The twentieth century was, amongst many other things, the century of mass murder. Totalitarians — Nazis and Communists — killed or caused the deaths of hundreds of millions of people around the world. The grim symbol of the crimes became the mass grave.
In the summer of 1980, I was taken by officials of the Cambodian government to see such graves. These were a few miles outside the capital, Phnom Penh, and they contained the bodies of thousands of Cambodians who had recently been murdered by their Communist Khmer Rouge rulers.
The Khmer Rouge had been in power between April 1975 and December 1978. They had imposed a form of Maoist autarchy on the country and attempted to return it to what they called Year Zero, an agricultural society supposedly cleansed of all bourgeois and foreign influences.
The human costs had been appalling — between one and two million people were thought to have died or been murdered. The Khmer Rouge leadership also made the fatal mistake of attacking their Communist neighbor, Vietnam, and at the end of 1978 the Vietnamese invaded to rid themselves of their troublesome former ally.
Some miles outside of the town, my guide and I were driven to a village where laughing children led us to a shocking exhibition. About six pits had been excavated; there were, villagers said, many more. Hundreds of skulls were piled together and limbs were in other piles. Many of the wrists were still tied together with cord or wire — the victims had been forced to kneel on the edge of the pits while Khmer Rouge soldiers clubbed them in the back of the head or shot them. Blindfolds still covered many skulls.
These murders had taken place at the end of 1978 as the Vietnamese armies swept in to overthrow the Khmer Rouge and install another Communist regime more to their liking. Flesh still clung to the hip joints and its terrible sweet rancid smell hung over the fields.
I had been conscious of such horrors since childhood but I had never before seen them with my own eyes. As a child, I listened to fragile 78 rpm records of my father, Hartley Shawcross, the chief British prosecutor at the Nuremberg Tribunal, speaking with gravity and scarcely-controlled emotion to the court:
On the 5th of October 1943, when I visited the building office at Dubno, my foreman told me that in the vicinity of the site, Jews from Dubno had been shot in three large pits, each about thirty metres long and three metres deep. About fifteen hundred persons had been killed daily. All of the five thousand Jews who had still been living in Dubno before the action were to be liquidated. As the shootings had taken place in his presence, he was still upset.
Thereupon I drove to the site, accompanied by my foreman, and saw near to it great mounds of earth about 30 metres long and 2 metres high. Several trucks stood in front of the mounds.
Armed Ukrainian militia drove the people off the trucks under the supervision of an S.S. man. The militia men acted as guards on the trucks and drove them to and from the pit. All these people had the regulation yellow patches on the front and back of their clothes and thus could be recognized as Jews.
My foreman and I went directly to the pits. Nobody bothered us. Now I heard rifle shots in quick succession from behind one of the earth mounds. The people who had got off the trucks — men, women and children of all ages — had to undress upon the orders of an S.S. man, who carried a riding or a dog whip. They had to put down their clothes in fixed places, sorted according to shoes, top clothing, and underclothing. I saw a heap of shoes of about eight hundred to one thousand pairs, great piles of underlinen and clothing.
Without screaming or weeping, these people undressed, stood around in family groups, kissed each other, said farewells, and waited for a sign from another S.S. man, who stood near the pit, also with a whip in his hand. During the fifteen minutes that I stood near, I heard no complaint or plea for mercy.
I watched a family of about eight persons, a man and a woman, both about fifty, with their children of about one, eight, and ten, and two grown-up daughters of about twenty to twenty-four. An old woman with snow-white hair was holding the one-year-old child in her arms, and singing to it and tickling it. The child was cooing with delight. The couple were looking on with tears in their eyes.
The father was holding the hand of a boy about ten, speaking to him softly. The boy was fighting his tears. The father pointed to the sky, stroked his head, and seemed to explain something to him.
At that moment, the S.S. man at the pit shouted something to his comrade, who separated off about twenty persons and ordered them to go behind the mound of earth. Among them was the family I have mentioned.
These words and images came from the diary of a German engineer, Herman Graebe, the manager of a German building firm in the Ukraine.
They were part of the evidence produced by the prosecution at Nuremberg.
Eventually I realized that rather than witnessing these terrible mass murders himself, my father had helped to bring the leaders of Nazi Germany to justice on behalf of the victims at Dubno and millions of others.
The men in the dock at Nuremberg were architects of a monstrous regime that almost engulfed the world. However, the evil they embodied did not die with them, and can be witnessed time and time again through the horrors of Cambodia and the attacks of September 11, 2001. But the story of Nuremberg shows how difficult it always is to treat properly those who commit hideous and unprecedented crimes.
From Justice And The Enemy: Nuremberg, 9/11, and the Trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Copyright 2012. Reprinted with permission from PublicAffairs, an imprint of the Perseus Books Group.