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Sixty years ago the most important trial of the 20th century, the first Nuremberg war crimes trial of the leaders of Nazi Germany, began. Justice Robert Jackson, chief prosecutor for the United States, declared in his opening statement on Nov. 21, 1945: “That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury, stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of law is one of the most significant tributes that Power ever has paid to reason.” The most pressing international law questions today relate back to the issues raised by the Nuremberg trials. On the one hand, the trials represented a high point in the postwar pursuit of justice, a principled effort to judge the Nazi defendants fairly. On the other hand, critics dismissed the trials as “victor’s justice,” mere show trials to justify the political ambitions of the United States, the Soviet Union, France, and Great Britain. This past summer, on the 60th anniversary of the first trial, New York’s Touro Law Center held a conference in Nuremberg recounting the history of the trials and exploring the legal and political issues they raised. My wife and I attended the conference, and learned a great deal. But before I describe today’s Nuremberg, it’s worth looking back at postwar Nuremberg. When Jackson first toured Nuremberg in July 1945, more than 90 percent of the city had been destroyed by a combination of bombs from the sky, artillery attacks from the ground, and house-to-house fighting in the final siege by the American Army. But as Joseph Persico recounts in his book, Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial, the Palace of Justice — the courthouse of the government of Bavaria — still stood in the western part of the city even though it been struck by several bombs during the war. The nearby jail remained standing as well. Although the scene was chaotic during his first visit, Jackson nevertheless believed the city of Nuremberg could host the trials. Later that month he brought representatives from Great Britain and France to visit the city, and they agreed with him. The choice of Nuremberg was based primarily on logistics, but there were other compelling reasons to hold the trials there. Before the war, the city had been the location of gigantic, weeklong Nazi rallies. After Adolf Hitler came to power, in 1933, the rallies — memorialized in Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” — featured soldiers marching through the city and speeches by Hitler before an excited audience of as many as 250,000 at the Luitpold Arena. In addition, the city is the place where the Nuremberg Laws, which deprived German Jews of their political rights, had been promulgated. NUREMBERG TODAY We arrive in Nuremberg on a Saturday afternoon. The conference is at the Hilton Hotel on the outskirts of the city, within walking distance of the Nazi rally grounds. Nuremberg is a pleasant, pretty city with a reconstructed Old Town surrounded by a three-mile wall. There are sober, unflinching reminders of Germany’s role in the war and the Holocaust, including several massive structures from that era. At the hotel and in restaurants people are friendly and gracious; that we do not speak German is not held against us. The conference begins the next day, at the Palace of Justice, in Courtroom 600, where a number of the war crimes trials took place. The courtroom is still used today for state business. The sculpture over the main entrance features Adam and Eve in the center, with a sword of justice and a scroll of letters on each end. Below this scene is a sculpture of the head of Medusa — a beautiful woman whom Athena changed into an ugly monster, with hissing snakes replacing her ringlets of hair, because she dared to compare herself with the goddess. Medusa, we are told by a former German judge, is a symbol of revenge. On the wall behind the speakers is a large crucifix, a fixture that was not present during the postwar trials. On Monday we visit the Nazi rally grounds. The Luitpold Arena was damaged by aerial bombing in World War II. Today it is a park. While visitors walk up the stone steps cyclists glide by on nearby paths. As our guide lectures from the center of the stone stands he is occasionally interrupted by the rolling clack of nearby skateboarders. The scene is peaceful, though at the same time it is impossible not to think of images of the electrified crowds at the Nazi Party rallies or of the giant swastika at the arena being blown up by the American Army in April 1945. We visit the nearby Documentation Centre, built in the north wing of the Congress Hall. In 1935 construction began on this massive stone building, which was intended to allow the assembly of 50,000 people for Nazi Party congresses. Rapid progress was made on building the Congress Hall until 1939, when Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. Subsequently, construction resumed, but work came to a standstill in 1942, in the middle of the war. Its construction was never finished. Several years ago the entry to the centre was redesigned, with the intention of building a rebuke to the Nazi architecture. Today we enter the building through a 400-foot diagonal glass walkway, which is designed to serve as a spear through the heart of the building. This walkway is made of glass and metal, instead of stone, and interrupts the precise rectangular design. The Congress Hall now serves as a historical center that recounts the rise and fall of Nazism in Germany. HARRIS AT 93 At the conference itself, the most compelling speeches are given by individuals who participated in the trials. Former United States prosecutor Whitney Harris, still vigorous at 93, provides an account of his work during the trials. When Harris made his first appearance in the courtroom, in January 1946, he was a 33-year-old “navy officer and lawyer whose film-star handsomeness belied a serious character,” Persico writes. His principal role for the prosecution was to investigate evidence of Nazi crimes against humanity. Harris gathered testimony and documents demonstrating that more than 2 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, and assisted Jackson in the cross-examination of Hermann Goring, the highest-ranking Nazi official on trial at Nuremberg. Sixty years later, Harris is no less commanding. He’s tall, with a full head of white hair, made more vivid by the black-frame glasses he wears. In the course of his speech in Courtroom 600 he describes the room’s setup during the trial. The large courtroom held the defendants and their lawyers, the prosecutors, the judges, the court reporters and the translators, members of the press, and the public. During the trial, Harris recalls, a yellow light would flash at the lectern if the translator needed the speaker to slow down, and a red light would flash if the translator wanted the speaker to stop. Harris was set up in an office in the Palace of Justice with a typewriter and a German secretary, and instructed to collect evidence for the case against Ernest Kaltenbruner, who became head of the Nazi Security Police in 1943. While reviewing the documents collected by the prosecutors and made available to the defendants, Harris discovered a memorandum written by an SS officer reporting a complaint about a malfunctioning gas van, which caused the prisoners to be killed to suffocate in agony. Later, while interrogating SS Gen. Otto Ohlendorf, Harris asked, “How many people did you kill?” Ohlendorf calmly estimated the number at 90,000. Ultimately, Ohlendorf testified in detail, and his testimony contributed to the tribunal’s decision to find Kaltenbruner guilty and sentence him to death. The next day, Benjamin Ferencz, prosecutor of the 22 leaders of the SS Einsatzgruppen who murdered more than 1 million people during the war, speaks. Ferencz is younger (now 85) and shorter than Harris. He makes self-deprecating remarks while waiting for audience members to take their seats. Once he begins to lecture, however, he is an impassioned speaker. During the war, Ferencz served in the Army. His first job as a war crimes investigator was to determine what happened to Allied pilots shot down over Germany. While searching for evidence, he literally dug up the bodies of pilots with his bare hands. Later, he gathered evidence of what occurred at concentration camps, for summary trials of camp officers conducted by the Army. With evidence he had collected of the SS killing operations, Ferencz prosecuted the 22 SS leaders. He presented his case in three days, relying exclusively upon documentary evidence. All of the defendants were convicted, and 13 were sentenced to death. The final event of the conference is a visit to the concentration camp at Dachau near Munich. The prisoner barracks have been reconstructed, while an original gas crematorium has been preserved. Even though we are familiar with powerful images of the Holocaust, the actual showers and ovens are more disturbing and nauseating in reality, because of their seeming ordinariness. Afterward, we visit briefly one of Munich’s three synagogues. The existence of synagogues is an encouraging sign, to be sure, but the mood remains somber. The first war crimes trial in Nuremberg began with the high hopes of deterring aggressive war and establishing a legal framework for the resolution of international disputes between nations. By the time the last war crimes trial concluded in 1949, the Cold War had heated up. The politics of the Cold War dictated leniency, and during the next decade pardons and commutations of criminal sentences imposed on Nazi defendants convicted of war crimes were handed out wholesale.
Rodger Citron is an assistant professor of law at Touro Law Center and an occasional contributor to Legal Times.

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