Friday 20 November 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the start of the Nuremberg Trials. In this guest blog post, international lawyer and Professor of International law at University College London Philippe Sands QC reflects on the importance of the trials and their lasting legacy.
This week marks the 70th anniversary since the opening of the Nuremberg Trial, in which 22 senior Nazi officials were brought before judges from the Allied powers to face prosecution for their roles in the Second World War and the Holocaust.
The achievement of staging the trials was a feat even in itself, in the face of objections from Winston Churchill and others who expressed a preference for summary execution, and the fear that the Trial might create a rallying point for German nationalism. Had it not been for the desire for public trials by the Soviet Union and supporters from the USA, those at the highest levels of the Nazi regime may never have been led into the dock and confronted by the arguments of the prosecution. A decisive step had been taken to publicly hold those responsible to account. This was the first time in human history that the leaders of any country were brought before an international criminal tribunal.
In reality, the complexities of how to structure the trials, what charges to bring and precisely who to prosecute proved difficult; however as we look back, and with the benefit of hindsight, it is impossible to deny the significance of this landmark legal case, even if it will always have a whiff of ‘victor’s justice’. The principal of nations coming together to hold those accused of the most heinous crimes to account owes much to the work of judges and lawyers at Nuremberg. The Trial introduced new legal concepts – genocide and crimes against humanity – and the promise of accountability and an end to impunity.
From the adoption of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948 to the establishment of a permanent International Criminal Court in 2002, we cannot deny the role played by the Nuremberg trials as a landmark in the development of international law and justice.
As someone who has worked in international courts, with specific attention to crimes against humanity and genocide, as well as the promotion and protection of human rights more widely, I experience this legacy on a daily basis. However, a more personal connection to the events of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust have pushed me to connect on an even deeper level. On my mother’s side, my family was almost totally exterminated because of the ideology of those at Nuremberg. Few managed to escape, and those who did have played a significant role in my life.
Whilst researching the trials for my new book ‘EAST WEST STREET’, which will be published next May, my path crossed with two men whose fathers played key roles in the Nazi regime; Niklas Frank, whose father Hans Frank was one of those on trial at Nuremberg having worked as Hitler’s personal lawyer and Governor General of Nazi-occupied Poland, and Horst von Wächter whose father Otto was one of Frank’s deputies, serving as Governor of Krakow and subsequently of Galicia. Between 1939 and 1945 the two men were responsible for actions that led to the deaths of millions of Jews and Poles. Von Wächter, who was indicted but never caught, took refuge in Rome after the war, avoiding accountability and Frank’s fate.
The opportunity to spend time with these two men, which is but a slice of the book, led to the making of a documentary film with David Evans. ‘My Nazi Legacy’, which is released in the UK today, has been an incredible experience, both personally and professionally. Whilst Niklas has rejected his father completely, even carrying a photograph of his father’s dead body to act as a reminder of what happens when democracy and humanity perish from the Earth, Horst struggles to come to terms with the role and responsibility of his father, unwilling or unable to move beyond personal memories of a ‘good’ man.
My hope is that the film will demonstrate the lasting consequences of the Holocaust, including in future generations, as well as the vital role of international law, allowing audiences not only to look back to 1945 but also to the present day: as horror and atrocity and the most terrible of crimes touch the lives of so many individuals around the world, the legacy of Nuremberg offers a crack through which the light gets in. Niklas stood in the exact spot where his father was tried at Nuremberg and described Courtroom 600 as a “happy room for me, and for the world”. It’s a place that offers the possibility of hope and justice, affirming the possibility of holding international criminals to account, even as the complexities of family life work their consequences.
We must never forget the pioneers who made those efforts at Nuremberg possible. Whilst recognising the imperfections of the trials, the legacy and relevance today continues to be great.
‘My Nazi Legacy’ is released in UK cinemas on 20 November 2015. For reviews and more information please visit:
Philippe Sands’ new book ‘EAST WEST STREET: ON THE ORIGINS OF GENOCIDE AND CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY’ – to be published in June 2016 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in the UK, and Alfred Knopf in the US – explores the origins of international law, centring on the Nuremberg Trials and his secret family history. For more information visit:
The HMDT blog highlights topics relevant to our work in Holocaust and genocide education and commemoration. We hear from a variety of guest contributors who provide a range of personal perspectives on issues relevant to them, including those who have experienced state-sponsored persecution and genocide. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of HMDT.