By Erica Ayotte
Judgment at Nuremberg – dir. Stanley Kramer – 1961
“But this trial has shown that under the stress of a national crisis, men—even able and extraordinary men—can delude themselves into the commission of crimes and atro cities so vast and heinous as to stagger the imagination.” –Judge Haywood
The late Abby Mann’s Academy Award-winning screenplay depicts a fictionalized account of a real-life Nazi war crime trial that took place in Nuremberg, Germany after World War II. Based on the “Judges’ Trial” of 1947, Judgment at Nuremberg is the story of four German judges who were tried by a U.S. tribunal for carrying out Nazi law. These judges mainly were responsible for furthering the Nazis’ “racial purity” program. Although Judgment was shot in black and white, the answers to the moral questions this film posits are not as straightforward. The horrific crimes of the Holocaust are portrayed as purely evil; yet the judges who are in part culpable for maintaining the Nazi state are not portrayed as one-dimensional, evil beings. Central to this perception are the questions: are Nazi judges legally and morally responsible for war crimes by enforcing the laws of their own country? Does an individual have the obligation to oppose the state when the state is unjust? Who defines justice?
Chief American Judge Haywood (played by Spencer Tracy) attempts to understand how the German court (and the German people) could have strayed so far from objective justice. Yet defense attorney Hans Rolfe (Maximillian Schnell) argues that justice is never quite objective: “Is Hiroshima the superior morality?” he asks. Rolfe is not a Holocaust apologist; rather he challenges the authority (both moral and legal) of the tribunal by suggesting American hypocrisy on both accounts.
This questioning of America’s supposed moral high ground is apropos to contemporary political discourse. The human rights abuses of Abu Ghraib, uncharged detainees in Guantanamo Bay and lack of intervention in Darfur are part of today’s international debate about the authority of the United States to enforce moral principles selectively.
In Judgment, chief German Judge Ernst Janning (played by Burt Lancaster) first claims that he and the other judges followed the letter and spirit of Nazi law out of patriotism: “Why did we take part? Because we loved our country! “ Janning extends this rationale to include the whole of the German people—ordinary Germans “sat silent” out of love for their homeland. Part of what made the Nazi regime so insidious was its gradual implementation of racial “purification” policies. Janning sums up this viewpoint: “What difference does it make if a few political extremists lose their rights?” The Nazis may have persecuted what they considered to be “political extremists” in the early days of the regime, but the persecution was soon extended to Jews, the disabled, and any other group that did not fit comfortably within Aryan ideals. Janning (and by association the German people) seem to be in willful denial regarding the realities of Nazi atrocities and their own responsibility in supporting the Holocaust.
However, Janning eventually betrays his own standpoint by describing a motivation for complicity more visceral than love of country or hate of political foes, “There was a fever over the land. A fever of disgrace, of indignity, of hunger. We had a democracy, yes, but it was torn by elements within. Above all, there was fear. Fear of today, fear of tomorrow, fear of our neighbors, and fear of ourselves. Only when you understand that—can you understand what Hitler meant to us”. What Janning offers is not an excuse for mass murder of millions of Jews, but an excuse for not standing up to the state for carrying out these horrific acts. The gradual method by which the Nazis removed Jews from society helped Hitler revoke their status as human beings and paint them as scapegoats in the eyes of the German populace. “It was the old, old story of the sacrificial lamb,” Janning concludes.
It is Janning’s self-damning statement that helps Judge Haywood reach guilty verdict for all of the German judges. Haywood realizes that they had to choose between the law of the land and their own sense of right and wrong. Though Haywood understands the judges’ motivation, he does not excuse it, “There are those in our country today, too, who speak of the ‘protection’ of the country. Of ‘survival.’ The answer to that is: survival as what? A country isn’t a rock. And it isn’t an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult!”. Haywood clearly believes that there are universal truths and morals to which all people and all governments are accountable. Yet, who decides what these morals are and how they are implemented is unclear.
Haywood also expresses a sentiment which explains why Nazism and the Holocaust remain areas of scholarly fascination throughout the world even today, “If the leaders of the Third Reich were sadistic monsters and maniacs—these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake or other natural catastrophes. But this trial has shown that under the stress of a national crisis, men—even able and extraordinary men—can delude themselves into the commission of crimes and atrocities so vast and heinous as to stagger the imagination”. If the Nazis were indeed men—and not monsters—how can reason possibly explain their actions? Similarly, if the United States was morally superior, how can reason explain the use of atomic weapons on thousands of Japanese civilians? Judgment does not answer these questions—indeed scholars have argued these questions for decades. Yet Judgment clearly asserts that the worst monsters we have to fear are within us—that humans have the capacity to commit extreme evil and even dehumanize other people—all while retaining shreds human qualities themselves. Evil cannot be dismissed as an aberration—it must be confronted as a reality of the human condition.