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February 20, 2015

Judgment at Nuremberg — the 1961 movie about German judges on trial

Palace of Justice at Nuremberg where trials were held

Palace of Justice at Nuremberg where trials were held after World War II

Yesterday, I watched the 1961 black and white movie, about the Judge’s trial at Nuremberg, on the TV movie channel.  When I first saw this movie in 1961, I knew nothing about the Holocaust, nor about the crimes committed by the Nazis.  I didn’t understand the movie whatsoever, when I saw it in 1961, yet I gave it high praise.

This was a movie which had the best possible actors, including a young unknown actor, William Shatner, who later became famous as Captain Kirk.

One thing that was accurately portrayed in the movie was how the German civilians groveled before the Americans after the war.

The movie shows that the American soldiers and the German civilians, who had had nothing to do with the killing of the Jews, nor the conduct of the war, were getting along fine, and living it up in the German bars.  The Germans were “whistling past the graveyard.”

The movie starts out with a photo of the Nazi emblem, as the credits roll.

Nazi emblem designed by Albert Speer

Nazi emblem designed by Albert Speer in 1933

Then we see the emblem blown up with a mighty blast.

Building at the Zeppelin Field where the Nazi eagle was blown up

Building at the Zeppelin Field where the Nazi eagle was blown up

This quote is from the 1945 news reel, which shows the blowing up of the emblem:

A swastika will no longer flaunt its crooked arms above the Nazi shrine. With the situation well in hand, the Yanks stage a review. Newsreel and Signal Corps camera men made this record of the last days of Hitler’s Germany. The cleansing fires of the war have purged Germany of Nazi power. Let’s be sure it never again rises from her ashes.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the Judges trial, which is the subject of the 1961 movie:

Begin Quote:

The trial depicted in the film [Judgment at Nuremberg] was part of the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials (formally the Trials of War Criminals before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals), a series of twelve U.S. military tribunals, held after World War II (1946-49) in the Palace of Justice, Nuremberg, that tried surviving members of the military, political, and economic leadership of Nazi Germany for war crimes following the Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal (IMT).

The film focuses on the trial of certain judges who served before and during the Nazi regime in Germany and who either passively, actively, or in a combination of both, embraced and enforced laws that led to judicial acts of sexual sterilization and to the imprisonment and execution of people for their religions, racial or ethnic identities, political beliefs and physical handicaps or disabilities.

End quote

During the film, there were many atrocities shown, which were not actually mentioned during this trial; this was a film about the trial of the Nazi Judges, not the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal. The movie showed the gas chamber at Dachau, as well as the shrunken heads found at Buchenwald, and other alleged Nazi crimes.

I wrote about the showing of the shrunken head, at the Nuremberg IMT, in this previous blog post: https://furtherglory.wordpress.com/2010/11/21/thomas-j-dodd-at-the-nuremberg-imt/

I previously blogged about the Nuremberg Trials at

https://furtherglory.wordpress.com/2010/08/15/should-the-judgment-at-nuremberg-be-thrown-out/

This article explains the trial:   http://usf.usfca.edu/pj//articles/Nuremberg.htm

Begin quote:
Judges Judging Judges—Judgment at Nuremberg

By Michael Asimow, UCLA Law School (August 1998)

Stanley Kramer’s masterpiece Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) stands alone as the finest film about judges ever made.

In the film, four Nazi judges are placed on trial at Nuremberg before a panel of three American judges. Three of the German judges are Nazi thugs but one of them, Ernst Janning (played by Burt Lancaster), was quite different.

Janning had been a famous and aristocratic legal scholar, a drafter of the Weimar constitution, and a man who detested Hitler and the Nazis. Yet he remained on the bench under the Third Reich.

All defendants are convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. The chief American judge, Dan Haywood (played memorably by Spencer Tracy), brushes aside the various excuses offered by defense counsel Rolfe (a role for which Maximilian Schell won an Oscar).

[…]

The Nuremberg war crime trials presented many thorny jurisprudential issues, such as the problem of ex post facto criminal law and the issue of how the court obtained jurisdiction over the defendants. In particular, what justification is there for an international (rather than a German) tribunal to try a case in which the offenses were committed by Germans against other Germans?

Judgment at Nuremberg is based on the third Nuremberg trial (there were a total of thirteen) . Charges were brought against sixteen functionaries in the legal system—judges, prosecutors, and officials of the Ministry of Justice. They were by no means the worst offenders in the Nazi justice system, but the worst offenders were dead.

Janning is a conglomeration of several actual defendants, including Franz Schlegelberger who was formerly undersecretary in the Ministry of Justice. Schlegelberger offered the defense that if he were to resign, a worse man would take his place. The Court thought there was much truth in this but convicted him anyway.

The key evidence against Janning was the Feldenstein case. Feldenstein was an elderly Jew convicted under the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor for having sex with Irene Hoffman, a much younger Aryan woman (played by Judy Garland).

Janning was the judge and he sentenced Feldenstein to death. At the Nuremberg trial, Janning conceded that he had decided to condemn Feldenstein even before the trial began, regardless of what the evidence would show.

However, like everything else in the movie, the Feldenstein case presents serious issues. There was solid evidence presented at the trial that Feldenstein and Hoffman had a sexual relationship, even though they denied it and Hoffman continued to deny it at Nuremberg. Given that evidence, is it right to say that Janning’s decision to find Feldenstein guilty was itself a war crime?

End Quote