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Visiting Nuremberg, Reflecting on the Ambiguous Legacies of Nuremberg

Nuremberg

I spent two days at Nuremberg to attend the Nuremberg International Human Rights Award ceremony on September 22, 2017. The reason we were in Nuremberg was that my wife had been a member of an international jury that selects an awardee every second year.

The recipient in 2017 was the ‘Caesar Group,’ the undercover work of an official Syrian police photographer, who had managed to smuggle out of Syria a hard drive with 28,000 photographs of 6,000 prisoners of Bashar al-Assad’s detention centers in Damascus. These extraordinary images of tortured and dead bodies were truly horrifying in ways that statistics or even first-hand stories told by victims and their families, rarely are.

The name Caeser is a pseudonym for this brave Syrian photographer who is living incognito in Britain, understandably fearing for his life. The Nuremberg award honors not only Caesar, but those who helped in the complex work of archiving the photographs and doing whatever possible to disseminate them to the world. The Caeser Group also performed the grim task of giving several family members a morbid closure about the whereabouts of their loved ones who had disappeared without a trace into the dreaded Syrian prison archipelago, and were now identified as among the victims of the brutal Damascus regime.

At the very moving ceremony held in the grand Nuremberg Opera House some excellent orchestral music of a contemporary Syrian-American composer, Kareem Routom, and a powerful address by a French journalist, Garance Le Caisne, who accepted the award on Caeser’s behalf, expressing strong sentiments of admiration for his courage, the importance of such documentation, as well as reminding the audience that other political actors in the complex Syrian descent into Hell these past six years were also responsible for atrocities against the civilian population of Syria, although there seems to be agreement among specialists that the Assad regime is responsible for upwards of 90% of civilian casualties.

There were also well-crafted speeches by Kenneth Roth, head of Human Rights Watch, which had convincingly documented the authenticity of Caesar’s photographs, and Stephen Rapp, a former American ambassador, who had been a chief prosecutor at the international criminal trials held in the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide and at the Special Court constituted to address crimes committed in the Ivory Coast.

The speeches of Roth and Rapp focused on the desirability of bringing Bashar al-Assad to trial as a war criminal, and the formidable obstacles to doing so. This naturally led me to think about the legacy of the Nuremberg Trials held nearby in this city in 1945. The Nuremberg Judgment found all but three of the 22 Nazi leaders being prosecuted as guilty of war crimes, with twelve sentence to death, three to life imprisonment, four to long-term imprisonment, while three were actually acquitted.

Ever since the Nuremberg trials and verdict have been memorialized as not only punishing those guilty of the most evil imaginable behavior but also for establishing the legal principle that those who act on behalf of a sovereign state, even at its highest levels of political leadership and military command, remain subject to accountability for severe violations of international criminal law. The overall significance of this experience was given an authoritative formulation in the Nuremberg Principles adopted by the UN General Assembly on the recommendation of the International Law Commission in 1947 [GA Res. 177(II)]. The trial was also praised at the time for providing the defendants with due process of law, which was reflected in the sentences that distinguished degrees of individual guilt and variations in the quality of incriminating evidence in the minds of the judges.

There was also a certain moral and political ambiguity that created dark clouds in the skies above the Nuremberg Proceedings in 1945 that most commentators at the time refrained from noticing lest the party be spoiled. The defendants were not allowed to excuse their actions or even make reference to war crimes of the victorious nations in the war, which engaged in a variety of tactics, especially strategic indiscriminate bombings intended to terrorize and demoralize the civilian populations of Germany. Such tactics cannot be reconciled with international law or international morality.

This impunity of the accusers became more difficult to obscure in the companion Tokyo War Crimes Trials held against surviving Japanese leaders, especially in view of the use of atomic bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki despite indications that Japan was at the time prepared negotiate terms of surrender similar to what was agreed upon following the atomic attacks.

There is little doubt that if either the Germans or Japanese had used atomic bombs against Allied cities, and then later lost the war, such acts would have been criminalized in a confident and convincing manner. It not surprising that within Japan, in particular, critics described the war crimes trials as ‘victors’ justice.’ As well, there was a long dissent and finding of ‘not guilty’ by the Indian judge on the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal stressing the inclusiveness of evidence charging the Japanese defendants with aggression (‘Crimes Against Peace’) in view of the pre-war policies of economic strangulation pursued by the United States. Unlike Nuremberg, the Tokyo tribunal included judges other than those drawn from the ranks of the four main victorious

Allied powers in the European theater of combat. For many years it was almost impossible to find Judge Radhabinod Pal’s lengthy opinion in even the best American libraries. In Japan Pal is honored to this day, including a statue to his memory in the notorious Yasukuni Shrine honoring Japan’s war dead and serving recently as a rallying cry for the rebirth of a version of Japanese militarized nationalism.

There were several notable attempts to find a middle ground to address this moral and legal deficiency at the heart of what was achieved at Nuremberg. The chief American prosecutor at Nuremberg, Robert Jackson (previously a member of the U.S. Supreme Court) indicated in his historic closing statement that the validity of the Nuremberg results would be tested in the future by whether the countries that pass judgment against these Nazi defendants abide by the same framework of accountability relevant to their future behavior. The eminent German philosopher, Karl Jaspers, argued in a similar vein that the punishments inflicted on these German defendants will be regarded as justified if and only if those governments that imposed the punishments uphold similar standards with respect to the future behavior of their own political and military leaders.

We all should know that the loophole of victors’ justice has not been closed. Quite the contrary, the United States and Russia, the two main victors in World War II, have done their best to obstruct any development of international criminal law that might hamper their freedom of maneuver, and refused all efforts at accountability that might apply to their own leaders or those of their allies, while still self-righteously pressing the case for imposing criminal responsibility on adversaries.

Syria and the Nuremberg ceremony fit into this ambiguous legacy, suggesting the relevance of this concern. The Roth/Rapp speeches were exclusively directed at ‘the enemy,’ without even considering whether there should be criminal responsibility imposed on other actors, including the United States. It has always been the case that the Western liberal temperament, especially as orchestrated by Washington, pushes ahead with the implementation of international criminal law without ever compromising the geopolitical structure that imposes responsibility selectively while invoking the authority of law with great moral pretension. Such a dynamic confuses law with power, and somehow turns a blind eye to the uncomfortable realization that law is not fully law that treats equals unequally.

It can be argued that so long as the law is applied in accordance with due process against those that have committed severe crimes it is reasonable to claim that justice is being served. Surely, we should not shed tears for Bashar al-Assad should he ever be hauled into court to defend against his documented record of bloody atrocities committed over and over again against his own people. Not tears, but still concerns that such proceedings give the high moral and legal ground to the most dangerous and powerful political actors whose behavior remains outside the law. Besides the misleading jurisprudential character of geopolitically grounded impunity, there is the impression created that the West remains the guardian of civilized values although it has been more responsible during the last several centuries for far more massive human suffering than those being solemnly apprehended.

One final observation: this gap in the implementation of international criminal law has been challenged by civil society initiatives, starting with the Bertrand Russell Tribunal organized during the Vietnam War. This symbolic contribution to the idea of international criminal responsibility has been carried forward over the years, above all, by the Permanent Peoples Tribunal established in 1976 under the inspirational leadership of the Italian jurist, Lelio Basso. A variety of independent initiatives along these lines have occurred over the years at times when neither governments nor the UN would respond to either war crimes or severe violations of human rights. As important as these events have been in keeping the flame of global justice burning, there is no capacity to make these judgments enforceable or otherwise challenge the discretionary prerogatives of geopolitical actors and repressive governmental regimes. The gap remains. The human costs remain.

In Nuremberg it is unavoidable to reflect upon the distinctive history of the city. This history weighs heavily not only on the minds of visitors but more tellingly on the city’s citizens in several notable respects.

First, and above all, is the association of the city with the Nuremberg Rallies held each year on the vast parade grounds and surrounding park.

Secondly, there are the notorious Nuremberg Laws that first formalized the anti-Semitic persecution directed at Jews.

Thirdly, is the keen awareness, especially on the part of older residents, that 90% of the old city of Nuremberg was destroyed by the Allied bombing campaign.

Fourthly, in the early years after 1945 there was a serious tension between those who wanted to forget the Nazi past of the city and those who insisted on remembrance, remorse, and the extensive documentation of the horrors.

Fifthly, what prevailed in the end was the view that the symbolic role Nuremberg played in the rise and practice of Nazism and Hitler throughout Germany should be fully exhibited, but accompanied by the careful avoidance of any glorification of Nazi pageantry. For instance, the museum dedicated to the Nazi experience is called ‘a documentation center,’ and its architecture is intended to convey a sense of violation and menace.

There is also a reluctance to show Leni Riefenstahl’s extraordinary propaganda film, “The Triumph of the Will” for an acknowledged fear that it might stimulate feelings of nostalgia rather than remorse. Finally, for those willing to probe a bit more deeply into the Nuremberg story in bygone centuries one encounters a disquieting series of pre-modern incidents of anti-Semitic persecution of Jews, common throughout Europe at the time, but still inevitably part of the history of this now vibrant and seemingly normal city.


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