Knowing my love of films and since I often assigned certain movies for extra credit, one of my high school honors history students once asked me what I considered to be the best movie ever made. My answer to the young man was, and still is, “Judgment at Nuremberg.” It’s about the war crimes trials at the end of World War II that exposed the holocaust, the systematic murder of 12 million people. Using fictional characters, Abby Mann wrote the 1961 Oscar-winning screenplay, from which I will share some excerpts.
Stanley Kramer skillfully directed one of the finest casts ever assembled: Spencer Tracy played one of the judges of an American tribunal; Burt Lancaster played conscience-ridden Ernst Janning, one of the four Nazi jurists who were being tried; Richard Widmark played the American prosecutor; Marlene Dietrich was the wife of a previously convicted and executed German military officer; Judy Garland was Irene Hoffman, a non-Jew whom the Nazis sentenced to prison for having a relationship with an older Jewish man; and Montgomery Clift played a laborer whom the Nazis sterilized because of mental incompetence. Even though each performance was a tour de force, it was Maximilian Schell, as defense attorney Herr Rolfe, who walked away with the statuette for Best Actor.
Most importantly, “Judgment at Nuremberg’ is a movie that matters. It reminds us of who we are. Spencer Tracy as Judge Haywood said it this way: “A country isn’t a rock….It’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult. Before the people of the world, let it be noted that … this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.”
After Osama bin Laden’s criminal conspiracy that resulted in the attacks on the Twin Towers on 9-11-01, the American people had the support of virtually the entire world. Had we concentrated our retaliation on the invasion of Afghanistan, the overthrow of the Taliban government that provided sanctuary for al Qaida, the rebuilding of that country, and the pursuit of bin Laden, we probably would still have universal respect.
Sadly, the Bush-Cheney regime chose to turn to what Vice President Dick Cheney called “the dark side.” Judge Haywood warned: “How easily it can happen. There are those in our own country who today speak of the protection of survival. A decision [may] be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of its enemy is at its throat that it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy.”
Mad terrorists certainly make the world a dangerous place; but if they cause us to practice what only the “bad guys” do, they will have won. Since 9/11, we have invaded Iraq on evidence based on lies, have wiretapped American citizens without warrants, have suspended habeas corpus allowing us to imprison individuals indefinitely without ever bringing charges against them, have sanctioned torture as we have seen in films of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, been embarrassed by conditions at Guantanamo in Cuba, set up “dark sites” (secret prisons) in eastern Europe, and practiced “extraordinary rendition” whereby people are arrested or kidnapped and sent to prisons in countries like Egypt that are known for their torture expertise.
Everything we know about torture tells us that it doesn’t lead to the truth. In 1633 when the Catholic Church wanted Galileo to deny that the Earth revolved around the sun, all they had to do was show him the rack and explain how it worked: how it separated the muscles and bones from the body. He relented: the Church was right – the Earth did stand still. The current Republican presidential nominee John McCain often reminds us of his being tortured for five years by the North Vietnamese. He has admitted that everyone has his breaking point and that even he eventually told them whatever they wanted to hear.
Maximilian Schell as Herr Rolfe tried to defend his fellow German citizens: “These brutalities were brought about by the few extremists, the criminals. Very few Germans knew what was going on – very few. None of us knew what was happening….”
Burt Lancaster as defendant Ernst Janning confessed his own guilt: “My counsel would have you believe we were not aware of the concentration camps – not aware! Where were we? …Where were we when our neighbors were dragged out in the middle of the night to Dachau (a Nazi concentration camp)? Where were we when every village in Germany has a railroad terminal where cattle cars were filled with children being carried off to their extermination? Where were we when they cried out in the night to us? Were we deaf, dumb, blind? … Maybe we didn’t know the details. But if we didn’t know, it was because we didn’t want to know.”
Janning explained how the unthinkable could happen: “What difference does it make if a few political extremists lose their rights? What difference does it make if a few racial minorities lose their rights? It is only a passing phase. It will be discarded – sooner or later. …The country is in danger. We will march out of the shadows. We will go forward. ‘Forward’ is the great password. And history tells how we succeeded…. And then one day, we looked around and found that we were in even a more terrible danger…. What was going to be a passing phase had become a way of life.”
Judge Haywood reflected on Ernst Janning, a man who had known better but, for love of country, still worked with the Nazis: “If he and all the other defendants had been degraded perverts, if all the other leaders of the 3rd Reich had been sadistic monsters and maniacs, then these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake or any other natural catastrophe. But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary men – can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination.”
The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who was possibly the closest example of Plato’s ideal of a “philosopher king,” wrote, “The most complete revenge is not to imitate the aggressor.” His reign was the climax of the 200-year grandeur that was the Roman Empire. His death began its 300-year gradual decline and ultimate fall. Events occur more quickly now. We would do well to heed his advice.
It’s too bad we can’t require everyone in our three federal branches of government to see “Judgment at Nuremburg” every two to four years. Nevertheless, another four years of Republican/Bush-Cheney misrule should not be an option. Hopefully, an Obama-Biden administration will restore our moral authority. We must remember who we are.
by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published September 5, 2008,
in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.