Listening In On the Nuremberg Trials

Famed CBS reporter Walter Cronkite recalls covering the Nuremberg war crimes trials in 1945. We hear some of the dramatic coverage — and how the trials still echo in the events of today.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris. They're separated by decades and thousands of miles, but the trial of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has been shaped in some ways by the most famous of war tribunals, the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi leaders after World War II.

And the generation that devised and presided over those tribunals had, in turn, been shaped by a much different experience in dealing with German war criminals after World War I. Former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite covered the Nuremberg Trials for United Press. Today, he reflects on the debate that led to Nuremberg, the mistakes it sought to avoid and the current trial in Iraq.

WALTER CRONKITE: Starting in 1957, I hosted a weekly CBS series called The 20th Century. For more than a decade, it gave me the opportunity to play history teacher to the country. But many of the events we covered in those programs were more than history to me. They had been intensely personal encounters with the great events of my time.

Few episodes were more personal than the one we did on the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

(SOUNDBITE FROM THE 20TH CENTURY)

CRONKITE: A hundred thousand captured German documents, many bearing the defendants' own self-incriminating signatures, are screened for evidence. On these, the prosecution resolves to rest its case. Reporters from all over the world cover the trial. Coverage in the German press is, at first, meager. On November 20, 1945, the drama begins.

END SOUNDBITE

I was one of those reporters in 1945. World War II had been over for four months when I found myself in a courtroom with the degenerates who had been its architects. Before them and the world would pass a procession of witnesses to Nazi crimes. What may have been most shocking though were the cynical pleas of ignorance I watched from top Nazi leaders such as Hermann Goering.

Unidentified Man #1: Are you suggesting that nobody in power in Germany, that neither Hitler or you, knew of the policy to exterminate the Jews?

HERMANN GOERING: (Through translator) As far as Hitler is concerned, I have stated that I do not think that he was aware of it.

CRONKITE: History has been well served by the Nuremberg record and the international consensus that made it possible. But before Nuremberg, there was a long, often legalistic debate over who should judge Nazi crimes and under what laws. As early as 1942, the Allies began setting up a War Crimes Commission in London to gather evidence. But the Russians did not sign on. They had more immediate plans in place as the world discovered in December 1943. Douglas Edwards reported.

DOUGLAS EDWARDS: From Cartoff (ph) comes the verdict in the first war criminal trials of World War II. The Soviet military tribunal has convicted four men, one a Russian traitor, of having participated in the mass slaying of Soviet prisoners and civilians. All four have been sentenced to death by hanging. And now for a summary --

CRONKITE: The Cartoff Trial started the Americans talking more openly about an issue they had barely thought about. Suddenly in 1944, several books appeared, along with a Hollywood movie. Radio jumped into the debate too.

Unidentified Man #2: and now, I'm happy to present the moderator and founder of America's Town Meeting Of The Air, Mr. George Z. Denny, Jr.

CRONKITE: In February, America's Town Meeting Of The Air addressed the issue.

NORRIS: and now, I wonder what your views will be on tonight's question. How should the Axis War Criminals be tried? At this very moment, a commission of the United Nations is giving the most serious study to this question in London. Everyone wants to know how these criminals should be tried. But how can we get at them under the law?

CRONKITE: The problem in 1944 was the law had not kept up with the realities of 20th-century conflict. Mechanized war and systematic genocide had invented scales of violence no legal system had ever imagined. But such crimes were not covered by any standing legal codes. Some insisted it was illegitimate to try men under ex post facto laws that did not exist when the acts were committed.

I wrote at the time my belief that the nuclear age required that the court at Nuremberg had to write the strongest legal precedent, because there would never be another chance if the world went to a nuclear war. I was not alone in raising the specter of nuclear annihilation. It not only trumped the ex post facto issue, I thought, but the basic immunities of absolute sovereignty. I believed that World War II had to serve as a judicial precedent for some system of world order.

By 1944, there developed a broad consensus on two issues. First, that there should be trials, and second, that they should be conducted by an international court. The reason was simple, if a tribunal was to be established from whole cloth, without an existing body of law, the sanction of world approval and participation was essential. There was also a more practical reason. The Allies remembered their bitter experience with Germany after World War I.

LOUIS NIZER: If we look into the laboratory of political science, we will see why our plans to punish the Germans of the end of the first World War failed.

CRONKITE: That was the voice of Louis Nizer. In 1944, he was one of America's most famous attorneys. His book What to Do With Germany became a bestseller that year and would be influential in shaping allied policy. It told the story of an epic judicial blender in 1920 that is all but forgotten today. Nizer explained it on Town Meeting in February 1944. But parts of the program no longer exist in the National Archives. So Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz will read Nizer's words from a transcript of the broadcast.

ALAN DERSHOWITZ: (Reading) The whole world cried out for punishment of the German war criminals. But what actually happened? The war criminals went scot-free. It is a mystery thriller, which has been insufficiently told, and if we understand how this happened, it won't happen again.

CRONKITE: In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles specifically called for an international tribunal. Its mission: to try German leaders from the Kaiser on down. Field Marshal Paul Von Hindenburg was the most famous of the accused Germans, but the Allies never touched him.

DERSHOWITZ: The Germans set up a state tribunal, then Hindenburg made a triumphal appearance and roses were strewn in his path as he came to the courthouse. He took this occasion to plant the lie that the German army had been stabbed in the back at home and walked out to the hysterical applause of the nation. The State Tribunal adjourned and never met again.

CRONKITE: Within five years, Germany would elect Hindenburg its president. In 1933, his last important public act would be to bring Hitler to power. The Allies could not even persuade Holland to extradite the Kaiser. He lived for the next 23 years on an estate in Dorn supported by admiring Germans. The Allies were furious and frustrated.

DERSHOWITZ: They demanded that the German war criminals be delivered for trial in accordance with the treaty.

CRONKITE: Then something happened.

DERSHOWITZ: Just about this time, the United States Senate rejected the Versailles Treaty and Germany immediately announced that it was freed from its obligation to turn over war criminals. They voted to shield the militarists and not deliver them to the Allies. The Germans had their way and they tried their own war criminals in their own courts, despite the Versailles Treaty. The result was the famous Leipzig trials after the war ended. They were a farce.

CRONKITE: The weakness of Allied resolve did not have to wait for the rise of Hitler or the Munich crisis. In many ways, it started immediately, in Leipzig on the close of World War I. Germany was essentially undamaged, intact and in denial. Even in defeat, she was still feared. So the Allies did not press the tribunal provisions of the treaty. Seldom, if ever, said the Literary Digest in 1920, have the victors in a great war left the punishment of the defeated leaders in the hands of their own people.

Of almost 900 accused German war criminals, only two were convicted, and they escaped after two weeks of house arrest. These were the humiliating memories of failure that loomed over the Allied debate in 1944, and that led to Nuremberg.

Alan Dershowitz reads Louis Nizer's words.

DERSHOWITZ: (Reading) The lesson is clear, we cannot depend upon the new German Republic or any German democratic group to clean house. We tried it once, and they were at our throats in 20 years. Practical legal machinery can be set up to see that this time the German war criminals do not escape. There should be an international military commission to try those war criminals who committed offenses within Germany or on the high seas.

CRONKITE: Something very close to that finally emerged. The international military tribunal was finally chartered in August 1945. Its work got underway four months later in Nuremberg and lasted 218 days. At last, on September 30, 1946, came the day of judgment.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRONKITE'S PERIOD REPORT)

CRONKITE: All those who have been confined together for some many months in this isolated chamber at Nuremberg leaned forward as Lord Justice Lawrence begins to read the 50,000-word verdict. On the following day, the individual judgments and the sentencing.

GEOFFREY LAWRENCE: Defendant Hermann Wilhelm Goering, the International Military Tribunal sentences you to death by hanging.

END SOUNDBITE

CRONKITE: But it would be 56 years before another European dictator would face a similar international court. The trial of Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague is now in its fifth year, with no end in sight and no death penalty possible under the International Court's law.

After almost a century, memories of World War I have faded. Germany's failure to punish its war criminals is virtually forgotten. And so the fact that Saddam Hussein is now being tried in an Iraqi court by Iraqi justices brings the debate full circle.

No one would deny that Iraq's motives today are far different from Germany's in 1920. But even an occupied nation may act in unexpected ways when confronted with its own unseemly history. And in the peculiar logic of human behavior, it never repeats itself without the sudden, unexpected twist that renders all precedent untrustworthy at best.

For NPR News, this is Walter Cronkite.

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