Sunday, August 19, 2007

Judgment at Nuremberg

I watched “Judgment at Nuremberg” last night, during TCM’s day long festival of films with Spencer Tracy. It’s a brilliant film, one of the best of the courtroom genre. In addition, it has a wonderful cast. (I got a kick out of seeing Captain Kirk of “Star Trek”, Colonel Clink of “Hogan’s Heroes” and Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz” all in the same courtroom.) I would highly recommend it to anyone.

For those of you not familiar with the film, it is the story of the Nuremberg trails of Nazis after WWII. However, as much as it is about historical events, it also has much relevance to today. In particular, there are certain things going on in the United States, after the terrible events of September 11, 2001 that have some strong similarities to what went on in Germany in the early 1930’s, during Hitler’s rise to power. If I were a blogger that had any sort of readership, this comparison would, no doubt, set off howls of protest from the right wing. Comparing anyone or anything to Hitler or Germany of the 20th century is dangerous and usually misguided. This comparison, even in passing, should be made with great care, given the extraordinary evil of the Third Reich. Still, I can’t help wondering what might be outcome of things like legalized, structured torture of people who have not been formally charged with crimes, with allowing surveillance, without warrants, of U.S. citizens in contact with non-residents, with the anti-immigrant fervor of many here in the U.S. that looks very much like racism, with a press that has, for many years, become either a compliant partner or an outright organ of propaganda for the government… These are very dangerous things to let out of the box and to become an accepted part of our society.

I will let a couple of monologues from the film speak for themselves. See how much of it could be talking about present day United States.

The first is from Ernst Janning, who is one of the German judges on trial.

There was a fever over the land. A fever of disgrace, of indignity, of hunger. We had a democracy, yes, but it was torn by elements within. Above all, there was fear. Fear of today, fear of tomorrow, fear of our neighbors, and fear of ourselves. Only when you understand that - can you understand what Hitler meant to us. Because he said to us: 'Lift your heads! Be proud to be German! There are devils among us. Communists, Liberals, Jews, Gypsies! Once these devils will be destroyed, your misery will be destroyed.' It was the old, old story of the sacrificial lamb. What about those of us who knew better? We who knew the words were lies and worse than lies? Why did we sit silent? Why did we take part? Because we loved our country! What difference does it make if a few political extremists lose their rights? What difference does it make if a few racial minorities lose their rights? It is only a passing phase. It is only a stage we are going through. It will be discarded sooner or later. Hitler himself will be discarded... sooner or later. The country is in danger. We will march out of the shadows. We will go forward. Forward is the great password. And history tells how well we succeeded, your honor. We succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. The very elements of hate and power about Hitler that mesmerized Germany, mesmerized the world! We found ourselves with sudden powerful allies. Things that had been denied to us as a democracy were open to us now. The world said 'go ahead, take it, take it! Take Sudetenland, take the Rhineland - remilitarize it - take all of Austria, take it! And then one day we looked around and found that we were in an even more terrible danger. The ritual began in this courtoom swept over the land like a raging, roaring disease. What was going to be a passing phase had become the way of life. Your honor, I was content to sit silent during this trial. I was content to tend my roses. I was even content to let counsel try to save my name, until I realized that in order to save it, he would have to raise the specter again. You have seen him do it - he has done it here in this courtroom. He has suggested that the Third Reich worked for the benefit of people. He has suggested that we sterilized men for the welfare of the country. He has suggested that perhaps the old Jew did sleep with the sixteen year old girl, after all. Once more it is being done for love of country. It is not easy to tell the truth; but if there is to be any salvation for Germany, we who know our guilt must admit it... whatever the pain and humiliation.

The next is from Chief Judge Dan Haywood, a retired judge from the state of Maine, brought in by the U.S. military to preside over the tribunal.

Janning, to be sure, is a tragic figure. We believe he *loathed* the evil he did. But compassion for the present torture of his soul must not beget forgetfulness of the torture and death of millions by the government of which he was a part. Janning's record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial. If he and the other defendants were all depraved perverts - if the leaders of the Third Reich were sadistic monsters and maniacs - these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake or other natural catastrophes. But this trial has shown that under the stress of a national crisis, men - even able and extraordinary men - can delude themselves into the commission of crimes and atrocities so vast and heinous as to stagger the imagination. No one who has sat through this trial can ever forget. The sterilization of men because of their political beliefs... The murder of children... How *easily* that can happen! There are those in our country today, too, who speak of the "protection" of the country. Of "survival". The answer to that is: *survival as what*? A country isn't a rock. And it isn't an extension of one's self. *It's what it stands for, when standing for something is the most difficult!* Before the people of the world - let it now be noted in our decision here that this is what *we* stand for: *justice, truth... and the value of a single human being!*

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