‘The slate will never be clean’: lessons from the Nuremberg trials 75 years on – The Guardian

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At 10am, the men were led into the courtroom and ushered into a specially adapted dock, flanked by American military police.

It took the whole day to read out the 24,000-word indictment, which included conspiracy to wage war, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Seventy-five years ago on 20 November, the first of the Nuremberg trials opened in the Bavarian city which had been the scene of huge Nazi rallies in the years leading up to the second world war.

The British president of the international military tribunal, Lord Justice Geoffrey Lawrence, opened the proceedings, calling the trial “unique in the history of the jurisprudence of the world and of supreme importance to millions of people all over the globe”.

The first trial lasted more than 10 months, presided over by judges from the four prosecuting nations: Britain, the US, France and the Soviet Union.

Among the 24 defendants were Hermann Göring, Hitler’s chosen successor, Rudolf Hess, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Albert Speer. At the end, 12 were sentenced to death, seven received prison sentences ranging from 10 years to life, three were acquitted, and in two cases there was no decision.

The Nuremberg trials were a milestone in international criminal law, under which individuals and organisations are held accountable for some of the worst crimes imaginable. They paved the way to the establishment of a permanent international court, which has dealt with later instances of genocide and war crimes.

But there is still debate about whether justice was served at Nuremberg. Here, three Holocaust survivors reflect on the trial and its lessons.

Ivor Perl was born Yitzchak Perlmutter in Hungary in 1932. He grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family with eight siblings. Of the family of 11, only he and one brother survived the Holocaust.

The family was forced into a ghetto, then his father and eldest brother were taken away for forced labour. The rest were crammed on to a train to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where his mother and six of his siblings were gassed.

In January 1945, with Russian troops advancing on Auschwitz, Ivor and his surviving brother were sent by train to a concentration camp in Germany, and then later marched to Dachau. After liberation, the brothers eventually reached England. Now 88, Perl was 13 years old when the first Nuremberg trial opened.

“The trial didn’t mean much to me at the time. I was more interested in getting on with my life. I feel the trial took place too soon after the end of the war. Most of Europe was in terrible shock and most people were just trying to put their lives back together. If the trial had been 10 years later, the impact might have been greater.

“We knew what the outcome would be. What was important was that the world heard about what happened in the camps. It was obviously right to put the Nazis on trial but the enormity of the horrors meant that you couldn’t draw a line in the sand. Justice is too strong a word. It implies a clean slate, that something is over.

“A few years ago, I was asked to give evidence in the trial of Oskar Gröning [a former SS guard known as the Bookkeeper of Auschwitz] in Germany. I said no, I don’t want to set foot in Germany. But my daughter said I must go, so I went.

“I was absolutely horrified. An old man [Gröning was 96 at the time of his trial] was wheeled into court with a nurse on either side of him. I wanted to hate him but I just saw an old man. I could feel something draining away from me. I can’t describe what I felt, but it wasn’t hatred.

“I was 12 years and two months old when I got to Auschwitz. I told the court what had happened to me. Gröning was found guilty [of accessory to the murder of 300,000 Jews], but what punishment could be given that would make me feel satisfied?

“I don’t want revenge. I want people to learn from history.”

Joan Salter was a baby, then called Fanny Zimmetbaum, when the Nazis invaded Belgium, where her Polish Jewish parents had fled. Her family made their way across France, aided by the resistance, heading for Spain before being captured in the Pyrenees and imprisoned.





Joan Salter with her husband Martin and her daughter Shelley.



Joan Salter with her husband Martin and her daughter Shelley. Photograph: Frederic Aranda/Royal Photographic Society/Getty Images

At the age of three she was rescued by the US committee for the care of European children and adopted by an American couple. Several years after the war, her adoptive family discovered her birth parents had survived, and she spent the rest of her childhood shuttling between the US and the UK, where they then lived. Now 80, she was five years old when the first Nuremberg trial opened.

“The tribunal’s narrative was very black and white – the Nazis were the bad guys, the Allies were the good guys. The prosecuting nations were seeking justice on behalf of victims of the Nazis – but how could justice be delivered when it was in the interests of the four nations to avoid anything that would expose their own culpabilities?

“The Nazis’ crimes were beyond any level of depravity and inhumanity. But I question whether the prosecuting nations could claim the high moral ground. The US and the UK had both shut their doors to Jewish refugees at a time when the central aim of the Holocaust could have been stopped. Both countries had strict quotas against [Jewish] immigration, and refused to relax them in the run-up to the war.

“France was portrayed as a victim of Nazi Germany, but the Vichy government did not just collaborate but was proactive in deporting thousands of Jews. As for the Soviets, antisemitism was entrenched in that part of the world. There was a distorted narrative. There was no honest accounting. Hitler could have been stopped if they had acted sooner.”

Steven Frank’s family were secular Jews in Amsterdam. His father, a well-known Dutch lawyer, joined the Dutch resistance at the start of the conflict, helping people escape to Switzerland and finding hiding places for Jews. In 1942 he was betrayed and imprisoned, tortured and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he was gassed in January 1943.





Steven Frank with his granddaughters Maggie and Trixie Fleet.



Steven Frank with his granddaughters Maggie and Trixie Fleet. Photograph: The Duchess of Cambridge/PA

In 1944 the young Steven, his mother and two brothers were sent to Terezín (Theresienstadt) in Czechoslovakia, now in the Czech Republic. The family survived and were liberated by the Red Army on 9 May 1945, and made a new home in the UK. Now aged 85, Frank was 10 years old when the first Nuremberg trial opened.

“The publicity was huge. All the world’s press was there. I can remember it being reported in the papers. What had happened was industrialised state killing, a highly organised way of removing those – not just Jews – the Nazis didn’t want.

It was evil, and it was so important they were brought to trial. It was the bigwigs in the first trial, but in later trials people further down the line, like the camp guards, were also brought to justice.

I give no weight to the argument that they were only following orders. The things they did, like taking babies from their mothers’ arms and smashing their heads against a wall, were unspeakable. These people had their own minds.

“Even recently there have been trials of former guards in their 90s. It’s still important they are brought to book, held accountable for the actions they took.

“And the Nuremberg trials led to the Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and later the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

“I was only nine years old by the end of the war, but in those early years of my life I learned how to hate. You have to get that hatred out of your system in order to be at peace with yourself.

“Now, to a certain extent, I’ve forgiven. But I haven’t forgotten.”

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