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.

Ratnakar Sadasyula

Full-time techie, part-time blogger, aspiring writer/novelist, movie freak, history buff, music lover, bibiliophile, family man, quizzard, that is me. Contributor to FC

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *