Nuremberg - Evil on Trial by James Owen
Created: Sat Mar 20 16:29:57 2010 | Last modified: Sat Mar 20 16:29:57 2010
The historic Nuremberg trials conducted by the Allies following World War II put the focus on the leading Nazi leaders of the Third Reich. These men had been instrumental in unleashing not only the bloodiest War in modern history but also responsible, directly or indirectly, for the nightmarish Holocaust which claimed millions of human beings all over Europe under the savage Nazi regime. Naturally the trials also aroused considerable interest and controversy (and still does today). What did these trials achieve and how successful were they in dispensing justice on an unprecendented scale in the history of mankind?
"Nuremberg: Evil on Trial" is a collection of selected notes, trial transcripts, affidavits, diary entries and observations of various participants (defendants, judges, prosecutors, counsel, prison psychologists and journalists) in the drama which unfolded at the Palace of Justice, Nuremberg in the dreary days following the cessation of hostilites. No single book can do justice to the magnitude of the trial - however, James Owen gives us a unique look at the process of dispensing justice at a sensitive juncture in world history. So were the trials a case of victors' justice? The author allows us to form our own opinions by reading the original documents (edited for clarity) with his own commentary for clarification where needed. The result is an objective understanding of the compromises made by the Allies (US, UK, Soviet Union, France and other nations) that were necessary to ensure a smooth trial, the battle of wits that took place between the defendants and the prosecution and the hidden agenda of the Soviets which was not very clear at that juncture and who tried their best to hang all the defendants while trying to cover up their own role in the occupation of Poland. The ideological differences between the other Allies also come out before and during the trial and the clash of legal systems involved lead to friction between them.
The trials also put an immense burden on the prosecution who had to amass a huge wealth of evidence amidst the rubble as also the defendants, who were denied access to many documents and were forced to conduct their case on the basis of their own arguments. The psychological burden of being put on trial for life, the physical hardships of the prison life and the mental pressure of having to conduct a defence under handicap is a fact that clearly evokes our sympathy for the defendants. But as the trial proceeds and the evidence of the horrors of the Holocaust pile up, overwhelming the prosecution, defence as well as the Bench, the necessity and manner of the trial takes a back seat. In particular, the psyche of the defendants at various stages of the trial is an interesting study in itself. Göring in particular, was a formidable opponent in the beginning, but at the last stages of the trial, he is a dispirited man with life drained out of him. Several of the defendants claimed ignorance of war crimes, some of them protested that they were only "following orders from above" (a defence which was rejected at the outset) and a few of them remained defiant till the end.
In the end, the gallows claimed 10 of them (Göring committed suicide and thus escaped the noose; Martin Bormann was tried in-absentia and was likely already dead):
- Joachim von Ribbentrop (the Nazi foriegn minister)
- Wilhelm Keitel (Chief of Staff, OKW)
- Ernst Kaltenbrunner (Chief of the RHSA after Heydrich)
- Alfred Rosenberg (Nazi Party Philosopher and later Minister for Occupied Eastern Territories)
- Hans Frank (Minister of Justice and later Governor-General of Poland)
- Wilhelm Frick (Minister of the Interior and later Protector of Bohemia and Moravia
- Julius Streicher (Editor of the anti-semitic weekly: Der Stümer) - the only defendant who held no official position in the Reich
- Fritz Saukel (Plenipotentiary for Labour Mobilisation)
- Alfred Jodl (Chief of Operations Staff, OKW)
- Arthur Seyß Inquart (Chancellor of Austria, Deputy Governor of Poland and later Reich Commissioner of Occupied Holland)
Most of the other defendants drew various terms of imprisonment while three were acquitted: Franz von Papen (Chancellor of Germany before Hitler, later Vice-Chancellor and ambassador to Austria and Turkey), Hjalmar Schacht (Minister of Economics in the pre-war years) and Hans Fritzsche (Head of the Home Press division and Radio, Ministry of Propaganda).
The book is well compiled with short notes as well as summaries of the judgements and sentences of the defendants as well as the organizations indicted as a whole. There is also a list of judges, prosecution counsel and defence counsel at the end. I would rate it 4/5 because it is readable without being overwhelming. James Owen's commentary while being illustrative, is not insightful and a working knowledge of World War II history and Nazi Germany would serve the reader well as some of the people/events described in the book are quite disconnected from one another and devoid of the background history.