Crimes beyond Punishment

Auschwitz: A Report on the Proceedings Against Robert Karl Ludwig Mulka and Others Before the Court at Frankfurt

by Bernd Naumann, Introduction by Hannah Arendt and Hannah Arendt
Praeger, 433 pp., $7.95

Death in Rome

by Robert Katz
Macmillan, 334 pp., $6.95

Nothing is stranger in the human conscience than its attitude to war. War involves killing people. That is what war is about. In ordinary times, killing is regarded as the worst of crimes, often as the only crime which justifies counter-killing or, as it is fancifully called, capital punishment. When states fall out, killing becomes noble and patriotic and the greatest killers are the most admired. The killing must still be done according to rule. At one time, only combatants could be killed. Nowadays, it is all right to kill civilians so long as it is done indiscriminately and with some pretense that it is weakening the other side’s will or ability to go on fighting. Move one further down the ladder of morality, and we reach reprisals—a method used by every occupying or, as it usually claims to be, civilizing Power. At the bottom is the planned killing of defenseless civilians, because they belong to the wrong creed, class, or race. This, too, has often been practiced by supposedly civilized peoples. No American loses sleep over the extermination of the Red Indians. No Englishman worries about the systematic starvation of the Irish in 1846 or over the sepoys blown from the mouth of cannon after the Indian Mutiny.

Crimes against humanity are the common stuff of history. We are more troubled about these crimes nowadays, because we imagined that mankind had become gentler and more tolerant. The German crimes of the Second World War were atrocious by any standard. Attila could have done no worse. But they seemed particularly atrocious because they were done in the twentieth century with all the resources of civilization. No one who reads even a fragment of this criminal record can doubt that the total destruction of German power was an unmixed blessing. The victors for once fought for a worthy cause. They threw away much of their principles by a moral muddle when they equated crimes against humanity with any actions taken against themselves. There are few episodes of modern history more nauseating than the proceedings at Nuremberg, where the victors solemnly wrestled with the problem of “aggressive war,” that is any war or even political action against the settlement established by the victors of the First World War.

Some of the alleged crimes at Nuremberg were even more grotesque. Poor demented Hess paid a heavy penalty for having tried, however wrongheadedly, to make peace between Germany and Great Britain. He was sacrificed solely in order to prove that the British government had never contemplated cooperating with Hitler against Soviet Russia—a lost opportunity which is now lamented by many respected persons. Hess had nothing to do with the crimes against humanity—he was already a prisoner of war in England (again unjustifiably) when they were committed. Nor was any proof ever produced that he had been involved in the plans for “aggressive war.” It was simply stated that, holding a high decorative rank in the Nazi state, he “must have known.” Hess is still…

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