This is an important and moving movie about one of the post-war trials at Nuremberg, the site of massive rallies held by the Nazis during World War II. It followed the trial held for the judges who enforced the discriminatory and rascist laws promulgated before and during the war within the Third Reich. There was one passage from the court decision in the movie that had particular impact on me, and is the single aspect of those hellish times that both fascinates and horrifies me the most. I still can’t fully understant it.
A copy of the speech is at American Rhetoric. The following excerpt regards defendent Janning, who (in the movie) was Minister of Justice in the Third Reich during the war years. This man had the reputation of being a supreme jurist who was recognised and respected around the world, and he was a great student and teacher of the law. For patriotic reasons he tried to work within the system to mitigate the abuses of the administration and other jurists, but in the process condoned unjust decisions and crimes against humanity. His great reputation and prestige gave tacit support to others to commit similar or worse acts.
This is from Justice Haywood’s decision (highlighted text was chosen by me):
Janning’s record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial: If he and all of the other defendants had been degraded perverts, if all of the leaders of the Third Reich had been sadistic monsters and maniacs, then these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake, or any other natural catastrophe. But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary — even able and extraordinary — men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination. No one who has sat at through trial can ever forget them: men sterilized because of political belief; a mockery made of friendship and faith; the murder of children. How easily it can happen.
There are those in our own country too who today speak of the “protection of country” — of “survival.” A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient — to look the other way.
Well, the answer to that is “survival as what?” A country isn’t a rock. It’s not an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult!
Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.
-from American Rhetoric
The message is clear. Without a clear sense of morality and justice, and the courage to follow the precepts of both, the best people in the best country in the world can slip into doing unjust and inhumane acts. The end does not justify the means, rather the means will determine the end. It has happened since World War II, and it is still going on.
I strongly recommend watching the movie and studying the court decision.