Nuremberg Trials: Fair? Dangerous?


, , ,

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.


Our Red Army Ally


, , ,

It’s 1945 and soldiers in the US Army are about to shake hands with their Russian counterparts for the first time in Nazi Germany, the land they defeated together. The average GI didn’t know much about the Soviets except for the news/propaganda they’d consumed before and during the war. So how did the War Department deal with what was to be a meeting of WW2’s biggest allies?

Red Army Ally

Imagine all those GIs holding War Department Pamphlet No. 21-30 with its red cover and the hammer and sickle: our Red Army ally. It’s a 77-page illustrated booklet giving the GI the lowdown about Soviet army practices, uniforms and insignia, weaponry, language and other interesting tidbits. It’s not terribly easy to find information in English about regular Soviet soldiers and their everyday lives, so this booklet is a real find.

The Cold War was pretty much over when I was growing up in the United States, but I do remember the Soviet Union being accused of being a part of some vague axis of evil. That’s why I was so struck by how positive our Red Army ally was about the Soviets. I don’t think I’ve ever read or seen a US government source that attempted to be so fair and understanding about them.

On the first page under “Meet the Red Army Man,” it says:

He is your friend. He is your ally. He has fought hard in this war, just as you have. . . .

Elsewhere, the GI learns that Red Army discipline is strict, that soldiers make do with much less than what GIs have, and that off duty Soviets play dominoes and chess or read Pushkin. This lesson in humanizing the Soviets continues under the section “Why He Fights,” where the booklet argues Soviet soldiers are just the same as American ones. They want to live a peaceful life in their homelands, but in the Soviet case, they had to mobilize to defeat the brutal enemy that killed millions in the Soviet Union. The Red Army’s oath is even printed so the GI understands what ideal his counterpart aspires to.

My favorite section was on p. 6 when GIs are informed about Soviet women in combat. I was surprised women got a whole paragraph describing their work and the fact that some became commanders of combat formations.

Don’t be surprised if that tank commander turns out to be a personable young sergeant named ‘Masha’ (a popular nickname for girls).

Though apparently some of the language advice in the booklet is a bit shaky, the information as a whole is golden, especially the many color illustrations. I was also impressed at the little glimpses the booklet gave into everyday life of Soviet soldiers. But most impressive was seeing the massive attitude shift in the US government ahead of the monumental task of occupying the defeated Nazi Germany with its militarily strongest ally — and its biggest threat — the Soviet Union.

Pride and prejudice: the French Occupation of Germany


, , , , , ,


French Zone of Germany

Of the four powers that occupied a piece of Germany after World War 2, France was the smallest and poorest, especially compared to the United States. Information about the French occupation zone is a bit harder to come by (my french is rusty, but I’m working on it!), so I’m always happy to find interesting bits in English or German.

Here’s a chapter in English from a book on public health in the French Zone. Despite the title, this isn’t just about health issues. The chapter gives some good insights into the general attitude of the French towards Germany, and the Germans toward the French.

It wasn’t an easy relationship. The French were  not going to quickly forget being invaded by the Germans in 1940 — and 1914 — and 1870. Many French believed German nationalism was a unique curse over Europe. This was true at the time, though not unusual for other European countries in other eras. France had its own nationalist and expansionist past when Napolean invaded countries across Europe 145 years before.

Regardless, postwar France saw Germany as a country to be reformed root and branch, even if it meant permanently breaking up the country and shifting its center of power from military-dominated Prussia (Berlin) to Germany’s south-west (the future capital for decades would be Bonn, not coincidentally in western Germany and not so far from the French border).

The French flag flew from the Victory Column in postwar Berlin, a pretty obvious signal to the Germans. French pride made many French treat the Germans in their zone with the same disdain and outright racism as they did native populations in French colonies. Level heads in the French military and government were alarmed by this. They quickly saw how bad relations between occupier and occupied could destabilize a Europe that desperately needed to stay at peace. With the strong USSR as a threat, Germany needed to be rehabilitated. That wouldn’t happen unless relations were normalized. The Germans — also a proud people — had to be treated better or they would continue to be a long term problem. The fate of Germany was tied to the fate of Europe as a whole.

And so the fraternization rules were relaxed, allowing French and Germans to socialize and even live together under some conditions. Franco-German marriages increased. Since France couldn’t offer its zone material goods like the US could, it threw itself into showing the Germans how much it cared about culture, the arts and sciences — something the French and Germans had in common. As early as 1946, Bastille Day was a 3-day bash in Berlin complete with regattas and fireworks.

Here’s a very interesting look at the French Sector in Berlin. (in German)


*Image Wiki Commons 3.0

Gladow, boy gangster of postwar Berlin


, , , ,

His name was Werner Gladow, and his hero was Al Capone.

He reflected just about the worst of postwar Germany. As became clear later when he was on trial for murder, he was only interested in getting rich, and it didn’t matter how he did it — or who he had to hurt. It could be argued any sense of morality had been kicked out of him by the war and Germany’s defeat; he was 14 when the Russians took Berlin. But it was just as likely he was a sociopath to begin with. His short and violent criminal career ended with him being one of the first people to be executed in the new East Germany.

Born in 1931, he bounced from one school to another (11 by the age of 15), and landed after the war in the criminal elements around Alexanderplatz and Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse, where he did what many teenagers did — tried to make a quick profit in the black market. During one of his first attempts at swindling customers, he landed in prison for a few months, where he recruited some of the first members of what would become the Gladow Gang. Between 1947 and 1949 he committed 375 robberies in banks, markets, shops and jewelry stores.

He was a smart kid and knew how to use the political situation in the divided Berlin to his advantage. His gang would commit robberies in West Berlin, then flee back into East Berlin (it was easy to go back and forth in the years before the Berlin Wall was built). The western police had no authority in the east, and couldn’t pursue them. The eastern police wouldn’t pick up the chase since the crime had been committed in the west. The next time, Gladow committed his robbery in the east and fled to the west. After awhile he got cocky, leaving visiting cards at the scene of robberies and playing up to the press.

He also got more violent. His gang acquired firearms any way they could, including mugging police. They killed the driver of a chic car and stole it, only to get it stuck in the sand near Müggelsee. They tortured a businessman and his wife for the key to their safe.

Betrayed by one of his gang, the police caught him in a gun battle worthy of a Chicago gangster. (Here’s a 1950 Spiegel report on Gladow’s arrest). He was lightly wounded on the chin, and at the sight of his own blood, he fainted. He was convicted of murder, attempted murder and assorted other crimes. When he was hanged, he was only 19.



Opinion polling in occupied Germany


, , , , , , ,

Polls are a snapshot of what people are thinking at any given time. We’ve drifted toward seeing polls as somehow predictive of how people will act, one reason polling in general has taken a hit since Brexit and Trump’s election.

But polling has been around a long time as a way to get inside the minds of groups of people. That info can be used to form policy or see the effects of policy. That’s why the US military government did a range of polling in the US zone after World War II. Batteries of questions asked Germans about their daily lives, family, work, their opinions about the allies and Germany’s occupation, and particular policies such as the dismantlement of German factories as war reparations.

If you want to read a full report of the polling, check out Public Opinion in Occupied Germany, The OMGUS Surveys from the University of Illinois Press, 1970.

One issue the Americans looked at was antisemitism.

In December 1946, the military government polled 3006 Germans in the US Zone of Germany and the US sector of Berlin. The questions floated around one main issue – What did the years of antisemitic Nazi propaganda leave in the minds of the Germans?

In general, the poll found that people with stronger antisemitic opinions tended to be less educated, from a lower socioeconomic class and less informed. They also tended to be more critical of the Allies, and thought National Socialism was basically a good idea.

The results were broken down into people with few prejudices (20%), Nationalists (19%), Racists (22%), Antisemites (21%), and strong antisemites (18%).

In other words, the numbers looked pretty awful.

To break it down, western Berlin had the lowest percentage of people classified as racists and antisemites – at 45%. Bavaria was the state with the lowest percentage – at 59%!

Women expressed stronger antisemitic opinions than men – 67% of the women versus 50% of the men.

An interesting question measured whether a person recognized that the Germans had tortured and murdered millions of innocent Europeans. 72% of people with few prejudices agreed with this, while only 41% of the racist/antisemitic people did.

Which goes to show you that there has always been a significant percentage of people who choose to believe what they want, against all evidence.