violations of international law). The article about Nuremberg from 1946 discusses how sincere America’s conviction was that “all wars of aggression are crimes,” one of the beliefs that underpinned Count 2 of the indictment (crimes against peace).

In the end, the Nuremberg Trials were murkier than they seemed. They weren’t just about punishing Nazis, but about legal concepts and precedents that apply (or not) today.

For some additional reading and transcripts about Nuremberg, try Yale University’s the Avalon Project and the National Archives Collection. And if you’re interested in how Wyzanski’s view of the trials evolved, he wrote an update in The Atlantic in December 1946, Nuremberg in Retrospect.

 

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