Nuremberg and the last living witness

Nuremberg and the last living witness

For the JC Oct 2020

Germany was “reborn as a nation” says one young woman, talking about the decision to hold unprecedented war crimes trials in her home town of Nuremberg.

During the Second World War, Nuremberg was the place where Hitler held his massive rallies, addressing thousands of adoring Germans in a gigantic stadium, and broadcasting to the country over the radio. And it was where the infamous racist Nuremberg laws were enacted in 1935, bringing in tighter restrictions against Jewish citizens.

So for symbolic reasons as well as pragmatic ones, the victorious Allies — America, Britain, France and the Soviet Union — chose to stage the war crimes trials in the town which had become synonymous with Nazi hatred and evil.

Now, 75 years after the trials began — they opened on November 20 1945 — the award-winning film-maker Jenny Ash has made a powerful feature-length documentary, using original footage of the court proceedings. Ash’s father’s family escaped from Nazi Germany, and in fact her aunt, Anne Goodwin, worked as a translator in Offenberg, (a two-hour drive from Nuremberg), as a teenager just after the war, working on intercepted letters for the American army.

Ash’s great coup in making the film has been the securing of electrifying input from the last person alive who was directly involved, Ben Ferencz, and the globally acknowledged expert on the Nuremberg trials, Philippe Sands. Both men are lawyers steeped in knowledge about international law and how it is applied today — and that, they say, is due to Nuremberg and how the trials were conducted.

Ben Ferencz, who turned 100 in March this year, was a young American Jewish lawyer who thought his wartime service had concluded — until he was transferred to the US Third Army to work with a team setting up a war crimes unit, and collecting evidence. He had to go to concentration camps liberated by the Americans as part of that work, and says in the film: “Until then, we didn’t even know the term ‘concentration camp’, we had no idea”.

Jenny Ash’s film does not spare viewers in showing horrific scenes of the slaughter in the camps. “The impact of my first visit was indescribable”, Ferencz says. “There were bodies piled up like cordwood”.

In an interview he gave to the Washington Post in 2005, Ferencz talked about some of the rough and ready methods in use at the time.

He recalled: “Someone who was not there could never really grasp how unreal the situation was … I once saw DPs (displaced persons) beat an SS man and then strap him to the steel gurney of a crematorium. They slid him in the oven, turned on the heat and took him back out. Beat him again, and put him back in until he was burnt alive. I did nothing to stop it. I suppose I could have brandished my weapon or shot in the air, but I was not inclined to do so…You know how I got witness statements? I’d go into a village where, say, an American pilot had parachuted and been beaten to death, and line everyone one up against the wall. Then I’d say, ‘Anyone who lies will be shot on the spot.’ It never occurred to me that statements taken under duress would be invalid”.

From his home in Miami, Ben Ferencz told the JC: “Of course the trial could have been done differently. There were many possible ways of dealing with the criminals. The Russians, for example, would have shot them all without trial. It was the Americans who insisted upon giving them as fair a trial as was possible, and we succeeded in doing that”.

Asked if it was especially tough as a young American Jew for him to hear some of the evidence, Ferencz says not. He told the JC: “It was not difficult at all, since I had comprehensive documentary proof of the incredible slaughter of about one million Jewish men, women, and children – which I also witnessed as a member of the liberating forces at several concentration camps”.

Only weeks after concluding his army service at the end of 1945, Ben Ferencz was asked to return to Germany to work as chief prosecutor in subsequent Nuremberg trials. The Einsatzgruppen trial was his first case, in which all 22 men on trial were convicted. Thirteen received death sentences, of which four were carried out.

After Nuremberg and his return to the US, Ferencz became a highly respected law professor and one of the leading figures advocating the setting up of an international criminal court.

Ash’s film focuses on what most people think of as the Nuremberg trial, (though in fact there were 12 separate trials), and opens with chilling footage of the cells in which 21 leading Nazis — including Herman Goering, Julius Streicher and Hans Frank — were kept. Each man, together with a guard, ascended to the courtroom and the defendants’ benches in a tiny lift, one a time.

Philippe Sands, who has an intimate knowledge of Nuremberg, has been in that very elevator, as the courtroom and the cells are preserved today exactly as they were 75 years ago. As he made clear to the JC, Nuremberg nearly didn’t happen — because Winston Churchill, he says, “didn’t want a trial. He wanted them [the captured Nazis] lined up and shot”.

Churchill was talked round by US President Roosevelt, and by Stalin, who, Sands says, “wanted a show trial.” Though the three men met at Yalta in February 1945 when the war was almost at an end, it was not until July 1945, in London, that a meeting took place to hammer out what became known as the Nuremberg Statute, the list of crimes under which the Nazis would be prosecuted.

And it was the input of two Jewish lawyers, says Sands, that led to the inclusion of two new crimes under which the Nazis were prosecuted. One was Hersch Lauterpacht, a Galician-born immigrant to Britain who became a Cambridge professor, and who devised Article Six of the Nuremberg Statute, which refers to crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression.

The other man was Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer who coined the word “genocide”, and who was adviser to the American chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, Robert Jackson.

The Nuremberg trials were “hugely significant”, says Philippe Sands. “All roads lead to Nuremberg. Without it, we would not have had the war crimes tribunals in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, the setting up of the International Criminal Court, the arrest of [Argentinian General] Pinochet, or the hearings in which I participated just a few months ago in relation to the treatment of the Rohinga in Myanmar, Burma.”

For Sands, the crucial moment of the trial came in a speech given by Hartley Shawcross, the British chief prosecutor, in which he personalises the persecution by talking about a family as they face execution. We see him giving the speech in the film; and we also, gradually, see the effect on the defendants as they move from swaggering bravado to an appalled and sometimes tearful realisation of what they had been involved in.

Part of that, according to Jenny Ash’s film, was to do with a dramatic decision by the prosecution to screen raw film of what had taken place in the concentration camps. We see some of the defendants covering their eyes. We also hear the near unbearable testimony of Resistance fighter Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier, as she recounts how, having run out of gas, the Nazis in her camp threw live children into ovens.

The film concludes with footage from riots in Charlottesville this year, and shots of a grim-faced President Donald Trump. On film, Philippe Sands warns: “The two countries that did more than any other to create that sense of international criminal justice, the United States and the United Kingdom, have reached the edge of the abyss, in terms of their commitment to the model which they themselves created. Which country is prosecuting members of Isis for crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity? It’s not Britain, it’s not the United States, it’s Germany. That says a lot”.

“Nuremberg: The Nazi Trials” a 90-minute feature documentary, will air on Channel 5 in December.

  • 1 December, 2020