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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:

I previously blogged about the Nuremberg Trials at

This article explains the trial:

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


  1. Why not let other viewers know what you think of this film? Start a thread or make a comment at the IMDB – it is a good way to reach new people. There is already a revisionist thread called US Supreme Court Justice Stone on the Nuremberg Trials –

    Comment by Les — February 21, 2015 @ 7:19 pm

  2. Feldenstein of course never existed and the film was inspired by the case of Katzenberger who was a 68 year old Jew charged with breaking the law by having a sexual relationship with a young German girl. Such racial laws were common at that time throughout the world including the US where inter racial sexual intercourse was illegal in many US states. The normal punishment for racial defilement was a term of imprisonment as it was in similar cases in western countries . ( South Africa had similar laws until 30 years ago) . The unfortunate Katzenberger was executed as by 1942 the war was in full swing and thousands of woman and children dying nightly from the terror raids meant that sympathy for such criminals was not common and punishment needed to be a deterrent.
    An interesting essay question for students at the UCLA law school might be to compare and contrast the cases of Katzenberger and Bruno Tesch (Without referencing Wikipedia ).

    Comment by peter — February 21, 2015 @ 4:28 am

    • Thanks for mentioning Tesch — I had forgotten about him. The Wikpedia page on Tesch contains all the usual/expected garbage. Anyway, to refresh my memory, I looked a bit further into his case. It seems someone named Perry Broad, who was an SS functionary at Auschwitz, testified against Tesch, and is mainly credited with getting Tesch executed. I found this page, which has some info on Broad (my emphasis):

      The testimony of Rottenführer ( Lance-corporal ) Perry ( Pery ) Broad at Dr. Tesch’s trial constitutes one of the most oft-cited and relied-upon supports for the charges of mass murder of Jews by Germans at Auschwitz…Broad testified that in March and April of 1944, trains were lined up at Birkenau waiting to make their deliveries of humans to the gas chambers.Three hours were allegedly required to process a load of victims through the gas chambers and the crematories. Etc — there is more at the link.

      Further down at the link: A close study of his testimony and his Report discloses many fallacies and contradictions , many of which must have been apparent to the British Tribunal. Suspicion of that small remainder of his evidence was justified by the fact that at the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial in 1964-1965 , he did exactly what numerous other witnesses did who had had testimony exacted from them by threats, coercion, or promises. (Those, that is, who were afterward allowed to live.) At a later date, feeling no longer the danger of imminent death, imprisonment or deportation at the hands of enraged, unrestrained captors, he denounced large portions of his earlier, life-saving testimony as being based upon what he had heard rather than upon what he had witnessed.

      Comment by eah — February 21, 2015 @ 12:09 pm

  3. the problem of ex post facto criminal law

    That turned out to be not such a “thorny” issue after all.

    Comment by eah — February 20, 2015 @ 8:38 pm

  4. The Nuremberg mock trials were Zionist leader Nahum Goldmann’s baby, which was intended to prevent the victors’ wartime atrocity propaganda – so crucial for the establishment of Israël – from going to waste as it had after the previous world war. Goldmann had been employed by the propaganda department of the German Foreign Ministry during WW1. He knew how all that stuff worked and how turning atrocity propaganda into established ‘facts’ for his political agenda.

    Comment by hermie — February 20, 2015 @ 6:29 pm

  5. Stanley Kramer and Steven Speilberg are the right eye and the left eye of WWII. William L. Shirer is it’s Third Eye. Without the gift these three men of vision and genius have given the nation the only collective memory we’d have of of that great struggle and sacrifice would be Bernie Fein’s Hogan’s Heroes. G-d Bless Hollywood!

    Comment by who dares wings — February 20, 2015 @ 3:51 pm

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