This past week marked 70 years since the opening of the Nuremberg trials. The international tribunal that gathered to judge the 23 highest-ranking Nazi war criminals captured by the Allies was unique, not only in regard to the crimes of which its defendants were charged, but in its very purpose. From their inception, it was basically understood that “justice,” in the traditional sense of the word, could not be served. There is no way to achieve justice for the calculated, methodical and ruthless murder of more than six million completely innocent men, women and children.
Those tried were war criminals whose crimes were so undeniable and heinous that no power in the world would have objected to their being executed without such formal and documented proceedings. Indeed, the defendants and their sympathizers would have certainly preferred such a course of action. However, Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, who served as America’s chief prosecutor at the tribunals, outlined the necessity of dealing with these individuals within the norms of Western justice.
“The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated,” he said in his powerful opening statement. “What makes this inquest significant is that these prisoners represent sinister influences that will lurk in the world long after their bodies have returned to dust. We will show them to be living symbols of racial hatreds, of terrorism and violence, and of the arrogance and cruelty of power… Civilization can afford no compromise with the social forces which would gain renewed strength if we deal ambiguously or indecisively with the men in whom those forces now precariously survive.”
Nuremberg’s goal was not simply to punish, nor to keep the world safe from the mass murderers who sat in the defense box. The Allied forces did hope to establish a precedent of trials for crimes against humanity as a warning to other international leaders with nefarious intentions that their deeds would not go unpunished. One of its chief goals, however, was to document crimes whose scale in both the depth and breadth of their pure evil made them completely unfathomable, in the hopes that mankind would establish the events of the Holocaust as historical fact and take heed of its ominous warnings.
A recently released documentary film titled My Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did serves as a fascinating and disturbing chapter in the narrative of Holocaust reactions. It records the interactions of human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, who lost several members of his family to Nazi crimes, and his attempts to confront the sons of two key players in the “Final Solution” with their fathers’ actions during the war. Niklas Frank, the son of Hans Frank who served as the wartime governor of Poland, and Horst von Wächter, the son of Otto von Wächter, the governor of Ukrainian Galicia — who have been friends since childhood and are now in their 70s — represent two archetypes. Both fathers have been proven to have had a direct hand in the murder of millions of Jews. Frank was among those tried and hanged at Nuremberg, while von Wächter died as a fugitive from justice in 1949. However, the younger Frank openly acknowledges his father’s despicable crimes, denouncing him and sympathizing with Sands without any attempt to spin or give explanation to the genocide that his father promoted and carried out. In contrast, the younger von Wächter hangs on stubbornly to his image of a loving father who was accused, but never convicted, of having had a hand in the mass murder of innocents. The odd trio look through old photos and documentary footage, and even share trips to mass graves, the destroyed town of Sands’ ancestors, and even the Nuremberg courtrooms and jail. However, each subject remains true to his script.
Seventy years later, where does the legacy of Nuremberg stand? The concept of international trials for crimes against humanity is one that has been employed for both better and worse. Holocaust denial and minimization exist in the West, but are certainly taboo in the mainstream. Many European governments, Germany in particular, are quick to speak out against anti-Semitism and racism.
However, while mostly found hiding behind a mask altered from the prewar European-Christian model of Jew hatred, stigmatization and, in the case of the Islamic world, violent anti-Semitism are alive and well. The propaganda, incitement and attacks on Jews for the sake of their being Jews by Palestinians in Eretz Yisrael and by those claiming allegiance to various extremist groups in Europe are all too well known. However, movements such as BDS and other forms of vitriolic anti-Israel rhetoric and actions exist comfortably in Western academic and left-wing social and even political circles. In America particularly, this is often rooted in a typical liberal blind faith in the righteousness of “the oppressed” and an acceptance of a narrative that paints the Palestinians as filling this role. However, all too many of these expressions have spilled over into stereotypical portrayals of the Jews as imperialist fat cats and the like, betraying the true feelings of many in this camp. Sympathy for those who murder innocent civilians in the streets of Israel is quick to follow.
Sadly, both narratives seem alive and well, even if many of the roles, costumes and affiliations have changed.
For the Jewish People, neither Nuremberg nor monetary reparations and the like bring any sense of revenge, which is not only unachievable in this case, but is the exclusive realm of Hashem Himself. Beyond that, it can never replace or make up for what was lost. None of us can fathom what it means to have lost six million individual Jews. Six million mothers, fathers and children, whose lives and stories, virtues and shortcomings, vanished. Knowledge, piety, culture and so much more, both quantifiable and undefinable, was reduced to ashes. Klal Yisrael was left with an unfillable gap on an individual and national level.
The Gemara in Maseches Rosh Hashanah says the following in regard to the ten Sages who were murdered by the Romans for teaching Torah. The words apply only too well to the six million, whose blood man can never avenge.
“Rabbi Yochanan declares: Woe is to the idolaters [who persecuted Jews], for there is no remedy for them [as what they have destroyed is irreplaceable]. As it is stated: ‘In place of the copper, I will bring gold; in place of the iron, I will bring silver; in place of wood, copper; in place of stones, iron.’ [These valuables can be restituted.] [But] in place of Rabi Akiva and his colleagues — what can they bring [in their stead]? And regarding them it states: ‘V’nikeisi, damam lo nikeisi — Though I would cleanse [the nations of their other sins, from] the blood [of Israel that they have shed,] I will not cleanse [them].’ (Yoel 4:21).”