In November 1945, the surviving leaders of Nazi Germany were put on trial for the murder of six million Jews and millions of other people who belonged to groups deemed ‘undesirable’ to the Nazis.
Seventy five years on, we know the profound significance of these trials. Not only was the full scale of Nazis’ cruelty brought to light, but at the same time modern international criminal law was established. Also significantly, the Allied countries were collectively prosecuting the case – joining in peace as they had in war, to pursue justice across borders. A first effective multi-country system of justice, this was an enormous step. Due to the size and nature of the crimes, Germany could no longer do what it wanted with its own citizens.
But was justice served?
We, at Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, spoke to three Holocaust survivors about their reflections on the Nuremberg Trials.
Ivor Pearl BEM was just 12 years old when he was taken to Auschwitz. He survived with the help of his older brother, but the rest of his family were murdered. Ivor told HMDT:
Justice to me would be if people would have learned a lesson from that history and proof to show that people have learned, but I’m afraid, looking around the world today, I wonder if there has been much learned about that.
Joan Salter MBE is a child survivor of the Holocaust. Born Fanny Zimetbaum in Brussels to Polish Jewish parents, she was three months old when Belgium was invaded by the Nazis. Joan said:
Yes, what is justice? All I can say for me is that justice is the whole truth. The reality of the world and its attitude towards the Jews, its reluctance to intercede its own political agendas… these are very complicated… It’s easy to paint a picture of these 22 men [and] try to show that the Nazis were just all psychopaths… the truth is the Holocaust could not have happened because of a handful of psychopaths. There were social and political pressures involved and there were a lot of blind eyes turned. So that to me is all part of the justice, the truth, the whole truth.
Steven Frank BEM was five years old when the Nazis invaded his native Amsterdam in 1940. Within a few years, the family was separated and he was sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp. Steven told HMDT:
Well, justice looks like revenge at the time; looking back as one gets older, justice looks like justice, it had to be done. The sadness of it is that there were so many people that were involved in the Holocaust, it wasn’t just all those people sitting there on those benches in the Nuremberg trials; it filtered right down this sort of tree of destruction, right down to the camp guards and many, many of those got away with it and lived quiet, prosperous lives [after the war].
The guilt of the sentenced parties is beyond doubt, but the survivors take a nuanced view of the kind of justice that was served at Nuremberg. And today, 75 years after the Nuremberg Trials, we can reflect on their complex legacy. Is it justice if so many perpetrators are left untried? Is it justice if the scale of collaboration and bystanders is left unaddressed? Is it international justice if its tools have failed to work internationally since? Or is it a series of necessary compromises between truth and pragmatic, political considerations?
Whatever the criticism may be, the international rules created in the course of the trials formed the basis for the Convention on Human Rights and, a few years later, the Genocide Convention. Condemnation of aggressive war was etched in the constitution of the United Nations. These were colossal, righteous developments. Their legal instruments are essential for all individuals to know that they can live without fear of ever becoming a target of extermination.
The Holocaust has been described as ‘threatening the fabric of civilisation’. It could be argued that the international legal developments prompted by the Holocaust, re-stitch that fabric and strengthen civilisation.
That is why it is so painful to know that they were not enough to prevent the killing fields of Khmer Rouge, or the 100 deadly days in 1994 in Rwanda, or the massacres in Srebrenica in July 1995. Nor were they enough to prevent the slaughter by the Janjaweed in Darfur, where the suffering still continues today.
And we know that today, right now, there are people in the world who are hated, persecuted and even killed – for who they are. One only has to look at the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Or hear the reports of Uighur Muslims in China, held in ‘re-education’ camps, put through forced sterilisation and oppressed to give up their culture and religion.
Benjamin Franklin famously said that ‘justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are’.
Even with the most sophisticated judicial system, the struggle for justice will continue for as long as we stay passive, divided, cold and misinformed. Because there is no legal framework against apathy.
Every day, people start out in the hope of a better life. And in every heart beats the need for belonging, acceptance and peace, or the absence at least, of hatred. The Nuremberg trials gave us the legal fabric. But compassion, empathy and kindness are woven into the fabric of the human framework. In today’s divided world of misinformation, anxiety and economic uncertainty, our humanity is as important for genocide prevention as the law.
So as the legal tools continue to play their part, we must also play ours as individuals and communities. Each and every one of us has the power to prevent genocide from developing by actively guarding against prejudice, by staying informed, and by shining the light of humanity in the places of darkness today.