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Judgment at Nuremberg

Judgment at Nuremberg is a 1961 work of fiction about a few Germans who went along with the Hitler regime while they served as judges in courts of law. The focus is on one man of the law in particular, Ernst Janning, played by Bert Lancaster. The story of his character is based loosely on the prosecution of Franz Schlegelberger, who was tried with other former judges before the Nuremberg Military Tribunal in 1947.

Schlegelberger served in the Ministry of Justice before Hitler acquired power and retired in 1942, after nine years of Hitler's rule and after serving as the ministry's director – the "Supreme Judge" in fascist Germany. Schlegelberger argued before the Nuremberg Military Tribunal that he had been bound to follow Hitler's orders but did so reluctantly, that he had not joined the National Socialist (Nazi) Party until 1938 (five years into the Hitler regime), and then only after Hitler had ordered him to do so. Schlegelberger claimed to have harbored no ill-will toward the Jews, despite his rulings that negatively affected Jews. And he claimed that if he had resigned a more brutal jurist than he would have taken his place.

The tribunal concluded that Schlegelberger "loathed the evil that he did," that he had preferred the life of the intellect and scholarship and had retired in 1942 because "the cruelties of the system were too much for him."

The movie – again, based only loosely on the prosecution of Schlegelberger – ends with Janning and the American jurist, Dan Haywood, having a friendly conversation in Janning's prison cell.

Janning: The reason I asked you to come: Those people, those millions of people [Jews, and others perhaps, murdered by the Hitler regime], I never knew it would come to that. You must believe it!

Judge Dan Haywood: Herr Janning, it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.

Turning to more quotes from the movie, U.S. Army Colonel Tad Lawson, one of the prosecuting attorneys, played by Richard Widmark, says:

One thing about Americans, we're not cut out to be occupiers. We're new at it and not very good at it.

During the trial, Janning decides to give a speech – a confession of guilt. His council, Hans Rolfe (played by Maximilian Schell in an Academy Award winning performance) interrupts him, claiming that Janning is not aware of the implications of his words. Janning replies:

I am aware. I am aware! My counsel would have you believe we were not aware of the concentration camps. Not aware. Where were we? Where were we when Hitler began shrieking his hate in Reichstag?

Where were we when our neighbors were being dragged out in the middle of the night to Dachau?! Where were we when every village in Germany has a railroad terminal where cattle cars were filled with children being carried out to their extermination! Where were we when they cried out in the night to us. Were we deaf, dumb, blind?

My counsel says we were not aware of the extermination of the millions. He would give you the excuse: We were only aware of the extermination of the hundreds. Does that make us any the less guilty? Maybe we didn't know the details. But if we didn't know, it was because we didn't want to know.

Rolfe replies:

Your Honor, it is my duty to defend Ernst Janning, and yet Ernst Janning has said he is guilty. There's no doubt, he feels his guilt. He made a great error in going along with the Nazi movement, hoping it would be good for his country. But, if he is to be found guilty, there are others who also went along, who also must be found guilty.

Ernst Janning said, "We succeeded beyond our wildest dreams." Why did we succeed, Your Honor? What about the rest of the world? Did it not know the intentions of the Third Reich? Did it not hear the words of Hitler's broadcast all over the world? Did it not read his intentions in Mein Kampf, published in every corner of the world?

Where's the responsibility of the Soviet Union, who signed in 1939 the pact with Hitler, enabled him to make war? Are we not to find Russia guilty?

Where's the responsibility of the Vatican, who signed in 1933 the Concordat with Hitler, giving him his first tremendous prestige? Are we not to find the Vatican guilty?

Where's the responsibility of the world leader, Winston Churchill, who said in an open letter to the London Times in 1938 – 1938!! Your Honor – "were England to suffer national disaster should pray to God to send a man of the strength of mind and will of an Adolf Hitler!" Are we not to find Winston Churchill guilty?

Where is the responsibility of those American industrialists, who helped Hitler to rebuild his armaments and profited by that rebuilding?!! Are we not to find the American industrialists guilty?

No, Your Honor. No! Germany alone is not guilty: The whole world is as responsible for Hitler's Germany.

It is an easy thing to condemn one man in the dock. It is easy to condemn the German people to speak of the basic flaw in the German character that allowed Hitler to rise to power and at the same time positively ignore the basic flaw of character that made the Russians sign pacts with him, Winston Churchill praise him, American industrialists profit by him!!

Ernst Janning said he is guilty. If he is, Ernst Janning's guilt is the world's guilt – no more and no less.

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved