While the World Watched

While the World Watched

by Adam Klinker

The Nuremberg Trials captured international attention, as Nazi leaders were tried for war crimes. What can we learn from this watershed event in history on this, its 70th anniversary?


Like any thorough prosecutors-in-training, one of the first things they did was visit the scene of the crime.

There were rooms to see and evidence to examine and a narrative to stitch together out of the mute testimony of walls and floors where the offense was perpetrated. The victims lay here and here. The murder weapon was here and here. Note the scratchings of fingernails on those walls. Someone was desperate to escape.

Later, standing in a courtroom, the lawyers-to-be would think about those frantic scrapings — how some of them were at eye-level, about the height of an adult, trying to claw out of that horror. Some of those markings were considerably lower on the wall, coming up only to an adult’s waist or knees.

There were tens of thousands of the scratches. Maybe hundreds of thousands. And in more rooms than just that one. In another room, there are tens of thousands of shoes. In another, thousands of sets of eyeglasses. In still another, huge piles of human hair.

“These are images that will be with me for the rest of my life,” says Kimberly Jeter, MS’15, JD’15, who graduated in May from Creighton School of Law’s J.D./M.S. in Government Organization and Leadership (GOAL) joint-degree program. “I shut my eyes sometimes and see them very clearly. You walk around Auschwitz and you can’t help but be confronted by this weight, this feeling about what happened. People made those marks, children. People filled those shoes — big shoes and little shoes. People like you or me, with families and friends who loved them. And they were killed. They were put into those gas chambers for no real reason.”

In the summer of 2014, Jeter was one of a few dozen Creighton law students who participated in the nation’s only law school program to go to Nuremberg, Germany, the site of the war crimes trials at the end of World War II. For five years now, students have embarked for a one-month study of the world’s largest mass murder and the criminal prosecution that followed it.

A major component of the trip is the time Creighton students spend in Courtroom 600 in the Nuremberg Palace of Justice, where, 70 years ago this fall, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson stared down Göring, Hess, Von Ribbentrop and other criminal leaders of Nazi Germany, and carried out the due process of law, even as much of the rest of the world — led by the Americans’ erstwhile World War II ally, the Soviet Union, which had suffered losses topping 20 million people — insisted the killers be lined up against a wall and shot.

During this summer’s trip to Nuremberg, Creighton students took part in commemorations surrounding the 70th anniversary of the trials, including sessions with a panel of American judges, who summed up the importance of the Allies — particularly the U.S. — invoking the ideals of Western justice in the proceedings.

Couched in those ideals, however, was a potentially more weighty demonstration of American and Allied power in the wake of the deadliest conflict in human history. Justice was at the root of the Nuremberg trials, certainly, but so also was a performance of the victorious powers: an opportunity to say that the world, henceforth, was going to be different and it was going to operate along lines of justice, peace and equality.

The trials were an opportunity unequaled in world history and one that the Allied powers were eager not to squander in the ways it had following World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, an instrument that may be said to have directly created the totalitarian regime in Germany and brought Adolf Hitler to power.

“The whole world was watching,” says Heather Fryer, Ph.D., the Fr. Henry W. Casper, S.J. Professor of History at Creighton. “The question came down to whether to bring justice and stay the hand of vengeance and to take lessons from Versailles. So the trials become a performance. The victims and the victorious Allied nations held center stage and the global community was the audience to a demonstration of how the new postwar world would be arranged.”

Though undertaken in an era before television had established its nearly universal purchase, still the trials captivated the world. In the aftermath of death and destruction on a widespread, industrial scale, the execution of justice in a courtroom of international law applied an initial salve.

And yet, as Leonard Greenspoon, Ph.D., Creighton’s Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization, points out, despite the Nuremberg Trials’ adept handling of the crimes and the proof the trials brought to bear for the world to witness and the trials’ ultimate delegitimizing of Hitler’s regime, the courtroom performances — even on the side of the prosecution — largely eschewed mention of the Nazis’ primary victims: Jews.

Greenspoon identifies three distinct periods during which the Nuremberg Trials have undergone shifts in cultural perception by Jews. In the first period, the five years immediately following World War II, Jewish reaction to the trials is mostly mixed along the lines of the trials avoiding direct mention of Jewish victims while also serving as a significant touchstone whereby anti-Semitism, long a scourge of European life that was tolerated if not embraced by most people and governments, was finally punished. The second period, the 60 years between 1950 and 2010, features unattenuated celebration of the trials, especially by American Jews, as evidence of the world’s triumph over Nazism.

The last five years, Greenspoon says, have seen a sharp rise in anti-Semitic sentiment and activities in countries like France, Belgium and Greece and has occasioned a third consideration of the trials. Perhaps the absence of evidence pointing explicitly at Jewish victims of the Holocaust was symptomatic of a larger desire to avoid confronting the magnitude of anti-Jewish feeling among Europeans, a desire that lay dormant until now — after the death of almost all of the victims, perpetrators and those who simply stood by.

“I think there’s no question that the Nuremberg Trials were an incredible turning point in the world,” Greenspoon says. “The world had finally said, ‘Anti-Semitic activities cannot go unpunished.’ This is the way that I would have learned about it in Sunday School. But in this latest look at the trials, people have seen that there is nothing within their framework that has much to do with crimes against Jews, specifically. Look at the transcripts and the terms ‘Jewish’ and ‘Holocaust’ are used sparingly. I think there’s nothing wrong in terms of how the trials were pursued, but none of the defendants was tried on crimes against the Jews. What you have instead is a trial of criminals who, from a Soviet standpoint, were fascists, and, from the American and British perspectives, who perpetrated their crimes against various peoples of various nations. And since the Jews at that time had no nation, they were denied that specific status accorded the Americans, the Soviets, the British and the French.”

American Jews tried to get a seat at the prosecutor’s table for the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, but were rebuffed. In the end, only three Jewish witnesses were called at Nuremberg and, while they provided testimony about what they’d witnessed in Nazi death camps, including Auschwitz, their testimony was largely censored of references to their Jewish identity.

Greenspoon says this turn of events is hardly surprising given most American politicians, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, were aware of the death camps the Nazis had created for Jewish victims, and declined to intervene in ways that might have at least disrupted the Holocaust, such as in the bombing of such camps.

“Nobody was called to testify to anything that had specifically happened to Jews,” Greenspoon says. “But I think all of that speaks to the fact that it couldn’t quite be conceived that human beings could do this to other human beings — that the systematic, industrial dealing of death could go on like this. The same might be true in the trials. Here, you have proceedings taking part just a few months after Soviet and American soldiers discover the camps. Nobody could really grasp the full enormity of the Holocaust yet. And, as a consequence, it may be that the status of Jews was only marginally important in carrying out the prosecutions.”

It took the second wave after the Nuremberg Trials to firmly root the prosecutions in crimes against humanity, but specifically against the whole of European Jewry, with 6 million victims perishing at the hands of the Nazis.

“By the 1970s, if not before, certainly the people who took part in the trials for the prosecution, were regarded as heroes,” Greenspoon says. “These were the people who had made certain there would be punishment for those who orchestrated the Holocaust. By no means is it a bad thing that the Nuremberg Trials came about. Whether Jews are mentioned or not, the prosecution sought to bring some order to what was otherwise inconceivable chaos, and to see to it that punishment came to those who deserved it. Justice was done.”

Soviet efforts for a summary execution of the Nazi leadership notwithstanding, the trials, in addition to serving as a performance and an attempt to secure justice for the victims of Nazi crimes, be they Jewish, Polish, Russian, Roma, Communists or otherwise contemptible to Nazi racial ideologies, were an effort to do something never before tried in world history: create an international court of law.

“That was the thing that struck me most,” says Billy McCroy, a third-year law student on the 2014 trip. “Because we have different rules, because we have an adversarial system, because we have due process, Justice Jackson almost single-handedly convinced people that we were not going to simply execute victors’ justice. Even Hitler and Himmler, if they had been alive, would have faced this. We were going to have a trial and evidence was going to be presented and a defense was going to take place for the accused and the entire world was going to witness it. Because it was the right thing to do. And there were acquittals. This thing had a chance that it might not work and that some of these guys would go free, but that’s the chance you take in the American system. The prosecution has to do its job. Standing there, in Courtroom 600, where Justice Jackson had done this, it sounds trite, but I was proud to be an American. I just got a feeling about what had happened, that we had done this.”

In addition to the time spent in Courtroom 600, taking courses in international criminal law and participating in a moot court competition centered on human rights abuses, students also take trips to the concentration camps of Dachau and Auschwitz. They visit Adolf Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, perched high in the Bavarian Alps.

They also see international law in action with a trip to The Hague, Netherlands, the headquarters for the world’s courts of criminal justice. The summer 2014 traveling cohort arrived in The Hague during trial proceedings for Ratko Mladić, a military officer accused of genocide during the Bosnian War, including the systematic killings of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995.

“We watched from behind this thick glass as Mladić would turn to relatives of some victims and do the throat-slitting motion,” McCroy says. “He looked over at us a couple of times and it gave you chills. He winked at some of the women in our group. We were face to face with someone the world considers pure evil, but here was the true measure of justice at work: that someone accused of such horrific crimes and so seemingly unconcerned about it, was still entitled to a defense in a court of law.”

Creighton’s Nuremberg trip is the design of law professor Michael Kelly, associate dean for faculty research and graduate and international programs. The program began in 2011 as Kelly and Creighton hosted Gabriel Bach, an Israeli prosecutor who helped lead the case against Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1961.

“It was the 50th anniversary of Eichmann’s prosecution and that engendered such huge interest from the students,” Kelly says. “We thought going to Nuremberg to see what Justice Jackson had done and what it meant to show the world what a democratic system of justice looked like was an experience that every legal scholar should have. In truth, it’s an experience all of us, as human beings, should have — to go to Auschwitz and to see what happened there and then to go to Nuremberg, the cultural heart of Nazism, and stand in Courtroom 600 and be reminded of what Justice Jackson said when he took a year’s leave from the Supreme Court to be the prosecutor: We do this because we have to demonstrate to the world that we are not them. It’s very impactful.”

The Rev. Joseph Simmons, S.J., who is currently studying theology at Boston College after having taught philosophy at Creighton, accompanied the law school “From Nuremberg to The Hague” trip in 2014 and found the trip to speak deeply to Jesuit notions of justice and peace. Kelly says students bonded with Fr. Simmons as he helped them emotionally and spiritually reflect on their experiences in a way that professors sometimes tend to solely intellectualize.

“In my estimation, the program highlights the best of Jesuit education — a multidisciplinary study of history, an engagement with present-day complexities, with an eye toward transforming societies to be more just in the future,” Fr. Simmons says. “‘From Nuremberg to The Hague’ made me proud to work at Creighton, and prouder still to be a Jesuit.”

The trip especially leaves an impression because, as Fryer notes, since birthing the notion of international law at Nuremberg, the U.S. has elected to hold itself out of most international proceedings, including those at The Hague.

Instead, since Nuremberg, the U.S. has often watched and waited on the outcomes of other potential genocides, only issuing apologies in the wake of tragedy.

“What makes the United States exceptional is its ideals — things like justice, peace, equality, meritocracy, individualism,” Fryer says. “Those are ideas that we, as Americans, have been willing to export, as we saw at Nuremberg. But since the trials, the U.S. has picked and chosen where and when it has acted to defend those ideals. Rwanda was clearly a genocide: an ethnic group was targeted for elimination by another group. The same thing could be said early in the Balkans crisis.

“Internationally, there has been a determined effort to prosecute the groups that carried out the crimes, but the U.S. was reluctant to intervene and then took no part in prosecution. Prudence is not a bad thing, but it is a problem that the nation that took the lead in bringing the Nuremberg Trials into being has consistently been slow to react to subsequent human rights violations, especially in the face of overwhelming evidence. The 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials is a great time for reflection on the global commitment to justice and a reminder that we don’t have to acquiesce to mass violence, just because we’ve had a huge dose of it.”

For the Creighton law students learning and witnessing at Nuremberg, learning the history of the legal efforts there has opened new perspectives on the role of the global lawyer and international prosecution of crimes.

But the experience has gone beyond even that.

While Kelly’s students approach Nuremberg and Auschwitz with the specially sharpened minds of lawyers, taking in the crime scene and the evidence there, along with the defendants and the witnesses, he says they also have another purpose.

“One is the human experience of being there, in what is still intact as a crime scene at Auschwitz,” Kelly says. “On another level, these students will one day be lawyers. They are being trained to look at evidence and to view a crime scene with a certain set of eyes. Auschwitz is the most extant, most extensive crime scene in the world and it is impossible not to be moved by what you see there, even as legal scholars in training. Perhaps the most teachable moment of my career is standing in a gas chamber at Auschwitz in complete silence. People ask me, ‘How can that be a teachable moment, when you’re not saying anything at all?’ It just is. There’s nothing more that can or needs to be said.”