MAGISTERIAL, IMPORTANT, BUT NOT MASTERFUL
A Review of INSIDE THE NUREMBERG TRIAL
By Drexel Sprecher
A Review for Amazon.com
by Christopher Fulkerson
CF's Desk at His Capp Street Studio
This is a magisterial and important book, and presently probably the most useful survey of the famous trial in Nuremberg (Nuernberg to the Germans), written by one of its junior prosecutors. It usually treats only of the events of the courtroom trial itself, with some reference, but not much anecdote or detail about matters behind the scenes. For example a trip to Washington taken by a Robert Gill and William Jackson, the Chief Prosecutor’s son, in order to learn about the then-astonishing new IBM technology that was developed for the trial, is mentioned, but don’t expect very much ancillary material in this book. It is well-organized according to the sequence of events of the trial; exceptions to this are of the helpful sort. Reading the two volumes from cover to cover you get a feeling for the actual course of that amazing year. There is more about the defense of the Nazi Organizations than you will usually find. If you are interested in the defense case at Nuremberg, this is an especially good book for you.
The chapters are organized into many small sections with subheadings, making the book easy to peruse for specific fleeting facts. The prose is usually adequate but by no means the best, and it must be said that the editing, especially of the punctuation, is atrocious. Some editorial howlers are “Cruel and heatless” (page 1430); “Martin Bormann and His Wite” (page 1519). There are linguistic pleonasms, such as “Case Gruen,” which should be either “Fall Gruen” or “Case Green,” depending on details of a proper editorial policy. In Chapter 91 Sprecher, though apparently a German speaker, writes as though he doesn’t understand the usage of the simple word “Herr.”
But if you are attentive, this immersion in the Process can allow some astonishing things perceptually; even as literature, truth is stranger than fiction. Some haunting literary effects occur, which would not be risked in a novel: The Nazi party was founded by one Drexler, and taken over by Adolf Hitler, whose chief skill was as a public speaker; this book is written by a man with the name Drexel, whose last name is German for “speaker.” Another example could be in odd resonances of meaning to be found on page 1111 around a Medieval expression that is quoted, “The Nurembergers will never hang a man they do not hold.”
Since the perspective follows the actual trial there is a tendency for the book to reflect the “official version” of things, but when the trial itself extends the parameters of viewpoint, as in the defense presentation by Dr. Jahrreise, the political and legal criticism of the trial is not hindered. The defense seems to have known their strength was in a proper criticism of the whole process, not in the helpfulness of the testimony they were getting: time and again they did not cross-examine witnesses.
It is clear that the prosecution did not have the very best grasp on the philosophical issues at stake, nor even the political ones. The Fuererprinzip trips them up more than they want to admit. For example on page 1295 there are strange loggerheads of a typical sort, summarized perhaps this way: the defense says, “Your honor, they did it because their boss told them to,” as a defense. The prosecution however only says… the same thing, but now as an accusation. Of course, this would not have been a problem if the Charter had made the Nazi system expressly illegal, but this was an enormous political implausibility. So on many points, throughout the trial, the prosecution appears to be rather unsophisticated philosophically. Problems of this sort are quite apart from the those between competing schools of “legal positivism” and “pragmatic natural law.”
The judges were astute to important nuances of justice, as in the case of the Political Leadership. Apparently accepting the defense claim that “refusal… to accept appointment… would have meant loss of livelihood and liberty,” their decision was to limit criminality to members who had “knowledge that it was being used for… acts declared criminal.” To us this decision would for instance have granted a cab driver the right of refusal to convey, which is greater workplace justice than they actually now enjoy in San Francisco.
From the larger societal perspective, the point of a successful prosecution is not the necessary action of punishing wrongdoers, but that it gives a society a psychological opportunity to repudiate some element of itself. This repudiation should become a different opportunity under each repetition of the circumstances, as part of a new logical “If/Then” possibility. A society is supposed to learn from its prosecutions. If we reject certain kinds of warlike operations not as war but as crime, then a repetition of the circumstances requires not merely the later, judicial response, but an initial response treating those persons taking bad action as perpetrators, not as warriors. Once something is classified as a “war crime,” the next time it happens it would be best to respond to it as a crime, not as an act of war. Such a change in direct response is the real, though unrealized, legacy of Nuremberg. Unfortunately, it hasn’t yet actually changed the way we think.
A recent example is conspicuous. This legacy of Nuremberg was ignored in America’s response to the 9/11 gang: we should have treated them as criminals. Instead we legitimized their undeserved status as warriors by responding with a war to their crime. Prosecuting Saddam Hussein was in no way related to the opportunity offered by Nuremberg of an actual reclassification of the actions of an enemy. Yes, it was correct to prosecute him; no, it didn’t make him into the mere criminal he was. It did not even keep George W. Bush from himself being considered a war criminal. Unable to respond to a slap in the face while asleep on the job, Bush thrashed about randomly, never retaliating directly against his actual adversary, in a scenario in which violent enemies morphed, through use of our own laws, into political counterparts requiring sanction. And he left it to a political adversary at home to finish the job. By responding with a war to the actions of criminals, Bush acted like an hysterical old woman, and I apologize to old women everywhere for the comparison.
First posted February 20, 2011
Copyright c 2011 by Christopher Fulkerson.