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International Socialist Review, Summer 1962


Trent Hutter

Judgment at Nuremberg


From International Socialist Review, Vol.23 No.3, Summer 1962, pp.91-92.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


This Stanley Kramer picture is probably the finest American screen drama that was released in 1961. It is a fictional story about one of the last war-crime trials held in Nuremberg, West Germany, by the US occupiers: a trial of German Nazi judges who had perverted the law and handed down sentences for purely political reasons. Yet the facts in Judgment at Nuremberg are not fictional at all.

In the picture, a Nazi judge who had been an eminent, internationally respected jurist before the Hitler era, is accused of having sentenced to death a Jewish businessman, Feinstein, for allegedly committing a so-called racial outrage, that is: for having had intimate relations with an “Aryan” girl. The Nazi judge realized Feinstein was innocent. But he delivered him to the executioner because he thought it was in the best interests of the State.

In real life, Feinstein’s name was Leo Katzenberger. His judges were indeed convinced the 68-year-old former businessman from Massbach (Lower Franconia) was not guilty of “racial outrage” which the infamous Nuremberg Laws of 1935 had made a capital crime. Nonetheless, they did sentence him under government pressure, and he was executed in 1942. The former Nazi District Attorney, Hermann Markl, who had prosecuted in the case, later became a judge in Adenauer’s Federal Republic!

But while former Nazis naturally resent Judgment at Nuremberg and the truth about Hitler’s infernal “Third Reich,” many anti-fascist Germans, especially among the younger generation and in the labor movement, react in the opposite way. An energetic student demonstration following the film’s showing in Munich forced Judge Markl to retire. And the Bavarian Ministry of Justice declared that a “preliminary investigation” of the judges and prosecutor who had handled the Katzenberger case had started a year earlier ...

In the US, even in Europe, those who were born during or after World War II do not always have a clear notion of what fascism actually means. Talking to teen-agers and persons in their early twenties, I have noticed that they learned much from the Eichmann trial. They also can learn much from Judgment at Nuremberg.

But the picture’s subject is not just the perversion of justice under a totalitarian regime and the disastrous reasoning or rationalizations of “serious” legal minds who surrender to it, or the unscrupulous or badly confused “patriots” who identify their country with a dictator, his stormtroopers and his secret police apparatus. The picture’s subject – and this makes it particularly revealing and valuable – is justice under political pressure, not only under totalitarianism but also in a bourgeois democracy, the conflict between the integrity of the judge and political expediency, between the independence of the courts and the so-called national interest.

Dominating the story is the searching, elderly American judge, a thoroughly honest, conscientious and unprejudiced figure, most admirably played by Spencer Tracy, one of the few genuine artists among Hollywood actors, who really makes him come alive. The judge arrives in Germany from his native Maine without feelings of hatred or revenge. He is impressed by the beauty of the country, by the Germans’ polite manners and by the handsome widow of a general whom the Americans hanged as a war criminal – impressed but not seduced. He is willing to give the accused every chance to defend themselves and examines their case with an open mind. He even allows the defendants’ lawyer to inflict mental torture on witnesses for the prosecution. And because the tough and coldly clever defense lawyer is permitted to operate quite freely and to re-create an unbearable nightmare atmosphere of Nazi-type inquisition, the hitherto silent main defendant, the former judge who sentenced Feinstein – by far the most intelligent of the men in the dock – disgustedly stops the attorney and confesses his guilt. No doubt is left about the culpability of the accused.

Meanwhile, the 1948 Soviet blockade of West Berlin is beginning. US authorities start wooing the Germans as their prospective allies against the USSR. The war-crimes trials have become “untimely” and have to be ended. The defendants in the last one are to be given mild sentences, the higher-ups decide. Pressure is put on the prosecutor and the judges of the American war-crimes tribunal at Nuremberg. While the very trial showed how Nazi politics made German judges doom innocent people, America’s “democratic” politics now are to let those criminal Nazi judges literally get away with murder.

The American prosecutor, who has made an intense and successful effort to prove his case and who seemed to be very uncompromising, finally is resigned reluctantly to give in to this pressure. The old judge from Maine, who seemed to be so mild and so intent on not restraining the defense, does not give in. Despite political pressure, he pronounces the life sentence he believes is indicated.

Does this mean that justice can be, and sometimes is, independent from the ruling class (or caste)? Does it mean the old judge who is concerned only with evidence and genuine justice wins the case over Washington’s objections? – Again, Judgment at Nuremberg conveys the truth of the matter. The defendants’ angry German lawyer tells the judge his sentence will not stand: in a few years, all the defendants will be free. And his forecast is correct. The picture informs us that none of the Nazi criminals who got a life sentence in these trials is still in prison.

Whatever the sentence, politics turns out to be decisive in the end. A judge can resist pressure and remain independent. But justice as a whole is not independent from political and social class interests, even if bourgeois democracy generally cannot afford to mock justice quite as openly, as glaringly as totalitarian regimes do and has to be more subtle and more respectful of legal forms.

Judgment at Nuremberg is a great motion picture. In addition to producer-director Stanley Kramer and to Spencer Tracy, it is only fair to mention also Burt Lancaster as the former Nazi judge, Richard Widmark as the American prosecutor, Maximilian Schell’s “Oscar”-winning performance as the German defense lawyer, Marlene Dietrich as the widow of a German war criminal, Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift as witnesses for the prosecution. An exceptional cast.

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