On October 15, 1946, Herman Göring took a potassium cyanide capsule and cut his life short by precisely one day. If he had not done this, he would have been hung with 11 other criminals found guilty during the Nuremberg trials. In his choice of death, Göring seemed to be taunting the whole justice system.
He wanted to take control of everything right till the very end.
This is the sort of criminal cruelty and the twisted thinking that the judges at Nuremberg sought to deal with.
Seventy-five years removed from the Nuremberg trials, it is essential to remember what was at stake. Those on trial at Nuremberg were indicted on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. It was a watershed moment that acknowledged that such crimes are not committed by impersonal and abstract entities but by actual men and women who took decisions that led to catastrophic situations.
It is often painful to acknowledge that there are individuals who consciously decide – for this still happens in our time – to exterminate large swathes of a population. It is equally difficult to acknowledge that people collaborate, aid and abet the execution of such crimes.
Nevertheless, to excuse them because they were carrying out orders is unacceptable; their crimes permitted the perpetuation of such regimes.
The principles emerging from Nuremberg still have political relevance in our time. Firstly, it attaches personal responsibility to crimes committed under international law and mandates that such persons are liable to punishment.
The person is not relieved from their responsibility by virtue of being a head of state or any other government official. Nor does the fact that he acted under direct orders absolve him from answering to his actions. A moral choice was always available.
Nuremberg also points to some ideals which should be observed universally. The first is that of peace. Thus, wars of aggression violate international treaties and agreements are understood as crimes against peace.
The second value is that of universal humanity. Thus, mass extermination, enslavement and displacement of civilian peoples based on racial, religious and political grounds are crimes against humanity.
The third principle recognises war crimes that involve the ill-treatment and murder of the civilian population or prisoners of war, the killing of hostages, the plunder of public and private property and the mass destruction of towns and cities not justified by military necessity.
Those who are accomplices in carrying out such crimes are deemed to be personally responsible. This is a fundamental principle since the injustices of the Nazi era have not yet been addressed in full. Addressing such crimes is often delicate and controversial, particularly since time has passed since these atrocities were committed.
Two cases stand out.
The first has been explored at great length in the Netflix documentary The Devil Next Door. It chronicles the trial of John Demjanjuk, a retired autoworker from Cleveland, who was accused of being the notorious Treblinka guard known as ‘Ivan the Terrible’. After his arrest and extradition to Israel, he was convicted for war crimes in 1988, only to have this conviction overturned due to reasonable doubts.
Those who are accomplices in carrying out such crimes are deemed to be personally responsible- André DeBattista
Despite the doubts about his involvement in Treblinka, solid evidence placed him at the Sobibor extermination camp. He was, once again, deported to Germany and charged with over 27,900 counts of accessory to murder.
Aged 91, Demjanjuk quickly played the sympathy card. He was found guilty and sentenced to five years imprisonment. Unfortunately, he died while appealing the sentence and, therefore, due to the presumption of innocence, he died an innocent man.
Once again, justice was denied.
Lately, another similar story hit the headlines. Irmgard Furchner, a 95-year-old former secretary of the SS commandant of Stutthof concentration camp, was charged with aiding and abetting the murder of more than 10,000 persons.
More than 65,000 prisoners were killed at Stutthof in World War II. The camp was established in 1939 and the gas chambers entered into operation in June 1944. Many, however, were killed by other methods, including lethal injection. Others died of disease and starvation. It was liberated less than a year later, in May 1945.
This trial is not without its controversies. On the one hand, it is one of the last Holocaust trials in Germany as both the perpetrators and the survivors are now of very advanced age.
It is also rare to see secretaries, rather than camp guards, persecuted for such war crimes. Some had asked whether it is fair to prosecute someone so old, particularly given that she was under the age of 21 when the crimes were committed and, therefore, considered a minor.
On the other hand, Furchner herself has proven to be quite uncooperative. She had to be arrested after reportedly going missing days before the trial. She is also claiming that she never knew that people were being gassed in the camp.
If found guilty, she is likely to get a suspended prison sentence.
In 2020, Bruno Dey, a former guard at Stutthof who operated a tower, was given a two-year suspended sentence for complicity in mass murder. During the trial, he apologised to Holocaust victims.
Though some believe that these elderly persons are put through an unfair ordeal, these trials bring closure to victims and they serve as an important reminder.
Firstly, they point to the fact that the horrors of the Holocaust still haunt our collective memory because so many people got away with the most appalling of crimes. This remains a huge miscarriage of justice.
Secondly, it is a reminder that such heinous crimes can only occur with the explicit complicity of regular people: guards, secretaries, administrators and other functionaries. They do not take place in a neutral moral vacuum.
Most importantly, they are a reminder that the principles of Nuremberg still have relevance and that justice will not be served until the last accomplice faces trial.
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