By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 19, 2011)
These men saw no evil, spoke none, and none was uttered in their presence. This claim might sound very plausible if made by one defendant. But when we put all their stories together, the impression which emerges of the Third Reich, which was to last a thousand years, is ludicrous.
–Justice Robert Jackson (chief counsel for the U.S. at the first Nuremberg trial in 1946)
Herman Goring. Rudolf Hess. Hans Frank. Wilhelm Frick. Joachim von Ribbentrop. Alfred Rosenberg. Julius Streicher. Any one of those names alone should send a chill down the spine of anyone with even a passing knowledge of 20th Century history. Picture if you will, all of those co-architects of the horror known as the Third Reich sitting together in one room (along with a dozen or so of their closest friends). This egregious assemblage really did occur, during the first of the Nuremberg trials (November 1945 to October 1946).
Through the course of the grueling 11-month long proceedings, a panel of judges and prosecutors representing the USA, the Soviet Union, England and France built a damning case, thanks in large part to the Nazis themselves, who had a curious habit of meticulously documenting their own crimes. The thousands of confiscated documents-neatly typed, well-annotated and (most significantly) signed and dated by some of the defendants, along with the gruesome films the Nazis took of their own atrocities, helped build one of the most compelling cases of all time.
By the time it was over, out of the 24 defendants (several of whom were tried in absentia for various reasons), 12 received a sentence of death by hanging, 7 were given prison sentences ranging from 10 years to life, and the remainder were either acquitted or not charged. One of the biggest fish, Herman Goring, ended up “cheating the hangman” by committing suicide in his cell (Martin Bormann, one of the condemned tried in absentia, had already beat him to the punch-although his 1945 suicide in Berlin was not confirmed until his remains were identified in a 1972 re-investigation).
Hollywood would be hard pressed to cook up a courtroom drama of such epic proportions; much less a narrative that presented a more clearly delineated battle of Good vs. Evil. Granted, in the fog of war, the Allies undoubtedly put the blinders on every now and then when it came to following the Geneva Convention right down to the letter-but when it comes to the short list of parties throughout all of history who have willfully committed the most heinous crimes against humanity, there seems to be a general consensus among civilized people that the Nazis are the Worst.Bad.Guys.Ever…right? At any rate, this is why a newly-restored U.S. War Department documentary, produced over 60 years ago and never officially released for distribution in America (until now) may well turn out to be the most riveting courtroom drama that will hit theaters this year.
Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today (made in 1948) was written and directed by Stuart Schulberg, who had worked with John Ford’s OSS field photography unit, which was assigned by the government to track down incriminating Nazi film footage to be parsed by the Nuremberg prosecution team and help build their case. Schulberg’s brother Budd (who later became better known in Hollywood as the screenwriter for On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd) was a senior officer on the OSS film team; he supervised the compilation of two films for the U.S. prosecutors; one a sort of macabre Whitman’s Sampler of Nazi atrocities, from the Third Reich’s own archives, and the other assembled from that ever-shocking footage taken by Allied photographers as the concentration camps were being discovered and liberated by advancing troops in early 1945.
Stuart Schulberg, in turn, mixed excerpts from those two films with the official documentation footage from the trial to help illustrate the prosecution’s strategy to address the four indictments (conspiring to commit a crime against peace; planning, initiating and committing wars of aggression; perpetrating war crimes; and crimes against humanity).
So why had Schulberg’s film (commissioned, after all, by the U.S. government to document a very well-known, historically significant and profound event in the annals of world justice) never been permitted open distribution to domestic audiences by same said government? After being shown around Germany in 1948 and 1949 as part of the de-Nazification program, extant prints of the film appeared to have vanished somewhere in the mists of time, with no documented attempts by the U.S. government to even archive a copy. Even the man who had originally commissioned the film, Pare Lorentz (who at the time of the film’s production was head of Film, Theatre and Music at the U.S. War Department’s Civil Affairs Division) was given the brush off by Pentagon brass when he later petitioned to buy it and distribute it himself.
A 1949 Washington Post story offered an interesting take on why Lorentz had been stonewalled, saying that “…there are those in authority in the United States who feel that Americans are so simple that they can only hate one enemy at a time. Forget the Nazis, they advise, and concentrate on the Reds.” (there are several layers of delicious, prescient irony in that quote…so I won’t belabor it).
Stuart Schulberg’s daughter Sandra, along with Josh Waletzky, embarked on a five-year mission in 2004 to restore this important documentary. I should note that the term “restore”, in this particular case, does not necessarily refer to crystalline image quality; though they have done the best they can with what is purported to be the best existing print (stored at the German Film Archive).
They did have better luck with the soundtrack; they found what sounds to my ears to be fairly decent audio from the original trial recordings, which they painstakingly matched up as best they could to reconstruct the long-lost sound elements from the original. Voice-over narration has been re-recorded by Liev Schreiber, who is a bit on the dry side, but adequate . It is chilling to hear the voices of these defendants; even if it is at times merely a “jawohl” or a “nein”- one hopes it is enough to give even the most stalwart of Holocaust deniers cause for consternation (or the tiniest little nervous twitch).
So what is the “lesson for today” that we can glean from this straightforward and relatively non-didactic historical document? Unfortunately, humanity in general hasn’t learned too awful much; the semantics may have changed, but the behavior, sadly, remains the same (they call it “ethnic cleansing” now). “Crimes against humanity” are still perpetrated every day-so why haven’t we had any more Nurembergs? If it can’t be caught via cell phone camera and posted five minutes later on YouTube like Saddam Hussein’s execution, so we can take a quick peek, go “Yay! Justice is served!” and then get back to our busy schedule of eating stuffed-crust pizza and watching the Superbowl, I guess we just can’t be bothered. Besides, who wants to follow some boring 11-month long trial, anyway (unless, of course, an ex-football player is involved).
Or maybe it’s just that the perpetrators have become savvier since 1945; many of those who commit crimes against humanity these days wear nice suits and have corporate expense accounts, nu? Or maybe it’s too hard to tell who the (figurative) Nazis are today, because in the current political climate, everyone and anyone, at some point, is destined to be compared to one. Maybe we all need to watch this film together and get a reality check.