Thursday, November 24, 2005


November 21st was the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the Nuremberg trials. I've always been troubled by the idea that "following orders" is not an excuse. We place soldiers in an impossible situation. If they're wrong, and refuse, they go to jail. If they're right they may end up in jail anyway. Of course, by placing officers on notice that their men won't commit atrocities, we give them an extra reason to think about what they are ordering. Victor's justice and all that.

So what's with Nuremberg? What was the point of it? Robert Jackson, Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States and chief US prosectuor made the following statement:

What makes this inquest significant is that these prisoners represent sinister influences that will lurk in the world long after their bodies have returned to dust. We will show them to be living symbols of racial hatreds, of terrorism and violence, and of the arrogance and cruelty of power. They are symbols of fierce nationalisms and of militarism, of intrigue and war-making which have embroiled Europe generation after generation, crushing its manhood, destroying its homes, and impoverishing its life. They have so identified themselves with the philosophies they conceived and with the forces they directed that any tenderness to them is a victory and an encouragement to all the evils which are attached to their names. Civilization can afford no compromise with the social forces which would gain renewed strength if we deal ambiguously or indecisively with the men in whom those forces now precariously survive.

Nuremberg wasn't "obeying orders is no excuse." Rather, it was to make an example for future generations.

Eric Posner, a professor at University of Chicago Law School has an interesting post on the Nuremberg trials and the rule of law. Don't be disturbed by the law aspect of it, there's very little legalese. Read it.