The Memory of Justice
In Marcel Ophuls’s The Memory of Justice, Stalin is quoted as having proposed shooting 50,000 top Nazis at the end of the war as a beginning of retaliation for their murder of millions. Historical accounts show that Roosevelt and Churchill had also been in favor of summary executions.1 In time, however, legalistic reasoning prevailed, and a trial of twenty major Nazis lasting almost a year was conducted at Nuremberg. Ever since that four-nation tribunal was assembled, there have been disputes about whether justice was done by it, or whether the Nuremberg Trial was an act of revenge carried out by the victors against the vanquished. If Nuremberg was not an expression of justice, it has been taken to follow that the convicted Nazis were unfairly condemned, that given the pressures on Germany in the Thirties and the abnormalities of war their behavior was no worse than that of others would have been (as evidenced by the fire-bombing of Hamburg and Dresden by the Americans and British, the atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the slaughter of the Polish officers by the Russians), and that therefore they deserve sympathy and remorse.
Perhaps I should confess at the outset that I regard commiseration for the Nazis as “human beings” as intellectually degrading and morally degenerate. To me, concern about a square deal for the Nuremberg defendants belongs at best to the kind of sentimentality that led Jean Valjean to rescue the blood-hound Inspector Jouvet who had trailed him for years from execution by the Paris revolutionists. To defend the human status of Elite Corpsmen, whose “heroism” consisted in purging themselves of all traces of human feeling, who stood at the doors of the gas chambers making jokes while prodding children inside, represents, in my opinion, a decadent application of the Christian principle of turning the other cheek and returning good for evil. At least, Jean Valjean repaid good for the evil which he personally had suffered at the hands of Jouvet.
To forgive acts of viciousness suffered by others is the meanest condition into which one can be cast by the feeling of self-righteousness and the wish to relieve the heart of the burden of demanding revenge. To his credit, Hugo had the insight to recognize that Valjean’s act of generosity would rebound against himself and in no degree divert Jouvet from his hunter’s obsession. In the twilight of Christian charity, the true defender of civilization is not the practitioner of universal forbearance but the unswerving, single-minded angel of reprisal, in whose entire organism there is not a soft spot. No waffling. Catch him and apply the sentence.
The same corrective as Jouvet’s to post-Christian decadence and its inexhaustible supply of moral/emotional ambiguities was embodied in Melville’s Captain Vere. Billy killed the mate—never mind his innocent state, never mind his lack of intention, never mind accident, determinism, and extenuating circumstances. Hang him. Or you will all go down into the pit. The pit of false sympathy, shallow self-identifications, counterfeit brotherhood, hypocritical…
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