Saturday, September 17, 2011
I remember reading this book as a kid. A young man learns that his grandfather was accused of being a Nazi and of being involved with atrocities. In the book, the grandfather is a sweet man who spends much of his time in the garden. It's hard to imagine he could have been involved with such evil. The lesson is that monsters are not required. Regular people who love, cry, and show tenderness and gentility have the potential to murder and torture. The challenge of the Holocaust is to recognize that we all have this potential, and to ensure we do not find ourselves on the side of the criminal and immoral.
I remember visiting the concentration camp in Dachau on a deployment more than a decade ago. I was overwhelmed that while looking for the death camp, the town was beautiful and quiet and sidewalks were lined with cafes and quaint shops. I thought perhaps I had driven to the wrong place. I eventually found the camp nearby, across from a small fair ground complete with rides for children. I saw the showers, the bunks, the long courtyard and a memorial with a prominent cross attended by nuns. Given the role of the Church during this period of time, this was an interesting memorial.
I recently watched the "Judgment at Nuremberg" produced in 1961, starring one of my favorite actors, Spencer Tracy. Spencer Tracy's movies are thoughtful and relevant, and this movie while perhaps not historically accurate, is certainly relevant today as the world encounters real or feigned crisis that prompts new laws, and the ignoring of existing laws, in the name of security.
The movie is about law and morality. The defendants are Nazi judges who passed judgment on German citizens. Some were adamant supporters of Hitler, while others like Ernest Janning's character pictured above, knew Hitler and his laws were an abomination but chose to go along with them anyway, instead of protesting and losing position.
The prosecutor, an Army Colonel, opens with:
“The case is unusual in that the defendants are charged with crimes, committed in the name of the law. These men, together with their deceased or fugitive colleagues, are the embodiment of what passed for justice during the Third Reich. The defendants served as judges during the period of the Third Reich. Therefore you, your honors, as judges on the bench, will be sitting in judgment of judges in the dock. And this is as it should be. For only a judge knows how much more a court is than a courtroom. It is a process and a spirit. It is the house of law. The defendants knew this too, they knew courtrooms well. They sat in their black robes, and they distorted, they perverted, they destroyed justice and law in Germany! Now this in itself is undoubtedly a great crime. But the prosecution is not calling the defendants to account for violating Constitutional guarantees, or withholding due process of law. The prosecution is calling them to account for murder, brutalities, torture, atrocities. They share with all the leaders of the Third Reich responsibility for the most malignant, the most calculated, the most devastating crimes in the history of all mankind. And they are perhaps more guilty than some of the others. For they had maintained maturity long before Hitler’s rise to power. Their minds weren’t warped at any early age, by Nazi teachings. They embraced the ideologies of the Third Reich as educated adults, when they most of all, should have valued justice. Well, here they’ll receive the justice they denied others.”
Throughout the movie, various characters claim they did not know about the concentration camps. Some proudly and defiantly admit they did know. One defendant Nazi Judge, when asked about the changes after Hitler’s rise, relates that the judiciary became subject to something other than the objective rule of law, that they became subject to “what was necessary for the protection of the country.” He mentions that appeals were no longer allowed, replaced by special people and groups organized by the political establishment, race was introduced as a legal concept, and that there was the “inflation of the death penalty.” The result, he said, was to hand over the administration of justice to the hands of a dictatorship. Spencer Tracy's character asks him if the judges protested the attack on their independence. The defendant answered that a few did, some resigned, some were forced to resign, and others “adapted” themselves to the new reality.
Spencer Tracy reads the word of a well known legal writing published by the defendant, Ernest Janning, and comments on the idealism contained, and how it was like “our ideals.” He asks how a man could be guilty of sterilization and murder who wrote those words. Gentle hands.
Spencer Tracy interviews his two maids, a German man and wife, about life under the Reich. They don’t want to answer initially. Finally the wife says “We didn’t know about the things Hitler is accused of doing. Hitler did some good things, we won’t say he didn’t do any good things. He built highways, he put people to work. But the other things….” The husband then says, “And if even we did know, what could we do?” Spencer says, “your wife says you didn’t know….”
During the trial, one witness, a Communist, describes how he was taken by force to be sterilized. After his arrest, at the hospital, he relates that the nurse came in for his operation and said she thought the whole thing was terrible. The doctor came in and also said he thought it was awful. The prosecutor asks the witness, “were you in fact sterilized?” The witness nods yes.
While the American judges deliberate on the case, one American judge from the tribunal finds precedent from the opening of a French prosecutor during the International Military Tribunal. He reads aloud, “It is obvious that in the state organized along modern lines, responsibility is confined to those who act directly for the state, since they alone are in a position to judge the legitimacy of the given orders, they alone can be prosecuted.”
Spencer Tracy offers the verdict and sentencing for the defendants. All are found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. He mentions the great legal mind, Ernest Janning, in particular stating that he:
“...acted in what he thought was the best interest of his country. There is truth in this also. Janning to be sure, is a tragic figure. We believe he loathed the evil he did... Janning's record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial. If he, and all the other defendants, had been degraded perverts, if all the leaders of the Third Reich had been sadistic monsters and maniacs, then these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake, or any other natural catastrophe. But this trial has shown, that under a national crisis, ordinary, even able and extra ordinary men, can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination. No one who has sat through the trial can ever forget them... There are those in our own country too who today speak of the protection of country, of survival. A decision must be made, in the life of every nation, at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat, then it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival on what is expedient, to look the other way. Only, the answer to that, is survival is what? A country isn’t a rock. It’s the extension of one’s self, it’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing is the most difficult! Before the people of the world, let it now be noted, that here in our decision, this is what we stand for. Justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.”
History repeats itself. Ordinary people with gentle hands can commit evil. The rule of law can be suspended by criminals in power, and unconcerned or immoral public servants who carry out the execution of unlawful orders. Those of us serving in such capacities today must hold firm to our oaths to the Constitution of the United States, the rule of law, and the guarantee of due process. May we never forget.