Judgement at Nuremberg – A Nation on Trial
Being quite interested in the History of World War II, the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, some questions always used to cross my mind.
“How did Hitler manage to convince an entire population of his ideology?
Why did ordinary German people, get carried away by his demagoguery?
Was Hitler tapping into a latent anti Semitism feeling prevalent in Europe?
Was Hitler just a product of circumstances, some one who took advantage of the chaos in Germany, post World War II, and positioned himself as a savior?”
There have been movies on the Holocaust, in recent times, most notable Spielberg’s Schindlers List, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist and The Boy in Striped Pyjamas. A vast majority of these movies, generally look at the period through the view point of the victims, the ones who were sent to the gas chambers and concentration camps. But what of the men, who actually signed the orders? The judges who ran those Kangaroo courts? The ones who ordered the Jewish deportations? Were they merely doing their “duty” or did they felt anything was fine in the name of the country.
This is where the Nazi Party held their rallies, isn’t it?
Stanley Kramer’s 1961 classic Judgement at Nuremberg to me remains one of the most powerful movies ever dealing with the Nazi period. The backdrop here is the Nuremberg trials, where the Allies tried most of the Nazi officers and lower ranked officials. Kramer’s movie is an ambitious look at the trials, that covers various issues, related to the period. The main protagonist of the movie is Judge Dan Haywood( Spencer Tracy), who comes to Nuremberg to preside over the trials of complicit officials. The setting of Nuremberg for the trials was quite ironic, it was the same city where the Nazis conducted those massive propaganda rallies. It was also the city, where Hitler passed the notorious Nuremberg Laws, which revoked German citizenship for all the Jews. So the trial of the Nazi officers at the city where they strode in pomp and splendor, was a kind of poetic justice.
The movie’s opening scene shows the bombed out remains of the city, in a way the city’s state is a metaphor for the Nazis. Once proud and powerful, now fallen into ruins, and on trial. The character of Judge Haywood is set up in the opening scenes itself, not a man given much to pomp and pageantry, he is uncomfortable, with all the trappings and the formality around him. Haywood’s task is not made easier by the pressure he has to face, with most of the top Nazi leaders having committed suicide or sentenced to death, the general public somehow just wants to get over with it. In other words, many feel that the trial of judges is not something really warranted, they were just doing their job.
The trial is set in motion with the 4 judges, Emil Hahn (Werner Klemperer), Friedrich Hoffstetter, Werner Lamping and the highest ranked of them all Dr.Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster), being called. The charges against these 4 men go beyond just constitutional violations, the prosecution holds them as guilty as the Nazi officers of the genocide. And as per the prosecutor’s argument, they were much more culpable than the impressionable youngsters who were brainwashed into believing Hitler, these men were more educated and experienced, they should be knowing better. But again this is something we have seen, education by itself is no guarantee against bigotry or racism, after all it was a Noble Prize Winner Dr. William Shockley, who came up with that wholly dubious theory of Eugenics. The main question being addressed, “Does being educated, actually have a meaning, when you are not able to exercise your sense of judgement?”.
A judge does not make laws, he carries out the laws of his country.
This is where the movie’s most memorable part comes in when the defense attorney Hans Rolfe (Maxmillian Schell), counters the prosecution argument, stating explicitly, that the men on trial have to be judged not just on the basis of mere evidence, but also the circumstances, quoting the U.S. juror Oliver Wendell Holmes. And that is where he takes up the case of Ernst Jannings. The character of Jannings was loosely based on the real life German jurist, Franz Schlegelberger, shows him as a brilliant legal mind, who framed the Weimar republic constitution, and one of it’s foremost intellectuals. Rolfe, feels that judges can’t be held accountable, as they only execute the laws, they don’t make the laws. And this is where he skilfully juxtaposes the “My country right or wrong” argument, saying that it if it is fine for Americans, why not for Germans? The fact is Jannings could either carry out the orders or refused to do so, and be declared a traitor.
Does patriotism entail looking the other way, when oppressive laws are framed, in the “interest of the nation”? Or does real patriotism involve standing up to the law that rob a citizen of his basic freedom?
No easy answers for the questions, reality is often too complex. Haywood seeks to study more, going through the books written by Jannings as well as the Weimar constitution. Again another memorable scene follows, when the Judge walks around the battered city, taking in the sights. One of the best moments is when Haywood goes into the auditorium where the Nazis held their rallies, and then hears the echoes of the distant past. The trial again goes into the complexities, when one of the witnesses states about the forced sexual sterilization techniques used by the Nazis, the counter argument by Hans Rolfe is equally chilling, much before the Nazis, the U.S. State of Virginia, had recommended the use of sexual sterilization for better offspring. So was Hitler just putting into place what was already there? The Nuremberg laws were distinctly offensive, but similar kind of Anti Semitic laws had been passed in numerous European nations, notably Eastern Europe, which ironically suffered the worst under Nazi rules.
The movie also gives the perspective of ordinary Germans, during the Nazi period, especially through Haywood’s driver Schmidt. The conversation between Schmidt and Haywood, clearly gives an idea of what went through ordinary Germans, people not connected to the Nazi party. While many were distinctly uncomfortable of Hitler’s Anti Semitic policies, many actually were not even aware, and even if they were, there was nothing they could actually do about it. Also the Feldenstein case, which again is loosely based on the real life Katzenberger case. The case is significant here as it showcases what the Germans felt about the non Aryan races, and introducing the concepts of “racial pollution”. The basic concept of racial pollution being any non Aryan cohabiting with an Aryan , is liable to be sentenced to death. Not much different from the mass lynchings indulged in by the Ku Klux Klans of Blacks, whom they believed to be defiling the white race. The way Hahn forces the elderly Feldenstein, of confessing into having a relationship with a much younger German girl, Irene Hoffman (Judy Garland), shows to what extent justice had been corrupted. The recollection of the trial clearly shows the difference between men like Hahn, who was a bigoted fanatic, and more learned men like Jannings. The Heldenstein trail was a fitting example of what happens when reason ceases to exist, and madness sweeps over human beings. The authorities see it a fit case for propagation of National Socialism ideals, a laughing mob no better than the Roman mobs of yore, seek the blood of the innocent Heldenstein.
Judgement at Nuremberg is a movie that deserves to be watched, not just for it’s recreation of the Holocaust era, but also the issues it raises. Of how learned and wise men, can fall prey to madness, when it sweeps the nation. The conditions in Germany after WW1 were just right for Hitler, a defeated nation in chaos, population facing hardships, rising inflation. And then comes Hitler, craving to be a messiah, who can solve the problems of the nation. And like many dictators chooses a scapegoat for the troubles- The Jewish population. It was a madness that even learned men like Jannings had no chance against, either they could swim with the tide or go against it and perish. Many choose to swim along, hoping that Hitler could be the messiah Germany needed. But it is not just of Hitler, many dictators follow the same pattern, they thrive on chaos, because that gives them an opportunity to say “See how bad things are, I shall lead you to the Promised Land”.
The movie does not spare the Allies either, most of the West wants to quickly get on with it, so that they could use Germany as a key ally in the Cold War. The arguments raised by Hans Rolfe, while seemingly seeking to juistify the Nazi acts, actually blow the lid off many Western powers. The U.S. looked the other way, while Hitler was running all over Europe, and only Pearl Harbor forced it to act. Churchill for all his “Blood, Sweat and Tears” bravery, initially was an admirer of Hitler. The Vatican stuck up an egregious pact with Hitler, where it could have it’s own rights , also i guess partly due to the Catholic Church’s long standing animosity towards the Jews.
Director Stanley Kramer, comes up with a memorable classic, that examines the issues of race, loyalty, patriotism and duty in a hard hitting fashion. This is a movie that seeks to answer the question “How did the Germans react to Hitler”, and does it in an epic manner. The movie is also helped by some sterling performances. Spencer Tracy, a long time Kramer favorite, is brilliant as Judge Haywood, wonderfully bringing out the dignity and composure needed. Burt Lancaster goes against his traditional tough guy image, playing a person, whose conscience is torn apart by his own actions, and Maxmilllian Schell’s award winning act, as the defending lawyer, is worth a watch.