PM5694: Against the Nuremberg Trials

The Nuremberg Trials were a hypocritical exercise in victor's justice. They were a joke.

We mean of course, both the "International Military Tribunal" at Nuremberg - and more broadly, the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials that the United States operated in its sector; the similar trials carried out in other sectors of occupation and in other countries; even the Tokyo Trials - let us just take "Nuremberg" as a metonym for them all.

Let's be clear, the Nazis did a lot of very bad things. Most of the things they were convicted for, they were guilty of. (We can argue about one or two individual cases, whether they were fair verdicts - but I don't think there can be any doubt about the majority of the accusations being true.)

Yet, the Allies committed war crimes too. The invading Soviet forces committed widespread rapes and massacres against the German population. What about the Katyn massacre? The indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets (a war crime both the Allies and Axis were equally guilty of). The American war crime at Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

But there was no justice for the victims of Allied war crimes. The Nuremberg Trials were setup only to prosecute the Axis perpetrators, not the Allied ones. If they were fair, Truman and Stalin would definitely had been in the dock, and probably Churchill too.

The point of bringing up Allied war crimes is not to excuse Axis ones. The Axis did many dreadfully wrong things; but that they did them, does not mean that the Allies did not do dreadfully wrong things too. It will be objected "the Axis were a lot worse". (Who was worse, Hitler or Stalin? That is a hard question, and probably not one profitable to answer.) Anyway, let us grant that objection - but it is an irrelevant one. Suppose you are faced with two murderers - one killed fifty people, the other killed only five. Of course, the man who murders fifty people is a lot worse than the man who murders only five. But that is not an argument to exonerate the man who killed only five. Allied war crimes should have been prosecuted just as much as Axis ones, regardless of whose crimes were worse. If it is true that the Axis did more bad things, that just means there would be more trials of the Axis - but, if we are to be at all fair, there would have been a trial for Stalin and a trial for Truman too.

A fair tribunal would have:

  • prosecuted both Allied and Axis wrongdoing
  • been composed of truly independent judges, drawn from a wide range of nationalities (including neutral and defeated countries), rather than just (a subset of) the victors

The Nuremberg Trial was not such a tribunal. It was not fair - it was a partial, hypocritical institution.

The Nuremberg Trial also engaged in the grave evil of the death penalty. The death penalty is gravely immoral, and any court which hands it down is not a valid court, but a gang of murderers.

The Nuremberg Trial, and its ilk, does not deserve our respect - it deserves our condemnation as the evil institution that it was. Its verdicts, may well be true in many factual matters, but they are documents without moral value, fit only to be burned.

By contrast the present-day International Criminal Court, while we cannot approve of it, is an improvement. It lacks the death penalty; it's scope of authority, while not universal, is broad enough to encompass both sides in many conflicts; it has a more neutral and international set of staff, rather than staff just drawn from the victors in a single conflict. At the same time, there can be no doubt it is immoral as a form of earthly usurpation of heavenly justice, but at least it represents that immorality in a more diluted form. It is certainly no more immoral than any national tribunal, and more moral than many of them.