‘Judgment at Nuremberg’: Lessons We Can Learn from a Painful Past

Nazi War Criminals are put on trial in ‘Judgment at Nuremberg’

“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!” ~ ‘Judgment at Nuremberg’

In Buffy Sainte-Marie’s 1964 song “Universal Soldier,” individual responsibility for war is a significant theme. Referring to each soldier’s role in the Third Reich, Sainte-Marie asks, “but without him, how would Hitler have condemned them at Dachau?”

For those who are unfamiliar, Dachau was the first concentration camp established by the Nazi Party in 1933. Over 30,000 people were murdered there. There were a variety of victims, including European Jews, homosexuals, and political prisoners like Christian clergy who opposed the Nazi Party.

Adolf Hitler and other top government officials had a vision, but their vision couldn’t have been realized without the participation of others. As a result, they can’t be the only ones to blame for the Nazi Party’s war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is the “universal soldier” who is responsible.

Dachau is referenced in Stanley Kramer’s Oscar-winning courtroom drama Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). Like Sainte-Marie’s song, the film investigates individual responsibility for war. The characters were created by the filmmakers, but they are based on real people.

Abby Mann’s screenplay is inspired by the Judges’ Trial before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals in 1947. Not to be confused with the Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal, the Judges’ Trial was part of the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials, which were held before US military courts. Like the Trial of the Major War Criminals, the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials took place after World War II at the Nuremberg Palace of Justice.

In Judgment at Nuremberg, four judges are on trial for enforcing inhumane laws in Nazi Germany, including sexual sterilization and the execution of people on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity, disability, and political ideology. An American Judge, Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy), presides over the tribunal that listens to the arguments by American prosecutor Col. Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark) and German defense attorney Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell).

One of Rolfe’s defendants, Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster), is a well-educated and respected legal scholar, and Haywood tries to comprehend how a man of his stature could have enforced such heinous laws. When Haywood isn’t in the courtroom, he interacts with ordinary German citizens and wants to understand their mentality under Hitler’s rule. One such individual, Frau Bertholt (Marlene Dietrich), is a widow whose husband was executed by the Allies.

Judgment at Nuremberg, like any Hollywood period film, should not be a substitute for a history book. As a filmmaker, Kramer is more interested in the drama of the trials, such as the complex moral questions that are raised by the lawyers, or the emotional witnesses who tell their stories on the stand. Like Life is Beautiful (1997), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) uses dramatic storytelling to make sense of a painful past. These films may take historical liberties at times, but they are emotionally true nonetheless. At one point, Kramer incorporates actual footage of the Nazi concentration camps into the narrative; these harrowing images have more of an impact than any facts or figures ever could.

The film raises a number of complex questions about culpability. How do we prosecute a regime’s crimes after the regime has fallen? Hitler committed suicide on April 20, 1945 to avoid capture, but many Nazis under his leadership were still alive. To what degree should they be held accountable? Do we give them a mitigated sentence, when history tells us that some Germans were punished if they defied Hitler’s orders, or, conversely, do we acknowledge the other Germans who risked their lives to defy Hitler and hold each individual responsible for his or her participation? These are difficult questions, and every nation has to come to terms with them at some point.

The Nuremberg Trials prosecuted the most prominent members of the Third Reich, and the film specifically focuses on judges. These well-to-do judges were educated before the Nazi Party came to power, and unlike younger Germans who grew up under Hitler, they couldn’t possibly have been brainwashed by Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda machine. They knew better. Throughout history, those highest in command are always the most responsible for a government’s crimes.

The courtroom drama is Hollywood’s most underrated and underused genre. At its best, the genre transforms the mundane minutia of the legal process into unabashed entertainment. We all instinctively know that court cases unfold rather monotonously in real life, and that most cases are mishandled by the professionals, yet courtroom dramas make us believe that the justice system can be riveting, rewarding, and even righteous. They compel us to imagine a reality in which the courtroom can be a place where justice is actually served. Anatomy of a Murder (1959) will always be the best courtroom drama, but Judgment at Nuremberg sits comfortably near the top, along with 12 Angry Men (1957), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), and The Verdict (1982).

For whatever reason, Kramer is rarely celebrated for his contributions to cinema, despite the many message movies he made for Hollywood in the 1950s and 1960s. Films like The Defiant Ones (1958) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) challenged American audiences to confront race relations, Inherent the Wind (1960) dared them to enter the creation vs. evolution debate, and On the Beach (1959) forced them to face the effects of nuclear war after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Contemporary audiences may view these films through a cynical lens and sneer at their earnestness, but at the time, they were incredibly bold, and Kramer was one of the few Hollywood filmmakers who regularly rattled the status quo.

Dietrich’s presence in the film has significant symbolic meaning. The iconic German performer was a staunch opponent of the Nazi Party, and in 1939, she became an American citizen. She was one of the first Hollywood actors to raise war bonds, and she put on many shows for the United Service Organizations during WWII.

Dietrich strongly believed in the film’s message, and her appearance, along with German actor Werner Klemperer, whose family fled Nazi Germany in 1935, and Austrian actor Schell, whose family fled Austria after its annexation in 1938, honor the courageous individuals who defied Hitler’s regime during the height of its power. Even as Kramer condemns the individuals responsible for the Nazi Party’s crimes, he is careful to remind us that their actions did not reflect the ideals of all Germans. Some Germans opposed the Nazi Party from the beginning. It’s not always wise to judge a country’s people by its government.

At the same time, Kramer doesn’t absolve those Germans who stood idly by, nor does he let the rest of the world off the hook. In one powerful scene, Rolfe gives an impassioned speech about the “world’s guilt” for the Nazi Party’s crimes:

“Germany alone is not guilty. The whole world is as responsible for Hitler’s Germany. It is an easy thing to condemn one man in the dock. It is easy to condemn the German people, to speak of the basic flaw in the German character that allowed Hitler to rise to power, and at the same time, positively ignore the basic flaw that made the Russians sign pacts with him, Winston Churchill praise him, [and] American industrialists profit by him!”

With these words, Rolfe powerfully reminds us that the Holocaust couldn’t have happened without the participation of many people in Germany, as well as the apathy of many people outside of Germany. Despite the best efforts of some righteous individuals, the vast majority of the world didn’t care. Judgment at Nuremberg is essential, then, because it forces us to comprehend what human beings are capable of when they choose not to care.

We can learn a lot of important lessons from our painful past, chief among them: How to spot fascism before it spreads, and how to hold those accountable for spreading it. For people to move forward, perpetrators must first be prosecuted for their part. Without an acknowledgement of wrongdoing, there can be no healing. That’s the thing about truth and reconciliation — you can’t have one without the other.

Judgment at Nuremberg is a powerful reminder that, when people have the courage to do the right thing, justice can be served.

The article has been modified from a previous version published in PopMatters.

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