Nuremberg's Legacy, 60 Years Later

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

On Sept. 28, 1946, the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg was getting ready to hand down its judgments against German war criminals. Commentator Mark Drumbl says that Nuremberg began 60 years of international genocide prosecutions — but that the prosecutions have not achieved Nuremberg's most important goal, to keep similar events from happening. Mark Drumbl is a professor of law at Washington and Lee University and the author of the forthcoming book Atrocity, Punishment, and International Law.


Sixty years ago this week, the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg handed down its judgments. With its conviction of Nazi leaders, the Nuremberg court ushered in a new era of prosecutions for crimes against humanity. But commentator Mark Drumbl says that in six decades since, Nuremberg's basic goal still has not been achieved.

MARK DRUMBL: Nuremberg is more than a town in Germany. It is more than what took place in that town in the fall of 1946. Nuremberg has become shorthand for a big idea. Justice for crimes against humanity means prosecuting select perpetrators.

Sixty years after Nuremberg, we now have a permanent international criminal court. We have established international tribunals for tragedies in places like Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and Cambodia. But we haven't achieved Nuremberg's basic goal - never again. Over the past quarter century, nearly 800,000 were massacred in Rwanda, 250,000 in the former Yugoslavia, 1.7 million in Cambodia.

We now fidget while massacre unfolds in Darfur. There is much that the Nuremberg idea simply can't achieve. Criminal prosecution after the fact doesn't effectively prevent atrocity before the fact. The Yugoslav tribunal has indicted 161 people for a decade of bloodbath in the Balkans. But many more people were involved in committing these atrocities. These high profile international prosecutions did inspire many national and local trials, but when all is said and done, only a fraction of perpetrators ever are convicted.

There's a complicating factor. Genocidal killers are not like common criminals. Staffing the crematoria at Auschwitz was a job paid by the state. This doesn't make the work any less wicked, but distinguishes it from ordinary crime.

Similarly, I've interviewed detainees in the Rwandan genocide prisons. Most of them thought they were doing good by eliminating the enemy, including unarmed civilians and defenseless children. They were following the orders of a criminal state. The state told them to butcher and hack. They believed in the state, so they butchered and they hacked. They perversely thought they were fulfilling a civic duty.

When eliminating the enemy becomes a civic duty, the threat of prosecution by a distant international criminal court offers little in the way of deterrence. Certainly there's much to celebrate in the Nuremberg judgment. However, trials alone will not reconstruct shattered societies. Trials will not thwart the hatreds that give rise to sectarianism. Trials do not create socioeconomic stability.

Nuremberg may not have achieved much in the absence of the Marshall Plan. We've spent $1 billion on the Rwanda tribunal. There's value to this investment. The Rwanda tribunal has issued major convictions. Some of the money, though, could have gone elsewhere. Building schools, compensating victims, creating jobs and fighting AIDS may be more effective means to promote peace and deter future violence in Rwanda.

The atrocity trial, the legacy of Nuremberg, is a means to justice and a modest one at that. It's not the means to justice.

BLOCK: Mark Drumbl is a professor of law at Washington and Lee University and author of the forthcoming book Atrocity, Punishment and International Law.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from