The 75th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials went by with hardly a mention in November 2020.
Now, in 2021, 76 years later, the lessons of Nuremberg should be remembered and contemplated.
Why are the Nuremberg trials significant today you ask? It's significant because it was an unprecedented event in American and world history. The trial gave us a glimpse of hatred and unfathomable cruelty.
Seventy-six years later, it’s time we look at the trial with fresh eyes and recall why, even to this day, we still cannot grasp the horrors committed by the Nazis.
The political upheaval of the time in Germany gave rise to the totalitarianism of the Nazis. The Nazis stoked the country's resentment of losing the first World War.
In the Treaty of Versailles, Germany and her allies were made to pay extensive reparations that some historians now consider too harsh. Added to the German people's feeling of unfair treatment by the victors was a worldwide economic collapse that crippled the German economy.
It was a perfect storm for the rise of the Nazi party.
As the crescendo of unemployment, resentment and a failed economy rose, the Nazi Party promised Germans a path forward. Little did the German people or President Hindenburg know the unimaginable evil that would be unleashed as the Nazis and Adolf Hitler rose to power. As President Hindenburg appointed Hitler as Chancellor in 1933, he was unaware that Hitler would begin, almost immediately, to dismantle Germany’s democratic institutions. Democracy died in Germany as Hitler and the Nazi party came to power.
As World War II ended and the fascist regime of the Nazis was defeated, the Nuremburg trials sought to bring the Nazi Party leaders and Hitler to justice for atrocities committed. Hitler and some of the party leaders committed suicide, so they were never brought to justice.
The trial, nonetheless, highlighted how the Nazis sought to exterminate Jews, Romanians, Poles and Slavs along with the physically and mentally disabled. Almost 60 million people — including 6 million people of Jewish descent — died in what has been called the most brutal war in modern history.
The British president of the International Military Tribunal, Lord Justice Geoffrey Lawrence, opened the trial by stating, “These proceedings are unique in the history of jurisprudence of the world and of supreme importance to millions of people all over the globe.”
The trial paved the way for a later permanent international court which has overseen cases of genocide and war crimes. It also led to the “Declaration of Human Rights” in 1948. The “never again” slogan that became part of the legacy of the trial must be remembered.
Hundreds of witnesses were heard in the 218 days of the trial. One of the war criminals on trial was Rudolf Hess, the Auschwitz death camp commandant. One American prosecutor Whitney R. Harris said of Hess, “he reacted to the order to slaughter human beings as he would have to an order to fell trees.”
An eyewitness to the proceedings, Emilio DiPalma, from Springfield, Massachusetts, was a courtroom guard during the trial (he was 19). He passed away on April 8, 2020, from complications of COVID-19. In his memoirs, he wrote of his experience at the trial, “To this day, I can hardly believe that any human being could do such cruel things to another.”
Many, many lessons for us today can be gleaned from this historic trial. The responsibility of every one of us to preserve and protect our rights, as Americans, for all Americans. Stand against those who strive to incite violence against our fellow human beings. Lastly, never, ever to allow fascism or totalitarianism to take root in our country, in our minds or in our hearts.
The Nuremberg trials ended with verdicts of 22 of the original 24. Three were acquitted, four were sentenced to prison, three were sentenced to life in prison and 12 were sentenced to death.
By the way, if you are interested, a great read about the trial was written by Ann and John Tusa in 2010. The book is simplified titled, “The Nuremberg Trials.” The writers detail the many facets and nuances of the trial. Believe me, the book will open your eyes to the enormity and unimaginable crimes committed against humanity by the Nazis.
Richard Stride is the current CEO of Cascade Community Healthcare. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.